Has 2016 been a big year for you too? With Christmas rushing swiftly towards us and 2017 just around the corner, you may be feeling like you just need to stop and breathe. I know I do. Today, on my first day of holidays, I find myself finally doing those things that have been on the to-do list for a very long time, including this blog! As I repotted the languishing plants and cleaned and swept, I reflected on the year it has been. It has certainly been one of change – at both the global and personal level – for myself and many others. We’ve had Donald Trump win a historically broadcast election, unseasonal heat waves around world and increasing conflict displacing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. In addition, many people are in workplaces that are ever-changing and undergoing the normal cycle of children growing up and parents getting older.
We are constantly told in the media to change our diet/exercise/lifestyle/relationships (insert some major category here) to bring about instant happiness. If only I was thinner, could do 30 more push-ups, eat the new super-food from an uncharted forest or look eternally youthful, my life would surely be better. It is certainly of benefit to aim to be fit, eat well and take care of ourselves in the best way we can. However, how much control do we really have? What about all of the things that happen or situations we find ourselves in where we want things to be different but they can’t be?
It is hard enough to make changes that we know will be of benefit. How many of us have set ourselves New Year goals that slip past by February? It is even harder for us to embrace and ride through the waves of life events that bring about those unwelcomed things.
Change, wanted or unwanted, can place us in a fear response. We may look at the external events or people affecting us as either threats or enemies. This type of emotional response is totally natural. In fact, unless we have the tools or training to respond differently, this is actually the norm. We may feel anxious or even find ourselves getting angry, feeling a sense of loss, or worrying over things in our minds. This increased stress causes our bodies to produce more adrenaline and cortisol amongst a cocktail of hormones and chemicals that, although useful in fleeing saber-tooth tigers for a few minutes, can result in both physical and mental stress over extended periods.
Stop and check for yourself. Sit and close your eyes for a few minutes. Scan your body with your awareness. Where are you holding tension in your body right now? Where do your thoughts keep turning to? Take a deep breath in, hold…and let your breath go. Let the tension melt away. Let your outward breath carry away your worries and cares.
Bringing our mind to the present moment and resting on the breath is one way that we can start to control these monkey minds, changing our stress response to feeling more spacious and less burdened, however, we also need to go deeper. It is our thoughts that shape our reality – that drive our actions and feelings. It’s here that we have more control. With practice we can change our perspective and how we think about a situation and this is where peace of mind and ease of body can be found.
One simple tool that I use often, with myself and others, is to look at the things happening in my life and see what I can control or influence right now and discern what I would like to do, but am limited in affecting.
Questions are a good way to help us to look at a situation more clearly and reduce our stress or fear response. For example, I may be really worried right now about some potential changes in my workplace, or maybe there are some difficult family dynamics that Christmas brings about.
Give yourself the gift of just ten minutes to write down those things that are weighing on your mind. Then ask yourself, “Of these, what are the things that I really can’t do anything about?“, perhaps because they are either too big to tackle right now, I may not have the resources or energy I need to work on them, or they might be more global issues that seem overwhelming. This area is your Circle of Concern. There may be some small practical steps you can do to address these or influence them, but you shouldn’t focus on them all at once or you will end up in the Circle of Despair!
Now look at the things that you have control over right now. These can be as big or small as you wish. Write them all down. These items are in your Circle of Influence, the area where you have some power and can direct your energy to.
Notice how you feel when you place your attention in the Circle of Concern or the Circle of Influence? Where do you feel more hope, more energy and less stressed? Some people find that there isn’t much difference – it’s just all too much! Keep in mind that’s also okay. Everyone is different and different techniques will undoubtedly suit different people. And there are also times when we also need help from others such as a counselor or therapist.
Moving our minds from a fear response to calm and clarity is possible. It’s not easy – I know that for myself – but I have also found that coming back to what can I control right now and letting go of those things that I can’t has helped me to deal with environments of constant change and uncertainty. I have seen that asking a simple question, “Can you do anything about that right now?” to others can lift the burden of carrying more than we can bear. It creates space to breathe and respond in a more skillful way and thus allows us to be kinder to others and ourselves.
In your yoga practice or standing in a queue at the shopping mall, practice moments of being mindful of your Circle of Influence. What can you breathe out and let go of right now, where can you act and feel your own sense of power and hope?
As 2016 comes to a close, let us all give ourselves a Christmas gift of some time to reflect, practise training our minds and creating new skills to deal with whatever challenges may arise.
I wish everyone who reads this happiness, peace and joy. May this bring some benefit to you and many others.