As the winter solstice approaches (here in Australia at least!) there is always a sense of adjustment. Autumn is a season of great change as the trees drop their leaves, the weather turns colder and our activities, diets and even sleep patterns can often undergo a transformation.
Yin, as winter, is about slowing down.
Our lifestyles are often so full of stressors and pressures that we can become entrenched in well-rehearsed behaviour patterns that are not always helpful and come with a high risk of mistakes and frustration. I am aware of these behavioural patterns in my own life. In winter particularly, I am often likely to come home, crash on the couch, turn on the TV and eat dinner on my lap. Only once I get up to get ready for bed do I remember that I had planned to read an article, or write a report, or start a new piece of knitting! This leaves me going to bed with a feeling of frustration at myself and at my entrenched behaviour.
But the danger does not just lie in boredom or monotony. Studies have shown that as our stressors (work, children, social activities) take up ‘cognitive space’ we become less able to solve problems when they arise. Jessica deBloom from the University of Tampere in Finland has carried out a number of studies about holidays and found that travel can increase cognitive flexibility and problem solving, even if we continue to work while on holiday. This finding suggested it is not the work in itself that makes us stressed, but the routines in which we find ourselves.
Of course, not all of us have enough time and money to go travelling each time we wish to slow down. There are practical barriers to this; which is why we often need, instead, to insert ‘mini breaks’ into our everyday lives. Interestingly, deBloom has hypothesised that health and wellbeing improves following holidays due to choice. The feeling of self-efficacy and deciding what we want to do reduces stress, improves wellbeing and frees up space in our minds.
my office in the summer……
If this holds true, we can create the holiday effect of slowing down, through the creation of choice. And of course, you’ll remember from my last post (here) that behaviour is always a choice. My hypothesis, therefore, is that by consciously choosing our behaviours (being mindful!) we can slow down, reduce stress and be more flexible in our minds and lives.
So how do we effect this change:
- Do something out of routine tonight. When you get home, do something different. Go for a walk, or have a shower before dinner, or write a letter to a friend.
- Switch off. Instead of surrounding yourself by the indigestible amount of information on the internet, choose to immerse yourself in one piece of information such as a book or a journal. The capacity this gives you may help you to ‘pause’ more rather than filling and stretching you cognitive load.
- Look for the gaps. Find the gaps in everyday life: ‘the gap at the end of each out-breath; the space between thoughts; the naturally occurring, nonconceptual pause after a sudden shock, unexpected noise or moment of awe’ (Pema Chodran’s words). Below is a lovely meditation about the madhya that my yoga teacher used in a class and has stuck with me ever since:
The madhya is the gap between one activity and another. Like the still point where a pendulum stops before gathering energy to swing again, the Madhya is an empty place pregnant with power. You find the madhya in the tiny pause between one breath and another. You find it in a mind that pauses between thoughts… find the inner space at the end of each inhalation and at the end of each exhalation. Keep focusing on the space that you notice there, even if it’s so tiny you can hardly find it. As the breath continues to flow, back and forth, back and forth. After a while, you’ll begin to notice that you can remain aware of the space even as the breath is flowing.
In that time, that nearly invisible, hidden space between the breaths can open, imploding inward, expanding into a spaciousness that is infinite- as large as you are able to conceive, even larger.
the goddess Bhuvaneshwari, goddess of infinite space
So this week I am setting myself some homework- to do something different every day; to insert a little bit of yin into my life, a space to breathe, to reflect and to make conscious choices about my day. I may even keep you posted!
References and further reading:
deBloom, J. (2015) Making Holidays Work. The Psychologist. 28. 632-636
Kempton, S. (2013). Awakening Shakti. Sounds True.