Two weeks into January and maybe it’s already unpopular to be mentioning the R word. Even if we reject the idea of making firm resolutions, the New Year is often a time for reflection and evaluation.
By Debbie Mason
What feels important as we step into the New Year? What would we like to do differently this year?
The challenge: to identify something worthwhile and to distil it into steps small enough to be measurable and achievable on a daily basis. My friend Richard’s resolutions capture the nature of this challenge. Inspired by Lucy Mangan’s piece in the Guardian, his first resolution “to be more like Nelson Mandela” is certainly very noble and worthy but a tad vague and non-specific. It’s not scoring highly as a SMART target. His second resolution “to clear the Virgin box” (of recorded programmes) so that he can make way for a TiVo box is specific but unlikely to bring with it a sense of achievement or fulfilment. I suspect it’s not a resolution worthy of the great man Richard seeks to emulate.
So the quest for the perfect resolution continues. And, if I may venture to be so bold, I think I may have found it. In their book “Buddha’s Brain”, neuroscientists Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius seek to explain how we can use our minds to shape our brains for greater happiness, love and wisdom.
The field of neuroscience is showing us that the brain remains open to change throughout our lifespan. As they explain: “the simple truth is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brain’s activity and its structure”.
How we habitually use our brain, over time, affects its structure. It’s worth pausing to consider this because it is an incredibly hopeful notion and also one that encourages us to take responsibility for the way we use our brains. Such neuroplasticity means we don’t have to be held hostage by old patterns of anxiety, or worry, or anger and can instead learn how to intentionally access states of calm, or compassion, or joy.
As Hanson and Mendius describe, “… every time you sift positive feelings and views into painful, limiting states of mind – you build a little bit of neural structure. Over time, the accumulating impact of this positive material will literally, synapse by synapse, change your brain”.
Those with a regular meditation practice need no persuading of the benefits of focussing attention on thoughts and feelings that are calming, or loving, or positive. The good news is that shifting your focus increasingly in the right direction does not require a big effort. It is not time consuming, is free both in terms of money and calories, requires no self denial and will make you feel better almost immediately.
In case you need further convincing, cultivating positive thoughts and feelings has been shown to have numerous physiological benefits, including boosting the immune system and contributing to a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress.
See if any of the following ideas appeal:
Recall a place where you felt peaceful and relaxed. Close your eyes and imagine you’re back there now. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling? Take time to savour the experience and recall as many sensory details as possible (quality of the light, colours, temperature, sounds).
Read an inspiring quotation or poem. What is it about these words that touches you?
Remember the things that made you happy as a child – dancing, painting, sitting in a tree, swimming in the sea, reading a book when you were supposed to be asleep? How many of these things do you do regularly now?
Cultivate the gratitude habit – every day think of 3 things you are grateful for.
Recall something that has made you smile – a dog, child, flower. How can you notice these things more often?
Consider which human beings or animals you are glad to be sharing the planet with. Take a moment to really appreciate them.
Remember a time someone was kind to you or you were kind. Maybe commit to a random act of kindness this week.
Good Luck with your resolutions, whatever they may be, and a very Happy 2014 to everyone in Bristol and beyond. Me, I’m off to be more like Oprah.