creating your year of self-care

This post is part of Seven Keys to an Artful Life, a free e-course I am offering on the blog. You can join us by checking in every week for a new Artful Challenge, and following up in the comments!

Those of you who have been following my blog for awhile will know that attuning to and celebrating the changing seasons and cycles of nature is very important to me. I believe that our sense of well-being is more intimately tied to these cycles than we realize. I believe that the separation from natural cycles made possible by the many comforts of our modern world (heat, air-conditioning, electric light, the entertaining noise of media and machines, mass production of food, even the brightening of the night sky in urban areas) has deprived us of a connection of great value to our feeling of belonging, our emotional health, and our capacity for joy. Now, to be clear, I am not advocating a Walden-like escape from modern life, nor am I a neo-Luddite. I adore my modern comforts and feel gratitude daily for the technologies that support me, from prescription drugs to heated leather car seats. I am infinitely grateful that I can smell good every day, use an indoor toilet, treat infections painlessly, choose how many children to have, etc., etc.. However, I am also grateful that I have learned enough about the cycles of the moon and the paths of the heavenly bodies that I can make sense of the night sky and the changing light throughout the year. I am grateful that my hormonal cycle is visibly linked to the moon phases. I am comforted by the predictable cycling of my mood with the cycling of the year. All of this gives me profound comfort and a sense of deep belonging.

So what does all this have to do with self-care? I believe it can bring perspective to the demands we place on ourselves, and the harshness with which we too often treat ourselves. Are we like machines, that can expect to function in an identical way from day to day, throughout the month, night or day, summer or winter? Or are we organic beings with fluctuating needs, desires, capacities, and strengths? What do you expect of yourself?

Of course we are organic and fluctuating beings. What I feel, what I need, and what I am capable of giving is different on this soft sunlit spring evening than it would be on a crisp winter morning or a summer midnight, even given identical tasks and circumstances.

I propose that we can use the natural cycle of the year as a map for creating well-being throughout our personal year - a metaphorical as well as biological format for predicting, preparing for, and ultimately meeting our own needs for self-care and nurturing. In this Artful Challenge, we are going to explore how. If all this sounds esoteric, let me assure you it isn't. It's natural, intuitive, and eminently practical.

This week's Artful Challenge is called Creating My Year of Self-Care
By the end of the three step process, you will have a roadmap for naturally, easily, and intuitively improving your self-care over the next twelve months. Wheee!!!

Step One - Explore Your Year
  1. Get your hands on some un-precious calendar pages for the next twelve months (through February 2012) - a printout from your computer calendar program is perfect.
  2. Gather pen and some felt markers or highlighter in three different colours, your calendar pages from above, and maybe your journal.
  3. With your pen, go quickly through your year (without worrying about exact dates) and mark out the big, important blocks of time that make up your year - your personal year - i.e. family vacation, stressy Christmas lead-up, I might get the flu now, S.A.D. season, very busy at work, booked vacation time, planting garden, grandchild due date, big conference, important anniversaries including deaths... etc. remember, Bold Strokes - just get it sketched in. This is not your date book. Now highlight all these items in one colour.
  4. Now on the pages themselves, or in your journal, do some quick free associating about your moods and feelings at these times, using the times you have marked out as journal prompts. "Granny's death anniversary - I usually feel down for a week or so - this was the time of year we used to make strawberry jam together... Busy season at work - I usually feel excited and motivated..." etc..
  5. Now, go through your calendar from the beginning again, and write in the significant seasonal markers in your area, things that you usually notice: "lilacs bloom now... fog fog fog.... first snow around now... pollution gets bad now... whale migration...dry season" etc.. then highlight these things in a different colour.
  6. Finally, go through your calendar and highlight all the new and full moons in a third colour. If your calendar doesn't show the moon phases, you can find them here. (You will have to fill in your own location)
Step Two - Make a Seasonal Self-Care Mandala
    My self-care mandala
    Now that you've spent some time contemplating your year, and assessing your changing self-care needs through the seasons, it's time to plug them into your calendar - give yourself a written or visual reminder of how best to care for yourself throughout the coming year. You may choose to do this in a more Left Brain way, by going through your planner and making some notes to yourself (you could even include some images, little drawings or collage bits) about what you might be needing and how best to support yourself - you could even schedule blocks of time for certain types of self-care. If this sounds too methodical, you might want to try a more Right Brain approach, and create a self-care mandala, like I did, to remind you of your seasonal self-care needs and goals. I used a big square of decorative paper (I found one with colours that seemed to correspond to the seasons) and I glued a big circle of watercolour paper on top. Leaving space for writing around the edges of the watercolour paper, I created a central collage of my essential self-care needs. After dedicating a quarter to each of the seasons and labeling them, I used the white space to note self-care goals for each season. I'm going to put this up in my studio as a gentle reminder to do my best for myself. Have fun with this, send me the results for posting if you like!

