Action in Stillness, Stillness in Motion: Inspiration for harnessing the gifts of winter

Dr. Mahalia Freed, ND

As we sit in the depths of winter, as the days oh-so-slowly get longer, I am thinking about change and growth. I am cultivating the patience needed to await the return of the warm sun, and seeking tools to inspire and enrich continued personal evolution. Winter is often framed as something to endure while we wait for the slush to go away and the warmth of the sun’s rays to return so that we can dispense with bulky, dark winter coats, hats, scarves, mitts, and boots. However, the season offers its own gifts. Along with lovely snowscapes, it presents abundant opportunities for stillness, introspection, and inner growth.

I often tell clients and audiences at talks that the most powerful healing tool we have is between our ears. Our minds. So, let us launch into the new calendar year with intentions to better harness this tool.

What are you searching for this winter? Have you resolved to get outside more this year? To eat more veggies? To carve out time for some kind of spiritual practice? To be more present in the small moments that make up your day? What has stopped you from getting to these goals before now? Most often, it is our minds, particularly our outdated stories – the unexamined mental maps of who we are and who we can be– that get in our way. Use the tips and info below to inspire you to examine and rewrite those stories, starting now.

Body – Internal Nourishment via External Action

No, I am not going to tell you to resolve to exercise. You have heard that one before, resolved to do so before…once or twice. This is another angle: Nature and Health.

Connection to nature is firmly established as supportive of healthy immune function, stress reduction, and better mood. Richard Louv popularized the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the phenomenon he observed in modern urban kids in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Indeed, children with access to green space demonstrate lower incidence of AD(H)D than children without. But, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that ‘growth’ is something only children do, we must remember that nature is essential for grown-ups too. Surgical patients recover faster when their hospital window offers a view of trees rather than parking lot (Louv, 2005). People in prison whose cells face farmland are healthier than people whose cells face the courtyard (Louv, 2005). Walking in a forest measurably elevates the immune system’s functioning, and increases anticancer compounds (Li et al, 2007). Even looking at a forest decreases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and decreases blood pressure (Park et al, 2010). Contrary to what you may think, you don’t have to go to the country or even wait until spring to find your own way of connecting to nature. Here in Toronto, you can walk or ski High Park’s forested trails, hike the Rouge Valley, or create an urban wilderness adventure through the Humber or Don Valley trail systems. Go from south to north, and east to west, all within protected park trails. So, for your total health, get outside to play this winter!

Mind

In changing our thoughts, let us be inspired by the cells that line our small intestine, which are replaced by new cells every 48 hrs. How is that for fast-paced change? Even our bones, which we think of as static, are in fact entirely rebuilt every 7 years. It follows then, that if we are guided by our bodies’ innate wisdom, change is not only possible, but essential for optimal health. We can start by noticing our thoughts. How do your thoughts make you feel? Are they even true? Then, make a conscious choice about what your next thought might be. Use awareness and mental discipline to gradually develop new neural pathways by choosing different ways of thinking about that same old thing. For some, it may be a relationship story, such as “I don’t deserve to be loved”; or “I never fit in”; or “When s/he does this or that, then I can be happy”. For others, it may be stories about finances that are dictated by an unexamined core belief about never having enough – which, in turn, informs low-level or omnipresent worry about what might happen, even when we have enough. Personally, my new year’s intention is to cancel my subscription to “the worry channel”, once and for all. When a(nother) worry comes up, I observe it and “change the channel”. I think about all the gifts in my life, or how cute my puppy is (see what I mean? that is her, above!), or the joy that is homemade cookies. When we investigate our worrisome stories – those that predictably arise when the mind is on autopilot – we give ourselves the opportunity to uncover the fear conditioning that we have imbibed via our families and social institutions. And few things can yield greater change in how we experience our lives day to day than the freedom we are granted when we surrender fear-based thinking. When I practice this, gradually, worries become less automatic, and I become more and more free to live my own way as I get out of my way. This is a step. Changing our minds isn’t always as fast as the turnover of cells in the small intestine, but the results are liberating. And, yes, deeply transformative!

Biology and Beliefs: The New, Healthier You

Gene expression – and our corresponding physiological reality – is controlled by the environment the genes reside in.  Part of this environment is the chemical expression of our thoughts. Yes, thoughts have a physical reality in our bodies. Thus, we have so much more control over our health than we were taught to believe. In the words of pioneer in the field of biology and beliefs, Bruce Lipton, PhD, “When we change the way we respond to our environment, we change our health and our fate”. With respect to genetic propensity to disease, Lipton writes: “Under the archaic belief of genetic control we essentially perceived ourselves as victims of our heredity — if cancer or Alzheimer’s was in our family lineage, we were led to believe that we should anticipate that we might get stuck with the same fate. However, epigenetic science completely rewrites that limiting belief, for it reveals that through our “mind,” we can change the chemistry of our blood, and in the process, become masters of our fate.”~ (From the preface to “Happiness Genes: Unlock the Positive Potential Hidden in Your DNA” by James D. Baird, PhD with Laurie Nadel PhD) Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Wishing you and all of those you love a very happy, healthy new year full of subtle yet powerful changes in your mind and body!

Mahalia Freed is a naturopathic doctor happily living and practicing in central/east Toronto. In her family practice, Mahalia has a special focus in endocrinology (including PMS, PCOS, thyroid concerns), mental health, oncology, fertility, and perinatal care.

References

Li Q. et al. Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2007 Apr-Jun;20(2 Suppl 2):3-8.

Lipton B. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles. 2008. Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Inc.

Louv R. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. 2005. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Park BJ et al. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med (2010) 15:18–26.

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