The Forgotten Art of StillnessJan 03, 2022
In an age where we are told that even newborn babies need to be taught how to sleep, it's little wonder that so many of us are struggling with slowing down, being still and yes, even sleeping.
Stillness, relaxation, winding down and by extension of that- sleep- are all becoming elusive to us in our modern lives. But why?
As a GP and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant myself, who specialises in helping families through the often tumultuous first 12 or so weeks of parenting that make up the Fourth Trimester- I feel that this is something that starts very young for most of us. I'm talking about the very beginning of our existence as babies that the biological drivers of homeostasis are already being circumvented by the way we live our modern lives.
Let's use my work with newborn babies and their families as an example...
I can safely say that newborn babies do not need to learn how to sleep. Unlike most other humans on the planet- they possess the innate ability to be mindful, to experience life simply as it is. When they're hungry- they're hungry. When they're upset- they're upset. And, when they're tired- they sleep- if we don't place barriers in their way.
The "problem" of infant sleep often comes from the barriers that are being placed between infants and falling asleep. Barriers like:
- Timing feeds and bypassing the natural hunger cues that babies have. Contrary to what baby books might have us believe, babies do not eat on a schedule, just as we don't. It is natural for a baby to want to feed frequently & feed to sleep- there are even hormones in breastmilk that make babies sleepy. The idea of "feed, play, sleep" is a social construction that completely bypasses human physiology.
- Trying to control our environments by staying home in dark rooms for all naps when newborn babies are biologically driven to simply sleep when they're tired- night or day- they don't start to develop a circadian rhythm (the awareness of day from night) until they're closer to 4-6 months of age. Day or night, light or dark, it's all the same to them. Yet still, we try to control it.
- Opening ourselves up to the rich sensory nourishment that is available to us in our natural world. We spend so much of our days feeling over stimulated and exhausted by the man-made world we live in- television, social media, capitalism- that we often lose sight of the fact that our natural environments are the perfect antidote to this. Instead we coup ourselves up at home and try to limit our outside interactions in a reactive attempt to avoid overstimulation. Think about the last time you stayed home all day- did it make you feel sleepy and ready for bed by bed time? Humans are designed for stimulation and connection, but we must learn how to be discerning in what we take in.
- Driving ourselves crazy as parents trying to do everything perfectly. Babies are not meant to be stress-free little creatures who never cry. They learn how to regulate their stress response through a process of co-regulation. When they feel tired, overwhelmed, scared, hungry- basically any human emotion they may feel- they will call (cry) for us as care givers. Our role is to share our stress system with them as we meet that biological need and then teach them how to regulate their own stress response by modelling our own- this is co-regulation. The issue for most of us is that our own stress system is so incredibly overburdened by our own modern lives, that co-regulation is impossible. A crying baby becomes the straw that breaks an already stressed camels back.
So let's come back to us as adults for a second.
The thing is that most of us were parented in a world that had already begun to teach parents how to bypass these innate physiological drivers. We are simply parenting from the place where we were parented. Rather than slowing down life to meet the pace of a new baby, we expect babies to slide into our fast paced and busy world. The same world that is burning so many of us out.
Any one else seeing a problem here?
Now I'm not saying all of our lives need to be slow and meandering. Of course, we need some stress to drive our achievements- but what if we balanced it better? What if we learnt some lessons from babies and honed in our those innate biological drivers that maintain homeostasis within our stress systems and our bodies?
- Mindfully eating according to our body's cues rather than the clock.
- Being flexible in our thinking and adapting to our environments rather than manipulating our environment for our own gain.
- Immersing ourselves in the rich sensory feedback that comes from time in nature- this simply cannot be replicated by a screen.
- Prioritising connection- humans have evolved to be social creatures, we don't thrive in isolation. Deep, authentic connection with others is what we need- but relationships take work, effort and compromise- we need to make that a priority, not just something we expect to be able to do as an after thought.
- Co-regulation. Emotional contagion is real, we all need support to build and maintain our own emotional barometer. Just as fear, stress and anxiety spread, so too does calm and compassion. Choosing where you invest your time and energy in terms of relationships can help you to feel supported and co-regulated as you make your way through life too.
Think of the thoughts and feelings that crowd into any moment of stillness and downtime for you.
Things like "I want to eat that chocolate but I can't because I'll get fat" or "my back hurts when I meditate, I can't sit still" or thoughts about an uncomfortable interaction with a friend or family member or perhaps emotions might arise that make you feel uncomfortable to sit with them on your own?
Notice how each of these thoughts and feelings that crowd into the moments of stillness we try to carve out for ourselves tend to reflect the very basic physiological drivers that we've been discussing we have been trained since infancy to overrule and avoid?
So what does this mean for the forgotten art of stillness?
Well, it means that we all need to get back to basics.
- Listening to the subtle feedback that our bodies give us when we eat certain foods and learning how to make food choices based on this rather than a socially constructed frame work of "good" and "bad" foods.
- Learning how excess stress feels in our bodies and heeding it's warnings to slow down rather than push through sometimes.
- Spending time reflecting on the difference between healthy striving- the type that helps us to achieve goals and grow in life, and unhealthy striving- the sort that is spurred on by comparison, perfectionism and self criticism.
- Learn how to deal with the discomfort of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and emotions. If we weren't parented in a way where we have ever experienced co-regulation as we learnt how to deal with these things, then perhaps we seek professional help from a psychologist or counsellor to support us and co-regulate as we begin this process for ourselves.
- As we learn and master these things, we start to give back to the world in the form of deep, authentic connections with others. When we feel supported and calm, we are better placed to become the sort of guiding light that helps co-regulate others in life.
Stillness is a multifaceted, complex beast. It is not simply the absence of busyness.
Finding stillness is about learning how to listen to the quiet voice our bodies speak in.
Finding stillness is about feeling supported and cared for, not alone.
Finding stillness is an ever shifting journey of discovery, disappointment and dynamism.
Finding stillness is worth every ounce of energy that you find within yourself to invest in this process, and I promise you won't regret it.
Want to learn more about mindfulness, meditation and finding stillness? Then how about working with me? Click the link for more information on how.
If you're a new or expectant parent and you want to know a bit more about how I guide and prepare parents for the exciting journey ahead of them then check out my page MORE THAN MILK.
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