Between holiday commitments, year-end chaos, and, in this bizarre year, stress about the pandemic, about work (or the lack thereof) and about the world in general, December can be a bit of a circus.
No matter how well-organized you are, no matter what you may or may not be celebrating, it’s really hard to avoid succumbing to the ambient stress of this time of year.
In the past few years, I have helped reduce that ‘revolving door‘ feeling for myself by employing an easy and short mindfulness practice. It doesn’t eliminate the stress of course, but it gives me a little more space to deal with it and it helps me keep some perspective.
I’m hoping that will hold true for this strange and anxious year, too.
Here’s what I do:
On the first of the December, I choose an instrumental Christmas album and commit to listening to at least one song from the album each day for the month. I might do yoga, draw, colour, or just breathe while I listen but I can’t do anything that even looks like work while the song of the day is on.*
It’s only a tiny thing but it really does help.
This year, to amp up my self-care, I’m also adding a little extra movement to each day.
I *could* frame this as one of my beloved 30 day challenges but that would put it into the category of things I MUST do.
Instead, I’m trying to think of the extra movement as a gift to myself – giving myself a little more time and space to be more fully in my body instead of being mostly in my head.
A gift feels way better than being challenged at this point in the year.
If you like the idea of gifting yourself a little extra movement, I’ve rounded up a few suggestions for you:
*You might be asking: Why doesn’t she do this during the rest of the year with non-seasonal music? It’s because it literally never occurred to her until she was writing this post. Brains are weird, weird things.
**Speaking of things that haven’t occurred to me before: Why do Advent calendars start on December 1 instead of on the first day of Advent?
As I write this, I just hit 150 days of meditation in a row. That is a big accomplishment for me. My longest meditation streak ever.
The day I started this streak, I participated in a meditation workshop and the teacher suggested that all we needed to do was noticeduring our sits, be mindful of our noticings. So that’s what I’m doing.
The biggest thing I’m noticing is that I’m in a constant state of re-learning what I already knew, but somehow forgot or thought I had changed. Or I’m discovering that circumstances have changed and what I learned no longer applies. Or I am the circumstance that’s changed and therefore needs to learn anew. I don’t got this, but I am getting it. Very few changes stick forever, no matter what, no backsliding. Good to know, so we don’t judge ourselves as falling short! This whole streak has been about impermanence and the wow-reallys?of staying curious.
Here are 9 more noticingsthat jazz my curiosity and keep me coming back for more:
Practicing daily makes it easier to drop into a meditation. Every day is different, but most days there’s a moment (often in the last moments of the sit) when I feel like my mind drops away and my body simultaneously gains 100 pounds and sinks into the earth and slips the bonds of gravity. I find that this moment may happen right away now. Not that it lasts the whole meditation, but the opening fidgets hardly have time to squirm before I’m noticing my mind and body in that more concerted meditation-y way.
A short meditation is better than no meditation.When I started this streak, I sat for 10 minutes a day. I knew that if I demanded more from myself that I would fail. Why set myself up for failure in advance? There have been days when I’ve only managed 8 minutes of riding on the personal rollercoaster of my mind. Great. I accomplished what I set out to do. Often, I am more open to a longer meditation when I’ve given myself the grace of a short one the day before.
Noticing feeds itself, so I notice more details when I’m not meditating. Over the last months, I’ve become more aware of the complexities and hidden corners of how I am in the world. What feels most sharpened is my sense of responsibility for who and how I am. I notice that blame is futile. Better to open my heart, to consider how I might change the circumstance, even if that’s just changing my own attitude. Pissed off by someone else’s thoughtlessness, how can I be more thoughtful somewhere else? Noticing slows the world down enough to create a pause for reflection.
