February is traditionally the month of love, of celebrating connection with loved ones. Many around the world celebrate Valentine’s Day in some shape or form, although not all are aware of its mysterious origins.

Mysterious origins

The Feast of Saint Valentine was first celebrated in 496, 1525 years ago. Numerous stories of martyrdom abound, with the theme of love threading through most. One popular belief was that a priest from Rome broke the emperor’s ban on Christian soldiers to marry, by arranging clandestine weddings for them. Thrown into jail, he sent the jailor’s daughter a love letter ending with “from your Valentine” on 14 February, before his execution.

What’s our context?

These days, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with loved ones (also amongst friends and single people) with cards, chocolates and cupids. Giving roses also symbolise love.

Cultural differences add variety and richness to it. In Finland and Estonia, 14 February is celebrated by honouring friends, neighbours and significant others. In Slovenia, Saint Valentine heralds the beginning of spring, bringing greater emphasis to tending the fields. The Welsh celebrate love on St. Dwynwen’s Day on 25 January, when men gift women hand-carved wooden spoons. In Japan, it’s the girl who gives: ‘giri-choco’ is given to friends and family that are loved non-romantically, whilst ‘honmei-choco’ is given to a romantic interest or partner.

Amidst the cultural variations, there’s an underlying theme of appreciation, care and connection for those that are loved, cared for and some sense of honouring nature.  

As Valentine’s Day beckons this year, in the context of the pandemic and social unrest, it’s also an opportune moment to take a step back. To reflect on how, amidst the challenges we face today, we can change our game, to:

  • draw strength from misfortune and challenging times;
  • awaken to reconnect with ourselves and each other; and
  • promote greater appreciation and understanding of those around us.

My game changer

At the end of last year, to bring 2020 to a symbolic end, I decided to stay at home and participate in an online retreat. I felt a deep calling from within to reconnect to myself, in a more profound way. Having set up a ‘home retreat’ ambience, I was ready to embrace the challenge of ‘tuning out, to tune in’, for three whole days.

I chose to turn it into a silent retreat, disconnecting from social media and devices. That decision to engage in quietude was a game changer for me, in terms of deepening my experience.

Two teachers took it in turns to guide the retreat. I’ve done silent retreats before, so felt comfortable aligning with my body’s intuitive guidance to drift into its own space of stillness. During one seated session, the Zoom connection got cut off part way through. In another session, a surprise teacher came in and started talking – continuously. I felt somewhat distracted from my meditative space. Reminding myself of the luxury of being in my own home, I turned down the volume until the teacher’s voice was barely audible. And re-engaged with my own stillness.

Despite the temporary distractions, these two spells of embracing the total silence turned out to be the most profound during the entire retreat. Had I allowed myself to be perturbed by the interruptions, I would not have reaped the benefits. Instead, through the stillness, I felt myself merge with the expansive space of quiet. From that space, I experienced the arising of dull ache in parts of the body that I had not been aware of previously. With a sense of curiosity and non-attachment, I allowed the aching parts to reveal the deeper source of the physical discomfort and sensation.

As I connected through my breath, body and emotions, insights began to emerge.

The whole of 2020, whilst many people appeared to be bored, I had not experienced a single moment of boredom. I had kept myself busy engaging with a myriad of activities. There was always a pile of things on the ‘to do’ list. I didn’t seem to have time to prepare my meals in a leisurely way, let alone make space to eat and digest them properly. Even my own daily yoga practices felt somewhat more rushed, even though I emphasise mindfulness when I teach. There was always the internal pressure to squeeze more into the day. I appeared to have lost awareness of being fully engaged with what I was doing. Of being present with every breath, sensation and experience. 

My retreat gave me a framework to discipline myself into making time to sit still, be actively quiet and space to reconnect with myself. This was way more intense way than my daily meditations (which I now realise had got shorter in 2020…).

The habit of busy-ness had become a self-perpetuating, supersonic, systemic cycle during the lockdown. I had begun to notice some impact on my creativity and inspiration. I realised that I had brought myself into a hamster wheel of constant activity ‘doing, doing, doing’ and through that, forgoing precious time to connect more with loved ones. I realised that, if left unchecked, being trapped in the wheel any longer would have easily paved the way to a burnout…   

Reflections on deepening connection

Having applied the brakes, I gained insights and perspectives to set the tone for 2021. I was reminded that what really matters is less the doing, more the presence and quality of being in the moment. Being more present and aware with:

  • myself, to allow more space to breathe, relax and digest experiences;
  • loved ones and friends, to grow the space for deeper connection, meaning and sharing; and
  • colleagues and the wider community, to expand that supportive space for greater appreciation and understanding.

Realising these, the release of aches from my body was palpable – it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my body, replaced by the sheer lightness of a feather. It was as though the drainpipe had been unclogged naturally and could flow freely again. With a renewed sense of vitality, creativity and energy.

I realised that no amount of busy-ness will make up for lost opportunities for greater connection. We’re reminded time and again of the fragility of human life.

May this Valentine serve as a reminder to renew our appreciation, care and connection for our loved ones, others and nature, whilst we still can. And we’re in a better position to do that once we’re connected within.

“We have to dust things off every once in a while, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases.”

– Haruki Murakami

This Valentine, I invite you to pause and reflect:

  • what habits can you be dusting off?
  • how can you be letting in more fresh air?
  • when is the water in the vase due for a change?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Then, smell the roses.