Chasing Joy

‘Blue Monday’ came and went earlier this week.   The term dates back to 2005 when Dr. Cliff Arnall, a South Wales lecturer, called out the third Monday of January as the worst day of the year.  His reasoning?  The realisation that the holidays are well and truly over, the apparent debt hangover from holiday spend, and the fact that most people have broken New Year’s Resolutions by this point.  The rain pissing down in London on the day wouldn’t have helped.  So far, so depressing. 


All of this heaviness made me think of something I often suggest to clients:  The benefits of  ‘chasing joy.’  So often, people assume the sole focus of therapy is ‘fixing things’ that aren’t working.   Concentrating on negative emotions and processing these to affect healing and change.  While there is certainly an element of truth to this (no one said therapy was all fun and games), I like to point out that we need to look at the other side of the coin as well:  What brings incremental happiness.  Specifically, what do we like doing for no other sake than pure enjoyment?  To be clear, this is something that may energise or relax us, or just make us feel more connected in our relationships or environment.  But the crucial caveat is the activity is only for cultivating joy, not as part of some ‘self improvement’ crusade, or because we feel like we ‘should’ be adding a new layer of x-y-z to our lives. 


For some clients, it works best to have a weekly ‘date’ to pursue such activities.  Others prefer to have a few minutes or half-hour every day.  Whatever you can fit in is a start.  Because the more our focus and attention is on finding joy, the more we somewhat unsurprisingly start to see it show up in our lives. 


For me, I realised over the holidays that I very rarely read fiction any more.  Anyone who knows me knows I am a voracious reader, and I do love keeping up on all the science and research surrounding mental health.  I have a towering pile of what I affectionately call my ‘psych porn’ on my desk and another next to my bed.  I love the stuff.  And yet, this type of reading always has a little bit of an agenda in the back of my mind – how I may incorporate the new thinking into my work.  It is never for pure fun and relaxation.  So I picked up a novel on the plane home for Christmas.  And loved lazing with it either in the jet-lagged wee hours of the morning or during an afternoon snooze on the sofa.  And then I moved on to another…and now another.  A well crafted sentence, a quirky-but-lovable character, an author’s attention to subtle detail….these things make me, well, happy.  They bring me joy.  That’s me.   Others have shared with me joyful pastimes as diverse as drawing or painting; cooking or crocheting; gardening or cold water swimming (Seriously?!  Apparently so…).   It doesn’t matter what the activity is, merely how it makes you feel.  Joyful, hopefully.  

Give yourself the gift of time, sit back and enjoy.

In Praise of Quiet II

I've been praising quiet lately.  It seems especially important this time of year when 'silly season' can take hold and December pass in a blur.  I wrote last week about developing a meditation practice, but this isn't the only way to get still.  One of my favourite means of cultivating quiet is my morning routine.  I've always enjoyed rising earlier than anyone in the household (and much of the outside world) as I find it a gentle ease into the day.  Even when I was working in finance and had to be at my desk at stupidly early hours, I still managed to get a bit of time in for myself before the news feed and blackberry (in those days) messages took over.  But over the past few years, I've begun to use the time a bit more differently, to great benefit.  Whereas I used to enjoy attacking my 'to do' list early on so as to get a 'head start' on the day, I now intentionally leave the space more open, if loosely structured.  I do tinker with the format from time to time, but generally speaking my chosen morning routine includes:

