Winter blues? Some ideas for lifting your spirits!

January 28, 2010

Dan on Facebook asked for some thoughts on seasonal depression. A lover of the outdoors, he’s finding it challenging to spend so much time inside. Winter is a challenge for me too, even here in California where the winters are far milder and shorter than in my native New Jersey. Finding ways of getting through winter has been a big focus for me, and for the first time this year, winter’s not so hard. In fact, at times I’m even enjoying it!

Seasonal depression is quite common, and it can range from simple “winter blahs” to something much more intense. The darkness of winter, combined with the cold and the necessity to stay indoors, can all lead to feeling blue. But I think sometimes winter can also trigger a stronger depression that has to do with unresolved emotional issues that surface when winter forces us to be less active and we have less things to distract us from what lies within us. In that sense, winter can also be an opportunity to see what parts of yourself need healing and attention. For example, for most of us, there’s grief from a variety of losses in life that we’ve never fully processed. Our culture doesn’t do grief well. We get a “stay on the sunny side of the street” kind of message that causes us to avoid the painful feelings of grief. But avoiding, suppressing and distracting ourselves from feelings doesn’t make them go away. Given the more restful time of winter, these feelings can surface.

Although I’m going to share list of some things I’ve done to make winter easier, I have to start by saying that inner work I’ve done in the past has a lot to do with my good spirits this winter. Your everyday, garden-variety winter doldrums might be helped by some of the things I’ll share, but it may take more than that if the depression is more intense.  If you feel your depression is more than simple winter blahs, I’d encourage you to explore the possibility that there is more going on. You can find lots of reading online about depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder. It may be that winter is helping you to see that there’s some inner work to do. Attending to your depression can lead to a more fulfilling life later on. There are lots of good therapies for depression, so I hope you’ll get some help if needed.

And now, as someone who has always dreaded the coming of winter, here are the things I’ve found that are making a big difference for me:

  • I bring more light into my home – light candles, have some pretty lamps lit. If I had a fireplace, I’d make lots of fires. It’s amazing though, how much even one lit candle can mean in winter. Whenever possible, I spend a least a few minutes in the sun, really soaking it in. Full spectrum lighting can help as well.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps with depression, and part of the blahs may come from being more sedentary in winter. I used to rely a lot on walking and when it was too cold to go out in winter, I was at a loss. A few things have made all the difference — an elliptical machine, a bodybar and the hula.
  • I do whatever it takes to stay warm. Lots of layers of clothes, especially yummy wool sweaters with beautiful colors that lift my spirits. I use an electric mattress pad to warm my bed before I get in. If I feel chilled, I’ll even warm my clothes in a dryer and put them on. I can’t tell you how good the heat feels. I have no shame when it comes to keeping warm. People joke about it when I wear two wool hats, one on top of the other, but my comfort comes first!
  • Find enjoyable indoor activities. For me, lately, it’s been the hula. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. Find something that really lifts your spirits and do it!
  • Bring nature indoors. If you, like me, are a lover of nature, having plants indoors can really help. Taking care of them, seeing them grow brings a bit of spring and summer into your home. Forcing bulbs in winter is also wonderful. How about some lovely, fragrant narcissus or hyacinth? The Nature Attunement Meditation is perfect for this as well!
  • Attitude. Oh yes, lest I forget, that all important ingredient. Cognitive therapy is effective in depression, and I think of an attitude adjustment as being just that. If I focus on how long and dreary winter is and how much I want it over with, it does seem incredibly long and dreary. Instead I’m learning to focus on the positive side of winter — the opportunity to be more restful and go within. It’s a time to hibernate and meditate. It’s a time to contemplate.
  • Surrender. Finally, perhaps the most important ingredient is surrendering to the melancholy when it’s present. We’re conditioned to fight it and resist it, to feel it’s bad or wrong. It’s a natural part of life. So often our suffering comes from feeling we should be different than we are (as in always happy and upbeat). Life as we know it couldn’t exist without the poles of opposites – joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Let it be OK to feel blue.

Perhaps some of these things will be useful for you. Or you may have some other strategies to share. I’d love to know what works for you!

Winter as Meditation

January 15, 2010

A friend just shared a beautiful poem she wrote about winter. Although the title of the poem is Winter’s Resurgence, I titled this post “Winter as Meditation”, because for me winter is a season of meditation. It brings an invitation to go within.

In the dormancy of winter, all sorts of things are going on underground and these underground stirrings are the foundation of the blossoming of spring. In the same way, the deep rest of meditation is a foundation for creativity and productivity when meditation is finished.

