Most of us are back at work by this point in January and already the holidays are starting to feel like they’ve been over for a while. In our street, every day the pile of Christmas trees assigned to the garbage grows bigger. It’s hard to imagine that a few days ago they were taking pride of place loaded down with all kinds of treats and surrounded by presents.
Perhaps while you were enjoying your holiday downtime, you were thinking about the new year about to start. Maybe you’ve made a whole list of new year resolutions. It seemed a good idea at the time—make a fresh start to the year and get yourself in shape. The thing is, we can get a bit carried away. We make a huge list of all the things we are going to stop doing and all the things we think we should start doing and when we come to look at it—well, it’s a bit overwhelming and frankly, depressing!
When we are not self-compassionate
Now we have set up the perfect conditions for feeling guilty and dissatisfied with ourselves. The next step is to start beating ourselves up for not getting going on the self-improvement plans we made—which will make us feel worse. It’s easy to look back over the year just finishing and remember all the things we didn’t do, or hopes we had that were not fulfilled.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get the best out of ourselves, nor with using the beginning of a new year as a time for reflection on how we are living our lives. The thing is we tend to go about it in such a self-critical way.
We look at everything we think is not working so well and then make a long to-do list of all the ways we want to change. Somehow, we are surprised when it is overwhelming and we cannot keep it up. We feel as if we have failed in some way and are disappointed in ourselves.
Some suggestions for making self-compassionate resolutions
Not surprisingly, we are much more likely to get the best from ourselves if we approach any changes we want to make with an attitude of self-compassion and kindness. We can try and be a friend to ourselves, rather than behaving like our worst nightmare of a disapproving schoolteacher.
Start off with looking to your strengths
Think about the parts of your life that are on track and the things you do well. Ask yourself how you could build on that.
For example: you might be good at your job but have an irritating relationship with a work colleague. Your resolution could be to try to make a difference in how you both relate to one another. Start small by making them a cup of coffee whenever you can. The chances are you’ll be surprised how quickly they warm up to you. It often does not take so much to make a difference.
Choose the changes you want to make carefully
When looking for where you want to change, choose something manageable. You can see from the picture above that ‘improving self’ is a big project, as is ‘save money’. Both are too big and too general.
Even ‘more family time’ is asking a lot. Instead try to be specific—decide to call your mother twice a week; or decide to turn off all your individual screens (phone, tablet etc.) by 9pm in the evening in order to have quality time with your partner.
Set yourself some attainable goals
It takes time to change your habits, so take big picture into account. Set yourself a goal—like making meditation part of your life but then look at the steps needed to get there. Decide to meditate for five minute every day for two weeks. If that goes well, then try for 10 minutes every day for a month. When you miss a day, don’t stop to berate yourself—just carry on the next day.
Celebrate your successes
If you had a good friend who was trying to change some habits you would want to encourage them. Remember, with self-compassion you can be a good friend to yourself. Celebrate every success you achieve. Build in rewards for what you accomplish. When you manage your first week of meditating 5 minutes a day then you could celebrate by giving yourself a treat.
We are all in the same boat.
Whatever our situation and circumstances, people mostly want to be happy and live good lives. Think of all the people who are trying to make positive changes and struggling with them just like you are. None of us is alone in trying to find the way to get the best out of ourselves and live a meaningful life.
Allow yourself to get it wrong
No-one is perfect and it’s a waste of effort to even try. As human beings, we are sometimes going to make mistakes and sometimes we will be brilliant. When you break a resolution, or find yourself slipping back into old habits instead of beating yourself up, try forgiving yourself. Focus on the effort you’ve been making and don’t give up on what you are trying to do just because you had a bit of a blip. Remember to talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. If your friend was struggling with their resolution—how would you talk to them? Would you call them a loser? I doubt it. After all—if we cannot be a friend to ourselves, how can we be a good friend at all?
If you enjoyed this article you might like to check out this online course on self-compassion How to Be a Good Friend to Yourself
When the moment finally arrives that you simply cannot justify keeping up the Christmas tree any longer and you have to admit that the holiday is really over does your heart sink a bit? All the pleasure of shared company, exchanging presents and delicious food that filled the holiday season seems a bit remote as we strip off the decorations and pack them away. Everyone’s back at work and winter seems to stretch ahead endlessly. Spring feels like a remote possibility as we battle through the cold and wet. It’s all too easy to feel rather gloomy.
What can we do to pick ourselves up?
Here’s a few ideas—maybe you have some you could suggest also?
Let our Christmas holiday nourish us
First of all, we can let our holiday high nourish us rather than fading away leaving us looking for the next lift. We can allow ourselves to have a sense of appreciation and gratitude for all we got to do over the holidays and take a moment to celebrate that we had this opportunity to take a break and enjoy some fun.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and we know that after the holidays we have to pick up the threads of work and so on but instead of feeling sour about it, we can pick them up with a sense of refreshment and relaxation. We can feel energized for whatever comes next.
