A Four Step Winter Plan
This is a hard blog to write. As I type someone in my family is in hospital with Covid and I am aware of many others in this position. This has certainly been a tough year, and as we move towards the Celtic New Year, we may be hoping to see an end to some of this difficulty.
In the Celtic calendar we have arrived at the festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in, Sah-win or Sow-en), sometimes incorrectly described as a ‘pagan’ festival. Samhain begins around sunset on October 31st and ends at sunset on November 1st, All Hallows, and has become known as ‘Halloween’, literally meaning ‘the evening of All Hallows’ since the Celtic day began at sunset, the evening coming before the morning, the light coming out of the darkness with the sunrise. And just as the day follows the night, the new life in spring emerges from the dark winter, therefore winter is the beginning of the year.
So, this starts the ‘going within’ time of winter and is a good opportunity to pause and reflect on what this means to us.
This year is different from any year many of us have ever experienced. The closest National emergency in living memory in Britain is the second world war however they are difficult to compare. During the war cinemas and theatres, clubs and restaurants remained open where possible. People met together to sing and dance and have fun. Extended families moved in together to support each other. We tend to have a nostalgic view of Britain during this period, as people rallied both to the National cause and to their neighbours.
But people died in bombing raids, loved ones went away to fight and were only heard from in occasional letters. Children were evacuated hundreds of miles away from family and not always treated well. Food was rationed. The streets were patrolled to ensure that everyone followed the rules. There was no internet, no reliable phone communication, people spent months wondering if loved ones were alive or dead. And if we think about the wider picture, there was suffering on an enormous scale under the Nazi regime. This continued for many years.
I heard today that over half the people in Britain have felt angry about other’s behaviour during this pandemic, something I can admit to experiencing myself. Around 20% have fallen out with friends and family. This is hardly surprising since our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism has been active since the start of the pandemic. And not only are we on high alert, we are also struggling with the effects of long-term stress on our cognitive abilities, namely our ability to focus and pay attention.
The outcome is that we are feeling overwhelmed and fearful, yo-yoing from emotion to emotion as we proceed through the day. Professor Jha, a leading researcher into the neuroscientific effects of mindfulness on the brain has written a fascinating article explaining these effects which you can read here:
So how can we process all this in a positive, constructive way?
The take home message from Jha’s research (above) is this, “You need to have a regular daily practice in order to see measurable attentional improvements—we’ve found that as little as 12 minutes a day for 3 to 5 days a week is protective over high stress intervals.” This is great news! Just 12 minutes a day can reduce our stress to manageable levels. The daily practice is important since, left to its own devices, the brain will just fall back into familiar stress patterns, this is what it has evolved to do in order to seek out and minimise danger. So we need to reset the mind every day to consciously choose where our attention goes, this way we are in control of our thinking, rather than our thoughts controlling us whilst we continue on auto-pilot oblivious to what is happening in the mind and only noticing its effects when the emotions become too much to deal with.
As the teaching goes: thoughts will happen, they can ask for your attention but ultimately you decide whether to listen to them or not.
Doing nothing is tantamount to writing a blank cheque to your sub-conscious. Your bank account will slowly drain away until it is empty and of no use.
So here is my four-point plan to coping as we enter this unfamiliar winter period, including some short formal and informal practices. This is followed by a longer, guided meditation of mine on the theme of Samhain. I hope you find these useful and remember that you can always find more free material on my Stillworks Facebook page, including guided mediations in the ‘videos’ section.
May you be at ease and move effortlessly into the warm embrace of winter as the soft arms of darkness offer rest and comfort to the weary traveller. May you dream dreams of healing and wake with joy and purpose, renewed and energised with each passing day.
Four Simple Practices:
1) Letting Go
We often hold on to our emotions like a rather scratchy comfort blanket, we kind of know it’s not helping but we hang on to it anyway out of habit. Noticing our habitual reactions to things we read and hear helps us to also notice when we are experiencing unhelpful emotions, such as anger, hatred, blame etc. We then have a choice, we can hang onto these feelings or we can let them go. The breath is an amazing tool for this. Bhante Gunaratana calls it a ‘safety net’, we create space by breathing out slowly. It sends a message through the vagus nerve to down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system and reduce stress levels. This allows clarity to return and we can make better decisions.
A useful thought might be: ‘I breathe out anger, as I breathe in I welcome peace.’
It is important to recognise that these feelings are normal and human. They come from fear and a sense of helplessness. So, let go of self-criticism as well as criticism of others.
Bringing this understanding to our own reactions and those of others allows a more compassionate attitude. One way of achieving this is to consciously imagine breathing a kindly breath into these feelings. Soften them with compassion and send loving kindness to yourself and others.
An example is: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease and free from suffering”. Remind yourself that people are unkind and thoughtless when they are fearful and suffering. They may be acting irresponsibly out of the need to be doing something and a deep desire to reject the reality around them.
Small acts of kindness can lift our own and others’ moods as many studies have shown.
