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!
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.