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A Gentle Way to End the Year
Being kind to ourselves may be the best way to get through this holiday season, the darkness of winter, and the transition into a new year
Hello Agents of Change community!
As we near the end of another year (and head into the winter months, for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), I am reflecting on ways that we can use this moment to practice care, mindfulness, and gratitude. While the transition into a new year is often a time filled with goal-setting and resolutions, I think it might be more important to embrace this as a time for rest and reflection.
The end of a year can be an important time to learn how to be present in the moment, in the here and now. Through all the joy and grief we might be experiencing as we wrap up 2021, we can all benefit from practicing a few new habits of gratitude, care, mindfulness, and personal reflection.
“This very moment is the perfect teacher.”
Learning to be in the present is an important way for us to connect with what we are experiencing and feeling (including all that fear, anxiety, and uncertainty), and find meaning in these experiences.
Planning for the future has certainly felt futile for much of the past year (and still feels a bit that way now, to be honest). So I have been working to develop a few habits of connecting with the present moment and what it has to teach me, including developing a practice of gratitude, care, and personal growth. Sometimes this has meant just taking a few deep breaths, going for a walk in the neighborhood, taking some quiet morning time to journal, and stopping to recognize the simple or small things bringing me moments of joy in my life.
Finding and Celebrating Moments of Joy
At any given moment, there is so much beauty and joy around us, yet we are too often stuck in our routines of work, responsibilities, and distractions. I am certainly guilty of staring at my smartphone screen scrolling through Twitter, email, or the news. And at the end of a day or week, I find that I haven’t recognized or paid attention to much that is bringing me joy, since it’s easier to focus on the things that bring me anxiety or worry (and the news & social media seem to be in the business of making us feel anxious and fearful all the time).
To break this pattern, I am learning to take a moment each day to recognize at least one thing that is bringing me joy and happiness right now. This tiny little practice may seem small, yet it opens us up to notice more of these moments of joy that we might otherwise ignore—a tiny flower popping out of the grass, a warm ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, an uplifting story on the radio, or a goofy joke told at the dinner table. Through this practice, we can work to recognize and bring joy into all the parts of our life, no matter what dark clouds might be swirling around us.
Taking Care of Ourselves and the World Around Us
As we head into a new year, it’s also important to focus on a practice of care. Yes, this means caring for ourselves and treating ourselves with patience and loving kindness. It also means finding ways to care for those around us and to nurture and give back to our planet.
In her book Healing Justice: Self-Care for Change Makers, mindfulness scholar Loretta Pyles notes:
“self-care becomes just as much about being in relationship with and connected to others and the world as it is to oneself.”
Connecting with others has continued to be a challenge even with the shifts in COVID restrictions, yet we can recognize and honor the connections that we have been able to make with people through video chats and Zoom calls even if they don’t feel the same as being in the same space. I miss being at in-person professional gathering just as much as anyone else, yet I am also grateful for all the connections I’ve been able to make with people through technology, including so many people that I would never have met without the pandemic forcing us to go online for so many workshops, conferences, and presentations.
Care can extend beyond ourselves and the people around us, too. Many of the care practices within my own family include spending time out in nature. Through my work with Super Nature Adventures focusing on environmental education and place-based learning, I have been fortunate to work with clients such as nonprofits and parks departments on projects aimed at helping kids, families, and people of all ages make connections with the outdoors.
In addition to receiving the benefits of this time spent connecting with the more-than-human world around us, we can find small ways to give back to nature and nurture our planet. Taking care of our planet and restoring our relationship with the land is a key part of taking care of ourselves. As plant ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass:
“To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.”
This can be as simple as picking up litter along our walks in the outdoors, putting some bird seed out on a cold winter day, or adding some native plants to our garden that provide food or nesting spots for our animal and bird friends. We are an interconnected and inseparable part of our natural environment, so nurturing our planet also means nurturing ourselves.
Reflecting on Our Inner Values
Even for those of us who cannot resist the desire to plot out our goals for the new year ahead, the transition into a new year is a great time to reflect on the inner values and beliefs that we hold dear. Above all else, what matters to you the most right now? Make a list of what you value most in life, without any worries about whether it includes everything or whether the words are perfect. Circle the words or phrases that bring you the most warmth and joy. Now take a brief moment each day or each week to reflect on these words, asking yourself, “Do my actions each day align with my inner values?”
After reading Jerry Colonna’s book Reboot, which focuses on the importance of radical self-inquiry, I have been reflecting on my inner standards of integrity and what matters most to me in the present moment. In Colonna’s words:
“Remember who you are, what you believe about the world, and then, risks be damned, lead from that place.”
The core values and beliefs that we hold dear can offer us a solid foundation as we take each step along life’s path.
Recognizing Our Personal Growth and Learning
As we head into a new year, we often feel the pressure toward self-improvement. Are we going to start running this year, begin a new diet, or read a book every week? As we scroll through social media right now, we see people publicly sharing all kinds of goals and self-improvement challenges. At the core of all of this is our natural tendency to want to be our best self, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s certainly become a huge marketing push (thanks Capitalism), and it just adds to our stress and anxiety during this time of the year.
For me, it has been helpful to recognize that we’re actually learning and growing all the time, whether we set lofty New Years resolutions or not. So perhaps the start of this next year can be a time when we simply recognize the ways in which we are already growing and learning. How could we make a bit more time for those activities in our day and week? Maybe that’s listening to a podcast, writing in a journal, reading a book that’s been gathering dust on our shelf. Being present in the moment can mean treating ourselves with kindness and gentleness, and appreciating all of the ways we are already bringing personal growth into our lives.
A Gentle Start
Being kind to ourselves may truly be the best way to get through this holiday season, the darkness of this winter, and the transition into the new year (and yet another year impacted by the pandemic). These practices of gratitude, care, and personal reflection are some of the ways I am trying to stay grounded as we leave 2021 behind us and enter into the year ahead.
If you need a gentle way to get started, I’ve created a simple reflection page that you can print out and use at any moment (see link to downloadable PDF below). These could be questions you ask yourself each day, at the end of each week, or during moments when you feel a bit stuck. The quotes included also offer us a starting point for our own reflections and self-inquiry.
Take a deep breath, and know that we are all getting through this together.
May these final weeks of 2021 bring you all care and joy! I look forward to connecting with you all again as we move into a new year.
Note: This is adapted from a blog post I wrote at the beginning of 2021 for Super Nature Adventures, which I thought was worth sharing again via the Agents of Change community this year as a way to refocus on care, joy, gratitude, and personal growth. After all, this work is about developing habits and regular practices. So it’s always good to return to and reconnect with these ideas.