In this episode 98, Berit Lewis talks with host Sue Stockdale about her personal journey that led her to focus on helping people over 50 thrive in their later stage of life. She discusses how her move to the Netherlands and the loss of her identity as a communication consultant when she brought up her children inspired her to study psychology and mindfulness. Berit explains how these experiences led her to develop a focus on helping people grow their self-awareness and cultivate resilience in order to navigate the challenges of later life.
Berit Lewis is the owner of Thriving Life, offering workshops, courses and retreats in mental well-being. As well as being an experienced and accredited Mindfulness Teacher, she holds a BA (Honours) in Psychology, a MSc in Vitality and Ageing and a MA in Communication and has carried out Mindfulness Based Vitality & Ageing research in cooperation with Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) and Leyden Academy of Vitality and Ageing in the Netherlands. Berit is Danish and lives in the Netherlands with her Welsh husband and two teenagers.
Connect with Berit Lewis on LinkedIn : Facebook : Blog and Newsletter on Substack: Ageing Upwards
Book: Ageing Upwards – a mindfulness-based Framework for the Longevity Revolution
- I would describe mindfulness in one word – awareness.
- Much my identity was attached to being my job, a communication consultant. And I found myself all of a sudden, wow, I’m just a housewife now.
- You can change the way you approach difficulties. Change your mental perspective, your mindset, the way you approach them.
- I could see it as just a physical sensation that is feeding into a thought that is feeding into emotions.
- It’s that awareness about how we are controlled by our innate genetic wiring in order to keep us safe, and that’s not always good for our wellbeing.
- I’ve always had a passion for learning and a curiosity. So that’s why I went back to university and did my psychology degree.
- Instead of being the emotion, or the thought, it’s about stepping back and saying, I’m having the thought that it’s a passing thing that comes and goes and not get caught up in it.
- Research shows that we do tend to become much more mindful when we get older.
- We are so much in our heads. I think it’s very important that we take pauses to step back and just notice what’s going on.
This series is kindly supported by Squadcast –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations.
[00:02:11] Mindfulness and pain management.
[00:03:44] Primary and Secondary Suffering.
[00:07:08] Changing demographics and ageing.
[00:12:26] Practical mindfulness techniques for ageing.
[00:14:34] Mindfulness and self-compassion.
[00:18:32] Mindfulness and ageing.
[00:22:14] Identity and self-discovery.
[00:26:00] Awareness and mindfulness practice.
Sue: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale. Welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can be inspired by people who may be unalike. You. I can’t believe we’ve got to episode 98 already, since we’ve been going. It’s amazing. And if you want to follow along as you’re listening to this episode, then go on over to her website where you’ll find a transcription. And that’s access to inspiration.org. Today, my guest is Berit Lewis and in this episode, Berit will talk about her personal journey. That led her to focus on helping people over 50 thrive in their later stage of life. Berit is an experienced mindfulness teacher and she holds a BA in psychology and a master’s degree in vitality and ageing. And she combines all of those things into her work, helping people to grow their self-awareness, and cultivate resilience in order to navigate the challenges of later life. Welcome to the podcast, Berit. It’s great to speak to you today.
Berit: Thank you so much for having me.
Sue: Now, I’m particularly curious to speak to you today, Berit, because you’ve particularly focus, I understand on helping people who are over 50 years old thrive in that later stage in life. Am I correct?
Berit: that’s correct. Yes.
Sue: What makes that your particular area of interest?
Berit: Well, it’s my personal journey I guess. It, it has brought me to where I am today. So I used to work in communication. I used to live in Denmark. I’m Danish. And about 15 years ago my husband was offered a job here in the Netherlands. And at the time we had two young children and we had two full careers and we just couldn’t make things work. We never saw each other, we never saw the children. So we jumped at it and moved [00:02:00] here to the Netherlands. And in the beginning it was it was great. But then we realized, or I realized that. So much my identity was attached to being my job, being a communication consultant. And I found myself all of a sudden, wow, I’m just a housewife now. I’m just a, a mother. Who am I? And that’s that then, that brought me onto studying psychology. So I went back to university and I did a psychology degree. And at the same time I was also interested in mindfulness. But I didn’t really know what it was at the time. I thought it was just like the switch at the back of your head that you could switch up and everything would be nice and calm in there, but it didn’t work. For me, and I found out later that that’s the case for most people. It’s all a mess up in our heads.
