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Maria Leonard Olsen: “Be consciously present”

Be consciously present. Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. It will increase your joy, effectiveness and productivity. When you are fully present, you cannot simultaneously worry about the future or fret about the past. I used to “future-trip” about what might happen, especially to my children. I now write these worries down and […]

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Be consciously present. Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. It will increase your joy, effectiveness and productivity. When you are fully present, you cannot simultaneously worry about the future or fret about the past. I used to “future-trip” about what might happen, especially to my children. I now write these worries down and put them in a box to allow me to release them, mentally. Months later, when I open the box and read the worries, none of the things about which I had worried have come to pass. It was wasted energy. This exercise helps me worry less.


As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Leonard Olsen.

Maria Leonard Olsen is an author, attorney, radio talk show host, public speaker, recovery mentor and workshop facilitator, based in Washington, D.C. Her latest book, “50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life,” has served as a vehicle to help hundreds of people across the country to reinvigorate their lives. See www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com for more information.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, in a mixed race family. In fact, my parents were forbidden by laws at that time to marry in our home state, as well as in 16 other states, because they were of two different races. It is astounding to me that such laws existed only a few decades ago.

At age 50, I got sober, divorced and became an empty nester. I had to change everything about my life. In my 50th year, I tried 50 new things to explore the contours of how I wanted to live the next chapter of my life. The things I tried encompassed physical challenges, spiritual endeavors, learning/teaching, adventure travel, thrill-seeking, social activities and lifestyle changes. I now am using my pain as a force for good in the world and living a life true to my values.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

Getting sober from alcoholism was the most significant change that affected every area of my adult life. I had used alcohol to escape my feelings of self-loathing and to escape any uncomfortable feelings. I have had to learn constructive ways to deal with discomfort. I have learned that every person and situation has the capacity to teach us something, if we are open to the lesson. I also learned that I need to pay this knowledge forward to keep it.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I used to pride myself on my ability to multi-task. It is a myth that multi-tasking made us more effective and productive. In fact, when I multi-task, I am not present with either task and both tasks are completed with less quality than they would have had I focused exclusively on one at a time. I learned that full concentration on one task at a time increases the quality of everything I do. I learned the gift of honoring someone by giving them my full attention and listening with my whole being, not with the goal of responding, but with the goal of understanding.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am so grateful for my AA sponsor. She loved me until I could love myself. She showed me that there was a better way. She bore witness to my pain and assured me that I was not unusual in what had happened to me in my life and what I had done. She helped me to move beyond my shame. I believe that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are an effective guide to how to be a good human and that everyone would benefit from following them.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I wrote a very self-revelatory book about my sobriety and authenticity journey, 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life. I use this book as a vehicle to help others. When I give a book talk, people approach me in tears telling me how I have helped them. I talk about my having been sexually assaulted, for example, which helps other victims not feel so alone. Part of my healing has been to allow others to bear witness to my pain. I had kept the pain secret for decades and it harmed me in ways of which I was not even aware. One in four American women will have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and one in six men. Yet so few of us seek help for the effects of this trauma. So we remain stuck. So many of us fail to understand that courage is not the absence of fear, but walking through that fear.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Be consciously present. Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. It will increase your joy, effectiveness and productivity. When you are fully present, you cannot simultaneously worry about the future or fret about the past. I used to “future-trip” about what might happen, especially to my children. I now write these worries down and put them in a box to allow me to release them, mentally. Months later, when I open the box and read the worries, none of the things about which I had worried have come to pass. It was wasted energy. This exercise helps me worry less.

Start each day with a gratitude list. Each morning, I think of at least three things for which I am grateful, from the prosaic to the profound. For instance, I am grateful that my body still works, that I can see and walk, that I have an education that I can use. Having an attitude of gratitude completely changes my day. That which we focus on becomes magnified, so choose to focus on good things in your life.

Find an exercise partner or group. It is much more likely that you will stick with an exercise practice if you know someone is expecting you to show up. During the pandemic, I meet my friend online via Zoom and we do a free exercise video together almost every day at the same time each day. There is a wealth of free videos online. We vary our exercises to keep it more interesting. We do yoga, barre, Tae Bo, Pilates and more.

Try to learn something new every day. With the internet, it is easy to learn almost anything. TedTalks are a wonderful way to elevate one’s thinking. Any time I want to fix something, I can find a how-to video on YouTube. I learned how to fix my refrigerator this way. Learning something new keeps our brain’s neural pathways healthy. Because of neural plasticity, we can change our brains for the better by infusing it with positivity and knowledge.

Become involved in something bigger than one’s self. Find a purpose. Each of us has gifts to give to others, like teaching English, cooking, organization or work skills. Keep someone company. Check in on a homebound friend. Increase awareness of an issue that is important to you. I have expanded my understanding of spirituality in this way. Believing in something bigger than myself is my definition of spirituality, and I look for ways to contribute to things outside of myself. Participating in Black Lives Matter demonstrations helped me feel not so helpless about injustice I was witnessing, for example.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The movement would be to normalize seeking help for mental wellness. Because mental illness remains taboo in too many segments of our society, people suffer unnecessarily. Help is available, yet people are ashamed of seeking it. Therapy is one helpful modality, but other methods of self-care can help with mental wellness, like meditation. I believe meditation should be taught in schools to help reduce stress and to equip people with tools that can be used in many situations. Meditation can be as simple as several deep breaths to reset and center.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Most of the things I worry about will never happen. Worrying is akin to praying something bad will happen. You can consciously change your vibration by focusing on good things, thereby attracting positivity to your life.
  2. Things that seem important when you are young are not likely to be important five or ten years later. I spent too much time focusing on small things or things I could not change. That energy could have been used more productively.
  3. Do things that align with your own values, not the values of those around you. Choose a career that feeds your spirit, not a career that only will please your parents. It is your life; it is up to you what you do with it.
  4. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and help you to become your best version. You can choose the company you keep and we tend to underestimate the effect those we associate with have on our lives, even unconsciously.
  5. Be intentional about how you spend your time. Most of us are more mindful about how we spend our money than about how we spend our time. Yet time is the one thing we cannot buy or manufacture, and it is of uncertain duration. Use is wisely.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental health. If one does not have mental health, it is difficult to make a healthy impact in any other area. It is fundamental, yet, sadly, taboo to discuss by many. And mental health issues are difficult to tackle alone. It takes courage and vulnerability to seek help. But I have experienced and witnessed the incredible changes for the better that are possible with proper attention to one’s mental health.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/FiftyAfter50/
https://www.instagram.com/fiftyafter50/

Thank you for these fantastic insights! Thank you for having me!

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