Along with our basic physical needs (food, warmth, shelter), we are born with a basic emotional need as well—connection. We know that babies thrive if they receive warm, responsive connection from birth, and they suffer if they do not. Their physical, cognitive, and emotional development all depend in large part upon the connection they have to their caregiver. When babies are neglected or abused, all of these areas of development are impacted. These effects aren’t lessened by the transition to adulthood. We are wired for connection and to feel a sense of belonging in our relationships with others. When that is missing, suffering is almost always present.
I believe that three forms of connection matter most. The first is connection to ourselves. We need to know and understand ourselves simply to come to terms with our existence on this planet. It’s a crazy ride that we are all on, and one that on the face of it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense sometimes. How did we get here? Where do we go from here? Those are the big questions, and the ones that we avoid by throwing ourselves into the rush of daily life and technology. The beginnings of the answers to those questions, though, are readily available to us if we are willing to deepen our connection to ourselves.
This connection can begin with something as simple as thinking about what we like and don’t like. As children, many of us were told what our preferences, traits, and characteristics were by adults. “You’re not good at math.” “You don’t like crowds.” “You’re a good friend,” or even, “You don’t like chocolate ice cream. You like strawberry.” Think about the messages you heard about yourself as a child. How many of those resonate as true for you now? And yet how many of them still guide the choices you make for yourself? The next time you have a choice to make, stop to consider what it is that you really like and want. If you usually buy a shirt because it’s on sale or because it covers the parts of your body you don’t like, consider instead what it would feel like to buy a shirt that you really love and that makes you feel great when you wear it. When you are ordering dinner in a restaurant, if you usually order what people around you are ordering or if you order based on what you “should” eat, consider instead what meal would truly nourish you in that moment. As we gain clarity about our preferences, our likes and dislikes, we are befriending ourselves, just as we might befriend someone else. The first steps in any friendship usually involve getting to know the other person’s likes, dislikes, and tendencies. It’s the same with getting to know ourselves. It might seem simple and obvious, yet learning to be our own friend is something many of us were never given the opportunity to do. As we deepen that friendship to ourselves, we may find that we look less to other people for guidance and look within more often. We trust ourselves more, and become comfortable making decisions and setting goals.
Another pathway to knowing and understanding ourselves is to be still. Spending a few moments of time sitting alone, sitting still, sitting quietly. Many people find that they can quiet their bodies but not their minds. That’s ok. Just commit to the practice of quieting your body for a few moments at a time, and don’t make a bunch of rules about what your thoughts have to do. Instead, try simply being the observer of your thoughts. For example, you might sit down, relax your body, take a deep breath, and find that your mind is clear for a moment. Then, you start to think about a phone call that irritated you this morning. You suddenly remember that you need peppers from the store for tonight’s dinner. You start to think about all you still have to finish before you pick up the kids from school. You berate yourself for skipping the gym (again) this morning. Sound familiar? This is the reason most people either don’t want to sit still in the first place, or they give it up within about 30 seconds. They decide it won’t work and they stop. It helps to remember that thoughts of mundane, annoying, stressful, or judgmental experiences are part of the “being still” process. They are supposed to happen, because that is how our brains work. Our job is just to notice the thoughts as they come. So if the annoying phone call pops in, our job is not to fight the thought, but just to observe it. “Hmm, we might say, I am still really annoyed about that call.” Rather than going down the rabbit hole of thinking about what we should have said to the person or what we would say if we talk to them again, we can just let the thought pass. Notice it, and let it go. If we have trouble doing that, that’s ok too. It gets easier with practice. When you begin, start with one or two minutes of stillness. If that feels comfortable, try 5 minutes. Even 5 minutes a day, twice a day, can make a huge difference in how calm, centered, and focused we feel during the rest of our day. Over time, we may also find that we are also more creative and imaginative, and are able to solve problems more easily. Many people also find that they sleep better and have more energy as well.
A third way to connect with ourselves is to practice being in the moment we are actually in. This is also a challenge for many people. Our thoughts take us either to past or future experiences, as do our emotions. Our schedules are often so full that we rush from one moment, one meeting, one phone call, one task to the next without really being present for each one as it occurs. Try, for just a single day, to be fully mindful of each experience you have and each action in which you engage. For example, if you wake up and the first thing you do is wash your face, take a moment to really notice the temperature of the water, the feel of the soap, and the softness of your towel. As you answer emails, fold laundry, write reports, or complete whatever other tasks are before you, keep your attention only on the task at hand. If it wanders (and of course it will), bring it back. Remind yourself that, for today, I’m only doing one thing at a time. If a full day feels overwhelming, start with one hour. If that feels like too much, start with one action, like brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Let the next action flow from that one. If you again become distracted or anxious, remind yourself that for now, you are doing one thing at a time. Of course there are days and times when this will be very challenging, and that’s ok. When you can, just return to it and practice again. Over time, it will become more habitual. Again, most people find that they feel calmer and can think more clearly. Many people also find that they actually accomplish more in a day using this practice than when they try to multitask.
Connecting to ourselves is, in many ways, the most important work we are here to do. Parents, for example, often hear “put on your own oxygen mask first.” But what does that really mean? It can mean, what do I really want to do in this moment? How do I want to respond? It means taking a moment to breathe and quiet the mind before taking action. It means responding to what is happening right here, right now—not what happened this morning or what will happen later today. These are ways of showing up that apply not just to parenting, of course, but to any situation, experience, or relationship. When we choose how to connect to ourselves, we can then choose how to connect to the people around us, to our communities, and to the world at large. Once we do that, those big questions seem a little easier to contemplate.
(Note: Some of the techniques discussed here originate in the Buddhist practice of meditation, although I don’t refer to them that way. Some Christian clients are uncomfortable with that term and that practice, so I work with those clients to find ways to utilize these techniques that fit with their religious views. Many religious scholars do find support in the Bible for meditative practices. Please feel free to consult with your minister or pastor for additional guidance.)
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness
meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Singer, M. A. (2013). The untethered soul: The journey beyond
yourself. Oakland, CA: Noetic Books, Institute of Noetic Sciences, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
*If you’d like more assistance with these techniques, feel free to get in touch with me today for a complimentary discovery session.