So I was doing this mindfulness journey at the same time as doing my psychology degree and all the things I learned in psychology was all happening in the head all analyzing from an intellectual point of view. But then the mindfulness gave me this other perspective and it made me realise, that all the things that I was learning with my head just made so much more sense when I actually practiced it with my body. And so I went on a silent retreat. The first one I did was five days and in the beginning it was really hard and on about, I think it was the second or the third day, I had really bad back aches and I could not sit still. And I was this, this battle in my head going on, going, oh, but I’m supposed to. I’m supposed to, and I focus on your breath. And my head was like, oh, but my back, my back. And so the teacher said to us, now you have two choices. You can either respond by changing the situation. So I did that. I tried to sit in different ways and it didn’t really work.
And then she said, you can also change the way you approach these difficulties. So change your mental perspective, your mindset, the way you approach them. And then that was the superpower because all of a sudden I started to be able to see these thoughts of resistance towards my [00:04:00]pain and I could go beyond the pain and that initial resistance, this avoidance, I don’t want this pain, this is bad. And I could see it as just a physical sensation that was feeding into a thought that was feeding into emotions. And that got me all messed up and going. And I thought, wow, this is just such a superpower because if I can approach anything in life like this that happens, then I can stop myself getting into these extra sufferings and these extra difficulties and I can sort of step back and say, oh, whoa, it’s just my mind. And yes, I continue to have the pain, but I could also do other things at the same time. So they didn’t, it didn’t completely take over my situation and, and difficulties in life will not have to take over my life and I can focus on other things as well.
Sue: So Berit you were talking there about this pain and in your book that you have coming out, one of the things I was reading within it was about primary suffering and secondary suffering. So just tell us a little bit more about that before we get on to then the ageing element.
Berit: So the primary suffering is anything, any suffering that we have in life. And, that’s natural. That’s part of living. You will have physical, emotional pain and, and we can’t avoid that. That’s the primary. But then all the things that we add to that, all these thoughts of I don’t want it, let it go away. Why me? And we spend so much time ruminating about why we got it or blaming ourself, blaming others and that that’s actually sends us into a lot of extra suffering because the thing is about. Our brain cannot see the difference between real danger and imagined danger. So whenever we go on about things that could happen because of this suffering, then we are adding extra suffering to ourselves. And we don’t need that and we can actually avoid it if we can see this happen in our brain. And this is not our fault. This is a way that our caveman brain is still in us and it’s [00:06:00] trying for us to keep us. so we are wired to be safe, but not to thrive.
Sue: So what I’m hearing, and you’re reminding me of some of the coaching clients I work with who often, as I would describe it, catastrophize. So they, have a meeting that’s not going well, and then from that meeting, then they’ll imagining that person’s going to leave the organization because they’ve not had a positive experience. And then what will happen if they’ve got to recruit somebody else and who will do the job when they’re not there. And all that’s happened is there’s been a meeting that’s not gone well. And I guess that’s a, business example of what you’re sharing with us here.
Berit: Exactly, exactly. And if we bring that onto the ageing example, it’s like, oh my God, I noticed I forgot my keys. I can’t find things. I’m forgetting things. Oh my God, am I getting dementia? What if, what if, what if, who’s gonna take care of me? And so we go off on a journey that we don’t really need to go off on.
Sue: So let me just take you back cuz you, you’ve given us a very lovely summary of your life and career history and what got you this to this point today. I want to unpick that a little bit more in detail to help our listeners get a sense of how those dots connect up. So back to your role as a communications consultant Berit when you were doing that job, what was it about that job that you enjoyed? Why did you go into that in the first place?