Here is K’s poem. It spoke to me on so many levels and in so many different ways, but I’ll be quiet now, like winter, and let the poem reveal its special meaning for you. I’d love to hear what it means to you…

Winter’s Resurgence

Winter has come upon us with her
majestic stillness and fierce storms
Blanketing us in her winter’s lair
Beckoning us to breath in rhythm

And it is here that I speak my prayer:

‘Take a part of me deep into your forested womb
Keep me there, giving me rest, away from worldly
desires and despairs
Cover me with your insight and love
Hold me like there is no where else to go, nothing
more to become
Heal me of my tired and disenchanted ways
Let me be still inside, my belly connected with yours
like the dormant snake of winter lying securely in you’

And when your mists begins to lift, may your
nurturing womb flow me out and birth me new

K. McCauley A.
Winter’s Resurgence 12/20/08~1/13/10
kmac@iscweb.com
dedicated to Sarah Dole, teacher and friend

Finding Harmony in Diversity with Meditation

December 22, 2009

I’ve been finding myself deeply affected lately by a growing awareness of the tremendous diversity of our Meditation Oasis “family”. Facebook more than anything has made me aware of how different we all are and yet we are drawn together by our common human experience and the deepest aspects of our inner life which we reach through meditation.

From time to time I like to click on the faces on the Facebook page. It’s been so fulfilling to see people living in so many different countries with such different interests. Many of us could probably fall into heated discussions with each other at the drop of a hat over politics and find ourselves world’s apart in our musical tastes. Yet we can all sit together and meditate and experience a place of complete harmony.

Many of us are busy with holidays now, but some are not. We all experienced the solstice yesterday, but for some it signaled the shortest day of the year while for others it was the longest. We moved into winter where I live, but some of you are experiencing summer. Awareness of these differences has caused me to pause before sending a year end message. Yesterday instead of writing “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukah” (which most people celebrate where I live), I found myself looking for a more universal greeting. I could have sent out a “Happy Solstice” message, I suppose. We all experience the changing seasons thanks to the tilt of the earth moving around the sun. But then I remembered that for people on or near the Equator, the Solstice doesn’t mean much. All of this has brought me to this place today where I want to send a different kind of message, one that we can all relate to no matter what we all do or don’t celebrate and believe.

As I searched for the perfect holiday/non-holiday message, I remembered the message Richard and I have often used. That’s the message I’d like to send to you all today. I think it’s something we can all relate to and a desire every human being shares. And it’s something many of us move toward through meditation —

We wish you a peaceful mind and an open heart.”

Negative thoughts in meditation

December 9, 2009

Someone taking our online course asked about negative thoughts in meditation. His concern was whether letting them go would release them into the universe and bring negative results back to him. My answer was absolutely not! When I say “let thoughts be a meaningless activity in the mind”, that includes all thoughts, positive or negative. To allow the mind to expand and relax in meditation, we have to release it from its usual focus. During meditation we give the mind a break. We let go of the need to understand, analyze, evaluate and so on. We don’t need to pay attention to what our thoughts are about. The type of thoughts we have doesn’t matter. It’s not necessary to monitor our thoughts in any way and weed out the “wrong kind”. All thoughts are equal in meditation!

How we handle thoughts in meditation and outside of meditation is different. Outside of meditation the meaning of our thoughts is important, but even then I feel people become overly concerned about “negative” thoughts. So often people people struggle with them. They fear that negative thoughts or angry feelings will bring them harm and this can cause a lot of suffering. I’ve seen people become tense and afraid when negative thoughts come, trying hard to replace them with something positive. It becomes a war within.

From my perspective, it’s not only frustrating to try to eliminate negative thoughts, it’s futile! Life is a mixture of positive and negative. We are a mixture of positive and negative. Trying to change that is trying to change the basic structure of things. Can you get rid of one side of a coin or one pole of a magnet?

I don’t mean to say that how we think isn’t important. Of course, we’d rather have a positive, uplifting perspective on things, and our attitudes and perspectives definitely do affect us. There can be a value in becoming more aware of our mental patterns, particularly our underlying beliefs and attitudes toward life. When we start to see ourselves more clearly, we are sometimes able to bring about shifts in our way of being and seeing things. But bringing about positive changes goes much deeper than simply trying to stop negative thoughts. It involves the ability to relax into who we are and accept ourselves as we are now — the positive and the negative. It’s a kind of paradox that when we can truly accept ourselves all the way just as we are now, we may very well morph into more compassionate people. That is the natural result of self-acceptance.

How does how we meditate relate to how we live life?

December 1, 2009

Is the purpose of meditation to create a frame of mind that continues outside of meditation? “Paul” asked some great questions related to this in an email. Here’s what Paul wrote:

“The meditations seem to follow a similar format applied to different themes. I enjoy listening to them. They are relaxing. Is the frequent use of “easily bring your mind back…” or “doesn’t matter” etc by design? Is it intended to get the listener in that frame of mind even when out of meditation? Does it have some other purpose?”

