Training my wild elephant to help with post-holiday blues

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How do you deal with the end of the summer holidays? For me, this time of year brings the routines of home and work into sharp focus. Having got used to spending more time outdoors or dedicated to creative activities, in the house I notice my impatience in the midst of sorting socks, stacking plates, folding washing and sweeping floors. In the workplace, as someone who is used to handwriting and dealing with paper folders of patients’ notes, I’m aware of having to dig deeper to tolerate my organisation’s increased reliance on unfamiliar electronic recording and storage systems. Being prone to the winter blues, my mission to bring more playfulness into my life feels even more important as I contemplate the coming months of nights drawing in.

In his article, 6 Hacks to Create a Job You Love, Paolo Terni proposes that we turn the routines of life, the activities we find mundane, into games. I’m experimenting with this idea. How about breaking all the rules of effective time management and turning your ‘to do’ list into a lucky dip?  Or awarding yourself points for tackling those tasks you keep putting off and giving yourself a reward at the end of the week for a high score?

This idea reminded me of one of the exercises developed by Jan Chozen Bays in her book ‘How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness‘. Bays suggests that we look deeply into our food- using our powerful brains to imagine where the food we eat comes from- bringing to mind all of the people involved in planting, growing, harvesting, packing and transporting that food to our plates. She advocates envisaging all of the people whose energy has contributed to the journey that food has made to reach us. In a nutshell, she wants us to notice that everything and everyone is connected and that remembering these interconnections can help us to approach everyday activities differently.

I realise that I can choose to adopt this playfully curious approach to virtually any of the routines I participate in. Even sorting socks.

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Finding solace in childish things

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It feels difficult, frivolous even, to be writing about playfulness in the midst of all the suffering we are witnessing and experiencing in the world at the moment. Finding a balance between wanting and needing to engage with what is happening- to make a difference in helping to change things for the better, versus maintaining our own resilience and sanity in the face of it all, is no mean feat.

When I started this blog, I saw that adopting a more playful attitude as I go about my day-to-day activities could be one way of boosting my own staying power to cope with life’s ups and downs. I wondered if there were others who were also making a conscious effort to do the same? I thought about the boom in sales of colouring books for adults- a seemingly childish pastime rebranded under the banner of ‘mindfulness’ as a way of helping adults deal better with stress. Focusing on one thing at a time can be soothing to the brain, but colouring books also take us back to a simpler time when all that mattered was staying in the lines and creating something pretty on a page.

There are other things from childhood that can transport us back to more carefree days. At times when I’ve felt in need of reassurance, I’ve found myself turning back to favourite books that I enjoyed reading as a child. ‘Ajax the Warrior’- the story of a brave Dingo in the Australian outback- conjures up memories of my barefooted childhood Down Under. Dr Seuss’s ‘The Cat in the Hat Came Back’ takes me straight back to many happy hours spent in my primary school library soaking up the magical words and pictures. Sometimes, the right book will make itself known at the right time. In her wonderful blog about living and loving 8 years after the death of her husband, Elaine Mansfield shared her delight in discovering the award-winning children’s book, Miss Rumphius , the story of a “Crazy Old Lady” who scattered wild lupine seeds everywhere she went in an attempt to deal with her own pain and to make the world a better place for her neighbours.

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Having poured over the amazing illustrations and simple words, this book, created for children, has become one of my new favourites. It reassures us that despite all the pain in the world, we can’t ignore the small differences we can make which, over time, can add up to really bold steps leading to the creation of a more healing, kindly and peaceful environment in which we can co-exist.

What seeds have you sown today to make the world a more beautiful place? What books or activities from childhood can you rediscover to bring you a sense of comfort and solace in times of need?

Playing together, understanding each other.

Our local community are currently hosting a group of children from Belarus. The Russian-speaking 7-12 year olds come from an area that continues to be contaminated by the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. They live each day with the social and environmental consequences of that disaster, including compromised health. The host families provide good food, clean water, plenty of rest and fun activities for a month, with the hope that the children return home stronger and healthier than when they arrived.

Last weekend was the first group get together at the home of one of the hosts. Outdoors, football and frisbee were the choices of the boys in the group, whilst the girls stayed indoors crafting bracelets and colouring. The adults looked on, sipping cups of tea and exchanging experiences of hosting to date. Late in the afternoon, one of the hosts announced that we were all to play the ‘ring on a string’ game. We gathered in the middle of the room- 8 adults including two Belarusian interpreters, English and Belarusian children, standing in a big circle, gripping onto a piece of string around which we surreptitiously passed a silver ring. One person placed themselves in the middle of the circle, with the aim of trying to spot which person had the ring in their hand. We laughed, we teased. We jostled. We had fun.

