Having a Mindful Christmas Season
1st December dawns. What are your thoughts?
Are you someone who loves Christmas and can’t wait for it to arrive?
Or are you one of a large number of people who find Christmas a particularly stressful time and will be glad when it’s over? (even before it’s begun!)
Every day from now until Christmas Day, Living Well Mindfulness will be posting a ‘Tip for a Mindful Christmas season’.
Tip 1 Sunrise and Sunset
The next 6 weeks are the shortest days of the year. This means that we are more likely to be awake to see the sun rise. Why not pause for a few moments to be aware of the colours of the sky at dawn? Trying not to pass judgement on the weather, just being aware of whatever colours are there and how they change.
If you miss the dawn, how about sunset instead? Even on a cloudy, wet day when you can’t see the sun, the light still slowly fades. Why not observe it for a short time this evening? Is there anything that surprises you?
Tip 2 Mindful Christmas Card Writing
Finding a pen you enjoy using. Writing your cards slowly while concentrating on forming each letter. Using the time of writing each card to really connect with the person you are writing it for: perhaps imagining them sitting in front of you and taking a moment to think of what that person really means to you. Then writing it down. It might only be a few words, ‘thank you for our friendship’, ‘I really enjoyed our meeting in the summer’, ‘may you be well’. Perhaps ‘wishing you a Happy Christmas’ and thinking of that person and what a Happy Christmas would look like for them. If every person receiving a card from you is also receiving your undivided attention while you write the card for them, you are sending them a precious gift.
Noticing how you feel as you are writing your cards. Is it different to how you usually feel?
Tip 3 Protect Time to be Mindful
Most of us have practices that we do to keep our bodies fit and our minds balanced. Practices such as meditation, walking, yoga or running. To maintain our health and happiness over the festive period, it is important that we protect this time and are very disciplined about doing it, even if we feel we don’t have the time.
The Dalai Lama has an interesting opinion on meditation. When asked by a reporter how he was able to fit in daily meditation with such a busy schedule, he smiled and replied that on normal days, he meditates for an hour in the mornings. He then smiled an even bigger smile and said that on extremely busy days, he meditates for 2 hours in the morning.
We all need to take some time to ‘recharge our batteries’, even 10 minutes can make a difference.
Tip 4 Mindful Traffic Jams
Has anyone else noticed that journeys around town are taking longer than usual? Everyone seems to have gone Christmas shopping! Waiting to get onto a large roundabout, just missing the change of lights and having that sinking feeling that I would have to wait for the lights to go through all their phases for the third time. That’s when any excitement of the Christmas season starts to fade and thoughts fly around my mind ‘why didn’t I come earlier, how could I be so stupid, I should have known it would be like this in December, I’m going to be late, I’m an idiot, people will think I’m so disorganised, etc etc etc’
Time for a 3 stage breathing space: firstly, asking myself ‘how are things right now?’ My shoulders are tense, I’m frowning, the skin around my eyes is really tight and I’m gripping the steering wheel for dear life.
Stage 2: taking my awareness to my breathing – being aware of the in-breath all the way in, from the tip of my nose to the slight swelling of the abdomen. Then following the breath all the way out, without trying to change it, just being aware. Doing this for 2 or 3 cycles of the breath.
Stage 3: as the traffic lights change, driving forward with an awareness that I feel different, my stress levels have gone down several notches, most of that tension has gone.
There are some things about the Christmas season that we can’t change but we can change the way we react to them ….
If Christmas is already exacerbating your feelings of stress and burnout, take some positive steps to improve your life in 2016 by booking yourself onto a January 8 week mindfulness course.
There is a wealth of good quality research to show that mindfulness reduces stress, exhaustion and burnout. It can also help you to sleep better. If you live with pain or illness, mindfulness reduces your suffering. While it is possible to learn mindfulness from a book, an app or on-line, and there are excellent resources available, the gold standard is an 8 week mindfulness course, taught in a group. There is so much to gain by sharing experiences with others who are also learning.
You learn new skills every week and by the end of the 8 weeks will have a toolkit of practices to help when things get tough.
Tip 6 Do what you can
Who has a friend who has proudly announced ‘I’ve just finished wrapping my presents’. How do you feel when you hear that?