There’s a lot of dogma around meditation, which we should not be dogmatic about. A lot of people prepared to say that there’s one right way to meditate and at the end of their suggested path lies … fill in the blank—peace, bliss, no pain, wealth, happiness, fulfillment, career success, spectacular sex, love, the source of infinite wisdom and so on. The dogmas conflict, no surprise. We have to self-test and find the combination that works for each of us. To do that requires tuning into where our mind and body is at, making an honest assessment of our condition and situation and choosing for ourselves what feels right, which, by the way, may change. I’ve been self-testing a lot of different modes on my meditation app (Insight Timer)—various guided, recorded music or chanting, timer with background of rolling OM chants; plus some other guided meditations I’ve downloaded, and meditating on specific subjects or objects (my spirit guides, space-time, elevated emotions like joy and gratitude, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, fear).
Meditating on fear is squirrely and uncomfortable. I recently read Kristen Ulmer’s book, The Art of Fear. These past days, I’ve tried on a bit of her dogma, meditating on fear. The idea is that getting intimate with my fear will transform the feeling into a healthy catalyst, instead of a dreaded obstacle. My list of fears stretches the length of the alphabet and more, ranging from losing my ability to move easily, to not connecting with people, to my washing machine going on the fritz and flooding the downstairs neighbour’s apartment. Plus, the existential, running subtext fear that my life doesn’t have meaning. Simply allowing fear the space to express itself, instead of telling myself to get over it, is new. I feel a small catalytic effect. As in: okay you’re scared, that’s okay, let it be, and hey, maybe you can still do the scary thing.
Owning my woo-woo is scary. Meditating on, for example, one’s spirit guides feels out there. I fear that I’ll lose credibility (whatever that means) if I admit to any kind of woo-woo experiences or encounters. I am allowing myself to be more woo-woo curious and owning up to it (like in this piece about a puppy in India, that I wrote around day 100).
Sneezing during meditation is like an orgasm. As a kid, I read Where Did I Come From?, which compares an orgasm to a sneeze. Over the years I wondered if I have orgasms wrong, because they never felt like sneezing. Then I sneezed while I was meditating the other day. Because I was alone in my office and in the midst of a meditation and quite sure I wasn’t about to sneeze out great gobs, I just let myself sneeze without holding my arm in front of my face or ducking my head or any of all the twisting we do to be polite and not sneeze on others. Holy crap. That sneeze went right through me like a wave of sparkles over my nerve endings. Our well-justified, necessary public fears around sneezing mask the thrill of the simple sneeze. Like orgasms, something to look forward to in private.
I think a lot of non-contemplative thoughts when I’m meditating. In addition to thinking about sex when I’m meditating, back on day 45, I narrated a succession of interior design thoughts I had while meditating. I still have such thoughts. Everyone does, even monks on high mountains. Oh, and I did get the new duvet from Boll and Branch I was thinking about, which makes bedtime even more delicious. (I’m with Tracy, who writes often about the radical pleasures of sleep.)
Meditating regularly enables me to be kinder with myself. Noticing generates the gentle pause, in which we see our suffering from the outside and thus cultivate compassion. A truism worth repeating—if we are more compassionate toward ourselves, we will be so with others.
All of these noticings are small. Yet abundant enough to keep me going on my streak. Have you noticed anything in your meditation? Or in another streak you’re having?
I lift my heel and flex my toes in high lunge, and feel every part of my foot flicker to life.
I roll down into forward fold and I flash through an inner dialogue of hips taut, hamstrings tight, feet turned in a little too much, fibrous muscle catching over my left knee, piriformis sore, toes further away than last week.
I sit in dandasana and feel hips, thighs, spin, neck race into position, work to constellate into an upright, strong posture.
I sit in hero pose at the beginning of a class, legs tucked under, looking like I am doing NOTHING, and my quads fire into agitated life, screaming to be released. At the end of class, I sit as comfortably in this pose as in a chair.
I balance in warrior three, feel my leg root, glide forward in complete equilibrium.