    Step Three - Contemplate Natural Cycles

    So much of life is about moving through change with grace. Our bodies, feelings, surroundings, and circumstances are in constant flux. Some of us are comfortable with change, and seem to dance through life, moving with the currents. Some of us find ourselves resisting and trying to hold on, sometimes causing ourselves discomfort and difficulty. Most of us spend our lives sometimes dancing in the flow, sometimes digging in our heels in resistance. I find that if I practice grace and care for myself well in the small transitions, the big ones become gentler and easier. For me, the cycles of nature provide a beautiful model of how to roll through the changes with grace and even beauty. In many societies past and present, this connection to natural cycles is woven into the fabric of the culture. In our contemporary culture, we might have to engage our effort and creativity to re-establish a personal connection to natural cycles, but the rewards are immense. Here are a few inspirations for connecting our cycles of self-care and health to natural cycles:

    Ayurveda, the traditional East Indian wellness practice, offers tools for staying in balance through the seasonal changes, and for keeping our bodies in balance with the larger rhythms. In Ayurveda each of the seasons is ruled by one of the major life energies, or doshas, and we can keep each energy in balance within our own bodies and psyches by following certain practices, especially at times of seasonal change. Ayurveda is a complex and sophisticated science, about which I am just beginning to learn. What has been most useful for me in my own self-care routine, is the way Ayurveda addresses the moments of seasonal change as moments of both vulnerability and potential power. Simple advice like avoiding meat and not taking daytime naps in Spring, eating warming foods and spices and indulging in massage in Fall, getting extra hours of sleep in Winter, and rising extra early for meditation in Summer all make wonderful sense, and the idea of aligning with the greater energy of the season is really appealing. You can read a bit more about the doshas here, listen to two fun podcasts about Ayurveda here, (#148 for fall, #161 for Spring) or check out advice for Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall from Blue Lotus Ayurveda. You may find some pearls of wisdom

    The Feminine Life Cycle
    I love being a woman. Connecting with my femininity is a huge part of who I am and the work I do in the world. Life in a woman's body affords so many opportunities for learning about and accepting change and natural cycles. You may not be the woman who wears long flowing skirts, attends moon circles, and waters the garden with her menstrual blood, but how you relate to your own cycles can still be integrated into your self-care. Until menopause, and to a degree, after, our bodies are subject to powerful monthly cycles. Most of us go along without much fuss, maybe a few joking asides to our girlfriends. As contemporary, hard-working women, we have a desire to rise above the biological trivia our bodies present us with so regularly. We don't care to be judged, assessed, or defined by our biology. Nor should we be. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than thinking of escaping the vulnerability of our cycles, can we think of harnessing their power? Simple knowledge can be very empowering. SO many things shift with our cycles - our stress levels, pain thresholds, mood, appetite, sex drive, energy levels, creativity, and, and... I've been paying careful attention to my cycle for many years, and I know a few things that have proved very practical. I know when not to schedule waxing and tattoo appointments (our pain threshold fluctuates widely during the month). I know when to get a facial, when to have plenty of food in the house, when to schedule an important creative brainstorming meeting, and when not to schedule a meeting where I am being assessed in any way. As I move into my forties, I am re-learning my cycle, watching things shift, and enjoying the changes. Dr. Christiane Northrup's books are wonderful, practical resources if you want to explore these ideas further.

    The Moon
    You know from reading my blog that I am one of those women who goes to moon circles! I really enjoy connecting with the energies of increase and decrease, renewal and release, that are symbolized for me with the monthly dance of the moon. I've shared extensively about this on my blog:

    The New Moon: To me it's like a mini-New Year's every month. It's a chance to begin a-new, reset the cycle, plant seeds, plant goals, be fresh. One night it's all in darkness; the next night there's this delicate sliver of silver, just a thread in the twilight, setting with the setting sun. It always takes my breath away. I get this little surge of hope, an affirmation that it is always possible to begin again, that we all, always, have a chance at a clean slate... (read more)

    The Full Moon: I love those moments when the beauty of the world takes my breath away. A big yellow moon rising at sunset has often been one of those moments for me. There's lots of full moon folklore; coven meetings, wolves, lunatics & crime waves. Are we really affected by the full moon? Does it exert some magical pull on our watery bodies or our primitive minds? Maybe. What I do know for sure is that to flourish, we need to feel connected to the world around us... (read more) And if you haven't gotten it yet, my in-tune-with-the-moon card can be seen and printed here.

    Can you find a way to plug some of these ideas in to your self-care calendar? What do you think? What resonate the most with you? What natural cycles most readily connect with? Do you have a special tradition or framework for connecting?

    If you'd like, share your experiences with these challenges in the comments.

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