When the Year is New No More
There was a stretch of time when I spent every New Year at a Zen Buddhist temple in central France. The annual winter retreat was cradled in what the Germans call “the days between the years,” the slightly lost days of post-Christmas December. The meditations, like the nights of the season, were long. The 31st was a day of rest. In the evening, sparks rose from a huge bonfire while we all waited in line to strike the big bell, literally ringing out the old year. Then off with the black robes and into a whopping New Year’s eve party, complete with a special dinner, drinking, music, and dancing til the wee hours. In keeping with the distinctively Zen combination of cunning and naïveté, on January 1st you were expected to be in the dojo for morning meditation – so important to start the year off right. There was no wakeup bell that day. You were supposed to be a big person and get yourself up and to meditation on time. If for some reason that didn’t happen, a black-robed monk or nun bearing a stick would come and encourage you to get out of bed and hobble over anyway. I can imagine the bird’s-eye view: stragglers appearing from various dormitories, heads heavy, tying their kimonos as they walk, moving like dazed ants towards the silent dojo. And there you’d find yourself, sitting cross-legged in the drafty anteroom reserved for latecomers, with still plenty of time to contemplate just exactly how you were beginning the year.
The bloom is off the rose
Despite its promise of fresh starts and the potent harnassing of the collective energy of everyone following the Gregorian calendar, all of us turning the page at (almost) the same time, January is often a tough month. Like the first meditation of the year at the Zen temple, it will show you, quickly and efficiently, the shortfall between your ideal and reality.
We don’t expect the world, or ourselves, to be in a bad way at the start of a new year. Yet it happens. Forests burn, war threatens, strikes confound. We fall ill, or feel stuck, or just have a hard time returning to business as usual after the holidays. We make resolutions and perhaps see them dissolve before the month is out.
Today I offer you three possibilities that I think are better than resolutions – or will support them if you do make them. They are things you can turn to when you fall off the wagon, or when life seems like too much and you’re not sure how to move forward. They are all actions of a sort, though not the “walk-an-hour-a-day/Dry January” kind of action you may commit to at the start of a year. They are uber-actions, more general but no less concrete ways to bring some sanity to your life. I think they are a good investment, however your year has begun.
Resilience is the ability to endure, overcome, and actually be strengthened by the stress and adversity of life. Most of us are more capable of this than we think, and we can learn from our experience. If you’re in a bad place or feeling overwhelmed, thinking back on how you’ve dealt with similar situations in the past can help you get through what’s happening now. I’ve written about it before, and have also made a short guided-writing video that will walk you through the reflection process and help you identify your strengths. There’s so much in life you can’t control (and would you really want to?), but being able to rely on yourself levels the playing field.
There are so many good reasons to treat yourself to some silence: it lowers blood pressure, boosts your immune system, reduces cortisol and adrenaline production, and encourages new brain-cell growth. Even a few minutes can have a real impact, yet we either don’t think of seeking silence, or are afraid of it and rush to fill it. It’s true that finding a quiet place in this noisy world is sometimes nearly impossible (though I might, off the top of my head, suggest a church, a graveyard, a museum, a library). But rather than a mere absence of external noise, I’m suggesting that you switch off the internal racket. The inner monologue (or dialogue, if you like to talk back to yourself) is never so loud as when you think something’s wrong: you don’t feel well, there’s too much to do, you’re full of doubts, you don’t know how to proceed. So you start talking to yourself. And not in a way that’s useful or genuinely reflective, but more likely as a running commentary or criticism, a mental scab-picking at the feeling of unease. Silence means pushing the pause button on this noise and agreeing not to listen to it. There are many techniques involving mindfulness and meditation, mantras and visualization, and they can be very helpful if you apply yourself. But quite simply, you’ll feel a lot better if you can stop talking to yourself for five minutes. Leave yourself alone. Let yourself be.
If you’re stuck, as in can’t-get-out-of-bed stuck, full of dread, or panic, you’re most likely thinking about the past or the future. The only way out is to be present, here and now. It’s become a cliché, but it’s true. I sometimes tell my clients that worry, dread, and repeatedly revisiting scenes from the past is like watching a movie. A bad one. Being present means walking out of the cinema. Tear yourself away from that dark, flickering space and look around. What’s going on right where you are, right now? If you do this, the moment will almost always suggest something: a next step, a simple need to be filled, an emotion to be felt. And that “next step” could simply be breathing in, then out. Or getting dressed. Or making a cup of coffee. This is what we were practicing sitting in meditation in the Zen temple. Only here. Only this moment. It’s not easy to sustain, but if you can manage to be present when you need it most, it will help you tremendously. Meditation is not the only way to learn it. I work with people on their breathing, and on paying attention to bodily sensations. Your body and your breath, unlike your mind, can only be here, only now. Bring your mind back to them, then look again at your reality. No matter how big your dread is, it’s about something in the future – something that, for the moment, does not exist. Stick to what’s right in front of you and fear will not immobilize you. Look around. See what the moment is offering you. See what your body wants and needs. Tend to it. Breathe in and out. Get dressed. Make coffee. Let January be the month it is, however it is this year. Your epiphanies and new starts can come at any moment – as long as you’re there to meet them.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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