I’ve been doing yoga at least once a week for more than 20 years now. These poses are “easy” asanas — but I was reflecting in my class on Monday that I experience them fresh every time. I discover my toes anew every time I step on the mat, am present to these little bits of my body that work for me all day, every day, but which I never really feel or pay attention to until I’m directly engaging them. I feel like different parts of my body literally greet me when I fold, stretch, balance — hello calves! hello arthritic big toe! hello side-twisty bit!
At the same time, I experience the poses as familiar, attached to a story — “oh, interesting, I’m so much stronger and deeper in chair pose than I was six months ago” — and as completely new — “how do I fold in suryanamaskar A in a way so it really feels like a flow? how do I curl over my toes from upward dog to downward dog in a smooth motion?” I’ve literally done 1000s of sun salutations in my yoga life — but every one has its own life to it, its own story, is a new question.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who was contemplating going to her first yoga class ever, and she was reluctant because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to follow it, wouldn’t be able to “do” it. I found myself quite passionately describing my experience of yoga as “never easy,” that there is no “right” way to do it, and that good yoga classes are always about never comparing, about going deep inside your own possibilities, being okay with the fact that you have been doing yoga for 20 years and still cannot do some of the things that other people can do easily. For me this is getting my heels down in downward dog, doing Utthita Hasta Padangustasana without falling (grabbing my big toe with one hand and extending my leg out straight while balancing on other leg), comfortably doing eagle pose. I have done these poses 100s of times, and they are a new, imperfect challenge every time. As I said to my friend, “the joy of yoga is that there is simultaneously no failing and it’s all failing — it is never perfect.”
Other people doing variations on a pose my massage therapist tells me to do and which continues to elude me.
My meditation teacher Jeff Warren once said that yoga is a “spiritual trojan horse” — that many people start doing yoga for fitness or stress reduction, and then find themselves “deliciously, inexorably, sometimes alarmingly – moving along a course of spiritual development they never expected.”
That has been my experience with yoga. Not in a namaste and sanskrit tattoo kind of way — I have strong feelings about the cultural appropriation side of yoga. But I do know that a guided meditation during shivasana back in 1996 was the first time I really experienced the connection between my body and a deep felt sense of “mystery” — the first time I had a somatic experience of my self and all of its yearnings for meaning. Over time, I’ve developed language for these yearnings, journeyed through meditation, reflection, solo pilgrimages, all the “work” to face my demons and look as unflinchingly as possible at what it means to be a present, emotionally honest, flawed, vulnerable human, capable both simultaneously of inflicting harm, of weaving golden connections, of great generosity.
Yes, yoga is a way to keep my aging body more supple, to build strength and agility in the muscles and connective tissues that get worn and frayed through daily life, through sitting, through running and cycling and walking in the wrong shoes. Anyone who thinks it’s “not real exercise” is misguided — I rarely go to hot yoga, but I always need a shower after a class. It’s physical WORK.
But there is also a meta-experience of that physical work that always brings me back to the mat. Yoga is lesson after lesson.
On the mat, I do the same kind of observation and noting of what is happening in that very moment that I seek in meditation — the unexpected stubbing of my toe as I hop back to the front of my mat, the ease and depth of triangle, the three breath limit for full bridge pose. Presence reveals an endless flow of news, slows me down.
Every time I do handstand, I have a moment of hesitation, a prick of fear about turning myself upside down. That flicker of hesitation is a continual re-engagement with my own courage, with the intertwining of self-aware strength and vulnerability to strive for in my entire life.
On the mat, I am often simultaneously deeply engaged and deeply bored, fully immersed in what I am doing and impatient at the same time, resisting checking my watch. This is my monkey mind life, unable to stay still. Yoga shows me this tendency, cautions me about it, reminds me that it just gets worse.
On the mat, I sometimes feel the deep vulnerability — the sadness, the hope, the loss, the fear — that is squelched in real life. I am reminded to listen.
