CULTIVATING CALM TO COMBAT THE JANUARY BLUES
Cultivating calm when you’re in the throes of the Christmas hangover is no mean feat. Hands up if, like me, you’re guilty of multi-tasking to the detriment of your mental health? I regularly contemplate the question; how can I cultivate calm in my life? If there was a shortcut to serenity, most of us would buy a one-way ticket. The noise of everyday life can sometimes be overwhelming. Keeping up with constantly evolving technologies, (hello Instagram, goodbye spare time) staying on top of work pressures and a fear of missing out (FOMO) can result in feeling stressed and strung out. Not only does it takes its toll on your mental health, it affects how you look. Puffy eyes, blotchy skin and a dull complexion can leave you looking like Keith Richards’ older, more hungover session partner. And we’re not all on a Creme de la Mer budget! The advent of social media can foster a sense of disenfranchisement; comparing ourselves to others, we feel as if we are being deprived of the happy, healthy and full lives we should be leading. If lifestyle bloggers can spawn the body of Elle McPherson, sign a six figure book deal, create the most ‘grammable of meals and curate ten different social media platforms, why can’t we? Busy building an empire? More like occupied with the opening of an envelope.
Cultivating calm isn’t the road most travelled. It’s not so much the destination that really matters but rather the journey. It’s not just a matter of taking ten minutes out of the day and expecting things to happen. Rather, it involves a lifelong commitment to changing your lifestyle. Time is the essential ingredient to cultivating calm but it is also the most elusive thing in most of our lives. Time, however, is the one thing that we all have. These are the three most important steps I’ve taken this year to cultivate calm in my day to day life.
STEP ONE: CULTIVATING CALM THROUGH MEDITATION
I read a lot of literature about cultivating calm in my life. One of my favourite books in this vein is by a buddhist monk called Matthieu Ricard who describes happiness as not just a feeling but a life skill. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is one of the most powerful books I have read in the self-help genre. Ricard was a molecular biologist by trade so he really knows his stuff. It has been proven that people who suffer from mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder display different brain activity when compared to those who don’t suffer from ill mental health. From my own research I discovered that there are three parts of the brain; the cerebral cortex, the limbic system and the primitive brain. The primitive part of the brain controls all the basic human functions we need in order to survive; digestion, heart rate and breathing. When someone is brain-dead, this is the only part of the brain that is working. The cerebral cortex is the ‘thinking’ part of the brain where rational decisions are made. The third part of the brain is the limbic system which contains the amygdala (in no way related to Padmé Amidala). The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls emotions. Many people who have mental health issues make their decisions in the amygdala which is why they may say or do things that they regret later. Now comes the incredible part. When you meditate, your brain changes shape, increases grey matter (the part of the brain that regulates emotions) and shrinks the amygdala. The result? Feeling less overwhelmed, being able to react appropriately to situations that anger us and developing and cultivating calm in our daily lives. Here’s another interesting biological fact to consider. The synapses (the neural circuits that make connections) of the brain don’t join up in some cases of borderline personality disorder. Medication can force the synapses together to mimic ‘healthier’ brain activity. Guess what? So can meditation. Previously, it had been thought that the brain was hard-wired from adulthood but this suggests neural malleability is achievable with so-called ‘brain-training.’ In no way am I suggesting that meditation can replace anti-depressants, anti-psychotic drugs or mood stabilisers. But its effect on the brain is undisputed. Used in conjunction with the right medication or talk therapy, it can be a kick-start to cultivating calm, happy and healthy minds.
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MEDITATION
For me, meditation is really just about sitting with who you are. Radical acceptance of your situation can actually lead to radical change. Although I’m not religious, I like to practice the serenity prayer to cultivate calm throughout the day. If the God part puts you off, just omit the word God. I like to imagine God as an energy – I can’t grasp the concept of a higher power to be honest – so I just imagine it to be a benevolent presence in the universe.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Recently I downloaded the Headspace app. I thought it was a bit pricey at €13 a month but it had come with an endorsement from one of my most centred and self-sufficient friends. I thought about the money I would easily fork out for the gym and personal training sessions – all in the pursuit of an ideal body image that is almost unattainable. But back to the mind. Headspace is a guided meditation app with different themes. You are given a 30 day free trial – you must complete thirty days of basic ten minute guided meditation per day to ‘graduate’ to the next level in which you can pick out any theme. I have tried meditation on and off over the years but I never stuck to it. With this app, I could monitor my progress and seeing the time accumulating really fostered a sense of achievement. There are some really simple but effective visualisation exercises to follow. One of my favourites is to imagine a steady flow of liquid sunlight filling up every part of you and bursting out through the top of your head. I used to do this to exude stage presence when I was acting (In a previous life, I was an actor!).