Berit: Ooh, that’s a long time ago. I think what what made me interested in communication in the first place was. Bringing people together, a sense of community and looking at it now, I think in the retrospect it is about thriving. It’s about creating a good life for ourselves and for the people we are with. Because I was internal communication, I was doing, I also had to do the external, but it was definitely the internal communication that I, that enjoyed the most.
Sue: And it strikes me from what you just described to us, that there was you doing a job in an outside organization to do with internal communications, and now [00:08:00] what you’ve come to is helping. Individuals think about what is going on in their internal communication in their mind. So you’re taking the same skill set, effectively the same area of interest, and applying it in a very different way.
Berit: Yeah, definitely. I think one of my key messages in the book is the demographics of the world is changing. We are all living for longer and we are all getting older, so we have to change. And people are starting to get aware of that. And there’s a lot of initiatives happening to engage people and keep them in the workforce for longer but I think we have to start with ourselves and, if we are so. Caught up in habits about what it means to be old. We are not gonna be able to see beyond that. We are not gonna see that mindset because we have to become aware before we can change things. And that’s why I think mindfulness is such a thing, because you become aware of these habits that you have and these thought patterns and certain ways that you ought to live when you are past 50, or we have this narrative that says that beyond 50, it’s all downhill. That ageing is something bad. It’s something to avoid. It’s all about decline, but when you actually look into it’s not, it doesn’t have to be, it’s more about transitioning, because like for instance, yes, we might get cognitively, not as sharp as we were when we were 20, but we are much able, much better at seeing patterns and using the knowledge we have already gained. So it’s just a different way of approaching life. And I think if we become aware of this we don’t need to limit ourselves so much, and by not limiting ourselves, we can continue to contribute. And so we have purpose and, and we create a better world for both us and the people around us.
Sue: Well, for any business leaders listening, maybe there’s a reminder as to why not to let your ageing workforce go because they can add value in a different way to your business.
Berit: Yeah. I think the problem is that, mindfulness has become such a buzzword and [00:10:00] most people see it as a way to to help each individual cope with stress. But I actually think that it’s, it’s much more than that. I once I did a talk in a big organization and I think about. Two thirds of the organization went on the mindfulness based stress reduction course and the revelation at the end of it, one of them came up and said, simply thank you for bringing kindness back to the organization. And I think that’s, that’s what mindfulness can do. It can help individually, but it grows. It’s not an inner journey alone. It’s very much an outer journey because in the end. It comes down to how we interact with people and how we work in the surroundings.
Sue: Seems like just as we might label older people on the scrap heap or, heading downhill, the label of mindfulness for some isn’t helpful either.
Berit: true. Because it’s got so many connotations in it for sure, and so many misconceptions about it. So many people think it’s just about relaxation. If I were to describe mindfulness in one word, it would be awareness. It’s that awareness about how we are controlled by our innate genetic wiring in order to keep us safe, and that’s not always good for our wellbeing. And also how we have created these habits for ourselves as we grow up and thinking that our thoughts are truth and that everything is stuck, something that might be good for us when we’re twenties, not necessarily a belief that’s helping us when we are in our fifties or sixties so we can constantly change.
Sue: So again I want to pull us back to you then, being a housewife, as you described it. At home, bringing up your children, what then made you want to. Understanding and insight at that point when you said like, who am I? I’m not just a housewife, then what did that compel you to do and why did you go down the road that you did?
Berit: I think I’ve always had a [00:12:00] passion for learning and a curiosity. So that’s why I went back to university and, and did my psychology degree. And then actually when Covid happened, because I didn’t actually finish that story All the jobs that I had planned were all canceled during lockdown, and that actually brought me back to university again. And I studied a master in Vitality and aging because, being a foreigner, I’m Danish. I live in the Netherlands. My husband is Welsh. My children goes to an American school. So it’s all, we bit sort of where’s home, where do we wanna live? And now that our children are about to leave home my husband and I are thinking, where do we wanna live? What’s a good life? So that thought has always been on my mind. How do you create a good life for yourself when you are beyond your fifties? And that brought me onto this, this mindfulness-based vitality and aging. And I realized that all of these things that I was teaching people who was really stressed and close to burnout and organization, it’s the same skills. It’s just different challenges you have when you are later in life.
