Watching the heavy, gentle snow drift down between the trees outside my windows today, I began to consider the value of solitude. When I’m by myself, it can be a wonderful opportunity of uninterrupted contemplation. But here’s the thing: sometimes solitude can seem more like a dark alley than a light, pristine winter scene. Our thoughts tend to travel when we are by ourselves. If you tend to drift into unpleasant corners during alone time, here are some ways to travel elsewhere.
Be kind and press PAUSE
Sometimes we choose to busy ourselves to avoid our thoughts. It is a natural defense mechanism used by many — especially in a culture that values busyness. If your impulse is to find 1,000 tasks to do, try instead to press PAUSE:
The key to this practice is the middle word: Unbiased. We often judge our self-talk. For example, our thoughts might review the last time we had a family Zoom time and regret comments we made, wondering if Uncle Joe was offended. That thought turns into a night of fretful sleep, perhaps even personal name-calling, like, “What an idiot!” Even though we would not judge friends that way, we become biased against ourselves.
When thoughts come up, remember: They are just thoughts. You are not your thoughts. When we become aware of our thinking, treating thoughts with curiosity and kindness, we can survey our experiences from a distance, becoming more compassionate to ourselves. “What an idiot!” becomes, “If my comment was out of line, I am human and can learn,” or “I’m probably imagining that Uncle Joe was offended.”
The better we are at pressing PAUSE, the better we are at allowing the quiet rather than the noise of the busy. Yet, there are times that the “pause button” just doesn’t seem to work. Read on…
Come out of your head and back to your senses
One thing that is true about the brain is that it is connected to the body. When it becomes difficult to let go of certain thoughts, try instead to focus on other areas of the body, such as your vision, hearing, ability to touch, smell and taste. There is no need to put judgements on what you experience, just name them.
Sights. Look around the area where you are. What are some items/scenes that you can take in? List them with short descriptions.
Sounds. Next, what are some sounds you are hearing? If it is completely silent, perhaps put on some enjoyable music and note the different tones, lyrics and rhythms you hear.
Feelings. Is there a texture that helps comfort you? Perhaps you have a fleece blanket or a fluffy pillow that you can hug. What do you notice about the things you are touching?
Smells. Are there any odors around you, such as the lingering smells from the previous meal or even the dusty smell from the furnace blowing through the vents? Allow yourself to experience common smells or choose to light a candle for extra-special scents.
Tastes. Top the time off with taste. Pick one special food from your cupboards or fridge and pay close attention to every bite. This experience is known as Mindful Eating. If you take exceedingly small bites and give the morsels extended time on the tastebuds, it will give more time for the receptors in your brain to explore the nuances of flavors in any food.
Once you’ve been able to fully focus on your senses, you will be better able to become compassionately aware of your thinking, stepping back a bit, so to speak. You will be simply aware of your thoughts in a similar way that you were aware of your senses.
Taking advantage of the quiet
Being quarantined over the holidays is not the most picturesque notion. When we are alone during the holidays — quarantine or not — it can be used as a time to be more compassionate toward ourselves. As you PAUSE during the coming days, may you feel more fulfilled by what you discover. Perhaps you will discover a pristine winter scene within your soul.