Brilliant Book Recommendation: Together by Vivek H Murthy, M.D.

If I told you that I read a book about loneliness and really enjoyed it, you might think I was insane. Americans don’t like loneliness. As an introvert, I agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that our culture is more inclined to favor the proclivities of our extrovert friends. As a result, the idea of loneliness for Americans is almost taboo. I mean, if you are lonely, it raises the awful question as to why? Who wants to answer that? Nobody. At least, for many years of my own life, I know that I didn’t.

But Vivek Murthy, M.D., our once and current Surgeon General wants us to answer that question both individually and collectively. He wants us to answer it because he has seen the impact that loneliness can have on his individual patients and the consequences that those individual stories–played out millions of times over–has on our system of public health. In Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Murthy argues that loneliness is a huge social and medical problem but one that has a solution.

In the book, Dr. Murthy traces the evolutionary reasons that loneliness has such an effect on human beings. He argues quite convincingly that society has somewhat misdiagnosed the condition. While many of us fear that our loneliness suggests that there is something wrong with or undesirable about us, Dr. Murthy suggests that we instead ought to think of loneliness more like other biological conditions. He explains that our bodies are wired for connection with other humans because those connections have throughout our history been so closely associated with our survival. Thus, when we feel lonely, it is our body’s signal that we need connection much like the feelings of hunger or thirst indicate we need food and water.

Unlike hunger and thirst, however, Dr. Murthy explains that many of us tend to see loneliness as a sign that there is something wrong with or bad about us. This is where things break down for many of us because it can cause us to retreat, self-isolate, and lead to even worse conditions, including depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure or other physical consequences. As a result, though loneliness is common–pervasive even–and normal–the very byproduct of our biology–we humans get tangled in it because we see it is abnormal and the product of some character flaw.

I got caught in this tangle myself. When I started my law practice, I had returned home after seven years away at school. At the time, I was focused on billing hours like any good associate should be and growing my new family. I didn’t make much of an effort to make friends and neglected reaching out and sharing my life with the ones I had. Though on a subconscious level I knew that I wanted more of a social life, I didn’t want to face the issue because I was worried that I was lonely because there was something wrong with me.

Unable to let myself think critically about these issues, I let myself believe the stories that I “didn’t fit in” and “wasn’t good at making friends.” After a period of depression, I was forced to reckon with these ideas and you know what I found out? I found out that I didn’t fit in and that was exactly what helped me make friends. I realized that it was my lack of effort and my disconnection with myself that caused my loneliness. Meditation helped me connect with and accept myself. I started showing up and reaching out and soon realized that I was good at making friends and being one because I was good at being myself.

Dr. Murthy, too, shares his own experiences with loneliness and captures the stories of many others who have successfully faced it. In many cases, he relates how many of those people (like himself) experienced deeply troubling times of loneliness but used their experiences to create and foster connections that served a wider community of people. In some cases, people created communities–whether online or in-person–that did not exist before. I hope that you read the book for yourself because each story is covered with a grace that can’t be captured in a single blog post. The pattern that emerges from reading them all, however, is this: loneliness can be addressed by accepting it as normal, looking inside yourself to heal, and then reaching out to build connections.

The past year has taken a toll on all of us and has done nothing to improve the social and public health problem of loneliness. If anything is to be gained from this, though, I hope it is acceptance of the magnitude of the problem that loneliness presents and a recognition of how solvable it is. We Americans pride our individualism but we are humans first and our human biology tells us we need each other. As we try to make our way out of a global pandemic that has forced us to socially distance, I am at least hopeful that our Surgeon General is someone who deeply understands loneliness on a personal, social, and scientific level. For, if we begin to understand the issue of loneliness, I believe that as a society we can heal and then begin to forge the new connections we need to rebuild, progress, and thrive.

If you are feeling lonely, monitor your reaction to it and your thoughts about it. This short video offers some ways to help you do that.