Sue: Within your book Berit, there’s a lovely acronym that you share within the book. As far as I’m remembering it. There’s something to do with noticing and noting and knowing, and there’s also an acronym of Embrace, I think somewhere along the way. Tell me about what those things are because I love hearing about the practical element of how do we take this principle of having awareness when we’re older into our everyday lives.
Berit: So, as you say, there’s two parts in it. So I’ve taken the word embrace and I really divided into two parts and the ease at the beginning and the ease at the end is sort of to be seen as little mindfulness loops, something that we should practice. In order to gain this awareness that I talked about, and as you’re right, it is about noticing. Note it and know it. And this really came about [00:14:00] from my Vipassana retreat where my teacher, Mike taught us to, to note things. So, any thought, any motion, any physical sensation, notice what’s going on notice. So take the time to actually. What’s happening in my brain? Is this a pattern of mine? And then know it? So instead of being the emotion, instead of being the thought. It’s about stepping back and saying, I’m having the thought that it’s, it’s a passing thing that comes and go and not be caught up in it. But seeing, oh, that’s interesting. I’m experiencing this. And if you do that, then you can sort of take step back and instead of letting all of these things control your life, you can navigate them and you can respond in a different way.
So the ease are this loop of constantly being curious and stepping out of automatic pilot and seeing, oh, interesting what’s happening here? Notice life and really get to know it. And then once you do that, then you have the ability to make a different way of responding. And that’s when I have the acronyms in the middle of Embrace to help us respond in a mindful way. So the first one is M for mindset. So changing our perspective on things. The second one is br for broadening out, and that’s about sort of, instead of being focused on all the things I cannot do anymore, all the things I wish were different. I wish I was younger, I wish I could do this. I worry about what could happen instead of focusing on all these things and negative things. And that’s again, the Caveman brain talking because we focus on the negative things in order to keep us safe. But if we stop that, if we notice that we can broaden out and notice things in a bigger perspective and saying, oh yes, so there’s pain in my back, but what else is here? The sun is shining. There’s warmth in my feet or somebody’s saying something nice to me. So you are noticing not just the difficult things, but also more things and you’re not also. [00:16:00] What’s going on in your head, your thoughts, but you’re also noticing how your body’s feeling and your emotions. That’s the broadening out.
So next, the A is for affection. So meeting what we are experiencing with affection for ourselves and for the people around us. So it’s self-compassion because we are so hard on ourselves, we’ve treated ourselves so badly so that’s a skill that we can all practice and become better at. And then the C is about commitment to adapt. So instead of running away and instead of wishing things were different, we can actually commit to adapt and live with whatever I see. So yes, we’ve been dealt certain cards and some of them might not be the best, but we can still find ways to find purpose in life and contribute and help ourselves and others. Mindfulness is not just about sitting and meditating, it’s also about going out and bringing action into the world in the way that we respond. And then you come back to the E and then, so that’s a loop that comes like that?
Sue: Well, it’s a lovely acronym that you’ve described to us and very easy to remember. So I’m curious, bringing the curiosity into it Berit I’m curious to know how have you applied it to yourself?
Berit: Oh, I think what comes to mind right now in my life is, is dealing with teenagers. So it can be hard with teenagers because their brain is just not developed and they, they’re saying they wanna do one thing and they don’t do it. So whenever I have confrontations with my children, well teens, I step back and I take a pause and I notice what’s happening inside of me, and then I ask myself. This urge to be angry, this urge to shout at them, is this helping me? Is this helping our relationship? And so by bringing that little pause into it, I’m able to sort of not let my [00:18:00] instinctual reactions take over and create a situation that’s even worse, but to maybe respond in a different way that that brings in compassion to both me and and them.
Sue: And do you ever find that it doesn’t work?
Berit: Oh, yes, yes. Oh, yes. I think this is a lifelong learning skill. It’s not something that you, you learn overnight.