Every time I fall out of a pose, or can’t reach for something I’m aiming for, I’m reminded about letting go of attachment, of not taking what’s in front of me for granted. This has helped me through losses and irritations, reinforced my gratitude for my body’s changing strength and agility as I age.
More than anything, yoga reinforces “beginner’s mind” for me. Every time I’m on the mat, I discover what is true for me that day — can I hold a pose longer, or bend further, or is there restriction? Can I hold that multi-stage balancing posture, or am I going to tip? I am never the same yogi from one session to the next. It’s grounding and it’s freeing. It’s a reminder that I can fail in one moment and there will always be another posture, I can succeed one moment and not have the same experience next time, I can be triumphant — see my handstand! — and I can be humbled — see me suddenly unable to reach my toes in a simple forward fold on a stiff day! I am human and I am present to that human-ness.
When I learn these things on the mat, I learn them in my body. When I manage to hold onto the wisdom off the mat, I am a better human.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who blogs here the second Friday and third Saturday of every month, and other times she needs to say something out loud.
I went on a retreat this weekend with some friends. It was at a lakeside retreat centre a couple of hours away and the weather was beautiful. I set myself one main goal this weekend, and that was to get enough sleep.
The retreat involved organized sessions that included guided meditations. I like guided meditation especially when it’s “live” and I’m doing it with other people. But this weekend, I uncharacteristically fell asleep through each of the guided meditations. I could feel myself nodding off and there was nothing I could do about it. Obviously, I needed sleep.
This morning I was chatting with my mother, who recently completed a course on mindfulness meditation. I told her that despite the retreat, I was feeling stressed out at work. I really can’t stand complaining about workload because I have a great job and I realize that, but I do feel overwhelmed. But I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “are you practicing mindfulness?” (I love that she took that course and now is offering mindfulness as a solution to stress!).
She’s right that meditation always helps. Even if I just take a few moments of silence, it can bring me into the present moment where things seem a lot more manageable than when I am worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow.
On the retreat we learned a technique that I have encountered before called “anchoring.” If you’re feeling mental discomfort or distress, think instead of a time when you felt peaceful and content or even joyful. Really focus on that feeling and anchor it somehow (e.g. touching your ring, snapping your fingers, even inhaling an essential oil). If you really connect with that feeling and anchor it in this way, you can use your anchor to bring you back to that sense of peace and contentment when you’re feeling a more negative feeling.
The anchoring meditation was the only guided meditation that I didn’t fall asleep during. To make up for the others, I took a couple of sessions by myself to sit in silence in a beautiful meditation room they have on site, overlooking the lake. It’s called The Oasis, and for some reason no one ever seems to go there. I love it.
So I meditated, I slept, and I anchored. And yet still I came home with an uneasy feeling. I think one reason this happens after a retreat is that, for me, I have a tough time reconciling that sense of peace with the chaotic pace of my day to day life. I got back to town and went straight out to a birthday party, followed by a different celebratory dinner, followed by an event in someone’s honor. Even though these are all good things, the pace of it all reversed the sense of calm because I had to rush around. I fell into bed exhausted, and felt the urgency of the week’s tasks press upon me as soon as I opened my eyes.
The good thing about meditation, sleep, and anchoring is that you don’t need to be at a retreat centre to do them.
What are your go-tos when you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed?
Mindfulness is a practice people usually associate with meditation. One of my favourite mindfulness teachers and practioners, Bodhipaksa, has an article in which he defines mindfulness like this: “the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.”
What’s so reassuring and comforting about this idea, for me, is the “gentle effort.” It’s not as if we apply no effort at all. But we don’t go into urgent and tense effort either. It’s just a gentle, consistent effort to stay aware of what’s happening right now. Maybe even bringing a sense of acceptance to it, whatever the present moment may bring.
Jon Kabat Zinn, another teacher, adds another element to mindfulness. He says, ““Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The added idea of paying attention “on purpose” takes it beyond simple awareness. As Bodhipaksa explains in his article,
In order to be mindful I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely and habitually aware. Knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully.
