Interview: Lisa Kohn.
Lisa Kohn had a challenging childhood. Her mother was a member of the Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, and her father was part of the life of New York City's East Village in the 1970s. She was caught between two wildly different worlds, and this shaped the way she saw the world, herself, and other people.
She's written a memoir of her experience, and how she found the resiliency to surmount the difficulties in her upbringing, in to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence.
I couldn't wait to talk to Lisa about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier?
Lisa: As simple as it might sound, when I actively, intentionally practice mindfulness in a way that makes me notice things that are soothing or joy-creating for me, I am happier. By that I mean when I actively look for the yellow birds that I love - each time I see them I am happier. When I pause and notice the breeze on my skin, or the beautiful day, or the flowers around me, I am happier. When I throw myself into the moment - as I exercise or talk with friends or laugh and play, etc. - any and all of this can consistently make me happier. I just have to choose to notice the good and allow myself to enjoy it.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Lisa: When I was 18 years old, I didn’t even know that I was unhappy, and I didn’t know that I deserved to be, and could be, happy. Because I was raised in a cult - as a Moonie - and 18 was about the age when I started to pull away from the cult, there wasn’t a lot of happiness in my life (or mind or heart) at that point. It took years for me to realize that I could be happy and to figure out ways to allow myself happiness. (I also didn’t know that, at least for me, self-love and self-compassion are at the root of allowing myself happiness and being happy.)
Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Lisa: I wouldn’t say that I have habits, as in something I do or don’t do every day, but I do have negative thought patterns, or thought habits, that get in the way of my happiness. I can be be a worrier and filled with irrational fears. I can be a people pleaser and lose myself in panic that others will be upset or disappointed. I can push myself too hard and be too strict and rigid with myself. All of these thought patterns get in the way of my happiness. (And all of them are at least somewhat manageable when I go back to questions #1 and 2 and allow myself happiness and find moments and mindfulness that will ease my negative thought patterns.)
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Lisa: I have a number of habits that are most important to me. My physical health habits - I exercise in some way nearly every day. I run, practice yoga, lift weights, and move as much as I can. My mental and emotional health habits - I practice yoga roughly three times per week, and I meditate nearly every day. I also make time to sit, notice, practice mindfulness, etc., and I make time for family and friends, because I love to be connected with and to people.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Lisa: I am proud of the fact that I meditate regularly - generally every day. However, the way I was able to build that habit is, perhaps, a bit different from the norm. Because I was raised in unstable environments, I became a very rigid rule follower. (I also believe that is related to my anorexia when I was younger.) In order to build a meditation habit, I had to allow myself to meditate “my way” - not to follow set rules or strict guidelines. I’ve sat quiet at times, sat quiet with a timer at times, sat quiet with a cup of tea at times, and sat quiet with an app making “white noise” in the background, but in all of these, I’ve allowed myself to not be too rigid. If I get rigid, then I worry that my meditation didn’t count, because I somehow did it “wrong.” Allowing myself space and the possibility that there was no right or wrong way to meditate helped me to build my meditation practice/habit.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Lisa: I am clearly an Upholder. I think I was more of an Obliger and also a bit of a Rebel for a while (most likely when I left the Moonies), but I do keep my promises to myself and to (most) others. [Note: from her description of herself in her answers, I wonder if Lisa is actually an Obliger who has figured out ways to meet inner expectations.]
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Lisa: I have let travel and others’ expectations and needs get in the way of keeping my habits, but I’ve learned to make my habits my priority, because I am so much happier and better when I do.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Five years ago I was knocked to my knees with insomnia, for longer than I care to admit. I fought it, long and hard, but finally reached a point where I accepted what was and decided that if the rest of my life was going to be just lying on a couch every day, because that was all that I could physically, mentally, and emotionally do, than I was going to be okay with that, and I was going to find a way to be happy, no matter what. The experience changed - and loosened - some of my rigidity and perfectionism/self-non-acceptance.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Lisa: I did thoroughly enjoy The Happiness Project. (I’m not just saying that - I kept thinking, “yes, yes.”) Two books that helped me move on most recently are The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) and Radical Acceptance (Tara Brach). The saying I repeat to myself the most now, when I’m afraid or anxious or hard on myself, is “I choose love.” It eases my heart and mind. I read this anonymous quote years ago in O, and it stayed with me - “When you die God and the angels will hold you accountable for all the pleasures in life that you denied yourself.” And although it’s not a motto or saying, I’ve found that putting my hand on my heart is very, very soothing.
Gretchen: Tell me about your new memoir.
My memoir is entitled to the moon and back: a childhood under the influence. It tells my story of growing up in the Moonies (and also in the sordid East Village scene in the 1970s) and gives a glimpse into how I learned that I deserved happiness...and how I could find or build it.
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