Brilliant Teacher Recommendation: Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts

The theme for this month was love and emotions, but February is also Black History Month. Our recommendation for this month is someone who brings both of those things together with mindfulness in such a beautiful way: Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts. Dr. Roberts, or Chelsea as she is known on her social media platforms, is a world-renowned yoga and meditation teacher, social media influencer, advocate for diversity, and an altogether brilliant person. She is a graduate of Spelman College and later obtained her Ph.D. in Educational Studies from Emory University. During that time, Chelsea also completed extensive yoga training and she now marries her passions for education, yoga, and promoting diversity on her platform Chelsea Loves Yoga.

I became familiar with Chelsea when she joined the roster of teachers for Peloton last year. Though a regular meditator, I am an irregular yogi. Even so, I found it hard not to make Chelsea’s classes a regular part of my fitness and wellness routine. She has a smile and a spirit that can light up a room (even when it comes to you through a screen). In addition, Chelsea brings her voice and her experience to every class and meditation she offers. When you take her classes, you get a chance to stretch your muscles and your mind as she offers lessons on black history and music while you flow. And, while Chelsea encourages kindness in all things, she also advocates for action and strength in her “Breathe In, Speak Up” yoga and meditation series.

Chelsea, however, does not only bring yoga and meditation to Peloton members, she offers it to thousands more on her platform Chelsea Loves Yoga. That platform offers free resources and yoga videos and Chelsea also regularly shares out videos about yoga and meditation to her thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Chelsea has also worked to bring yoga to communities who need it. She founded Red Clay Yoga, which offers yoga programs and training to youth and adults. Yoga classes and instruction are offered at Red Clay, as well as workshops on social justice action and diversity. Among the offerings at Red Clay was a Yoga, Literature and Art camp for teens at Spelman College.

In short, Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts is not just a teacher of mindfulness, but someone who loves it and lives it. She’s an inspirational social media follow and someone you should certainly check out if you are on the Peloton platform.

Chelsea’s presence on the internet, including Peloton, also makes her the perfect recommendation to lead into our theme for next month: a year of social distancing. March will be the one-year anniversary of the emergency declarations for the COVID-19 pandemic in many American jurisdictions, including my own state here in Kentucky, and the beginning of social distancing restrictions for many of us. Stay tuned for more instruction and content on that theme and please continue to stay safe, stay healthy, and take care of yourself and others.

Brilliant Teacher Recommendation: Tara Brach

Since the blog is just getting started, I decided to start at the beginning for my first teacher recommendation post. I owe a lot to Tara Brach, who is not only a meditation teacher but also an experienced psychologist. I am very cheap and when I first started meditating, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a habit that I wasn’t sure would stick. Fortunately for me, I found a lot of free resources online, including Tara Brach’s.

Tara Brach’s website offers a treasure trove of resources, meditations, and more. I found her through her self-named podcast, though, which offers tons of talks and guided meditations, all easily accessible on an iPhone. More recently, Brach has started to offer Wednesday night meditations over Facebook live.

But it wasn’t just the amount of the resources Brach offers that appealed to me, it was the subject. Brach’s emphasis on self-compassion and repeated reminders to care for, rather than turn your back on, your own emotions helped me immensely. I soon bought her most famous work, Radical Acceptance, and it was worth every penny.

Brach is most famous for her work to refine the RAIN technique for dealing with difficult emotions. With this process, she instructs students to recognize emotions, allow them, investigate them mindfully and then nurture them. You can read about this process in detail with the resources on her website and in many of her books, including the newly released Radical Compassion.

Brach’s style and tone of voice are very soft and calm, so lawyers or professionals first listening to her may wonder what she has to offer them. While I always loved her, Dan Harris described her voice as “cloying” in his book Ten Percent Happier. I remember being mad at Harris when I read that part of his book, even though he gave rave reviews to the RAIN technique. But I ended up loving them both when they discussed this on a later episode of the Ten Percent Happier podcast and agreed, rather elegantly, how that experience caused them each to grow. It was a rare instance of forgiveness and grace in this day and age and it made me respect Brach more and totally forgive Harris.

If you aren’t yet familiar with Brach’s work, do yourself a favor and check it out. And next month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, we’ll cover a topic that Brach would most likely approve of: love and compassion. Stay tuned.