This past weekend our seven-month-old daughter Merriam got to meet her Great Uncle Pat, whom I was named after, for the first time. They gazed into each other’s eyes, and she reacted to his voice with great curiosity. Those of us watching were pulled into the moment, as these two humans separated in time by nearly eighty years but connected by blood and culture shared their first moments together. As you can imagine Merriam’s in person introduction to many family members has been delayed due to COVID. Pre-vaccination, time with the eldest generation of our family was of course greatly limited. She did get to see some of them, from a distance, outdoors, or behind a mask. It has just been in recent weeks, as most of that older generation has been vaccinated, that Merriam has been able to spend significant time with her grandparents and really engage with other older relatives. Sharing in these moments, one thing has really struck me each time. When Merriam stared at my Uncle Pat, it was not just the two of them that were completely engaged, but the rest of us were immediately brought to a greater level of connection. This has been the case time and time again. Phones go down, heads turn away from the TV, and three or four conversations in the same room merge into one. For a few minutes everyone is connected.
As I am sure some have picked up on, this idea of connection is central to my philosophy on well-being, presence, and performance. Going through this introduction process with Merriam has only increased my examination of connection. Obviously, much of what we are watching unfold now with our daughter is a result of the pandemic, and certainly COVID has amplified challenges to connection. That is a key distinction, amplified those challenges. The fact is our modern world has made connection increasingly more difficult over recent decades. Yes, now is probably the time to issue my grumpy old man warning, though I am going to try to articulate this without the cantankerous nature I might have absorbed from my aforementioned namesake.
One of my favorite voices in the conversation movement is Randy Newberg, and my favorite Randy Newberg quote is ‘Conservation isn’t convenient.’ So simply stated but so accurate. Particularly regarding conservation on the massive public lands of the West where we attempt to keep wildlife and wild places intact amidst such an array of interests and land uses. The convenient option rarely ends up being the healthy one. For some reason at 5:30 this morning it occurred to me that this applies to connection too, it is not convenient either! After more reflection I put a bit more detail to it, connection is no longer convenient. The real crux of Randy Newberg’s quote is that conservation will not just happen, we must choose it. Similarly, we now live in a world where we increasingly need to choose connection, we must be intentional about it. Put in the context of how long humans have been on this planet, this is a relatively new challenge for us to navigate.
Think back to when we were hunter gatherers. Remember that? A life of incredible physical hardship, adversity, discomfort, and imminent danger. But the golden age of connection! We were connected to the humans around us because they were the only voices we heard. We were connected to the natural world because we interacted with it in every moment. We were connected to our food because we had to seek it, find it, transport it, and prepare it all ourselves every time. We were connected to our bodies because day to day survival hinged on a range of physical tasks. And we were connected to our true mental and emotional selves because we spent so much time present in those physical tasks and/or quiet with our thoughts. Science now tells us, if we want to be healthier, we need to have real conversations / relationships, get outside, eat real food, exercise, and be mindful. Turns out we had all these things in our lives naturally closer to our origins. Of course, we were also starving to death, freezing to death, and being eaten by bears. To combat all those risks, we began to advance. And with our advances in technology, we mitigated threats to our lives, lengthened our lifespans, and increased our comfort levels immensely. However, we also began eroding away at connection to ourselves, others, nature, and our food. This erosion, while gradual, has not been totally linear. It came in waves when certain technologies burst into our lives. Some notable ones were industrialized agriculture, television, the internet, and recently social media. Is the lesson here that we should go back to being hunter gatherers? No, well at least not in full practice. The message here is simply that connection is no longer just built into our lives. In fact, our world is mostly constructed to combat connection. So, we just have to take responsibility and go seek it. We need to be intentional, as we are rarely just going to stumble into it today. How do we do this though? It is easiest to sort through this if we start again with those things with which we need to connect.
Real connection to others is an interesting one to start with because so much of the technological advances in the last thirty years are presented as helping us connect with others; email, social media, virtual meetings, etc. Some of these connections can be authentic. A Sunday afternoon Facetime or Zoom call with Grandma where you can see her and engage directly in dialogue is certainly a positive step in connection to others. Particularly if seeing Grandma in person is not an option as it has not been for so many during the pandemic. However, most connections to others via these technologies lack authenticity. This particularly holds true regarding social media. I am certainly not going to argue that social media is all bad. Definitely not the case, but if you are seeking authentic connection with people you care about and who care about you social media is about the last place to go looking. Stating something on Twitter and then sitting back to count your likes, retweets, and comments is far from true connection. Rather, it is a convenient way to get a quick dopamine release in your brain. Convenient, remember that term? When we opt for the convenient, we almost always cut ourselves short in the long run. This holds true with social interaction. It is easier to sit in our rooms and Tweet than block out the time to call an old friend, or to head to the coffee shop or pub to exchange thoughts over beverages, or to plan that rafting trip with family friends. However, these are authentic interactions. These truly connect us. Your calendar is the key here. Because these things are not convenient, they usually take some planning. Look at your calendar right now. Is there anything on that calendar setting time aside for real social interaction? If there is not, then you are naturally going to seek the quick and easy dopamine elsewhere.
