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?
Awareness in Action is delighted to post this advice on how to really benefit from our winter break from Paloma Sparrow.
Quieter time during the winter season
Chinese medicine is in a way a misnomer as its approach is largely preventative. Its focus on subtle factors that combine over time to impact on health (depending on an individual’s constitution) gives rise to a wealth of information on how to support health. In winter this means allowing some quieter, more restorative time, in tune with what is happening in the natural world.
However, what this means for an inhabitant of a developed country in the 21st century is likely to be quite different from an agricultural or manual worker in China in previous millennia.
Planning for rest
Because of the increased use of technology in daily life and the hyper-arousal of the nervous system that this can give rise to, we may need to plan how we use this quieter time. Allowing some non-demanding time for quiet restoration could mean planning less events into the holiday period. It could mean more time to unwind, and relax. The absence of pre-planned events and routine allows us the opportunity to connect with what we feel like doing in the moment.
A technology holiday this winter?
It might also mean reducing levels of stimulation from screen-related activities. You could consider having a family ‘technology holiday’, or non-screen days, or evenings. How you arrange this is best agreed together as a family unit beforehand. You might even agree to have a short period during which you hold off all but essential communications. Both of these can be particularly important for children who are more sensitive to external influences and stimuli and whose neural development may be impacted in a lasting way by too much screen time.
Including exercise as part of your rest
The winter months can be a welcome opportunity for physical rest or reduced activity for farmers of former times. However, for many of us holidays are a time when we are able to exercise. We are able to give time to the kind of exercise we enjoy, and maybe to have more social time with friends and family.
But perhaps because we have now less time available to exercise, exercise can mean pushing ourselves to the limit, chasing an adrenaline rush or weight loss. Recent research has highlighted the link between exercise and longevity. The approach of Chinese medicine would recommend that exercise and our approach to exercise needs to be more individualised.
Arriving at your own programme for restoration this winter holiday
So, consider this. You could spend your holiday trying to live up to healthy ideals. Accomplishing everything you would like to for the holiday could become your main goal. You might end up spending too much time on screens. However, on the other hand, a restorative holiday period could mean giving yourself time to wind down a bit and connect in with what you feel like doing.
Paloma Sparrow is a traditional acupuncturist and has practised in educational, public health, and charity settings as well as in private practice in the UK. She finds the lifestyle advice of Chinese medicine a valuable tool to enable patients to support their own health. She has particular experience treating problems of pregnancy, birth and supporting children’s health with acupuncture, and she is a student of Tibetan Buddhism.
We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.
One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.
Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.
Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress
Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.
As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.
Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.
Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.
Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
How does it feel in my body?
What do I do about it?
Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.
Connecting with the present moment
So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake.
So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.
Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress
The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.
Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.
What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?
Connecting with family and friends
Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.
Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?
It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.
Connecting with the rest of the world
As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.
During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.
So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!
Nearly everyone I know is back from their holiday now. There’s a big sign up in our street warning drivers that schools are open again and children will be crossing the road. Autumn is already nibbling around the edges, with a definite chill in the air. It’s certainly getting dark earlier.
It seems only a few weeks ago that people were talking about where they were going on holiday, or where they had just come back from. Now today, our local supermarket has started selling Speculaas, a cookie traditionally eaten on St. Nicholas’s Dayon 5 December. The summer holidays are definitely over.
Personally, I love autumn but many people I know are suffering from post-holiday blues. They feel back in the normal round and the next holiday feels too far away.
What makes the holidays special?
1. We try new things
Don’t you love the feeling of exploration and adventure during the holidays?
My brother-in-law was recently photographed entering a 5,500-year-old long barrow in the Cotswoldson a weekend away. Not everyone’s cup of tea but he is a history enthusiast and sites like this are his passion. My partner and I were recently in Drenthe,a northern province in Holland where there are ancient Hunebedden sites.No-one is sure what these sites were used for but they could have been used for burials. We were enchanted by the ancient majesty of these places and spent ages looking at as many different sites as we could.
Different food, new customs, trying out summer sports are all wonderfully freeing and engaging. Trying new things opens up new possibilities and helps us to break out of our shell.
2. A holiday can mean time with friends and family
Unless you’ve chosen to go on a solo holiday, time away usually means that we have a chance to interact with friends, partners, family members with more freedom. So much of our everyday life we are juggling too many things– family, work, leisure. It can be hard to feel any of it is proper quality time.