Paul’s observation that the meditations follow a similar format applied to different themes is absolutely true The way I think of it is that there are core meditations like Simply Being and Letting Go that embody the essence of meditation. They help the mind let go of its usual outer-directed focus and expand into an easy, open state. Other meditations, like the Nature, Inner Child and Grief meditations, are more effective if that relaxed and open state is achieved before doing any visualizing or imagining. That’s why all the meditations start in pretty much the same way.

The frequently used phrases that Paul mentions help the mind and body to relax. In particular, they help us to let go of the habit of straining and working at things, so that we can experience a state of effortlessness. They help us to relax into the natural flow of things. That seems pretty obvious, but what has really had me thinking is whether or not the purpose of these phrases is to get us into that frame of mind when we are no longer meditating. The answer I’ve come up with is —-  (drum roll)—– “yes and no”!

The answer is yes in the sense that what we practice in the meditations — letting go of resistance to what is happening, relaxing into our emotions, and being more present in the moment and so on — will hopefully carry over into our activity. In a way, we call meditation a “practice” because it is practicing certain skills that become applied in our lives. So it could be said that the things I frequently say are meant to get us into that frame of mind outside of meditation, except that it’s not exactly the same frame of mind. Only some of the elements of meditation are meant to be carried into our activities. That brings us to the “no” part of my answer.

The answer is no in the sense that in meditation we are letting go of the evaluating, analyzing, accomplishing aspects of the mind. We are allowing the mind to let go of its focus on doing. When we return to our activity, we have to focus on things. The analytical aspect of the mind is important in our daily functioning. In meditation we let go of thoughts, whereas in activity we sometimes need to pursue a train of thought when we are problem-solving. So in this sense, the purpose of these phrases isn’t to get us to be in exactly the same “frame of mind” in and out of meditation. The frame of mind while meditating isn’t appropriate for most of our time outside of meditation.

Bringing meditation into our lives definitely changes how we experience life outside of meditation. That’s one reason we do it. We can certainly live our lives in a more meditative way, but how we apply the principles of meditation during meditation and outside of meditation is different. I’ve been thinking more and more about how we can approach daily living as meditation. Our new Walking Meditation album is a “step” in that direction. We’ll see where that step leads!

What has your experience been? How has your life changed with meditation? How do you think the changes are related to the practice of meditation?

Why do we resist meditation?

November 19, 2009

Do you ever find yourself resisting meditation? Perhaps you’ve resolved to meditate regularly either because you think it’s good for you, or you’ve enjoyed meditating and what it does for you. And yet, for some reason, you find yourself resisting meditation. Georgina asked about this in a comment:

“I really love meditation and your podcasts have greatly assisted me and changed my life. But even though I love meditation and I know it is good for me, I find myself resisting doing it almost daily… why is that? Do you have any insight on why we resist meditation? Why I find it so hard to sit for just 10 minutes a day sometimes? Is it the mind not wanting you to go away from it?”

Before I comment, I’d like to invite you to share your experience with this. Do you find you resist meditation? How do you experience that resistance? Do you have any idea why you resist?

I know many people struggle with this. As I wrote to Georgina, the best thing is to investigate for yourself why you resist. It can help you get in touch with what the resistance is all about and lead to valuable insights. Often when we become conscious of the feelings and beliefs that underlie our behavior, we can find ways to make changes.

I suspect that the reason for the resistance may be different for different people, but a couple of possibilities come to mind. It may simply be the momentum in our busy lives that keeps us moving at fast speed, as well as our culture which is telling us to do, do, do.

Our culture doesn’t recognize a very fundamental principle, and that is that being rested and relaxed is the most important key to being creative and productive. Getting things done is equated with putting in time. With this deeply ingrained idea, we often don’t give ourselves permission to take time out for meditation. And then when we do take the time, the mind and and body are in such high gear that we feel restless. You may sit to meditate and find yourself feeling like you have to get up and go. Meditating requires that we be prepared for that and continue to experience the restlessness and let it unwind.

The resistance can also be emotional. All of our busyness keeps us from feeling things we don’t want to feel. Meditation gets us in touch with our inner experience, including our emotions. If there is something going on in our lives that troubles us or we are not comfortable with certain emotions, we may tend to avoid meditation. And yet, to be truly relaxed and present, which are both goals of meditation, we have to be able to experience our emotions.

What is your experience with this? Do you resist meditating sometimes, and do you know why?

Celebrating 3 years of podcasting!

November 7, 2009

Three years ago today our first podcast episode went up on iTunes. And now there have been almost 3 million downloads. We never dreamed that so much would come out of the podcast, for us and our listeners, and we’re celebrating that today. Of all of the things we’ve done over the years with meditation and personal growth, I’d have to say this has been the most rewarding.

