Monday, 15 December 2014

My Christmas Self Soothe Habits

I once heard a famous musician state that he reckoned it took over 10,000 hours of practice to master a new skill. That means, not become a master of it, but to become proficient in it. That gives me pause to think when I expect perfection almost immediately when trying to learn new skills. Let me put it this way, 10,000 hours equates to 416 days - that's well over a full calendar year spent doing nothing but practice the new skill.

DBT Core Mindfulness is a simple skill to grasp hold of, but is hard to master. Most of the DBT skills are like that, some people find themselves doubting their effectiveness because of their simplicity. However the reality is that if I work at applying self soothing skills, for example, to my day to day life, then not only do I find them becoming a habit, I find that they begin to permeate my thinking.

If I apply the effort required to master any skill ie well over a year spent doing nothing but that skill, then I realise that the time spent in even the most intensive DBT therapy only gives me approximately 182 hours of practice. Of course those 182 hours assume that I have done nothing but practice mindfulness, say as a single skill. So what? Well it has brought home to me the fact that any hope of the DBT skills I have learned becoming effective in helping is dependent on how much effort and time I invest in developing and honing those skills in my day to day life. Seems obvious. Yet I continue to berate myself for feeling as if I don't deserve to enjoy life, or I feel as if I am a complete failure if my mind wanders when I am trying to be mindful, or if I find myself 'multi-tasking' and therefore not being as effective in a task. However, in real terms I have only been practising these skills for just over two years - in mastery terms I am well short of the 10,000 hours required to be merely competent and that's okay, because outside of being able to bend the laws of time and space I have no option but to live my life in a moment by moment stream.

Which brings me to Christmas - or rather my self soothe Christmas habits. Having used mindfulness and other DBT skills over the past year or so, for the first time in ages I feel as if I am awake to Christmas. Suddenly, I am more aware of how things are changing around me. In the past my experience of Christmas was masked by an emotional mesh over my senses which filtered out the more enjoyable aspects. Along with many others in society I have absorbed the lie that 'it's for the kids' or 'the most important thing is family'. Hardly any wonder that so many who don't have children in their families, or don't have perfect families (isn't that everyone?), or are isolated have a pervading sense of disappointment, from what is a two week, or if you take in advent, a four week season. More than any other time of year the pressure is on to either live in the future (THIS year we're going to....etc.) or the past ('remember when we used to do this, I always loved Christmas'). What a time to really focus on practising mindfulness.


I like to think about it as 'Mindfulness Max' - our senses have so much to be aware of and notice, that we can take our time and really focus on the here and now. Thoughts and memories bombard us from the future and past, derailing our mindful maintenance of moment by moment experience OR giving us the opportunity to build up our mindful skills.

1. SIGHTS - There is no way this aspect of Christmas can escape anyone. One of the real pleasures of the dark days of winter is the appearance of coloured lights in windows and in shops. Even the sight of a bright pink Christmas theme in a garden centre was a pure joy to behold, if only sharing the joke with some friends that it did indeed look as if Barbie had thrown up all over the place! The reason the lights hold such delight for me is because it is such a contrast to the drab winter world outside my window.

Even when I couldn't manage to do any real Christmas decorations in my home, I tried to have a couple of candles. If that is all you can manage to cope with I encourage you to light one, turn off the electronics, for as long as you can cope with it, and watch the flicker of the flame. As with all mindfulness exercises, if you notice thoughts or painful memories, just bring yourself back to simply describing WHAT you see in front of you - what colours are there in the candle? How does the flame move? Flames in candles or fireplaces are fascinating and soothing, especially when we sync our breathing to them.

2. SOUNDS - I don't mean the brash music that blares out incessantly, I mean the sounds of winter outside. I was amazed last week when walking down a ginnel (that's an 'alley' in northern lands) I heard what sounded like hundreds of birds really close to me. I realised when I stopped and looked closely at the hedge beside me that flocks of tiny bluetits and sparrows were chirping away in the middle of a stormy winter day. I have also discovered the soothing tones of Pentatonix - they are an a capella group who have brought some fresh sounds to some very familiar Christmas songs - they don't sound remotely dirge like. The lack of over produced brass and orchestration we have grown used to in our Christmas music is so restful to me. Equally, some Christmas cheesy classics have the familiarity of old friends or comfy slippers.

3. TASTES - at Christmas we can wage all out war on our taste buds - assaulting them with sugar and fat. This year I have rediscovered my love of cooking and baking. I am planning to reinstate my Mulled Wine party - the smells of mulled wine is matched by its soothing taste - a must have for Christmas. Along with the flavour of cloves I love the taste of cinnammon, I enjoy mince pies, short shortcrust pastry and...brussel sprouts! And why not? I have noticed that it is taking me so much longer to eat my meals - I used to be a 'bolter', now I have learned to savour most meals - not only has it helped me to regain my love of cooking, it has also improved my digestion.

4. SMELLS - these are closely allied to taste. Because of this, I think smell can be problematic in that it can evoke so many memories. Because Christmas is about tradition most of our food will have a history. For me making a menu change means that I can truly create a break with the past - this year I am doing a traditional roast beef dinner. I am learning that traditions are only valuable when they help me to enjoy the season. If I am diverted to the past then maybe the tradition needs to be replaced with a new one.


5. TOUCH - this can be a problem for those of us who live alone, or who are not in an intimate relationship. For me, touch has meant beginning with the safety of my dog and cat. Initially the cat was good for me, as he didn't overwhelm me with demands for affection. Dogs are different, dogs need you, they want to be close to and they constantly present themselves to you for strokes and cuddles - at least my dog does! Another thing I have learned to really enjoy is trips to my hairdresser. I have developed a friendship with my hairdresser - it is a positive relationship and one that I trust. I have learned to indulge myself when going for a hairdo. It takes between two and three hours, depending on how laissez faire I'm feeling about my 'do'. I am plied with coffee, trashy mags, gossip, laughs and most soothing of all: the head massage! I know and trust the staff well enough to be able to just close my eyes and focus on the experience of having the tension massaged out of my scalp - it feels safe and offers me human touch without any agenda, hidden or otherwise!

If I am tempted to wander into wishing, or hoping, or regretting about the future or the past, my task becomes to shift the focus of my senses so that they tell me about the here and now. It's okay, I still have 9,680 hours to go before I master that skill.