So where are you right now as you read this? Have you paused….really paused and allowed yourself a moment to enjoy this piece? Or are you flicking between screens and tasks and demands and taking a gulp of what's on offer here, but not really tasting it?
The American poet Mary Oliver illuminates the nature of the pause in her poem Mindful. She writes
“It was what I was born for -
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself
over and over
It can be tough, especially at this time of year, to do what we were "born for" - to look, to listen, to lose ourselves and...that magical line...."to instruct ourselves in joy". We're so good at instructing ourselves in responsibility, in fear, in shame....but in JOY....now there's a thought.
Many of the holiday cards that we will all soon be buying are emblazoned with that word, joy. However, it's one I rarely hear and use at any other time of the year. This poem reminds us to pause, to notice all that is wondrous in our world and to connect with our delight which is too often drowned by our plans, our memories, our fears and our judgements.
Sometimes we need a nudge from nature to lean into this. I recall a morning from last winter when this was true for me. I woke early and lay enjoying the silence outside. I live on a main road and Sunday morning is a rare moment of peace. But this was no ordinary silence. As I got up and opened my curtains, I was delighted by the soft, deep white snow covering everything. There were no cars outside because they couldn't get up the hill. My daughter and I headed out with our dog, Tillie and I had the sensation of letting go of everything - our usual routine, plans for the day, any sense of what "should" be. Instead we threw snowballs at each other, smiled and said hello to everyone, giggled at the grown-ups hurtling down the hills on sledges and watched Tillie taste, snort and play with the snow as she bounced along like a little doggy snowball.
It was delicious. A moment of disruption. A moment of joy. A moment of being.
Tara Brach, psychologist and author, tells a story of a cage full of baby rats who love to play. One day a cat hair is put into their cage and the rats immediately stop playing. There is no cat. There is no real danger. However, the rats do not play again. The perceived threat and accompanying fear dominate their lives from that moment on. I recognise this painfully well. How hard it is to play when there is a looming deadline, a crushing volume of work and responsibility or a challenge to deal with. My focus switches away from the experience of what is and moves to the fear of what might be. My snowy morning reminded me that it's possible to switch it back, for this anxiety is created by me and can be dissipated by me.
Social psychologist, Ellen Langer has proven in her decades of research, that our perception is everything. If I think I've been awake half the night, I will feel tired even if I have actually slept for most of it. If an octogenarian is placed in an environment, mirroring that which he lived in 20 years ago, he begins to feel healthier, become more mobile and the ageing process slows (as shown in Langer's Counterclockwise experiments). If a chambermaid labels her daily activity "exercise" instead of "work", she loses weight. Without doing anything differently. Sounds like magic but listen to the interview featured here and be amazed.
So what is it that you're perceiving about yourself right now? What delights are you blocking out in this rich and magical season? Are the cat hairs spoiling your playtime? Notice. Lose yourself in the moment. Feel the JOY.