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  • Gemma Speakman

Slow down, sit down, look around.


I used to work with a well known, self-help guru whose mantra 'New Year, New You' was wheeled out every January without him even thinking; it was easy money, everyone was miserable and vulnerable, and he was tapping into a palpable sense of self hate - fairly widespread when the party was over. Looking back, that mantra was reliant on discarding your previous 'worthless' self. How bad you felt about yourself became the measure of the success of his miraculous programme. "Oh he knows!" your inner voice would holler. Because anything goes in December, right? Food, booze, late nights, catastrophic spending. And now, in this cold stark light of day, there's a collective sense of guilt and a need to somehow to 'remedy' all of that excess by totally abstaining from any life fun during this month; after five weeks of waiting for a pay cheque, shall we make it even more painful? Where's the logic?

Let's take a step back. Are there any other two months that have such differing events and values? There's no ombre shading like the hopeful March to April transition or the long summer nights that foray seamlessly from August to 'oh you're here', balmy September despite school's starting back, the back to routine feels very welcome. But December - such a beguiling month, slathered in twinkly festive lights; a bubbling holiday frisson that starts early and crescendoes as the month goes on. But then to January? It's like walking off a proverbial cliff.

Time to get out of holiday mode, be good again and get life back on track, stop the thigh rubbing, reduce the overhang, you natter incessantly to yourself internally. Hang on a minute, who said enjoying yourself was 'bad.' But there's a zillion pound industry out there subconsciously hammering home the self hate button and making you believe you simply need to discard previous self here and replace with a better version available here for ££££.

But stop, small revelation - no one needs to reinvent themselves after a good time; why should we even feel guilty for it? There's more than enough space for abstinence, moderation and overindulgence as long as they keep riding fluidly around on your own carousel and you don't get saddled and stuck on the one horse. Variety and balance is what makes life life. Don't beat yourself up.

This January, the media message seems to have moved on, grown up and is more in keeping with the (possibly overused) phrase of 'self care.' This January, there's less of the self-hate mantra and instead the message is to 'slow down.' Isn't it ironic, that as technology becomes more advanced and fast paced and we are more connected than ever that there is an increased desire to escape, put the phone down and be more 'mindful.' Don't you think?

You've probably done it before without realising. Have you ever been caught in traffic along a road you normally zoom down and look and notice something you never noticed before. I do it loads. I live around the same area and have done for years, I drive down the same roads most days but when I am forced to stop and take a look, it's not unusual for me to notice something about a house, a building, a shop, that until then had never even seen. Of course it was there, I just hadn't taken the time to look at it. But I did just then and I noticed something else or had the time and space to ponder something else rather than the road in front of me. I stopped and I zoned in to something small, innocuous, for a moment. And then it became a thing of its own.

How can we find inner calm? You've got it already. No expensive self guru here flogging his wares. It's called meditation.

What actually is it? In short, it's the ability to quieten the mind. It might seem ridiculous but try sitting there for a minute and try thinking of nothing. It's as simple and confusing as trying to answer the question is silence a sound. It may seem like you are wasting time sitting there doing and achieving nothing but the time you spend there being present in the moment and thrashing away inner thoughts that keep incessantly popping up is a discipline that will give you an inner glow once honed. It's not just new age mumbo jumbo any more. A 2013 study found that in just one meditative session, metabolism and insulin production increased and even increased the 'immortality enzyme by over 40%, reducing our ageing and stress levels considerably. After some practise, an innate sense of clarity and inner strength develops that better prepares you for life's up's and down's - big and small.

This is now new news. In or around the 5th Century, the poet and philosopher Lao Tzu said this

If you are depressed you are living in the past, if you are anxious you are living in the future, If you are peace you are living in the present. I think he might have been on to something.....

Back in the 1980's in Japan (one of the most densely populated countries on earth and also one of the most heavily forested) the government carried out extensive research into Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku) in a bid to counter the high stress levels rife amongst its inhabitants. The research discovered that after a two hour bathing session amongst trees, not only were the usual benefits of exercise and fresh air apparent but also chemicals released by the trees that were in turn absorbed by the bather helped boost the immune system and lower blood pressure.

The mental health wellbeing is catching on right here. Forest Bathing has landed in the UK. That doesn't mean swimming around in pine and oak infused water, rather it's the art of immersing every one of your senses amongst the magic of the forest atmosphere. The idea is not to tear around the trees working up a sweat and making the precious exercise time 'count' - on the contrary and much like meditation it encourages you to slow down and be mindful and ultimately deepen your connection with your surroundings and ultimately, within. Be aware, look around you and take slow deep breaths - basically, bathe in it.

The Forestry Commission here in the UK which manages over 1m hectares of woodland in England has embraced the ancient Japanese practice of Forest Bathing fully - they're all for us taking a slow- paced mindful amble under the canopy of trees . They've even published a how to get you started in the art available here. For guided bathing tours in the UK check out Forest Holidays.

Put the phone down and stop scrolling and just listen for one minute- what can you hear? Bird song? Sirens? Children laughing in the distance? But be aware that something you will always hear in that state is your breath in and breath out. If it helps to focus and dispel wandering thought demons or extraneous thoughts (that will happen a lot at the beginning), then you can actually say the words to yourself as a rhythm keeper, "I am breathing in, I am breathing out."

For those that remember, it may help to reference Daniel in the Karate Kid when Mr Miyagi asks him to paint his very long fence to hone his wrist skills or 'wax on, wax off.' The point (that Daniel cannot see at the beginning) is that you can learn very valuable lessons from very simple or mundane tasks. He is learning and honing the skills (mental and physical) that will make him stronger to beat his opponents in the big competitions that he will inevitably face. The breath in and breath out is your equivalent - yes it's a long game but it will help you to traverse life's turbulent waters because it's making a stronger you from the inside (not building superficial outside impressive muscles).

If on the other hand, you're up for embracing plant based mind altering states, feel free to try the 'medicine' of the moment ayahuasca (only legal and available in South America). Or if that's too daunting simply try oxygen; free and available and widespread.

You just need to add you and one minute a day (to start with).

'It's a discipline, you have to practice it '(Steve Jobs, meditated every day).


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