We hear from our listeners almost daily, and are often amazed at the profound impact the meditations are having on so many peoples’ lives. It doesn’t get better than this — to know something you’ve done has helped another along the way. And yet we know that the positive changes you experience aren’t really about us. Your openness to meditation, your willingness to grow and change, are what makes this happen. The podcast is a joint effort in every sense of the word. What we hear from you – your experiences, questions, comments, requests – help us learn and grow.

So, please lift a cyber-glass to toast with us today, and thank you for taking this journey with us!

Guided Meditation for Stillness, Stability and Balance

October 9, 2009

In the swirl of activity and the intense demands of life, it’s easy to lose ones center. It can be challenging to maintain a sense of stability and balance. Our latest podcast meditation is designed to help you experience stillness in the midst of busyness, and then to create a stable reference point within that stillness.

The meditation helps focus and steady the mind. I’ve had requests for a morning meditation and as well as a meditation especially for students. This meditation may be good for both purposes.

Tips for this Meditation

  1. This meditation is best done sitting up in order to maintain alertness. It’s not a meditation for falling asleep.
  2. Occasionally my guided meditations suggest some use of visualization. In this meditation, you are guided to locate stillness and then a stable balance point within it. That point then becomes the focus of the meditation. It’s important not to strain to create this point or to work at concentrating on it. Just be very easy about the whole process. If what I suggest comes easily, fine. If not, let it go. It may take several repetitions of this meditation to get the hang of it.

I’d love to hear what you experience with this meditation. All comments and questions are welcome!

In life, as in music, the pauses make all the difference

September 30, 2009

These words — “in life, as in music, the pauses make all the difference” — floated into my mind a few weeks back. I tweeted them on Twitter and started a post about them. The post has been saved as a draft since then, barely started and abandoned. Checking in with my drafts today, the words were quite welcome, as I am in a place where I need to pause. There have simply been too many things going on and my mind and body need a break. Reading these words was a good reminder, since everything in our culture demands that we constantly do, do, do, and then do some more.

We think that when we pause — whether for a brief break or a week-long retreat — we are losing time that could be used productively. We think we’re making progress when we’re in motion — moving forward, as it were, on our way to our goal. In reality, it’s often when we pause that the most progress is made. It’s common wisdom that discoveries are made and insights come when we stop working on something and let it go. Inspiration and insight spring from deep within. They can’t be reached through mental focus, thinking and logic. They are accessed when the mind is relaxed and creativity can flow.

Pauses refresh and renew, hence they actually contribute to our productivity. But even more important, they bring balance and an enjoyable rhythm to life. We can’t live at all without the long pause of sleep or even the tiny pause between the breaths. Pauses give life. Why not honor and allow ourselves to relax into them completely? Today, instead of lamenting the fact that I need to take some time off, I’m relishing the hours ahead. And when I’ve had enough r and r, I’ll relish plunging back into work.

In music, it’s the pauses that make the rhythms. It’s in the pauses that the notes settle in and have time to reverberate in our hearts. It’s in life’s pauses that we find the silent background of our being. Today I shall delight in pauses!

On the “Effortless Effort” of Meditation

September 17, 2009

Usually the term “effortless effort” is associated with Taoist philosophy and its concept of “Wu Wei”. It has to do with how we act, or experience action, in daily life. I like the Wikipedia description of Wu Wei as “natural action” giving the example of a tree growing. It is doing growing, and yet it is not doing it.

I like to use “effortless effort” when talking about how to meditate. It’s indicates that the art of meditation is not one of following instructions. It’s the art of allowing the mind to experience a natural state.

I often tell people not to take what I say in my meditations too literally. Sometimes I am asked what I mean by something like “not minding thoughts”. It’s impossible to answer those questions. The words I use aren’t meant to be instructions to follow precisely. The words are more like confirmations of the correct experience. Quite naturally the mind will start relaxing into a state of “not minding thoughts”, and if there is some resistance to that happening, words can give you permission to let go. My words are more like “reminders” to gently prompt the mind to let go of effort. But that letting go is an effortless effort!

How can effort be effortless? It’s a paradox. The paradox happens because in guiding someone in meditation, we pretty much have to use words. You can’t demonstrate meditation like you can dance, because it’s an internal process. Although music alone can sometimes induce a meditative state, more often than not some verbal guidance is necessary. And yet, using words and phrases to guide that process is full of pitfalls. The meditative state is actually something that the mind falls into, not something you can make happen through following instructions. The instructions can only set up a situation where the mind can slip into that state.

Meditation is a state of effortlessness and sometimes a phrase here and there can help us to let go of effort. For example, I might say “let thoughts go”. The idea isn’t to actively let them go, like when you open your hand to drop a ball, but rather hearing the phrase “let thoughts go” may help the mind let go. That’s because the mind is naturally drawn into a meditative state when given the opportunity, and there may be some resistance to that happening. The words can help dissolve the resistance. Letting go is not an active doing. No words or concepts can tell you exactly how to do it.

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