Sue: And I’m imagining in those moments, it’s equally as important to bring that self-compassion to be okay, not to be perfect all the time.
Berit: Oh, for sure. And, and I think that comes afterwards where you just going, oh, I should have done this. Instead, you go, okay, well, That’s life.
Sue: Now if our listener is under 50 years old Berit, what can they take from what you’re saying that would be relevant to them?
Berit: I, I think it’s exactly the same because it is the same skills that we need to practice. And I think the earlier you start this, oh, I wish that it would bring, be like, in schools, we should all learn this from a very, very early age about how to live with this brain that we’ve been born with and realize that we have so much power in changing it. So the more we practice this, I would say I probably started quite late in life. Like it’s only what, 14 years since I started. But if I had done it when I was a teenager, it would’ve helped me all the way through life. Because it would be a habit. It would be a way to respond to life that comes natural and easy and quicker to me If we learn it early in life, we can use it much better when we are older. Not saying that we can’t change when we are old. We definitely, we can always do that, but I think the more we practice it, the better we become like with anything in life.
Sue: Hmm. Well there’s, there’s hope for the younger listeners of the podcast to start immediately, not wait till you’re 50 to try this out.
Berit: and I think it [00:20:00] really, it, it, it, so I’m teaching the mindfulness-based stress reduction course, which is for all ages. And the one that I developed the course about mindfulness-based aging is, it’s really the same thing I’m teaching. It’s just different themes that we bring onto it. So, yeah, it’s the same skills.
Sue: One of the ways that we often have a sense of what it will be like to be old is the experience we have with our parents or our carers when we have been brought up. When you reflect back on how you were brought up and those that were caring for you Berit what were the messages that you got from them about getting old?
Berit: I have a very positive I’m thinking about my grandmother specifically. She was so active till the very end. She used to have this little piece of land, a forest that she used to go down and chop trees until she was in her eighties. So , I don’t think I have had so much limiting beliefs about what it means to be old as our culture tend to put onto us, because she was very much an active lady, and my mom is now too extremely active and my dad too. So, yeah, I think I’ve had a good upbringing in that way.
Sue: I think there’s more to your grandmother’s story that you refer to in your book, and I’m wondering if you can just give us a living example of how she thrived until the end of her life.
Berit: Yeah, at the very end of her life. She had this forest as I was saying, and she couldn’t, she loved to go out and just be active, but in the end, she couldn’t do that. And so I took her down to the forest, and I think it was the two weeks before she passed away we just sat in the car. And opened the doors and we were just there in that moment and didn’t say anything. We were just listening to the birds looking at, it was spring and it was nice, and I know that she could have so easily get caught up in thinking, oh, I wish I was out there. I wish I could do that. And I, but she was just in the moment. And I think that’s mindfulness, not, [00:22:00] not that my grandmother knew the word mindfulness at all. She had no idea what it was, but I think she was naturally there. And I think. It’s actually interesting. A lot of research shows, shows that we do tend to become much more mindful when we get older. But that’s not to say that we can’t get better at it, but she was naturally mindful in the moment.
Sue: I think what, what you’re highlighting in that story Berit for me, is that when. Circumstances or situations take something away from us. We lose our job. We have a life-threatening illness. Something that can happen to us is then how do we come to terms with that reality, without allowing it to consume us?
Sue: What have you noticed about people you’ve engaged with who have found themselves in situations like that and how do they use this mindfulness approach to move forwards?
Berit: When I was creating this course and I was doing my master thesis in mindfulness based vitality and aging one of my clients were a yoga teacher. And she had this vision that she would continue to practice yoga till the very end. And it was very important. It was very much part of her identity. But she was having difficulties with her shoulders and she couldn’t really do the things she used to do. And it course her a lot of worries because who am I if I’m not a yoga teacher? It’s who I am. And doing the mindfulness practice, she came to me at the end and said that she managed to go back to the things in the first place that made her become a yoga teacher saying, what is it that’s important to me? And instead of being caught up in what she couldn’t do, and the fact that she couldn’t be a yoga teacher anymore was more about connecting with her body, being able to, and she said, there’s this vitality is not just about physical. Energy. It’s also about physical flexibility in the mind and being able to see that if I cannot do something in one faculty, I can do it in something [00:24:00] else. And so she started to maybe explore something like Tai Chi or something that didn’t require so much physical vigor as, as yoga did. And she found a way to get herself into a thriving life.
