I've been putting off writing this blog for a week or so, partly due to genuine need to prioritise other tasks or rest but partly just some good old procrastination. Which leads me to ask myself, what is it that I'm avoiding?
What I'm avoiding is the discomfort of writing about Christmas - and all it's associated twinkly, mulled cosiness - whilst a genocide and other atrocitices are taking place in the world. And then I remembered one of my go-to life lessons (actually learned from actor Michael Caine of all people): use the difficulty.
As soon as I made conscious what my avoidance was about I realised that I am not the only person struggling with the cognitive dissoance of fairy lights in the living room and explosions across our screens. The difficulty was actually my way in to writing this blog. As mindfulness is about awareness it makes sense to speak to what is going on; whilst this is not about to turn into a political rant (there's plenty of other sources for this) I won't be falling into the tempting trap of spiritual bypassing either. You can read about mindfulness and social justice here and here.
So, please read on to explore how we can use our mindfulness practice to stay present, authenitic, compassionate and non-judgemental at this festive and sometimes challenging time of year.
A reminder of what it means to ‘be mindful’: to bring awareness to the present moment; noticing and accepting thoughts, feelings and sensations with compassion and non judgement.
Mindfulness is a good antidote to Christmas stress because this can be a time when:
- We are pulled into the past by memories and traditions
- We are pulled into the future with all the planning and preparations
- There are many expectations, pressures on relationships, changes in routine and lots on the to-do list.
- Emotions take over because of intense situations and stressful stimuli
Even if you love Christmas there’s a lot of things going on that can have an impact on our wellbeing, so it’s important to be mindful of how you’re feeling.
How to be Mindful at Christmas time:
It’s very easy to get caught up in unhelpful thinking about the past or the future; ruminating, worrying about things that we can't control or imagining worst case scenarios. It’s impossible to totally stop thoughts like this but what we can do is notice them and learn to let them go, returning to the present moment. It may help to see your racing thoughts as symptoms of stress; in which case it's the stress/worry that needs tending to rather than the content of the thought itself.
Ground yourself in the present moment by connecting to your senses. What can you see/hear/touch that can bring you into this moment? Can you connect to your breath and just feel that for 5 seconds?
Notice the positive! This doesn’t mean ignore the difficult, it’s about creating balance. Our brains have a negative bias so we need to make a conscious effort to notice what is good or even neutral. This helps us combat over generalising (“Christmas is awful this year”) by becoming aware of the finer details. Even if this time of year is difficult for you, there will small moments of peace or joy. Can you think of 3 things right now that you can enjoy this month?
Balance activism and being informed with self & community care by recognising when you are getting depleted or burnt out. Whilst it's natural and necessary to be impacted when hearing about violence and injustice, if we let ourselves get exhausted by this then it's very difficult to be of any help to others. Get to know your own signs of stress and know when to step away and recharge.
Emotions: "That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness." writes Katherine May in her book 'Wintering'. I hope you feel joy and peace this festive season, but this is a wish not a requirement. You will feel a whole range of things; perhaps excitement, worry, happiness, sadness.…try to allow them all. This is a practice so go gently with yourself.
Seasonal flu and other lurgys can create anxiety around uncertainty. Accepting that things can change last minute means holding your plans lightly and being able to adapt.
Acceptance means allowing how we feel about things too e.g. "Christmas feels difficult this year and I feel sad about it. It's OK to feel this way."
As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes, so allow yourself to feel multiple things at once. It is possible to feel both despair and sadness about one thing and excitment and gratitude about something else. One feeling does not need to cancel out the other, they can co-exist.
There are so many opportunities this time of year for kindness, and it can be such a great antidote to stress and fear. Be present to how you feel when giving presents or cards! Connect to that warm, happy feeling and enjoy it.
How can you show compassion to others this Christmas? Thinking about how you can give something to those less fortunate than yourself can give you perspective on what you have and increase gratitude. Whilst what's happening in Palestine, Ukraine and the Democratic Repulic of the Congo is overwhelming and feels so out of our control there are small ways you can help such as donating to a charity that provides aid, education or other support, e.g. The Red Cross.
Be present when you are spending time with loved ones. Put your phone away (if you're not using it to call them, obviously!), really listen and enjoy their company. Notice how nice this feels.
Be good to yourself, especially if you are struggling. Nothing makes suffering harder than being critical of yourself.
Practice generosity of spirit towards people you find difficult: this doesn’t mean having no boundaries or allowing bad behaviour, just softening any defensiveness and noticing people’s good qualities as well as the not so good. Everyone has been through a lot and are just doing their best with what they have.
Turn down your judgement: listen to other points of view even if you disagree, be open to difference. It’s easy to focus on the things you don’t like about people, but what about their positive traits or the things you have in common? People might make choices that you disagree with; if you can't change it then work on letting it be. Staying in judgement will only deplete you.
Beware the ‘should’ thoughts; they are often loaded with negative judgement. Notice these thoughts and challenge them where possible – where has it come from? Is it helping or hindering? How can you soften or even let go of it?
Expectations: be these positive or negative. It’s hard to have no expectations at all, especially so at a time of year filled with tradition and when images of how Christmas ‘should’ be are impossible to avoid. By returning to the present, time and time again, we can let go of all that and just be with what is happening, moment by moment. Try to let go of what could/should be happening and connect as fully as possible to what IS happening. What kind of Christmas season do you need this year? And what is actually possible?
Wishing you all a peaceful and joyful festive season. See you in 2024!
P.S You can join me in person for an evening of festive calm to celebrate the Winter Solstice on Thursday 21st, details here.