It's New Years, which means it's that time when everyone comes up with their year-end reviews, top ten lists, and judgements on their personal successes and failures of the past year.
There's both good and bad in that. Reflecting back on your life can be a healthy exercise, but it can also be a precarious game that will easily drag you away from mindfulness. Like most opportunities in life, it really depends on how you use it.
When you're looking back on the past year as an exercise in renewal, you have two options:
Option #1: reflect on both the ups and downs of the past year, take from them the life lessons
they extol, and use this new found inspiration to make the next year a better one.
Option #2: reflect mostly on the downs of the past year, regret them, curse them, use them as an
example of why the past year was terrible, and then believe that engaging in this
exasperated act of faux reflection will somehow make the next year a better one.
I would say the choice is pretty obvious, but that’s just me.
Maybe I'm just perpetually hopeful, but I've never been disappointed in a year. Sure I’ve had intensely difficult times in my life making certain years seem better than others, but even in those bad years there has always been love. There has always been light to be found somewhere in the darkness. Things always eventually get better, so I always expect them to.
I also believe that reflection is something we could be doing every day of our lives, no matter what the date. Waiting for a certain day in a calendar to learn from life can lead you to neglect your well-being on all the other days.
But I know there's something about New Years that gives it that extra weight, and there's nothing wrong with using that weight to your benefit.
That's the key: New Years has the power to make us pause and reflect, so we should use that power to improve our lives. for this and all the coming years.
Next year isn't going to be better just because it's different. We can beat ourselves up all we'd like over the failures of the last year, but that won't changing anything in the future unless we decide to learn from our mistakes and grow from the tragedies.
Instead lamenting the past and then hoping for the new year will make it all better, take whatever made the past year suck and use it to inspire a better future.
Instead of resting your hope in the New Year, rest your hope in yourself.
Today is the darkest day of the year, astronomically speaking.
Most people eschew the physical darkness, that's why we invented torches, lamps, and flashing strings of Christmas lights. Most people eschew emotional darkness too, that's why we invented self-help books, Zoloft, and maybe even this blog.
But I'm here to tell you that the darkest day isn't so bad. Whether it's physical or emotional, the darkness is the best way to make room for the light.
Darkness strikes fear in the hearts of most. The dark of night makes it difficult to see what lies on the road ahead, eliciting the dread of uncertainty. The dark of night is the hour of the nefarious, spurring the worry of danger. The darkness of emotions are some of our most depressing moments, reminding us of the worst that life has to offer. And according to science, the dark of the Winter Solstice creates a negative physical reaction in our body leading to SAD -- seasonal affective disorder -- which unironically makes you feel actual sadness.
But there’s always a glimmer of hope.
Despite the well documented problems associated with darkness, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. I think the best way to get out of any dark period is to look for the light of the silver lining -- and there’s almost always a silver lining.
As the adage goes, it’s "darkest before the dawn.” That’s true in both the real world of the sun and the metaphorical world of our heart. The impending dawn is the silver lining.
So if today is the darkest day, that means it can’t possibly get any darker. If today is the darkest day that means it will only get brighter from here on out [silver lining]. You could see your darkest moment as the saddest time of your life, or you could see it as the moment things changed for the better [silver lining]. It’s all about your perspective.
The darkness also teaches us a lesson in appreciation.
Imagine you live in a world that is bright and sunny all the time. In this world you have no concept of darkness because you never get to see or feel it. Imagine how difficult it would be to truly enjoy the cozy warmth of the sun when you’ve never felt a bone-chillingly cold night.
Darkness makes us grateful for the light. Sadness makes us grateful for joy. And once you realize this you start to appreciate any kind of darkness for the perspective it awards you [another silver lining].
Nothing, not our personal world or the big picture, exists in a vacuum. What each of us knows is made up of our experiences and our perception of the great big universe swirling around us -- the sun and the moon, engagements and breakups, friendship and fights, birthdays and funerals, ups and downs, light and darkness.
How you react to any part of life is up to you. You get to decide if you let the darkness get you down or use it to make the light that much more powerful.
Choose to bask in the light, even on the darkest day of the year... especially on the darkest day of the year.
'Tis the season for many things. Lots of things. Too many things.
One of the biggest things is the giving and receiving of gifts. This can be wonderful -- reminding us to be thoughtful of others and show our appreciation. But it can also be difficult -- leading to overwrought feelings of expectation and a covetous impulse.
Instead of allowing the holiday stress get the better of us, let's try something new. Let's give ourselves a gift this holiday season.
The gift of mindfulness. The gift of peace.
Among the parties, house guests, and card lists, there's room for presence. Throughout the decorating, cleaning, and cooking, there's space for calm. Even in the crowded parking lots, shopping malls, and freeways, there is room for kindness.
The peace we seek during this, or any stressful time is always up to us.
So this is my mindfulness challenge to you: for the rest of this month take a little time out of each day to be present-- take a little time to find peace.
Start simple... give yourself the gift of a short mindfulness break. Set your phone timer for one minute, close your eyes, and just listen to your breath.
Be patient with your yourself. Sometimes when life is busy and you're feeling overwhelmed, even one minute seems like an eternity. But giving yourself even that one minute of peace will leave you feeling renewed and ready to tackle that shopping list again.
You'll find the benefits of this short practice will radiate out from you like warmth from your winter heater. The peace you show will rub off on others. The peace you find will help you find more peace yourself. The peace that comes from mindfulness is a gift that keeps on giving.