  • Some version of meditation, 10 mins.  I mentioned Headspace before and that's still an app I turn to, but I am just as likely to do 10 mins on my own or guided by another practitioner (10% Happier app has a good selection; Tara Brach is my 'go to girl' if I have a bit longer).
  • Some journalling.  There was a time when I was working my way through The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron's wonderful programme to rediscover creativity.  This approach includes writing 'morning pages' every day (three pages of A4, stream of consciousness, freehand).     These days I'm not focusing on my writing as much, but I still capture something in my journal or (as currently), put thoughts down in a blog.
  • Some checking in with 'what's going right.'  Simply put, a gratitude practice.  Sometimes the things I'm grateful for are the subject of my writing.  Sometimes I just sit with what comes to mind and pause to appreciate these people or things.  Other times I may write a quick card or email to the person I'm thankful for to let them know.  Before you roll your eyes and think I'm going all Northern California on you, keep in mind that a growing body of scientific research is pretty clear on the benefits of gratitude.  This is a big topic for a later post, but suffice it to say that our brains naturally migrate to what is going wrong, so some time and effort redirecting them to what is actually going right is time well spent.  
  • Focusing on what matters:  Intention setting for the day.  Here I pause to make the case for old school diaries.  As in the paper kind.  I am particularly taken with my Passion Planner for all the space it allocates to intentions, goals, focus...whatever language you want to use.  The simple truth is we need to get clear to ourselves what really matters each and every day as this becomes the driving force for our actions.  Over time, a lot of daily intentions/actions create the bigger picture life we're living.  Another reason for this intention setting using diary:  it allows me to get very precious with my time.  To check in that all of the activities and appointments I have planned for the day are important to me. This isn't to say I ruthlessly cancel plans last minute on a regular basis (I am usually pretty careful with my time in the first place and don't put things in unless they matter to me), but this is an opportunity to just double check that I'm using that precious resource of time in the best manner possible.
  • Some inspirational reading.  There is just SO MUCH bad news out there.  Honestly.  It's enough to leave us ALL feeling bombarded and overwhelmed.  Again, a big topic for a later post, but for now I'll just give a plug for actively seeking something to read that inspires you and opens you up rather than depressing and closing you down.  My current read I'm dipping into is Mark Nepo's latest, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky.  Or I'll turn to a classic (Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is also on my desk).  Poetry is great for this time in the morning.  Whatever floats your boat.  

If the above sounds like it would take hours to do every day, be assured this need not be the case.   I am happy to enjoy a long quiet if I naturally wake up earlier than usual, but this isn't always possible.  Plenty of wise souls I know get in a full morning routine in approximately 10 minutes (granted, this means an abbreviated meditation).   For anyone still pushing back that there 'isn't time,' I'll quote uber-coach Tony Robbins:  'If you don't have 10 minutes, you don't have a life.'  Typically blunt / to the point as is his style, but kinda true, right?  


Time for a Time Out

'Beware the barrenness of a busy life.' – Socrates

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.  Maybe because it pertains to so much of the client work I’m engaged in.  Most of my clients are highly functioning individuals.  They are rightly proud of the accomplishments on their CVs, speak of close family and friends and multiple outside interests.  And yet there are general themes of either burnout or meaninglessness.  Of going through the motions.  Of getting to the end of the week/month/year and wondering “What in the heck just happened here?”  Of feeling like all of the various interactions and events are passing in rapid succession rather than being experienced and enjoyed.  This is what Socrates cautioned against. 

'At ever turn, we need to stop the noise, our own and everyone else's, not to retreat from the world but to live more fully in it.' - Poet and author Mark Nepo

One important step is just to stop every now and again.  A busy life is orchestrated by a busy mind. Our brains are hard-wired to be forward-looking, and this power of prospection serves many good purposes. But it can keep us feeling like we are on a treadmill, ever in transit to an elusive destination.  We need to step off it on occasion. 

Mindfulness is an over-used buzzword these days but really it just means paying attention to what is happening in the present.  In fact, the word mindfulness is somewhat of a misnomer as it isn’t about engaging the mind at all; rather it is about stepping out of incessant thinking and planning.  When we’re living in the future, we’re missing what is happening in the moment. And the next moment. And the next. Left unchecked, these passing collective moments can lead a person to feel pretty detached from his own life. So mindfulness is about taking our hands (and minds) off the controls, of becoming a curious observer sitting in the passenger seat.  Taking in – via all the senses and bodily sensations – what is happening right now.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not next week, or next year.  In this way, we cultivate self-awareness.  From awareness comes an understanding of what’s important.  And from this understanding comes a clearer path for meaningful action.  A reasonable antidote to barrenness it would seem.

There are many ways to cultivate this 'quiet,' but for people new to this way of being, it is often helpful to have some type of guided practice.  The well-known Headspace meditation app is a great one for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.  It is my 'go to' recommendation because the approach is so accessible, rooted in science and lacking jargon.  

In my next blog, I'll turn to a more self-guided practice:  'the morning ritual.'