This is about coming to terms with what we can and can’t control, when to act and when to let go. This needs wisdom and clarity – formal practice would include using a 3-step breathing space to allow thoughts and feelings to settle, and maybe a longer ‘sitting with difficulty’ practice to process more difficult thoughts. ‘The Mountain’ meditation is also useful here if more strength is required.
A useful practice is to draw a circle and write inside it all the things you have control over such as washing your hands, who to allow into your space etc. You can also include how you manage your time and who is in your immediate circle of friends, colleagues and family. This is your sphere of influence. Outside the circle write all the things you can’t control, maybe moving from ‘slight influence’ nearer the circle to ‘absolutely out of my control’ further away.
I realised early on in the Pandemic when I became anxious about helping everyone who was struggling, that I can’t be responsible for the whole world. I am, however, responsible for a portion of it and the influence I have here, therefore I need to focus on fulfilling this responsibility to the best of my ability. The rest I can let go of, maybe reluctantly, because it is someone else’s responsibility.
Focusing on what we have resets the brain from being stuck in negative bias to thinking more positively and creatively, which ultimately leads to being happier. Remind yourself that there are no shortages of food or medicine. Even luxury items are still available. We have regular contact with loved ones – we can see and hear them because of modern technology. We are generally safe in our homes from outside threat, our water is still clean, we have electricity, gas, and heating.
And this brings us back to kindness! If we have more than we need how do we share this (food, money, time etc.) with those who are worse off? This pandemic has highlighted social injustices, so we have the chance to make real, lasting change.
And what if we are the one in need? Self-kindness reminds us to ask for help when we need it. There is often someone more than willing to help, just waiting for the chance. It makes them feel good too so let them help you and get that rush of endorphins.
A useful practice is to write down six things each day to be thankful for, the smaller the better, and then sit in practice and bring each one to your mind and just say ‘thank you’. You can also thank your own body, bit by bit, for all that it has done for you that day. Your body does the best it can.
This meditation is set in a forest, giving us the chance to remember the deep connection the Celtic people had with the earth and nature all around, living evidence of daily renewal and creation. Maybe this will help us re-connect with the earth as we bring to mind the environmental devastation wrought by humanity and the change of direction so desperately needed.
It also reminds us of the connection we have with our ancestors, in whose footsteps we walk daily. Winter is a time of going within but also a reminder of the need to be in close contact with nature so we can also focus on walking meditations and sitting practices outdoors.
So finding a comfortable place to sit or lie…allow your body to begin to settle into the cushions or mattress…feeling that support for your body…feeling the support of the ground beneath you…knowing you are supported by the earth…
Turning your attention to the breath…taking a deeper in-breath and welcoming the breath of life into your body…allow yourself to marvel at the sensation of breathing in…open up to this new breath…let it enter your body…and then sigh out…letting go…you can let go of anything you want to at any point during this meditation by simply breathing it out…tension in the body…anxious thoughts in the mind…you can breathe these out if you choose to…you can pick them up again later if you choose to…but just for now…let them go…
And in your mind, imagine that you are entering a cool forest of tall evergreen trees, so verdant and glowing that the very air itself shimmers with beautiful emerald green light…allow yourself to be immersed in the beauty and serenity of this precious place…breathe in the gift of life offered by the trees as they breathe out to you…
You walk through the forest…but after a while you come to an area which is not so green, not so verdant…here is barrenness…there are signs of destruction here…
Before you is a flight of steps leading down into the cool, dark earth, you choose whether you want to descend these steps…descending them, you move through the cool earth…smelling the dampness and darkness as you gradually leave the fading daylight behind you…and then the earth becomes warmer as you descend deeper and deeper into the darkness…
At the end of the steps is a small burrow, just large enough to sit comfortably…you rest here and contemplate your journey…you have travelled in the footsteps of your ancestors as you have journeyed into the belly of the earth…so rest here with them and thank them for the wisdom you have inherited…through your DNA…through your knowledge…through your shared experience of place…and as you reconnect with your ancestors…and your place…you feel soft tears flow from your eyes into the earth…tears of sadness and of joy…tears of healing and cleansing…and you see in your mind’s eye the earth above you begin to heal…visualise it now…as you allow your connection and love for the earth to grow…the earth of your ancestors…the earth of which you now have guardianship…this love and connection allows healing to start taking place…and you realise that you too will one day be someone else’ ancestor…as you hand over your guardianship to others yet to come…
When you are ready, you turn back to the flight of steps and begin to ascend…moving into the light with each step…when you emerge you see that the forest has healed…new life has sprung up nourished by the tears you shed…and you emerge from the darkness into the sunrise of a new day and a new earth…pause for a moment and set an intention…how can you best honour the memory of your ancestors? What legacy would you like to leave to those who will follow in your footsteps?
As you bring the meditation to a close, you may like to end with the following words:
May the turning of the year bring you strength and joy.
May you celebrate as you bring to mind all your relatives and your connection with the earth.