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Play researchers have discovered that games help to build trust between groups. Play has the power to help us feel safer together and to heal rifts. Some people we know have frowned on the idea of us hosting a child from abroad. They have suggested that we would be better off directing our energies towards helping needy children in our own country. They may have a point, but my view is that the more we can do to encourage activities that engender trust and reduce fear between members of different cultures, the better we will all be for it in the long-term. 

Playing together gives us a universal language that emphasises only the similarities between us rather than the differences.

An unexpected adventure

 ‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing’- Helen Keller

I had the long weekend all mapped out. After the ravages of winter, our wooden front door was badly in need of a coat of paint. The weather was set fair and it felt like the perfect opportunity to get it done. My plan was to suggest to my husband that he set to work on this and I could start to grapple with the overflowing basket of ironing that I had been trying to ignore for the last three weeks. After that, there’d still be time for us to join forces and tackle the weeds that were shooting up through the gravel yard at an ever-increasing pace.

And then my husband announced that as the forecast was for three continuous days of sunshine, it was the perfect weekend for him to attempt the challenge he’d been planning for the past few months- a 66 mile hike in the Lake District, scaling 42 of its highest peaks. I was apparently to be involved of day one of this epic- specifically to transport him to the starting point, hike together for 16 miles and then camp overnight in a tiny tent.

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A taste of things to come

I reacted. I complained about his lack of collaboration, told him he was inconsiderate and that he had no idea about what was really important.

But he wouldn’t budge. Should I stick to my guns too or give in and bend to his will? I knew he had a point- neither of us could remember the last time we’d been able to enjoy a few days of sun. We’d often talked about wanting to do more hiking together. I often regretted not being able to spend more time exploring outdoors. And then I remembered my pact to be more spontaneous. Here was the ideal opportunity and I was railing against it.

Twenty-four hours later, sitting on my camping mat, hurriedly spooning in mouthfuls of rehydrated spaghetti bolognaise, my mind flashed back to the day we’d just had. Scrambling, trudging up and sliding down scree-ridden mountainsides. Wondering who’d come up with the tongue-twisting names for some of those lofty peaks like Harrison Stickle, Pike O’Blisco and Stickle Pike. Along the way, I’d laughed as I spotted flocks of native Herdwick sheep, striped in rainbow colours of red, blue, green and orange dye, as indicators of ownership.

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Two young Herdwicks

 

 

In deepest Eskdale, we’d passed the signpost to the entrance of a woodland called ‘Giggle Alley’, apparently containing a hidden Japanese garden being restored to its former glory by the locals. I took this as a sign that I’d done the right thing.

When did you last say ‘yes’ to an unexpected change of plan and how did it work out for you?

 

What do we really mean when we say ‘have fun’?

‘Have fun’ is probably my most overused phrase. I say it to work colleagues when I know they’ve got a particularly tough day ahead. I use it at home when my husband has a daunting meeting to attend that day. I say it because I want them to know that I’m in their corner, that I’ve been there too and I’m cheering them on. But if I sit back and think about it, more often than not, rather than lifting the atmosphere, this phrase is greeted by a half-hearted smile bordering on a grimace and a word of thanks uttered through gritted teeth.
What I really mean by those to words is- see if you can adopt a playful attitude towards whatever comes up. But how often do I apply this to myself, especially in the face of a difficult day?

If we recognised the benefits of playfulness for adults and in particular, those in the therapy professions, it might be a little easier to take on board. A recent survey of psychologists found that 46 percent classed themselves as depressed and 70 percent as stressed. Science tells us that playful adults live on average 10 years longer than those who are less playful and that playful people find fewer situations to be stressful compared to the more serious amongst us. 
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Digging around in the research, there are four main qualities that are said make up a playful adult, including being:

  • Relaxed and free-spirited
  • Fun and lively
  • Spontaneous
  • Creative

I’d like to add the qualities of exploration and flexibility to these too. In future posts, I’ll be blogging about the challenge I’ve set myself to bring these qualities and attitudes into my day-to-day life.

We can also rekindle our relaxed, free-spirited, fun, lively, spontaneous and creative selves by reconnecting with what we enjoyed doing as children. Whenever I think about some of the things I loved to do as a child, I immediately feel lighter and more naturally ‘me.’ As part of my journey, I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite childhood activities too-moving me in the direction of becoming a truly Tickled Shrink!