Attorney Maria Leonard Olsen: “Let go of things you cannot control”

Spiritual wellbeing can be achieved via meditation and living mindfully. When I practice the pause before speaking, for example, whatever I say is more thoughtful. I ask myself if something needs to be said, needs to be said by me, or needs to be said at all. Such restraint has improved all of my relationships. […]

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Spiritual wellbeing can be achieved via meditation and living mindfully. When I practice the pause before speaking, for example, whatever I say is more thoughtful. I ask myself if something needs to be said, needs to be said by me, or needs to be said at all. Such restraint has improved all of my relationships.

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.

Maria Leonard Olsen is an attorney and author who practices law in the Washington, D.C. area. She graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law and worked at one of the D.C.’s largest law firms prior to her appointment as Special Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Justice Department. She took time off from practicing law while raising her children, during which she became a journalist, authored several books and did pro bono work. See for more information.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and went to college and law school out of state. I came from a complicated family — divorced parents, stepsiblings and a half-brother. Alcoholism ran in my family and I suffered from that disease as well. But I now have eight years sober and life is wonderful! I finally learned how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and to process them in healthy ways.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My mother inspired me to become a lawyer. She instilled in me the importance of education and for a woman to be financially independent. When she divorced my father, she was able to support herself, as well as my brother and me.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There were women who took time to mentor me throughout my career. We, as women, stand on the shoulders of other women who helped to crack the glass ceiling. We have the duty to pay it forward to others.

There was a female partner who worked in the large law firm I joined right after law school who I thought was being so hard on me. I realized that she was helping me to become a better lawyer. She painstakingly went over my writing to make it stronger. I learned so much from her and am grateful for her help along the way.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book by Toltec shaman Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements, changed my life. The lesson of not taking things personally was so impactful. I realized that each of us has our own reality, based on an amalgam of experiences, and that most of what others do has nothing to do with me. So I no longer, for instance, get upset when someone cuts me off in traffic. What if that person just received a bad diagnosis or recently suffered a painful loss? I preserve so much energy by not letting things bother me anymore.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

The quote is, “It’s your life; it’s up to you what you do with it.” No one is responsible for my happiness but me. I no longer depend on others to make me feel good. I can find that within. I have discovered the difference between being alone and being lonely. This was a sea change for me.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am working on another book right now about the Pandora’s box of DNA home testing. Many people are not prepared for the earth shattering news that frequently is received by unsuspecting individuals about family secrets.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In our work, we talk a lot about cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Especially during the pandemic, we must all take steps to cultivate our wellbeing in these areas. No one else is responsible for that but us.

For mental wellbeing, be sure to learn something new every day. Do puzzles or listen to podcasts or TedTalks to stretch your perspective. As we are limited in our travels, try to feed your mind with things outside your bubble. Such actions may stave off Alzheimer’s disease, according to come studies.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

My favorite thing about meditation is that it does not have to be long to be effective in centering. I meditate everywhere — traffic lights, while cooking, etc. For me, I can take one or two deep breaths to re-center myself. Traffic and stop lights have become prompts to me to re-center.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Walk whenever possible, instead of driving. I use walking meditation when I walk. And I have discovered so many beautiful things that I never noticed before as I sped by in my car, like garden labyrinths in church yards.

When I brush my teeth or do dishes, I do them on tip toe, to strengthen my glutes and calf muscles. Another small tip is to drink a full bottle of water every time you get into the car. I keep a refillable bottle in my car and fill it every time I need to go somewhere. We are supposed to drink so much more water than most of us do. And much of the time that we believe we are hungry, our bodies are thirsty and really satisfied with just water.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

For me, if something is forbidden, it becomes more attractive. So I allow myself a treat every day. Moderation is key.

On the flip side, having a lot of junk food available is a bad idea. I try to ask myself if another bite of something I know is not great for me is worth it or not. If it is a fabulous home-make chocolate cake, it is worth it! If it is chips that I have had many times that I am mindlessly eating, it is not worth it.

I also am trying to eat more mindfully. I try to focus on the flavors and savor. I try not to eat while doing anything else but eating.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Emotional wellbeing is dependent on having healthy outlets for our emotions. Journaling helps, as does sharing feelings with a trusted human. When I share my pain with someone, it cuts its power in half. When I share my joy, it multiplies is.

I am a believer in the power of affirmations. The more I say to myself, “I am enough,” “I am okay” or “I am growing,” I rewire neural pathways in my brain and begin believing it. Try it. What do you have to lose?

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

In my experience, smiling sends a positive message to my brain. It helps me choose positive thoughts and to look for silver linings.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Spiritual wellbeing can be achieved via meditation and living mindfully. When I practice the pause before speaking, for example, whatever I say is more thoughtful. I ask myself if something needs to be said, needs to be said by me, or needs to be said at all. Such restraint has improved all of my relationships.

Be conscious about how you are spending your time. I surround myself with people who help me to become my best version. Many of us are more conscious about how we spend our money than our time. Yet time is the one thing of uncertain duration and it cannot be bought or manufactured. Time is our most precious commodity.

Let go of things you cannot control. The more I do this, the more serene I become. This practice has been especially helpful in my relationships. For example, I have had difficulty letting go of my adult children. But the more I allow them to live their lives without well-meaning interference from me, the better we get along.

The pandemic can be a time of reevaluating, of cocooning to see how you would like to emerge in your next chapter. You may find yourself re-prioritizing what is truly important in your life.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

I love the Japanese practice of forest baths. Being in nature has the power to re-connect us to our natural beings and to calm us. The air is cleaner and your senses enlivened. It is the best place to meditate.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would be happy if meditation were taught to all, beginning in early education. Meditation could decrease anxiety in everyone. And we have an anxiety epidemic.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I really would like to meet Oprah Winfrey. She has come from a difficult background, as have I, and she has used her influence for so much good in the world.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is I also am active on Facebook, Instagram and twitter at @FiftyAfter50. Thanks!

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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