Sue: What a lovely story what you threw into that little story, Berit was the phrase, who am I? And that sense of identity, how important that is to us. So now that you have moved through your different phases of your life to where you are now, how do you answer that question for yourself? Who, who am I? Who is Berit?
Berit: I think I realized that, that I’m changing all the time. I don’t think, I don’t think there is a core me. I think me, the construction of a self, my identity, It’s something that I continuously do every day in every action, every thought. Everything I do, I continuously change that. And that’s also why when something, goes wrong or if I experience difficulties, and when I see how I’m reacting and I ask myself, is this something that’s helping me be who I want to be? Is this helping me live the life I wanna be? Because I realize that this is something that I can create. It’s not just, one me, and I can combine now all these things. And I’m definitely doing that in my book. Mindfulness, the aging and the communication into a book where I’m using all these skills. But I’m sure that if you ask me in 10 years time, I’ll be somewhere else and I’ll have learned something else, and I will add that into the equation and find out how I navigate all of that.
Sue: Well, again, what I’m taking from what you’re saying there, Berit is from a business context, I know many of our listeners are coming from a business background is those are the very skills that people in business these days have to also embrace. Businesses are no longer with a fixed identity. Those leading the businesses and working in the [00:26:00] businesses no longer are just doing the same old job title as they’ve always been doing. We’ve gotta be nimble, flexible, and adapt, and step into the unknown. I think you’re giving us an example of how that can be done.
Berit: yeah. But it sounds a bit like we are just floating around. I don’t think we are, cuz I think it’s very important that we still take the time to ask ourselves what’s important to me? What are my values? And that then let that be the compass that decides. How we wanna respond to life.
Sue: As we finish our conversation today, Berit what would be your tips that you would leave for our listeners to put into practice immediately at the end of this podcast that they could do?
Berit: Take pauses. Because we have become human doings instead of human beings. I think. We are so busy. We just think we have to achieve, achieve, achieve, and strive, and strive and strive all the time. And we are so much in our heads. I think it’s very important that we take pauses to step back and just notice what’s going on with me right now.
How am I feeling? What messages is my body sending me right now? And I think that will create that awareness I’m talking about. It’s the beginning of it. And not only does it help us cope with chronic stress or stress because it helps our nervous system calm down, but it gives us that awareness. So just. Put your alarm on your phone every, maybe every three hours and just step back, sit down and take five minutes where you just sit and feel your body. And on my website, I have a guided pause practice, and you can start with that, but I think eventually becomes second nature to us. We don’t need to be guided or anything. we can just stop and breathe and feel what’s happening to me. Right now.
Sue: Wonderful. Thank you Berit so much. If people want to find out more about you and the work that you’ve done, how might they do that?
Berit: So I’ve got a website called thriving [00:28:00] Life. That’s my company, so www.thriving life.eu. And there you can find links to, to all of this, what I’ve talked about now, and also information about the book.
Sue: Fantastic. It’s been lovely to speak to you today. I’m noticing the beat of my heart, the calmness of my shoulders being relaxed, so I’m even applying what you’re suggesting to us all today immediately. Thank you so much for your time.
Berit: Pleasure to being here and thank you for having me.
Sue: Well, I hope you enjoyed what Berit had to say today. And maybe it’s enabling you to feel a little bit more relaxed having reflected on what she said. If you’d like to keep connected with what we’re up to, then please go to our website and on the bottom of the homepage, you can sign up for our newsletter. And then we’ll be able to keep you posted on what’s coming up. Next week will be episode 99. I’ll be speaking to Vic Ferrari. who went from Bronx kid to NYPD detective. I hope you could enjoy this there to hear his story. Bye for now.
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)