Finding ways to celebrate
It’s that time of year again when we are compelled to celebrate, sometimes whether we feel like it or not, and bombarded with messages that seem to effectively persuade us that part of celebrating is about filling our homes with more stuff and having the perfect Christmas.
But what if we don’t want to celebrate? Or the struggle to produce the perfect Christmas (whatever that is) seems just too much? Are we putting ourselves under unnecessary pressure for no reason?
In mindfulness and Buddhist terminology this would be described as ‘Striving’ – behaviour which we get caught up in that isn’t really serving ourselves, others, or the planet. And strangely, we often know this but we can’t seem to stop ourselves. The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as the inbuilt habit of struggling, we struggle through life giving ourselves more and more to struggle with when we don’t really need to.
But how do we recognise striving if it is innate?
One method I use is to notice when I feel overwhelmed by all the things I have to do and to stop and ask myself why I feel these things have to be done. If there are ‘shoulds’ and ‘ought to’s’ then that is an indication I may be striving rather than focusing on what is necessary. I then ask myself whether what I am trying to achieve benefits me or those I care about or have a responsibility towards. If not doing these things would be more beneficial (e.g. because I will be more rested and happier and generally nicer to be around, or I will be saving the earth’s resources, or I will have time and energy to spend on someone who needs it) then I will try and prioritise what needs to be done in alignment with my values. Asking myself, ‘who am I doing this for?’ often throws up surprising answers as I realise I am trying to please an infant school teacher I haven’t seen for nearly fifty years and will never see again.
It’s not failsafe but it has repeatedly prevented me from total burnout over the last few years.
Use the celebrations of the Solstice and Christmas to find the glimmers of light, rather than adding to the burden
There have been winter-time celebrations and festivities as long back as we can examine in our human history. Several great neolithic monuments are oriented to catch the sun’s rays on the winter solstice morning and channel them in a particular direction and the birth of Christ has been celebrated during the winter by Christians for two millennia - in the Northern Hemisphere the winter celebrations around Christmas have always been more lavish than the springtime celebration of Easter and it is easy to see why.
As David Cole reminds us, ‘Our ancestors understood that long, dark days for a whole season could be overwhelmingly oppressive’ so festivities were created to alleviate this. He also reminds us to be thankful both for whatever we currently have and for the opportunity to celebrate whenever we can. As the sun seems to disappear a little more each day we need to remember not to ‘let the darkness be the focus’ and to concentrate instead on finding joy wherever we can (see Cole, D., 2018. Celtic Advent, p. 125).
Modern psychology supports this practice and there is a wealth of evidence to show that both the practice of gratitude (see below) and giving ourselves the opportunities when we can to experience fun activities which bring people together are vital for our well-being. We have all discovered over the last two years how difficult it is when these activities are unavailable to us and have become aware of the detrimental effects of isolation. It seems that there is a balance to be found between making the effort to celebrate whatever we can even in small ways, and causing ourselves unnecessary struggle.
Psychologists also remind us to look to our own values. If whatever we are doing over the festive period is aligned with what is important to us (e.g. giving to charity, seeing family, having a well-earned rest) then we will enjoy it more. If we are following other people’s values rather than our own, we are simply adding to our own burden at the expense of our well-being, and possibly of those we care about. There is also growing evidence that being kind and giving our time or resources to others brings us more joy than the type of commercial pleasure we are encouraged to aspire to, and that experiences generally give us more long-term pleasure than material possessions.
Three important things to remember:
1) It’s ok to feel negative
This is normal, and especially so under the current circumstances. Human beings do not like uncertainty, we like to plan and to know what is likely to happen in the near future. We have evolved to be very good at planning and organising as a species and when we are unable to do this it causes a problem: our evolved intelligence is telling us how important it is to plan ahead, whilst also reminding us that this is not possible. This causes stress and can produce low mood and worry.
One of the common misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness practitioners is that we never have negative thoughts or emotions. We are positive all the time and glide through life with no friction to hold us back or slow us down. This is not only unrealistic (I mean, we all live on the same planet similarly experiencing the highs and lows of everyday life) but it is also very damaging to us if we aspire to this image.
Some people try this and spend a lot of energy bypassing their ‘negative’ emotions, but this leads to shame and self-criticism when eventually it is no longer possible to do this. What is more helpful is to allow ourselves to recognise honestly what we are feeling and then treat ourselves with compassion – the RAIN mediation is very useful for this. Otherwise, we are just pretending to be something we are not. So next time you have a ‘negative’ thought or feeling or mood, just remind yourself that you are human, this is normal, and then take some time to reflect on what may help lift your mood and how you can go about taking these steps.
2) Look for the glimmers of light
Whilst accepting that unpleasant thoughts and feelings are a normal part of human experience, we also don’t want to dwell on them. Remember the story of the two wolves? If we keep feeding the destructive, aggressive wolf, at the cost of the helpful wolf, the destructive one will triumph. So once we have recognised that these destructive thoughts are present, and thought about how we can alleviate them, we can then turn to consciously focusing on pleasant thoughts or experiences.
As neurologist Rick Hanson explains, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. In other words, we have evolved to remember what has not gone according to plan so that we can plan differently in the future. We can forget all the things that went well because these things aren’t causing us a problem that needs to be fixed. This helps us to be successful as a species, but emotionally it has resulted in us becoming fixated on the unpleasant and forgetting, or not even noticing, the pleasant.
Psychologists are now encouraging us to practice ‘savouring’, a skill whereby we take time out each day to consciously focus on anything pleasant, however small and really enjoy it. To try and enjoy that cup of coffee instead of drinking it whilst attending to fifteen other things and then afterwards wondering what it tasted like. Or to try and notice as much detail as possible during an activity rather than spending most of it planning the next one! Mindfulness reminds us to practice this skill of being in the moment so that we commit to memory many pleasant experiences each day. (Dr. Laurie Santos has written and broadcast extensively on this topic).
Winter is a natural time to rest, animals hibernate or spend much of the day hidden away for warmth, most plants stop growing and the earth seems to be asleep. Only humans continue to attempt to keep up a fast pace all year round, and this has only been recent in evolutionary terms (since the industrial revolution) and only in industrialised communities.
Remember the seed hidden deep within the earth waiting for the right time to grow and burst into the light and make time for your own rest and quiet growth. This is how we heal and recover from all our efforts, wounds and difficulties.
However you choose to celebrate the winter festivals I wish you all the blessings of the season, health and well-being for the new year, and may all beings be at ease and without suffering wherever possible. I leave you with a short practice script.
Light a candle and focus on your in-breath and out-breath. Notice how much light is given out by the small flame. Stay with this noticing and watching the breath as long as you have time for, maybe seconds or minutes.
Then begin to make a list in your mind of anything that you can be thankful for, particularly the things we tend to take for granted such as a roof, clean water, heating, a choice of foods and clothes. Then you can add people, situations, possessions that bring you joy and so on. Again, spend as much or as little time as you have available.
Finally, end your practice by forming the intention to savour as many pleasant experiences as you can throughout the day, and maybe choosing to write these down before you go to bed, this is an excellent way of focusing on positive rather than negative thoughts before we go to sleep and over time the brain really does start to notice more positive events making us feel happier and more motivated.