Be extra vigilant in keeping up a meditation schedule
Perhaps this time of year is difficult because it shows up our habit of holding on to the things we like—holidays—and pushing away the things we don’t want—our working routine. This can cause us a lot of dissatisfaction because inevitably we have to deal with all kinds of stuff we don’t want and don’t like.
Meditation is the best way to help train our minds to be able to hold steady in the middle of the ups and downs of life. As we sit and watch the breath we can go through all kinds of experiences that we find uncomfortable. By the very act of sitting through these experiences and not running away from them we are training ourselves to be less reactive and less likely to panic whatever comes our way.
Find acceptance in each moment
Accepting what comes along is not a passive thing to do. It takes patience, understanding and a generous helping of wisdom. It also does not mean we have to lie down in the face of difficulties, or become a doormat. Accepting what comes to you in a way of seeing clearly what is going on in our life, in the present moment. We are not struggling to hold on to it, or push it away. We’re not wishing things were different from how they are. We are bringing our full resources to working with what comes up in each present moment.
This can provide us with a lot of space and possibilities. It can be energizing, instead of exhausting.
We shake our heads in disbelief when we see the stores getting ready for the next season. We’ll be amazed when we see Easter eggs popping up all over the place before too long. Valentines Day preparations are already in full swing. All this is a response to our habit of chasing happiness and running away from discomfort and boredom. Inevitably it makes the habit worse. We get on to a cycle of looking forward to the next good thing and missing so much of the texture and opportunity of where we are at each passing moment.
It’s a good time of year to get back on the cushion.
What do you do to shake off the holidays blues? I would love to hear.
Many of us have returned from our summer break by now and are back into the swing of our working lives. My partner and I just got home from attending our usual annual retreat in Lerab Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist centre near Montpellier in the South of France. We have a tiny cottage in the forest where we stay during our retreat time. It is our opportunity to enjoy some quiet time in nature, while receiving meditation instruction to nourish us throughout the year.
We drive there from Amsterdam and our arrival is always a sensitive time. We are tired from the preparations to leave and the long journey. We know we have a lot to do to set up the cottage for our stay and, as it is remote, we have no idea what we will find when we open the door.
Not how you want to begin a holiday
This year was a shock. When we went to the room where we sleep we saw that the skylight had leaked through and damaged the area around the window. To make matters worse, this has been an on-going problem, which we thought it was all fixed and done with. When you are on retreat in another country in August and you need to arrange work to be done it can be a big hassle. My heart fell and I felt pretty fed up. Thoughts like, ‘I don’t need this’ and ‘Why can’t things just go smoothly for a change?’ chased each other through my mind. I felt pretty sorry for myself.
This is where meditation kicks in for me and I really see how much it matters in my life. Negative emotions can still come but they do not bite like they used to. They don’t get a hold on me and define my behaviour. Even while I am feeling miserable there is a part of me that knows that it won’t last, that I am not going to feel this way for ever. There is a fundamental part of me that accepts that life has its ups and downs and difficult things will certainly happen, so I am not as surprised as I used to be when things don’t go as I want.
We can think that as meditators we should be able to manage our emotions perfectly but that can just be another way of putting ourselves down. Of course, the more skilfully we can manage our emotions the better but meditation is not an instant cure-all and we can celebrate the steps we take as we go along. Developing a sense of perspective and learning—however slowly—not to take things too personally are two of these important steps. It helps build confidence in meditation to be able to see that although your mind can still get pretty intense, some things are a little easier.
The sky and the clouds
One of the most helpful images I know of to help build confidence in meditation is the example of the sky and the clouds. The sky represents our natural state of openness, spaciousness and wellbeing—our natural mind if you like. The clouds are the thoughts and emotions that pass across our minds. Thoughts do not spoil the mind, or leave any lasting impression—they simply come and go, like clouds. As we become more familiar with meditation we can begin to experience that for ourselves and get a different take on how to handle things going wrong. It becomes more possible to accept things as they are, rather than wishing them to be different and even to develop a certain sense of humour about the craziness of it all.
We are talking about building mental resilience—the ability to overcome obstacles and recover from hard times. It means having a place of inner peace that is always available to us and that helps us to work with how we see things. It enables us to face change and difficulties as opportunities for growth, rather than simply to view them as threats. Not surprisingly, Richard Davidson places resilience as one of the four skills of wellbeing. We know from neuroplasticity that the brain can change according to experience. The experience of meditation will help to develop activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which in turn helps to calm the fight-or-flight response of the amygdala when facing stress.
Meditation when it matters
Sure enough, as I struggled to connect with a sense of inner peace while surveying the damaged skylight, I could look through the rain-stained and murky window to see the clear blue sky beyond. The perspective was there for me to see—however challenging things are in the moment, that moment will pass.
If you would like to know more about meditation and resilience, watch this short video where Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn explore this further.
How to start meditation in a way that will last
This online course is designed to help beginners make a sustainable start to their meditation practice. You can find out more and sign up here