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Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.
As 2020 drew to a merciful close, our editor sent me a note suggesting we begin the new year with a focus on renewal and the environment around us. I filed that thought away as I began a break from my normal routine for a few days, but it kept nibbling away at a corner of my subconscious. Having lived through a crazy, head-spinning, and gut-wrenching year, we were all ready for a reprieve in 2021; aching for relief and deliverance from all that we had endured. We fervently wished and prayed for change, for that time of renewal and return to normalcy. Instead, we were visited by the horrendous events of January 6th and their aftermath. Like so many others, my world stopped spinning for a few days as I watched in horror – and then re-played in slow motion – the brutal assault on our democracy and our very way of life. All the while, news about the pandemic did not get any better either. Did we not turn the page on our calendars? Had we flashed back into the dark abyss?
It took me two more weeks, but I’ve finally begun to breathe again in the past few days. My usual, optimistic self is peering out cautiously from that dark recess. Now it’s time, I tell myself. Now it’s time for renewal, time for change, time to emerge from one of the darkest periods in our lifetimes, dare to hope, and strive for a return to normalcy.
Oh, normal sounds so good now!
“Renewal is associated with a Stop,” writes Bob Dunham, “Stopping is not just Pausing. Stopping is open to choose a new path, not just resuming the old one. With Stopping, we don’t just pause and rest to resume the game. In Stopping, we reflect and choose whether the old game is worth returning to, whether there is a new and different game to play – perhaps a game that is healthier, more meaningful, valuable, and loving.”
I think that’s the perfect mindset for us as we make our way out of the tunnel we’ve been in for so many months, and into that sunshine that awaits us. Let’s not kid ourselves, a steep hill still lies ahead of us, and it will require grit, determination, and collective will to help each other to the top of the ridge and descend towards our new normal – whatever that may be. However, we can get there if we choose. Of that, I am now convinced.
I associate renewal with the cycles of nature. There is a rhythm to the cyclic process of creation – the birth, nourishment, and growth of plants and other living species. Let’s take a leaf from Mother Nature’s playbook. Barb Schmidt, a teacher of spiritual practices and author of The Practice, points to Springtime as a metaphor for our lives. We can focus our attention on living in the world and “feel rejuvenated and motivated to make our lives and the world a more beautiful place,” she urges. We need to see “the beauty that is already present in each moment by bringing our attention right where we are: right where we need to be—right here in the now.” We need to train ourselves to build this awareness that gives us access to that inner light, pursue our purpose, find meaning, and thrive. Looking inwards to nurture our inner world will help us blossom in the world outside. And along the way, we can plant a few flowers and trees for the others around us to cherish.
Let’s heed Barb Schmidt’s advice. Let’s resolve to conquer the hill that remains before us, and in doing so make this our time of renewal!
How do we lift the weight of the past year off our shoulders, build this inner awareness, find that inner light and begin afresh to pursue our purpose? First, stay away from resolutions. Around 40% of people in the US make resolutions when seeking a fresh start, as at the beginning of a new year. Resolutions create expectations, and can very soon become burdens. Instead, focus on specific outcomes. Pick out a purpose that you care about, that is meaningful and important to you. Whenever you are able to do so, take small concrete steps to achieve that purpose, without focusing on the time it might take to reach that goal. As long as you stay connected to your purpose, you will get there.
Tailor your expectations and demands on yourself. We have all been through a period of tremendous stress that is not going away just because we started a new year. Reduce the pressure on yourself by focusing on and prioritizing self-compassion. The uncertainty that has plagued us over the past year is not going away soon. We’ve all come to expect some level of predictability in our day-to-day lives, without which we find it challenging to make plans. This makes it extremely difficult to set and achieve goals for ourselves. The way around this dilemma is to set smaller, shorter-term goals.
Achieving one such goal before setting the next one assures a higher chance of success; it’s a way to deal with uncertainty that helps to build confidence, morale, and a sense of accomplishment. These small wins “add up over time” and keep you motivated, says Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. They help set yourself up for success. Another key is practicing gratitude; which Ms. Dattilo believes, has the power to bring about positive changes in us. And along the way, do not forget to make the time to do something – however small – that will brighten the day for another – be that a parent, child, sibling, neighbor, friend, colleague or stranger. Bringing light into another’s day will brighten your own.
Find purpose, set micro-goals, practice self-compassion, self-care, and gratitude. Reward yourself and help another. Dr. Susan McDaniel defines renewal as the state of being made new, fresh, or strong again—to restore, replenish, revive, re-establish, recover. An appropriate definition in our current context!
Chart a course for your own renewal, one that is healthier, more meaningful, valuable, and loving.
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. He is also a columnist for India Currents.
With sincere thanks to Ms. Poonam Singh for the use of her beautiful photograph.