Well, I have been absolutely blown away by the responses to my last post, in which I garbled on incoherently about Autumn. It has generated a lot of chat about how we cope with the change of the seasons, and I shall be dedicating a post to your thoughts and experiences in the very near future. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed, it means the world to get your thoughts.
I’ve have a morning free whilst I wait for a missing scarecrow (don’t ask…) so I thought I would strike whilst the iron is hot, as they say.
And so, without further ado, I am delighted to present to you, as promised, (insert drumroll noise here) Part the Second (Letters M through Z) of The Early Autumn Survivors’ Guide (Without Mentioning That Scandinavian H Word) in Glorious Listicle Format.
*takes bow, with flourish*
M is for Meditation. Well, what did you expect?
Meditation still often conjures up images of people in orange robes sitting omming in the lotus position; or can be marketed as something you need to invest time and money on learning from a mentor or there’s no point in it, or you might ‘do it wrong’. Fortunately, meditation is for everyone and is within everyone’s budget, whether you choose to look at some of the YouTube videos available that teach you the essentials and foundation of the practice, or you have the opportunity to attend meditation classes (which are becoming a lot more popular). I use the fantastic ‘Stop, Breathe and Think’ app for my phone (Android), and I know many others who love the Headspace app.
Taking time to meditate takes as long as you’d like to give it, or as long as you have. Sometimes I will have a session that will last thirty or forty minutes, sometimes I meditate for five minutes.
The longer sessions are a treat for my brain, a chance to really shut down my crazy-fast mind buzz and just float in the awareness of my breath. The shorter sessions tend to happen when I really need them, when I need a breather and a chance to refocus and regather so in many respects I think these frequent, shorter sessions are actually the most useful to me.
Meditation, for me, is a wonderful way of gathering my thoughts. I like to imagine my ‘busy’ brain as several big, tangled balls of yarn; and the act of meditation is me taking the chance to slowly and gently untangle all the balls of yarn. I tenderly tease the knots apart, untangle the thought-yarns and then make a decision whether to keep this yarn out for use, or pop it away into my mental stash-bag. The decision is mostly subconscious – I trust myself to make the best choice as to whether having a snooze is my most pressing mental need, or whether I should carry on with whatever tasks have been occupying me. Other people I know have described meditation as a ‘mental massage’, and I love that. You’ll come to find your own metaphors that will describe how it feels to you.
The most important thing to remember about meditation is that no, it doesn’t come naturally, so don’t worry if you feel as though your mind is pinging around your skull at a million miles per hour. Yes, you are encouraged to settle down and concentrate on your breathing and use that as a focus; but it is absolutely perfectly natural and absolutely OK if your mind wanders….just gently bring it back to your focus and keep going and, most importantly, enjoy it.
N is for Nature.
Recently, several scholarly papers have been published linking interaction with the natural world with a significant improvement in mental health and outcome and, I think for many of us, this is something we have known for some time. Pop ‘Nature and Mental Health’ into Google and you’ll be able to read experts telling us that getting into the great outdoors can have a huge impact on both our mental and physical health. There seems to be evidence that even looking out at a natural view can speed up physical recovery times in hospital patients; and even looking at paintings or photographs of land or seascape can have significant effects on mood.
I am a walker, and I will walk in any weather (though obviously I have my preferred walking weather). I favour wild places, but I have also become slightly obsessed with finding the wildness creeping back into our urban environment, or those tiny pockets of our pastoral past that has hung on whilst land all around it has been developed. For easy, low-level walking, canal tow-paths are a fascinating wander through our industrial past and are an intriguing natural habitat to explore.
I am, however, aware that not everyone is able to get out as much, or for as long, as they would like; so let us not underestimate the importance of bringing nature to us. A coffee on your back step, or just looking out of the window. If you live in a built up area, look up at the sky. If you have a garden, consider planting bulbs for the Spring. Do think about feeding the wild birds throughout the colder months, during the Winter the sight of so many birds thronging around our feeders fills me with joy however hard my day is being. If you don’t have a garden and are unable to find nature easily due to location or personal circumstances, don’t dismiss the power of beautiful photographs and paintings – Pinterest is absolutely fabulous for this. I can sit and gaze at a painting for ages, allowing myself to submerge myself into the image itself as though I am wandering through its landscape, sensing the weather, smelling the scents and absorbing the sounds. Make prints of images that resonate to look at when you need to, or take a few moments to try your hand at sketching them, or sketch your own perfect landscape. If you’re not particularly artistic (not that THAT matters), you could daydream a perfect walk; make it a place you can mentally retreat to when you need it.
O is for Open.
Be it. Throw off your preconceptions, look past what other people think and say, and do things FOR YOU (within reason!). Don’t listen to other people’s opinions as law, what’s right for them might not be right for you.
A good example of this is medication – I make no secret of the fact that I take both antidepressants and beta-blockers. I take these in the same way as I wear an insole in my shoes to protect my Achilles tendons, or I take warfarin to keep my blood flowing. Other people choose to go without medication and have different methods of dealing with things, and that is fantastic – but they are no ‘better’ than me.
We are all individuals, we all have our own complex issues and past experiences, and our treatment should be personalised to our needs. Maybe mindfulness and meditation isn’t for you, perhaps you think walking in nature is a waste of time, you might be thinking that we are poisoning ourselves with brain-numbing pharmaceuticals. We are all different, and that needs to be remembered when you are giving your opinion just as much as when you are looking for advice.
P is for Planning.
