Here in Missoula, Montana, we’ve seen a handful of warm, sunny days lately. These have been welcome hints of spring. The snow has melted from my yard and the birds and squirrels seem friskier than usual. With the warmer weather comes a natural shift in mindset and an opportunity to shed some bad winter habits in favor of better ones.
I write this while snacking on an apple, by the way, instead of one of the protein snack-bars I keep handy in my desk drawer. For me, the spring brings a desire to get active again after a few months of physical hibernation. Luckily, my wife is on board and we have been trying some 10 and 15-minute High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts. Today, perhaps, we’ll add a run to the routine.
Paul Napper, a psychology consultant to business leaders and co-author of The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms, suggests that spring is an ideal time to make some positive changes in your life, emphasizing that we always have a choice about when to make changes for the better.
In a recent article in The New York Times, reporter Christina Caron examined advice from Napper and a few other wellness experts. Here are some of her findings.
It’s always a joy to see mindfulness recommended in a mainstream publication, and it tops Caron’s list of easy ways to tackle languishing mental health in the spring. Pausing daily to simply be in the moment is a wonderful practice for becoming centered and joyful. Even in the madness of the world around us, we can stop, breathe, and smile for a few seconds.
As I write this, apple core in my peripheral vision to the right, I can hear the chirping of a bird in the plum tree in my back yard. I can also hear the quiet whirring of my mini-split heat pump as it blows warm air across my room. My feet are planted on the firm, cool floor beneath me. And I breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
Even a short meditation or moment of mindfulness like this each day can reduce stress. For me, each meditation also brings a sense of lightness and joy. So much so, that I usually wonder to myself, “why am I not doing this more often!?”
As we conclude the practice of simply observing the world around us and our physical and mental feelings within, we can take stock of the world around us. My office is a complete mess. It has been since moving in last summer and I’m fairly sure it will be for another month or two. That’s okay. For me, a messy office is not an energy-drain or distraction. For many people I know, it is. The room in the house I most need clean is the kitchen. I can visualize it now. It’s clean.
Imaginatively touring the world around you in this state of calm and relaxation can help you decide what needs to be done today or the next time you have free time. There is no urgency to do anything now. We’re just allowing our observation of the world to widen outward.
A Journal, or To-Do Lists
A number of studies have shown in recent years what many have known for centuries: that writing down our thoughts can lead to greater well-being. For many, the simple act of writing brings both joy and clarity. The great French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961) wrote, “We know not through our intellect but through our experience.” Even our own thoughts can be better known to us through the experience of writing them down.
My own great success in writing these days comes in the way of To-Do lists. They are an ever-changing, fluid document of my life. Groceries. Check. Taxes. Check. Editing. Check. Clean office. Not Checked.
The act of writing these on paper, and countless other things, helps to free up the mental resources that had been used in trying to remember them. Once written, I can look at them. I can underline or highlight the ones that really should be done now. And then, with even greater relief, I can finish them and check them off my list.
Try a Social Media Fast
A bolder option (for many) for cleaning out mental obstacles in spring is a social media fast. News fasts have been a popular tool for many people over the years to step out of the very fast-paced information world. Usually, these last about 30 days.
I’ve only done one 30-day social media fast and it was years ago. But it was pretty amazing. After about 3 days, I no longer missed the social media content. After 3 more days, I was positively enjoying the extra time I suddenly had.
A couple years ago I did remove Twitter from my mobile phone and installed “news feed eradicator” (A web browser extension) on my computer for Facebook. I had found myself endlessly scrolling Twitter on my phone and doing the same on Facebook on my computer. Problem solved.
For complete technology fasts (from social media and news), I rely on time in nature or on meditation retreat. Both offer opportunities to leave behind devices entirely, knowing that what I discover within and in the world around me is far better than what I’ll find in social media and news feeds.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.