Happy December, Village!
No? It’s not December yet? Sure feels like it! The world is rushing towards the festive month like it’s our job. Seasonal commercials have started, and everyone always looks like they are having the time of their lives, without a care in the world (they’re so rested looking! And so much home baking! House like an interior decor magazine! And how do everyone’s outfits always match?!). But even the best of us feels like the grinch at times through the month of December. At its best, it is a time of beauty, family, and community. At its worst, it can be a time of immense pain and sadness.
So… why are the holidays so stressful? What about peace, love, and joy?
- Expectations of both self and others~ these can be financial, social, physical, and emotional
- The perceived need to “get it all done”
- It is often a time of loss, grief, or loneliness for individuals and families
- Pressure to be “perfect” increases for many of us
While mindfulness will not get us out of the family reunions and office parties, it can help us control our reactions to our stressors. paying attention to the present moment. Not judging things as right or wrong. Let’s be clear first: to be mindful, you don’t need to be holding a crystal mala on a mountain top in a flowing white gown. Mindful awareness is just bringing our attention to what is, not what we think SHOULD be.
As the beautiful Buddhist monk and educator Thich Nhat Hanh states, “Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our minds, and in the world. Through it, we avoid harming ourselves and others”. And in the words of Jon Kabat Zinn, originator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, “minfulness means paying attention, in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”.
This is huge at the holiday season because however we feel about this time of year, good or bad, we all generally carry some heavy expectations… of ourselves, of others, and of what the holiday season “is supposed to” look like.
The best mindfulness practices will be the ones that resonate with you. These are my invitations- feel free to pick up on any of them, or none at all. Any practice you choose must feel like a fit, and should decrease, not increase, your stress in life. If mindfulness becomes just another “should”, ignore me! Or, if you are just feeling that your emotions are too heavy to handle, perhaps you are in a place where counselling or another form of supportive wellness therapy are a more suitable entryway to mindful awareness.
1. Pick one “focused attention” mindfulness practice that you can do anywhere, anytime. These can be so helpful when you need them in a stressful moment, but they can also be developed as important habits (e.g. find a time every day, even if that’s in the bathroom, in your car, etc). The important thing is that you are grounding yourself in your body in a way that calms your nervous system~ focusing on surroundings, breath, or sensations.
- 5-4-3-2-1: Find your breath. Calmly begin to focus on your senses. Find 5 things you see. 4 things you feel. 3 things you hear. 2 things you smell. 1 thing you taste.
- Breath and sensation: Wherever you are, what can you FEEL with your sense of touch? If you are sitting, feel the back of your chair, the seat on the backs of your knees, your feet in your shoes, your hands resting on your legs, your shirt sitting on your shoulders. Focus on these external sensations and breathe through them.
- “Rest and digest” breathing: Breathing in through your nose and out through mouth supports your parasympathetic nervous system- the antithesis of the sympathetic nervous system (what we often call the “fight/flight or freeze” response). Breath is the only element of our autonomic physiological responses (the same that regulates our heartbeat, digestion, sexual drive, blood vessels, sweat, pupils) that we can fully control, and has the capacity to ground us in our bodies and reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.
- Breath visualizations. There are so many of these. Here are some I like:
- Golden thread visualization
- If you’re by your phone or a computer I find this triangle visualization strangely amazing.
- Here are some nice ideas about breath visualization and meditation from Gaiam.
- If you’re outdoorsy like me you might appreciate this one. I made it up and quite like it!
- On an inhale, imagine you are climbing a mountain.
- When you get to the top of the breath, you’re at the top of a mountain.
- Pause there in the breath. Imagine you are looking at the beautiful view from the top.
- Exhale slowly. Imagine you are walking down, slowly slowly so you don’t fall.
- When you get to the bottom of the exhale, pause there. Imagine you are surveying all the beautiful views from the valley below and what you’ve just accomplished.
2. Take some time before the holiday onslaught to mindfully and non-judgmentally examine your expectations; there are so many expectations surrounding the holidays- financial, social, emotional. What will I wear? Will Uncle Jack interrogate me again? Even our hair has expectations! What expectations do you carry and do they serve you? Are there any you could let go this holiday season? (e.g. do you have to attend every holiday party? Are individualized holiday cards really necessary this year? Can you make a budget that doesn’t feel restrictive for gifts? Do you have to home bake every holiday treat that goes to school?)
- Note what you can control (your own emotions/ reactions) and what you can’t (others’ actions).
3. Find a gratitude practice that helps ground you in the present and put your stressors in perspective. These can be family practices or individual ones.
- A “gratitude jar” or “better jar”- through the week, whenever something better than average or something you feel grateful for occurs, write it down and put it in a jar. If you have a family you live with, have them do the same. At the end of the week, read them all out.
- Dinner gratitude. See here for our practice.
4. Make it a tradition to re-examine your holiday traditions every year. Visualize your traditions beforehand and consider how they make you feel. What traditions calm you and bring you joy to hold in your mind? Which bring anxiety or make you feel like running away? We all have things we hold on to just because we’ve always done them. What are the holidays really about for you? Does each tradition serve your intentions? If not, can you release any?
5. How can you bring self-compassion into your holiday season? Show yourself the kindness you show to others this year. E.g. around food… allow yourself the grace to find joy in what you are eating- don’t scrutinize, interrogate, negotiate. Be in your body, appreciating the moment. The non-judgment of mindful awareness is what will allow this compassion to flourish. We don’t need one more person or guru telling us what or how to eat.
BONUS: Family mindfulness
I tried to make my top 5 applicable for everyone, but I have a special interest in holistic family living, so I’m going to add a bonus item. Find a family wellness practice that can help your family along this holiday season. Here are some ideas you might try:
- Family yoga. We have a super huge living room (it’s actually the only large room in our tiny house), and a bunch of yoga mats (the kids each have their own)- we just leave these out, along with a yoga for kids book that I love and play yoga whenever we feel like it. I also have very young kids, so this spontaneous setup works well for us. I know families with older kids that set aside a special time for it in the morning or at night.
- Here’s a great site with videos if you’re interested in putting something on for your littles.
- Before bedtime, you can all sit together and do what’s called “progressive muscle relaxation” or the term “tense and release” works better with kids. There is a good description here.
- Books with a mindfulness theme. I have another article on this that I’m planning for later, but for now, here are a few that I like:
- The simple act of being emotionally attuned to your family and being able to deeply listen and consider their points of view is a mindful practice. When we are able to mindfully and non-judgmentally see the perspectives of others, we are practicing compassion and opening space for their emotions, even if they are difficult to hold. This article does a nice job of summarizing this. When my preschooler is having a hard time, I use my breath like a metronome. I exaggerate the sound and length, as there are studies showing we will actually attune our breath with others in the room. It honestly does work, even when my three year old is visibly agitated! It helps ME too- excellent feedback loop:)
Well, that’s all for now, my lovely village. I have to rush off and make my perfect Christmas cards now!! Oh wait… inhale… pause… exhale… pause… N-O-P-E. Not this year. I think I’ll reexamine that one this time around. I’m going to curl up with my kids and read a book together.
In the words of my tiny dragon,
“Namaste to everyone, let the light shine through”.