When you’re having a truly crap week (and we all get them, you’re absolutely not alone), it can be really helpful to make some plans of something to really look forward to. Easy things that don’t have the potential to be a massive, depressing let-down are usually the best to aim for. A visit to a favourite restaurant, a wander around a museum, a catch-up with a friend, a film night, a night in with a good book. Don’t hold back on your planning, you could even combine them with lists (see last post).
Q is for Quiet
When was the last time you were enveloped in true silence? How often do you sit without music, a TV or radio, traffic noise or any other interference, however small? How much does other people’s noise impact on your life, without you even really noticing it on a day to day basis?
I’ll leave that with you. Quiet is worth seeking, even if it’s only for a couple of moments. Cut the chatter.
R is for Rest
Take it when you can. Nobody ever got a medal for battling through the day when they didn’t have to. Need a snooze? Listen to your body and have one. No time for a snooze? Try a ten minute ‘Bodyscan’ meditation where you relax your muscles in turn, you’ll feel refreshed afterwards, or just leave what you’re doing for a few moments and get a change of immediate scenery for a quick fix.
S is for Self-Care Package
These are one of these wonderfully indulgent things that you’ll enjoy putting together as much as you’ll enjoy using, and everyone should have one. Ideally kept together in a box, it’s a wee treasure-trove of goodies for when you’re feeling as though you need a boost; and what you put in it is up to you – they can be as basic or as lavish as you’d like. Some popular items include: Favourite childhood books, nail polish, pampering skincare treats, sachets of hot chocolate, scented candles, magazines, cosy socks, lip balm, notebook, memory stick of music/photos, crafting kits, herbal tea.
These kits also make lovely gifts for friends who might be having a tough time and who might benefit from a big mental cuddle. The first one I ever received was from a beautiful friend F, who sent me a box of wonderful goodies when I had finished the West Highland Way with a wee card that made me cry. It was such a beautiful surprise and it remains one of the most wonderful things I have ever received.
I am very conscious that this particular tip is very ‘female’ – I’d love to hear what men would like in a self-care kit. Do please comment….
T – Is for Taste
When the nights draw in and it gets dark so ridiculously early food takes on a new significance in our days, so why not head to the kitchen and try out some new recipes? Rediscover the joys of taste. Some of my favourite memories of wet Winter Saturdays involve baking with my youngest, the kitchen warm and cosy, smelling of cake and spices. What beats a hearty stew or a curry when it’s freezing cold and raining stair-rods? The importance of gathering together for food goes back many, many centuries. Preparing, cooking and eating food together with family and/or friends gives it a ritual, makes it an event, a memory rather than just a chore to be completed. Cook together, chat with your partner or teach your children something new to make. Turn off the TV and eat together, chat together. Give quiet thanks that we’re no longer storing our harvest to last us through until next year, be grateful for this time shared together and our bodies’ sense of taste meaning that meals can be a sensory experience rather than just an essential daily task.
U is for Unique
You are. Please stop comparing yourself with others. That is all.
V is for Volunteering
Another thing that is really good for mental well-being, and something I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to at some point in the near future but, in the meantime, read this.
W is for Weather
I live in Scotland so I feel well qualified to comment on this, living as I do with four seasons in one day. The great fellwalker and writer Alfred Wainwright once sagely said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing and, as much as I want to headbutt him when I’m caught in the middle of a torrential downpour in a denim jacket because the sky was clear blue two minutes ago, he has a point.
If you invest in two things this Autumn, make it a decent waterproof coat and a pair of decent boots. I have walking boots, but I spend most of Autumn stomping around in my wellies. Why? Because I don’t have to be precious about my footwear and my wellies mean I don’t have to worry about my feet getting damp so it massively increases my potential areas of exploration.
Don’t let the weather hold you back from getting out in it. Rain can make for wonderful photographs of clouds, of raindrops, of reflections in puddles or sparkling, shimmering cobwebs.
For further inspiration on the beauty of walking in ‘bad’ weather, Melissa Harrison’s ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather’ will have you donning your Gore-Tex and seeking muddy puddles.
X is for X-Ray your daily life
We spend so long assessing our physical state – our size, our hair, our skin, how we appear to others; we can often forget to check inwards. Take time every day to check in with how you are feeling. Are you tense in your shoulders because you’ve been hunched over with stress, or clamping your jaw because you’re tense? Are you jittery and nervy because of pent-up anxiety? Stretch, do some very simple yoga moves, get out for a walk round the block. Check into your mind and heart, because what’s happening inside shows on the outside.
Y is for Youth
Your youth. Another thing I intend to blog about in the near future (get me, huh?) is the importance of not letting go of our youthful exuberance, our enthusiasm and wonder at the world around us; our desire to learn and develop. Becoming jaded and cynical seems to be the scourge of the modern world, when did we decide we were too old to believe in the power of beauty and the magic in the world? The beauty of a view, piece of music, a piece of writing. The magic of an evening out with friend, a delicious home cooked meal or an incredible night’s sleep. When was the last time we laughed at something so hard we thought we might burst?
Z is for Zip
Zip it. When you’re on social media and it’s like International Whack A Troll Day, or when – shock horror – someone is wrong on the internet, then just take a big, deep breath and then move on. Don’t stress yourself out arguing however much you want to. It’s taken me months and months to resist rising to the bait but now I just move away and do something else. You’re not giving the trolls the oxygen of attention, which is what they crave; and arguments on the internet seldom change opinion – your passions are better suited to different methods of communication, so don’t waste your energy. Look, instead, for a way to use your energy to force real, positive change.
And there endeth my first alphabetical listicle and, I confess, I enjoyed it more than I expected I would. Join me next time as I let you into some of my friends’ secrets on coping with seasonal changes, things that make them happy and probably me adding two thousand words of pointless waffle.
Be lovely to each other.