When it snows, the advice is to pack the car with a warm coat, snow shovel, flask of tea & a giant bar of chocolate. Or more sensible emergency food supplies…
Well, here’s 3 things for a Mindfulness First Aid Kit to help cope with January, as we approach ‘Blue Monday’. (Not the amazing New Order song, but that third Monday in January when we’re months away from a Bank Holiday, it’s cold & dark… actually I’ll stop listing & get onto what might help with it!)
You know how sometimes on your phone screen, something is so tiny that you have to zoom in to enlarge it & see it more clearly? Well, with January, try the opposite. It can help to zoom out & get a bigger screen perspective, blurring the tiny annoying details.
The words of Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun are worth sticking on a post-it note at any time of the year, but especially in January. Perfect for us Brits, who love to focus on the weather.
‘You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.’
Brilliantly simple & absolutely accurate. Life will continue to move, like clouds rolling across the sky. That sense of you remaining larger than any current dramas in your life and holding the space to contain it all.
The good stuff and the less welcome events in our life. Change is the only certainty. Impermanence. Like the weather.
In Australia or Vietnam it’s currently much hotter than in the U.K. The seasons are different. Wherever you live, the weather can show off the full range of sunshine, rain, gale force winds etc. in a single day.
Usually that day you’re working outdoors or at a festival, with a soggy new hairstyle & inside out umbrella.
You get the idea… So it’s knowing that January lasts for 31 days, not 31 years, and the seasons will evolve into warmer days when the garden will have paintbox colour splashes to cheer it up again.
But let’s go further with this. I invite you to write your own version of the words. So if you love swimming in the sea, ‘You are the ocean. Everything else, it’s just plankton.’
Or if you love knitting, ‘You are the needles, everything else is just balls of wool.’ or ‘You are the hotel buffet breakfast, everything else is just bread rolls…’
Then when things pop up this month that you don’t like, you can think of them as plankton, balls of wool or bread rolls. Useful to think of your boss as a bread roll…
On to part 2 of the First Aid kit.
Maybe as a child you were forced to spend the days after Christmas writing Thank you letters to people for gifts you may have received.
As a 5 yr old, trying to find enthusiasm for Lily of the Valley bath cubes was an interesting challenge…
But gratitude freely given is a different matter. It can help to nudge our brains away from the negative bias of January. The National Science Foundation estimates we can have up to 50, 000 negative thoughts a day. Perhaps more in January…
So start small. 3 things to appreciate today. If you’re somewhere with a boiler that works and hot water, start there. I type this having not had hot water for several days now… it’s minus 1 celsius and still frosty at 3 pm, but at least I have water!
Gratitude that your child ate a vegetable, for a change. Thankful that the dog’s tummy troubles have eased & you still have a carpet.
Appreciating your neighbours who cooked curries for you & the family when Covid hit & you couldn’t get out to the shops.
Seeing a cheerful little robin on the gatepost, posing for next year’s Christmas cards already!
This also helps with the bigger scary things in life. In a noisy MRI machine, alert with the pure terror of serious illness where each test reminds us of our potential impermanence. I found it does help to be thankful we live in a world where scientists create these machines.
To appreciate the overworked & patient staff who guide us through the system. The porter with their gentle jokes that keep us distracted. I’m sure they design the backless gowns specifically to avoid us running away in these situations…
You can write these down in a ‘Gratitude Journal’, or just notice them & appreciate them. It’s good to have a regular time to develop this practice, i.e. when brushing your teeth, or in the shower, or when your head finally nestles in the pillow at night.
With a silent ‘Thank you’, if you’ve got a comfy pillow & a clean pillowcase to rest your head. And the luxury of a bed. Maybe even with a loved one curled up next to you. That’s 3 or 4 right there.
If you want to aim for more than 3 Gratitudes, just keep going. A friend aims for 100 a night. It’s a truly advanced practice to appreciate the snores of your beloved partner or cat.
Which brings us on to part 3 of our Mindfulness First Aid Kit.
Something you do without thinking 20, 000 times a day. Although often we don’t do it that well. Shallow even.
Yes, breathing. A simple core practice of Mindfulness, but one that really helps. If you’ve ever found yourself overwhelmed, stressed or furious, and tried to calm yourself down… it’s not easy.
Often it’s easier to calm your breathing first, then that gives you a bit of ‘wiggle room’ to focus on calming down the other primal emotions, once you’ve caught your breath.
Athletes know the power of breath, and using it for maximum performance.
But we’re more interested in using it to calm and ground us in this moment. Not panicking about the hundreds of possible future things that terrify us. Or dwelling on messy situations from the past.
I could list all the evidence of how deep nourishing breaths can begin to regulate our blood pressure, boost our immune system, or help switch off the Adrenalin rush of the ‘Fight or Flight’ emergency system of our bodies. That urge to out run the woolly mammoth that might have been lurking outside the cave..
It’s ok, I’ve checked, no woolly mammoths at this moment.
So just giving our brain a little ‘popcorn snack’ of paying attention to the air entering through the nostrils of the next inhalation, following it as it goes into the lungs and fills the belly, before the ‘letting go’ of the exhalation as the air flows out again… can help distract our brain from the endless cycle of worries and thoughts, like a washing machine full of scrambled eggs. Or maybe that’s just my brain…
As little as 3 long, deep breaths, where we pay attention to gently calming & deepening our breathing can help kick in the parasympathetic nervous system. 3 minutes of this, perhaps counting your breaths can help enhance all these good benefits to our bodies in a mini ‘Mindfulness First Aid’ kit way.
And actually I think you’ll know from experience, it just feels calmer and much nicer to be settled quietly for a moment in this state. Take your cue from a purring cat, positioning themselves on a comfy cushion, near a radiator and just squinting into the winter sunshine.
Or that moment when a baby has been screaming & crying, but finally settles down. Snuggled in your arms, their breathing starts to calm and slow down until the exhale becomes a soft snore and you both rest in that blissful moment.
Another good added extra for the First Aid kit, resting in the moment with that Pema Chodron quote. Imagining plankton or bread rolls for the minor irritations. And maybe put the kettle on as well.
Cups of tea or coffee are a natural way of giving you a few moments to gaze at the sky, be thankful that the milk is still fresh and just rest in the moment with some good deep nourishing breaths.
And if you’ve still got that chocolate in the car from the snow, well… I’ll leave that up to you.
**If you’d like to know more or join one of the monthly ‘Mindfulness, Writing & Journalling’ sessions I run on Zoom, drop me a line from the ‘Contact Charlie’ bit of this website. They’re a welcoming & accessible place where we look at some big ideas with small scribbles & creativity, learn new techniques & Mindfulness practices that work in the real world. And where daydreaming & giggling are encouraged… it’s never about perfection or being po faced!