The holidays are times when you can play, chat and catch up with your family without always looking at the clock. Many of us have fond childhood memories of getting to hang out more with our parents because we were all on holiday together.
3. There is freedom from routine
On our holidays we suddenly find ourselves transported away from our usual routine. We can get up when we want, go to bed when we want – the day is ours’ to spend as we wish. The stress of keeping up and managing it all can start to fade away.
There is a wonderful feeling of freedom in this. We can be spontaneous because there is no schedule to keep to. If we are having an important conversation or reading a great book, we can just stay with it. Everything feels possible.
4. It’s possible to relax on your holidays
Freedom like this helps us to finally unwind. It seems that for most people we need at least 8 daysbefore we can feel that we have actually arrived on holiday. We’re stressed from work and the rush to get things ready for our holiday. There’s the journey to recover from. We need to get used to our new surroundings and find our way around.
Once this has all settled, we can truly begin to let ourselves relax.
5. The space during the holidays feels endless
Then there is really a sense of space opening up. Space for ourselves, space to rest, space to play. This is the real reason why holidays are so important. We need this connection to a different part of ourselves, with different possibilities.
So, how do we overcome our after-the-holidays blues?
The main there here is to look at what our holiday is telling us about the rest of our life. Many of us are experiencing so much stress that we don’t know how life can be without it. Too much of the time we are so caught up in everyday life that we don’t take proper care of ourselves. Let’s look again and what really makes a holiday special.
Ask yourself these questions—then try out the suggestions:
When did you last try something new?
New experiences help to inspire us and keep us fresh. They expose us to new ideas and give us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. If you have not tried anything new for more than a month maybe this is something for you to look at. It can be small – trying a new café or restaurant, changing your hair style, wearing that scarf your sister-in-law bought you and you’ve never worn.
It helps us not to feel that we are caught in a repeating loop that just goes from day to day.
Do you prioritise spending time with friends and family?
During a nine year study, researchers found that people who lack social ties were about three times more likely to die during those nine years than those who have strong relationships with their friends and family.Research also indicates that even people with unhealthy lifestyles that are able to maintain strong relationships are more likely to live longer than those without social connections. Spending time with your family and friends can help lead you to a longer life.
Yet somehow, we too often push our time with friends and family to the bottom of our to do list. There is always this idea that we’ll get to it later, or when things are less busy. Before we know where we are 6 months have gone by and we have not had an evening with our best friend.
Take a look at your agenda and make a date with a friend or family member right away.
Are you trapped in your routine?
Perhaps you never really saw yourself as a person who would set up and follow strict routines? For many of us, part of growing up is finding the capacity to organise our time in the most creative way. The trouble is we are juggling so many different parts of ourselves – worker, parent, friend, lover, … and yes, yourself! It’s easy to become stressed and let our routine begin to squeeze us, instead of being something useful.
Something that I find helpful is at least once a week change something in your routine. Again, it does not need to be a big thing. You can do something in a different order. Try cycling instead of taking a bus. Drink tea instead of coffee. Decide to have lunch out in a café. See if you can do without some of your normal activities – are they necessary, or just a habit.
Changing your routine helps you to feel in control, and less like a victim of your daily round. It’s refreshing!
What is your average stress level?
If it takes us up to eight days to unwind on your holidays what is that telling us about our stress level day to day? When was the last time you took a long hard look at how much stress you are dealing with?
In my experience, meditation is the best way I know of to work with stress and to understand something about how my mind works. Have you ever given it a try?
How much space do you have?
A helpful trick is to learn how to find and use small moments of space that open up even in the busiest days. Bringing ourselves into the present moment and dropping whatever is on our mind just for a while can have a powerful effect in opening up space. It cuts through worry and busyness and allows a moment to refresh. So, don’t cover up the small free moments in your day but enjoy them to the full.
Holidays are very special time with lots of opportunities to enhance our wellbeing. We can also use them as a mirror to check out and see how we handle the ordinary day-to-day events of our lives. If we take seriously what we discover then we can bring a holiday spirit into every day.
Many of us in the northern hemisphere are heading off for our summer holidays about now. It’s a time of excitement and anticipation. The rest and relaxation you have been longing for is finally here. It’s been a busy time getting everything in place so you can go away and maybe your meditation routine has slipped a bit in all the rush.
Do you have the idea that while you are on holiday, with all that free time, you can catch up and fit in lots of extra meditation sessions? Sadly, things rarely turn out that way. All the new impressions, the lack of your usual routine and with so many fun things to try out it’s hard to find the time.