STEP TWO: CULTIVATING CALM BY EMBRACING YOUR SHADOW
Deepak Chopra is another one of my favourite self-help authors. I recently read one of his books The 7 Spiritual Laws of Superheroes. If you’re into comic books, then you’ll love this. The seven laws as described by Chopra are balance, transformation, power, love, creativity, intention and transcendence. I loved the first principle which states that superheroes have inner balance because they integrate feeling, being, doing and thinking. In other words, superheroes can take on the world with a great sense of empowerment. Superheroes pursue the quest of balance in a world that often crawls with conflict and contradictions. Does this get them down? On the contrary. Superheroes imbue inner strength by embracing their shadows. It’s what drives them to create harmony in their world.
Take Batman for instance. His motivation to rid Gotham of its criminal underbelly is driven by fear and anger at the loss of his parents. He is known as The Dark Knight because he exists in the shadows. But Batman doesn’t let the tragedy of his parents’ deaths define his life. Rather he harnesses that fear and anger into his strengths – his choices surrounding the death of his parents are what defines his life – and he makes good choices. But how does this translate to us mere mortals? Consider your (perceived) weaknesses. Mine is my sensitivity. However, once I grasped the concept of embracing my dark side, I began to learn how to use this to my benefit. When I accepted that being sensitive is inextricably linked to my character, I learned to transform that into my greatest strength. By embracing my dark side, it allowed me to be more empathetic, productive and secure in my own person. I love the song It’s Alright not to Feel OK by Heathers because it is. It’s alright not to feel OK. It’s human. By embracing our shadows we can let the light in.
STEP THREE: CULTIVATING CALM BY SPENDING TIME DOING THE THINGS YOU LOVE
Some people find that nature is a no-brainer towards cultivating calm in their lives. I took the featured pictures on a beautiful day in Dalkey to remind me of the serenity I felt by the sea. Whether it’s listening to the waves, star gazing or trying to make out shapes in the clouds, being in nature is very grounding. For others, cultivating calm is as simple as eating out or going to the cinema. For me, it’s going to the theatre, watching good TV and reading as much as I can. I fill my brain with culture and soak it all in. I get immersed in a story and stories are what drive me. I recently watched The OA on Netflix and absolutely loved it. It was such a beautiful testament to the power of the collective consciousness and an insight into a creative and sometimes troubled mind. Sometimes finding recognition in stories (in art, in poetry, in theatre) can soothe the soul and put you on your path towards cultivating calm. Creating new work is food for the soul – I love to collaborate with photographers and work on my writing. Even if nobody is reading it, it gives me a purpose and a greater sense of calm in my day to day life. Find something you love and make time for it whether it’s roller derby, pole fitness, the gym, cooking, baking, taking photos or visiting galleries and museums. Practicing mindfulness during these activities can really work towards cultivating calm. Even if you’re just watching TV, be fully present. Immerse yourself in the story. Pick up on the subtle nuances that we so often miss. The ‘mind-vaults’ promulgated by Sherlock are yours for the taking. I often find myself rewinding the telly because I’m so distracted by my phone. Likewise, when out for an amazing brunch with friends, the temptation is there to create a gorgeous flatlay but in reality, your food goes cold and you look like a twat trying to find the perfect angle. Take time out for yourself – cultivating calm requires effort without judgement on your part. Trust me – you’re worth it.
CULTIVATING CALM: FOUR OF MY FAVOURITE BOOKS
Calm: Calm the Mind, Change the World by Michael Acton Smith: Kind of like a beginner’s guide, this is a very practical book with exercises and tasks to cultivate calm in your day-to-day routine.
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard. This is a much more dense book with insights into the neurological effects of mindfulness on the brain. It’s very valuable to understand the science behind happiness.
The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self by Julia Cameron. This is essential for any creative types. Designed to encourage artists to view their work as a form of therapy rather than a commercial pursuit, this is kind of like a workbook where you begin every morning by writing. When I was acting, it was very difficult to deal with the constant rejection and this book helped me to focus on the practice and truly enjoy it.
The Four Agreements: Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Toltec Wisdom) by Don Miguel Ruiz. This New York Times bestseller sets out four tenets that limit our joy. The self-limiting beliefs that hold us back from experiencing joy are described in simple language and are very easy to follow. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements are: Be Impeccable With Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, Always Do Your Best. No surprises that this book has sold over 6 million copies, it’s kind of like listening to an old sage imparting his wisdom to lead a better life.