Give yourself this gift at least once every day now until the New Year. Turn this peace break into your intention. Mark it down in your calendar and set a reminder to help keep you in check.
Make being present with yourself your present to yourself.
It's easy to find mindfulness in the natural world, that's no secret--getting outside in the wilderness helps you discover peace, discover the world, and discover yourself. I know this first hand.
But I realize most people don't have access to the wild like I do. I'm lucky enough to live in an area (southern California) and to live a certain lifestyle (not fully employed) that affords me with regular access to some exceedingly zen natural environments. I’m truly grateful for that. But most of us live in cities that are situated great distances from the world's natural wonders. We have jobs and families and lives that keep us endlessly busy. We're surrounded by suburbs where the wild landmarks are all landscaped.
One day I’ll likely have to get a real world desk job again, so one day I’ll need to figure out a way to be mindful while surrounded by the noise of the city. You know, like most everyone else.
It's easy to get mindful when you're in the actual jungle, but how do you get mindful in the urban jungle?
The typical lifestyle magazine answer is: just be mindful, it's always up to you. But I hate that answer, it’s trite. We all know that within the chaos of a city, it's never that simple. In our real, everyday, complex lives, we get by with a little help from our friends.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really do love cities, I live in fairly large one myself after all. But then there’s New York City--the Big Apple and I haven’t always had the most stable relationship. The “wild” there has much more to do with the latest preposterous fashion trend or the hottest new club, than the mountain hikes to waterfalls I’m more accustomed to.
The last time I visited NYC, it gave me a brief, but extremely unmindful panic attack.
It was last summer, and in the months leading up to it I had spent the majority of my time alone in the wilderness and multiple national parks--camping, hiking, traveling, taking pictures, living free--what I like to call being a journeyman.
When I arrived in New York after all that, the buzz and excitement I normally felt for the city was completely absent. Instead I felt petulance--looking out over the skyline I was irritated by the cement and glass, indignant every time I heard a car horn or police siren, irked as I imagined the uniquely wild Hudson Bay that once surrounded lower Manhattan.
I felt a little like Charlton Heston at the end of the Planet of the Apes... “You finally really did it. You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
I had traveled to New York with my husband and and we soon met up with a few old friends, so I wasn’t alone. After a good hour of quietly freaking out to myself, it dawned on me that I was surrounded by a safety net, ready to stop my freefall and set me back up on my own two mindful feet.
I opened up to my man and my friends and told them about my fluster. As soon as I did so, without them even saying a word, I started to see the folly of my thinking. They rightly did their best to convince me of my foolishness, through both support and a little ribbing, just as any good friend should do.
Lack of wild nature or not, I had people who love me who want to help keep me sane. Taking a moment to be appreciative of my support network immediately cleared my head. Mindfulness was always there, I just had to open my heart a little wider to see it.
Since we had spent most of the afternoon in my friend’s lofty condo tower, we decided to go on a walk, and soon found ourselves in a nearby park. It wasn’t a desolate mountain landscape like Griffith Park that I’m used to back in Los Angeles, a John Muir-esq canyon trail of wonderment like I’d visited in our national parks, and it wasn’t even the truly special and somewhat-wild Central Park--it was a small block-long strip of land with some foliage, benches, and a playground.
“Hey look Jason! We’re in the wilderness!” they joked. But behind the laugh was an important truth.
Lack of wild nature or not, there were still trees, and dirt, and people enjoying the simplicity of the outdoors. Taking a moment to be appreciative of even the smallest drop of wilderness brought me joy. Mindfulness was always there, I just had to open my eyes a little wider to see it.
Back when I first arrived in New York, I carried with me a sense of entitlement over my newfound success finding mindfulness in the wild, and it drove me a bit crazy. But after that struggle, the city quickly taught me that I could keep my head on straight anywhere, just by opening my eyes and looking around me, and by falling back a little on my friends for support.
Lack of wilderness or not, grieving at the site of a paved street is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
Lack of wilderness or not, mindfulness isn't determined by an external force or environment, it's an internal choice that is always available to us.
Lack of wilderness or not, we can always look to our loved ones to help keep us in check and remind us how to find joy and mindfulness anywhere.
I'm never in a great mood after mass shooting, but when it happens in such a large scale as it did in San Bernardino, and so near to where I live, it makes things particularly difficult. Silly old emotional me also had a powerful yoga session this morning, so to come out of it to find that terrible people were actively shooting up developmentally disabled facility nearby, it was a little rough.
But I soldiered through. I went about my day. Took over a table at Starbucks. Got some writing done -- powerful yoga sessions tend to inspire that.
When I was leaving, still feeling melancholic from the day, I discovered a monarch butterfly garden. Now I walk through this area almost weekly and have never noticed it, but it was today that I finally paid attention.
Today was the day I was meant to notice it. Today as the day I needed to notice it.
The monarch story is a sad one as well -- too many Monsanto insecticides and not enough milkweed is leading to their demise in California. But right there off the sidewalk, a good person planted the vital milkweed they need to survive. Low and behold, a small family of them moved in.
I watched as the regal butterflies danced in the autumn afternoon sun, and silly old emotional me teared up yet again, but this time it wasn't for sadness, it was for happiness. And hope. And love.
No matter what, no matter how much shit bubbles up in the world, there is always beauty. And beauty will always win.
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