Re-emerging or New Emergence?
So, here we are at the end of January and the beginning of a new month, a time when many of us naturally re-evaluate the new year. Did we stick to our resolutions? Our new diet / exercise regime / healthy living plan? Chances are most of us didn’t, around 80% of new year resolutions are abandoned quite quickly because they are unrealistic and require massive change in an already hectic schedule. And unfortunately, this often results in self-criticism and feelings of failure.
Add to this the fact that wintertime is not a great time to start throwing ourselves into new regimes that require energy and thought, but more suited to quiet reflection and planning for the longer days, and it is easy to see why February is often described as the ‘blue’ month, when people’s moods are at their lowest. Changing our habits, or developing new ones, requires the brain to literally rewire itself to think differently and this takes time so it is little wonder that we struggle once the initial excitement has worn off.
Dr. Fleet Maul recommends that instead of starting the year with a huge change we develop ‘micro habits’, for example instead of signing up for gym membership when we haven’t exercised at all for years, start with five minutes a day of gentle exercise at home. This sets up a pattern in the brain and body to exercise daily. Once the pattern is established it is much easier to start to lengthen the exercise time, which Dr. Maul calls ‘finding your groove’. If our neurological wiring has been stuck in the rut of non-exercise, we need to re-wire so that the rut gets levelled out and we form a new ‘groove’, or pathway, towards regular exercise, which then becomes the new ‘normal’ for the brain.
Modern trends are not so modern!
We tend to think that goal setting in January is a fairly modern idea – and it is in its current format - but it turns out that our ancestors of hundreds and thousands of years ago were doing something similar at this time of year. The days are noticeably longer now, winter hasn’t ended but new shoots are appearing, creatures are gradually spending more time out of hiding and soon the hibernation period will come to an end. When we stand in the sun we can feel a real warmth on the skin, and maybe even smell the new growth and the warming of the earth beneath our feet. Buds are appearing on previously barren trees and shrubs, and all around us is the promise of life returning, spring is just around the corner.
It is a time to cautiously turn toward our own emergence from the ending of the old year to the beginning of the new. And this year I wonder if many of us are feeling this even more keenly than before. Restrictions are being lifted and there is a sense of hope of a return to normality just around the corner, waiting to unfold like the spring daffodils and crocus. Snowdrops have already appeared in sheltered spots with the delicate promise of more to come.
We talk of spring returning, life returning, and in some ways it is doing exactly that. But it is not the same flower that re-emerges each year, or the same blade of grass, or tadpole, or leaf bud, but a completely new and different one. And in a sense, it is a new version of ourselves that emerges into the spring sunlight. We are not the same person now as we were this time last year.
It is time to take stock, to reassess whether our new year resolution is realistic and helpful. Did we choose something to please someone else? Is whatever we decided to change in line with our current values? Is it something meaningful to us? If we decide to get fit because we want to stay healthy so we can enjoy life with those we love and care for them for longer, we are more likely to achieve our goal. If we decided to go to the gym for two hours a day to prove a point, we are more likely to give up when we are tired or something else comes along, or we injure ourselves and are forced to quit - more gym injuries occur in the first two months of the year than at any other point as people push themselves too quickly into new regimes!
Maybe we can utilise that excitement and determination for change that we felt at the end of last year but temper it with the patience of the early spring shoots, slowly emerging from rest as they await the right time to grow and bloom.
And this year more than most, we need to take care of ourselves as we emerge from a pandemic that has left many of us exhausted, bruised and battered, overwhelmed, confused, and feeling unsafe, fearful of the normal human contact which we are evolutionarily programmed to seek for comfort and security. It has been a real challenge for our human brains to override the mammalian brain and accept the isolation and separation required to survive a pandemic when that isolation comes with its own cost.
This is where the mindful breath can be so helpful. When we have a decision to make, we can stop, breathe, and check how we feel. What was the initial reaction we felt and where did it come from? There are many versions of how to do this, but I like this one if you are new to mindfulness or particularly busy in the day:
Just taking a mindful breath, a short pause before acting or replying, can make all the difference. It is the difference between rushing headlong into a situation we don’t want and repeating a habit that is no longer supporting us and having real choices in life. And when we are happier and less stressed, we are much more able to engage with and care for those who matter to us. Julia Samuel, bereavement expert, recommends having a good ‘no’, working out a way in which we don’t automatically agree to things we aren’t ready for, and this sounds like good advice for many of us.
Finding ways to keep celebrating
Our ancestors would have been celebrating the turn of the season this week, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The celebrations would have involved light in the forms of fires and, later, candles would be lit in as many rooms as possible. Food would be shared, and hospitability offered, bargains and betrothals would be agreed for a future date, often the beginning of May, and the emphasis would change from quiet withdrawal to active participation.
This celebration, called Imbolc in the Irish tradition but also Brigid’s Day, St. Brigit’s Day and Candlemas to name but a few well-known terms, is a light festival, another way to lift the spirit and help us through the dreary February days yet to come when the promise of warmth and light seem far away still. If you practice the Danish tradition of Hygge you will probably have filled your space with candles and small lights and still be enjoying the cosiness these offer. It is not quite time yet to discard the soft winter clothes, blankets or slippers, the comforting food or the good book. We may be getting more active but there is still the chance to rest and recover during the long evenings if we make the most of whatever opportunities arise.
The celebration of Imbolc is well worth exploring if you want to know more about the traditions from Britain and I recommend the following article and book for further exploration of the changing festival through pre-Christian to current times:
‘Brigid’s Mantle: A Celtic Dialogue Between Pagan and Christian’ by Weichberger & McIntosh.
Another practice that Psychologists recommend is to practice smiling (not always easy I know!) however it has long been recognised by neuroscientists that we smile to mirror the feelings of joy being expressed by another human, it is a way of connecting, and when the muscles in the face move to produce a smile, messages are sent throughout the body to feel happiness. So we can smile as an outward show of inner happiness, but we can also produce that inner happiness by smiling.
A lovely meditation to practice at this time of year is simply to close your eyes, imagine you are smiling and then maybe allow the smile to appear on your lips. Then imagine this smile reflecting throughout your whole body, letting a gentle flow of contentment gradually infuse your whole being and just rest with this feeling for as long as you are able. We are not aiming to be jumping with joy with this practice, but simply allowing a sense of contentment with the present moment to be felt. If meditation is not your thing, then watching comedy or meeting with people just for fun so you can smile as much as possible is a great alterative. These practices do not negate the raw emotions of loss or grief, but for simply lifting our mood from dwelling on difficulty to seeing the more pleasant aspects of life, they are really helpful.
I will leave you with a few ideas to contemplate over the next few weeks and wish you all the blessings of the season.
Spend some time contemplating what you have learnt over the winter.
How have the experiences of the last year changed you?
Set an intention which will support you as you move forwards and which is based on something that really matters to you.
Allow yourself time and space to emerge at your own pace wherever possible.
Be kind to yourself! That doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook with excuses, but recognising that we all make mistakes, it is part of being human and we can learn from these and move on. This can help silence that inner critic.