Connection to the natural world is of course a big one for me. I am fully aware that my appreciation of time in the mountains would border on obsession according to some. The value of connection to nature is universal though. It does not have to be full immersion, it does not even have to be time consuming, it just needs to be consistent. What constitutes time in nature varies greatly by where people live. In my time living in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park and Mount Tam were my daily escapes. Compared to the level of access to thousands upon thousands of miles of public lands that surround us now in Salmon those areas hardly seem to qualify as exposure to nature. Its all relative though, when I lived in the city an afternoon run through the oak forest trails in Golden Gate Park was as rejuvenating and centering as taking off up the mountain behind our house is now. The point is you do not need to be in some epic landscape to reap the benefits of time in the natural world. That is great if you can, but just get outside consistently! I am not going to delve into the science, but if you want to do some research the findings are conclusive and universal, time outside is a massive aid to mental health. My advice, regardless of location is to get at least a short walk or jog outside (in the most natural landscape available to you) once a day and plan one or two longer outings per week. For most these will fall on the weekend but block out the time and be consistent with it. One note, for runners training consistently this does come rather conveniently. However, when the days of structured training are over, I see many runners struggle mentally and I firmly believe loss of this consistent built-in time outside is one of many key factors there.
Connection to our food is a concept people are coming around to in masses. The locavore movement has really picked up steam over the last decade and is founded primarily on this connection, health, and environmental concerns. I want to focus on the connection part of this of course. The health and environmental benefits will come if you are working to be more connected to growing, harvesting, preparing, and sharing your own food. Like connection to nature, our connection with our food will vary by location and resources.
Someone who lives in a rural setting with space for a huge garden and easy access to public lands and waters for fishing and hunting certainly can source much of their own food supply. Someone living in the suburbs or the city has a bit more challenge here. However, there is still much that urban folks can do to bring themselves into greater connection with their food. There are many ways to garden efficiently in limited space, there are many community gardens, and in lieu of that most urban areas have high quality farmers markets. If animal protein is part of your diet, you might have to plan periodic trips to fish and hunt but this just takes managing logistics. Hunting and fishing regulations vary by state so the first step if that is of interest is to research those. There are also several organizations that help people learn to hunt and fish through various programs. One that I am part of is Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and they have a great program called Hunting for Sustainability. If hunting or fishing is not for you, then do your research on markets around you that source meat locally and can tell you where it is from. Many ranches now sell directly to the public too. The bottom line is simple, the shorter the journey your food takes from when it comes out of the ground, off the tree, out of the water, or off the hoof and into your possession, the better. You are then more connected to the source, and more critically can truly connect with the process of preparing that food as you are taking control of every step from there. This leads to a couple of other valuable connection pieces: engagement in physical processes and time with others in the field, garden, kitchen, and finally around the table.
We start to see more and more crossover as we work through this. And exercise certainly crosses over significantly with time outside and possibly with obtaining and preparing our own food. Again though, for most people relying on getting exercise solely through those two endeavors is not effective. I do recommend for the sake of efficiency that people blend these things as often as possible. Why run on a treadmill if you can be out on a trail? Why not make your big hike for the week a search for Morel mushrooms? However, if treadmills, gyms, stationary bikes etc. get people moving then I am all for it. The physical health benefits of consistent exercise are a given, and over recent years we have come to grasp the immense mental and emotional benefits. Next time you have a presentation, interview, or exam I invite you to get in some moderate exercise a couple hours prior. You will be shocked as how much sharper your mind will be compared to rolling into it slurping down that mochaccino. It is not just these immediate advantages that are to be gained though. In physical exertion we connect to our physical selves. We learn our vast capabilities and sometimes our limitations, which are of equal value. Our physicality is such a vital part of our self and staying connected to it pays dividends well beyond health, fitness, or athletic performance. Our bodies change over time, from birth to death, just as our minds do. If we fail to engage in physical exertion regularly, we lose touch with who we are right now, in this moment. Such loss of connection in one aspect of the self will erode at the wellness of the person.
As hunter gatherers, humans were constantly engaged in meticulous, repetitive, and drawn-out tasks that demanded our focused attention. Grinding plant leaves down, sharpening sticks and stones, standing in stillness and silence trying to catch a fish. All these things pulled the mind firmly into the present, resulting in great awareness of the interaction between us and the materials and natural elements involved. Engaging in these tasks that bring our focus firmly into the present moment is one path toward connection with our true mental + emotional self. The other path is sitting alone quietly with our thoughts. Many would term this meditation. Classic meditation is fabulous, and something I recommend everyone give a try. However, there are a range of meditative practices aside from the traditional approach. Some will find this quiet time in prayer within their respective religious traditions. Others will find it sitting in silence along a river, letting the sound of the water calm the chatter in their minds. I have often found it sitting on a high vantage point when hunting, immersing myself in the contrast between the visual intensity of what my eyes are taking in and the quiet in my ears. Time should be made for both these avenues toward mental + emotional connection with our selves. Most people do not need to sharpen sticks or stones these days, but some contemporary suggestions would be fly-tying, beading, painting, or woodworking. Essentially, create something that takes time and reasonably meticulous and methodical work. To open the other path, allocate time to be alone and be quiet. It is really that simple. Find the environment that works best for you and place yourself there consistently.
Why is a coach writing about all this stuff? First, I care about a hell of a lot more than performance. Second, I see a huge correlation between wellness and performance. Remember, person first, athlete second, runner third, etc. If you seek optimal performance, work on being a healthier person, and a huge key to that health is finding and keeping true connection in your life. That connection is no longer built in for us, we must do the building. Be intentional, be consistent, be efficient where you can, and go find true connection.