Let’s take that example of eating and look at it a bit further. When we are purposefully aware of eating, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back.
When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions.
Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.
It’s not just “on purpose,” it’s also non-judgmental. So if we purposefully (and with gentle effort) focus in a non-judgmental way on our present moment experience, we are practicing mindfulness.
I’ve blogged before about the way activities like swimming and running feel meditative to me. See my post Om…fitness practice as meditation. I’m not unique in this respect. Lots of people talk about their activities in this way.
We can experience lots of benefits by taking mindfulness into our sport practice. I have three approaches to running. The first way is to try to be as mindless as possible. I play music, daydream, and try to forget what I’m doing in the hope that the time will pass as quickly as possible. The second way is a variation on this same theme — running with people. As we run and chat, it quite literally takes my mind off of what we’re actually doing. The third way is mindfully. When I do this, I pay attention to my footfalls, their sound and feel, the position of my foot as a it strikes the ground, my posture and alignment and how that feels, the air on my cheeks, the sound of my breath, the colour of the sky.
In this state I become hyper aware and present. It’s by far the most profound of the three approaches, but not always easy for me to sustain. It’s not that any of these is necessarily more enjoyable than any other. It really depends on my mood. But sometimes, the mindful run is exactly what I need.
Swimming is another thing that in my world anyway lends itself to this mindfulness. Our coach nudges us in a mindful direction when we do drills that focus on one tiny part of the stroke. She’ll tell us to pay attention for 50m to the roll of our shoulders or our hips, or ask us to count our strokes, or to focus on the natural alignment of our head in the water.
If you think that mindfulness is just a neat practice, think again. It has a positive impact on our attitude and even on our brain structure. On attitude, this post on running mindfully says:
This “secondary elaborative processing” that psychologists refer to is the negative self-talk and classic downward spiral that I often see in ultramarathon events when pain and/or fatigue and nausea start to take a strong hold, or a runner is falling behind the goals they’d set. We’ve had a lot of social conditioning to “tough it out” and to “steel” ourselves in these settings. The mindfulness approach, however, is counter-intuitive to this conditioning – it encourages acceptance and surrender.
documents that 8 weeks practice of mindfulness meditation produces lasting changes in brain structure.
Participants spent about 30 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and had their brains studied before-and after by MRI.
Researchers found increased ‘grey-matter’ density in the hippocampus, a center of learning and memory, and in areas associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participants reported reductions in anxiety and stress.
The significance of this study is that — like others before — it documents that changes produced by meditation are deep and lasting, not transitory. I.E. Mindfulness practice changes brain traits, not just brain states.
Lessons for swimmers:
1) Focal Points, Stroke Counts and Tempo Trainer beeps are, in fact, mantras — the essential tools of meditation.
2) Moving Meditation, by merging thought and action, is even more powerful at effecting lasting change in brain structure. This is because (i) aerobic activity increases the supply of oxygen and glycogen, which fuels muscle and brain cells; (ii) physical activity increases secretion of a protein that is the building block of ‘grey matter’; and (iii) as I posted on Dec 3 while passive meditation creates Theta state brainwaves(4-7 cycles/second), moving meditation puts the brain in the “superlearning” Alpha state (8-12 cycles/second).
3) Every time you push off a wall, do so with a targeted thought or intention — a task that will require your full attention. (Once more, the reason I plan every practice and set to produce Arduous Experience and Cognitive Difficulty.)
Simple exertion — no matter how long or hard — may be good for physical fitness but neglects brain fitness.
Mindful Swimming optimizes both brain and body.
Mindfulness in our fitness activities doesn’t need to be an all or nothing thing. It can be something that we practice sometimes, as a way of switching things up. For some, it can really have a positive impact on their approach to sport and even to life.
To read more about mindfulness, fitness, and health, here are some suggestions: