By Dietitian Jill Place
What she said glomped to my noggin like pesky popped bubblegum. I haven’t forgotten it months later. “I have no joy in my life!”, she said.
She is the Director of Nurses at my hospital. A really GREAT woman who I LOVE working with. She talked of retiring … COVID JUST became a BIG deal and there were so many changes!
And uncertainties! Even now … there still are …
I’ve had many moments myself lately. Moments where I just felt I couldn’t go on. And I understand the many people who I interview daily who have never been hospitalized for psychiatric problems … EVER! As this stuff drags on and on, many other once normally-functioning people might go off the deep end too.
Many experts have agreed. James Lake, M.D. cautioned in his article, A Mental Health Pandemic: The Second Wave of COVID-19 …
A second wave of the pandemic will be driven by intense feelings of anxiety and despair in a world that is no longer predictable and safe due to high rates of unemployment and homelessness coupled with traumatic memories of surviving one’s own brush with COVID-19 or the death of a partner, parent, or loved one.
As this all continues, and I keep buying more and more designer masks to match my outfits, where will this all end? I’ve got some ideas …
My Spiritual Journey … and What I Forgot …
I had forgotten lately that my main purpose in life at one time was to find out who I was and how I fit to the Universe. And … being a ’60’s kid … everyone else seemed to be doing it too.
Because it was the era of enlightenment. Not only were Indian gurus in America all the rage. But we had our own home-grown one … Ram Dass. I read all his books and hung on every word at his lectures.
My acting coach, Walter Lott, had gotten thick into the Vedanta community high in the Hollywood Hills. He took me to their temple one day and there sat a truly holy person … Swami Prabhavananda … who founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
He could barely walk at that time … and left his body a few years later. But I could close my eyes and hear him … not with my ears but with the palm of my hand (or so it seemed). I thought … “If THIS can produce THAT, then I need to stay here!”
I felt guided to be there. Just as I felt I have been guided my whole life to spirit. The journey’s too long to account here. And it WASN’T always joyful.
But it WAS a journey that ultimately led recently to someone saying to me, “You seem to have it all together.” I chuckled … “far from it … ”
But I had to admit that I had grown comfortable in my own skin. And now went through life calmly and mostly in the moment. There’s a lot of joy in there too ,,,
I’ve often said that my acting training and subsequent coaching had given me that. But I’ve forgotten (and haven’t given myself enough credit) that I spent much time also figuring out what I was all about.
Which entailed many hours of meditation, reading, attending lectures and retreats, and talking to like-minded others about spiritual matters. I’ve distilled all those years of searching into a few tips for you.
I hope they help you in your own finding-joy journey …
We’re all on autopilot. Even me if I don’t do my practices. COVID, however, has shaken that autopilot to its very core.
Doubt, discomfort, and disorientation have now probably set in for you in this era that we laughingly call “the new normal”. Because you’ve previously created this elaborate story for yourself entitled “Who I Am”.
But it just doesn’t fit anymore, especially if you’ve lost your job, your familiar milieu, and your safe and sane pattern for living. You’ve probably have considered getting through this discomfort as fast as possible.
You may have even thought about giving up on life. My hospital is full of these souls.
But this is the time instead to stop, sit, and see what’s actually going on with you. You may be uncomfortable … even emotional. Tears may be involved.
But this may also be the time when you begin to exercise that muscle that allows you to recognize and confront all types of emotion without being overwhelmed by it. After a time, you may even welcome and rejoice in it (WHAT A CONCEPT!).
I do all the time. It allows me to relish a sunset (we’ve got great ones here), smell a flower, or luxuriate in the electric furr of my cat. All you have to do is …
I’ve often said that breathing saved my life! At the very least it’s a daily practice that keeps me calm and focused.
I teach mindfulness. As a matter of fact, I must teach it to every other person I see at the hospital.
Breathing is the cornerstone. And here’s a simple exercise. There are many others. Make it a daily practice for yourself:
Find a straight back chair to support you, make sure you’re in a quiet place (in the beginning … once you get the hang of this you can do it anywhere), and sit down … feel the back of the chair and the seat supporting your body. Sit with your feet on the floor and your arms uncrossed.
Start by bringing your awareness to your breath … don’t change anything about it … merely notice it for a few moments. Rest your attention on the breath.
Notice what the breath does to your body … now the in-breath cools and tickles your nose and puffs out a part of your body … how the out-breath warms and deflates it like a balloon.
Then you might want to try slowing down your breath. You can count to four breathing in and to four breathing out. And extend the practice by saying in your mind (or out loud … ) as you breathe in … relax … and as you breathe out … release.
Continue for as long as you like. Then go about your day …
The second part of mindfulness … noticing … was a powerful tool I learned from acting. As a Method actor and employee of the Lee Strasberg Institute, I used to spend long hours just noticing. It’s a skill unique to my own experience that I passed on to my mindfulness practice. So just …
Begin by noticing your body in the chair … how the back supports you … how the clothes feel on your body … the textures … where they’re smooth or irritating.
Slowly take in the sounds, sights, and smells all around you. Don’t do anything else but notice them. And don’t forget to keep breathing …
Continue as long as you like … then go about your day …
I love the scene in the movie, Eat Pay Love, where the guru tells the main character to “smile with your liver”. It reminded me of a classic Loving-Kindness Meditation that I’ve been doing for years.
Sharon Salzberg, one of the great teachers of mindfulness, says of the that it’s “so much more than “just” a feel-good practice. It is the force that can connect, inspire, and motivate us to change the world”. And it’s also a window into finding joy.
After a few moments of resting your attention on the breath, rest your attention on someone who has helped, been generous toward, or inspired you. You don’t have to have met them. But just thinking about them makes you smile.
Bring an image of them to mind. Or, if you can’t visualize well, feel them in the room with you. Say their name aloud or to yourself, and offer them a loving phrase like … “may you be safe and happy” … or whatever comes to mind.
Continue in the same way with a friend, someone you see every day that you don’t feel one way to the other about, someone you’re not fond of, and then anyone else that comes to mind. If emotion arises one way or another, picture it letting go, floating like a balloon into the sky, or any other letting-go image that comes to mind.
Then smile …
Physicists say this we shouldn’t even exist. And we’re biologically wired to absorb negativity like a sponge. Gratitude is the strongest tool I know to shift this kind of consciousness.
Research has verified that being grateful boosts happiness and promotes mental and physical health, even among the mentally-challenged. Studies also show that it reduces negativity and paves the way for a better view of life.
Grateful people have less pain, stress, and insomnia. And stronger immune systems (music to my ears!) and well as better relationships and overall successful lives.
So here’s a simple way to get into gratitude. Take a piece of paper (I have yellow pads all over my house) and write at the top of the page … “I am so grateful and joyful now that …”
Then list 100 things you are grateful for. You might want to start with “my existence” or “my positive attitude”. Don’t worry that you can’t think of 100 right away. When I first did this exercise, I left it on my desk for a couple of days and returned to it when I thought of something else to write down.
When you finish … put it away for a couple of days. Then circle the ones that you feel the most emotional about. Or those that pop out at you.
Put them on sticky notes all over your environment … even on your car visor. You can also use your phone to put them on. But I’m an old fart … I prefer sticky notes.
Being grateful is a great first step to finding joy. Breathing, mindfulness, and Loving-Kindness wouldn’t hurt either.
Want to find joy but don’t know where to start? Sign up for my 30-minute laser-focused session to start you down the path!