However, if you are relaxed about it, it is possible to establish a good meditation routine for your holiday. You just need to be flexible and open to trying some new things.
Take time to just relax and unwind
Here is a shocking statistic I came across recently. Brits take an average of 46 hours and 42 minutes to feel relaxed on holiday, according to a survey of 2,000 people from travel experts Tots to Travel A lot of this must be to do with our ‘always on’ culture. It can be hard to adjust to have lots of free time with no deadlines and demands
So, first of all, give yourself some time to simply unwind, arrive where you are and enjoy the space. Relax.
Don’t set unrealistic goals
It’s very easy to compensate for the lack of a work routine by starting your holiday with a long to-do list for your meditation practice. Maybe you have brought s bunch of books you want to read up on meditation. Or you have decided to do so much meditation every day come what may. With all that free time, it should be easy right?
The trouble is with this kind of goal-setting there is a big chance you will finish up your holiday feeling disappointed that you didn’t accomplish enough. You are really just taking your everyday work attitude to getting things done and applying it to your meditation practice while on holiday.
Instead, try to set small, attainable goals for your meditation and then keep to them. It will be nourishing and encouraging to build on when you get home.
Use any odd moment for your meditation routine
Because you are on holiday and everything is fresh and new, don’t feel you can only meditate sitting on your cushion.Whenever you have a couple of quiet moments, do a short session of meditation. Perhaps you are on the beach looking at the ocean—take a moment to sit. Pause before taking your first sip of your drink, or bite of your ice-cream. If you have the intention it is possible to meditate anytime, anywhere.
Just sit upright, connect with your breathing and then maintain awareness of your breath for a few moments. If you do that several times in a day, you are collecting quite a lot of meditation time. You are also building a new habit which will enable you to be more flexible with your meditation routine when you return home.
Be present for new things
Anyone who practices meditation knows that being present and mindful of where you are and what you are doing is of fundamental importance. Generally being on holiday means experiencing lots of new things. Notice all these new things. Try to be mindful of what is happening in your day. As you see something for the first time, take a moment to really experience it. Don’t just hurry on to the next thing but let yourself be present with it.
Maybe you visit a museum, an historic building, or a local market. Let yourself be there, without thinking about what comes next, or what you might do this evening. Notice the sky above your head, and the people around you. You can use all of your senses to be mindful—so notice the smells, the different languages being spoken and the touch of the ground beneath your feet.
Bring to mind how all the person that you meet during the day want to be happy and to live good lives. They may have different lifestyles to you, but you have this fundamental point in common. Even though we all want happiness, we know that life can be very tricky and challenging things can happen. It’s inevitable that some of the people you meet will be dealing with these challenges right now. Thinking like this can touch our hearts and allow us to empathize with them. Notice how you are drawn to some people but pull away from others. Then remember that we are all in the same boat in terms of dealing with the challenges of life.
Practice gratitude as part of your meditation routine
With all the fun, opportunities and experiences of being on holiday there is plenty of reason to be grateful for being there. Research is showing that actively practicing gratitudehas all kinds of benefits for the person doing it! Generally, people who take time to reflect on what they are grateful for are happier, feel more alive, sleep better and experience more positive emotions.
So, as you go through your day take time to pause and look at what is happening for you. Remember that each experience is a unique moment in your life.
Something that I enjoy doing is reviewing with my partner what we have found special during our day. Maybe over dinner, or before going to bed you can make a cozy time to share with your family and friends.
The chances are that you will spend long stretches of your vacation in nature. That gives you plenty of opportunity for short meditation sessions.
We already mentioned watching the ocean. Considering how the waves rise and fall across the surface of the ocean is a good reminder of how thoughts and emotions rise in our minds.
Looking into the sky helps to bring to mind the unlimited scope and potential of our natural mind. Noticing how the clouds come and go across the sky is just how our thoughts move across our mind if we don’t grasp hold of them.
When you are in place of natural beauty, let the awe and grandeur of what you are seeing bring space into your mind.
Bringing your meditation routine together on holiday
If you can keep your meditation practice at the centre of your attention you can still manage to keep up a strong routine on holiday. By being flexible and allowing yourself to do some different kinds of meditation you will find that there is plenty of time available. Having this kind of ease and flexibility is also a good investment for your meditation routine when you get home. It will help to build the confidence in your practice that will make it reliable.
How to Make Time for Meditation in a Busy Life
If you are interested in developing your meditation practice to really be integrated into your everyday life you might like to try this online course. You can read about it here
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.