What about the Christmas tree – why does everyone else seem to have their tree up, decorated and looking beautiful?
Is there anyone else out there who hasn’t even bought their Christmas cards, yet alone mindfully written them?
I’ve had a busy week and I haven’t done all that I wanted. I’m wishing that I had started sooner to get organised for Christmas. I’m reminding myself that I’m always disorganised at Christmas time. I’m feeling inadequate for not learning from the experience of past Christmases. It’s late in the evening but I’m wondering what else I can fit in before I go to bed.
Time perhaps to pause …. Time for a 3 stage breathing space. Awareness of tiredness, felt as aching legs, heavy eyelids struggling to stay open. Also a buzzing, flickering feeling in the skin of the face and eyelids. Coming back to the breath – following the in-breath all the way in, bringing awareness to that moment in time between the in-breath and the out-breath, then following the out-breath all the way out. Resting in awareness of the breath for a few moments. Then expanding awareness to the rest of the body. Using this increased awareness to give a choice about the next actions. ‘What’s needed right now?’
Letting go of judgement and accepting that this is how things are right now.
Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.
Tip 7 Presents
We want to do the best for our children and we can feel under pressure to buy the current, usually expensive, ‘must-have’. This clip is worth watching, children were asked to make lists of what they would really like for Christmas and the answers took their parents by surprise …
Tip 8 Coffee Meditation
How many of us drink coffee on the go, without stopping what we are doing? We have a cup of coffee in front of us but our mind continues to be as busy as before we made the coffee. This kind of coffee break will give us a shot of caffeine to chemically stimulate our bodies to keep going for a bit longer but nothing more. Perhaps it is necessary occasionally to work like this to meet a deadline but it is not healthy when is becomes a way of life.
Mindful coffee drinking, or coffee meditation is different. It helps to calm the ceaseless chatter of the mind, just for a few moments. If you have never done this before, you might be surprised at how refreshing it can be. The great thing about the coffee meditation is that it can be done any time, any place and nobody need know what you are doing. It is a way to make a 5 minute break far more effective and useful. It can be done with any drink, hot or cold. Here’s how ….
Firstly, make your coffee. To do this practice fully, make the coffee slowly and mindfully, being aware of every part of the process and all the sights and smells of coffee that go with it.
Then, take a slow, small sip of coffee. Resist the temptation to gulp it down without tasting it. Let the coffee rest in your mouth. Notice where the coffee sits and what it tastes like. Notice the temperature and where you feel that sensation most. Do you feel temperature and taste in the same part of your mouth? Can you still smell the coffee?
After a few moments, swallow the coffee. Notice where you feel the sensations of swallowing. What temperature is the coffee? Once you have swallowed it, is there still a taste?
Repeat this process with another sip of your drink. Continue for 5 minutes or so, or until you have finished your drink.
How do you feel now? Is it different from normal? In what way?
Tip 9 One Moment at at Time
How to cope with Christmas? One moment at a time. Watch this clip from Vidyamala Burch, founder of Breathworks
Tip 10 Christmas Parties
How often do we really listen to what other people say at Christmas parties?
We have the best of intentions but do we sometimes find ourselves half listening, while the rest of our mind is planning our reply? Are we waiting for a pause, so that we can jump in with our contribution? Does our mind wander off and start to think who we would rather be talking to? Or hear fragments of a conversation and think that it sounds more interesting than the one we are having?
Those imaginary conversations are exactly that: they exist only in our minds. By living in our imagination we are missing what is happening right now, in front of us.
This Christmas party season try to bring your full attention to the conversations you have with others. Whenever you notice your attention wandering, gently bring it back to the person you are with and what they are saying. Accept people as they are in the present moment, without judging.
Tip 11 Mindful Parking
Mindfulness is non-judgmental but it’s hard not to judge yourself harshly when you’ve lost your car in a car park! It’s easily done if, as you park your car, your mind is already planning where you’re going once you’ve parked. Once you are out of the car, you note the floor you’re on and take a quick mental picture of your car.
The only problem is that you left a half-empty car park and you return to an overflowing one. It looks completely different! Have you ever walked along the rows of a car park with a feeling of slowly increasing panic as you realise that your car isn’t where you left it? Or tried the door of a car of the same colour as yours and fiddled with the key, or zapped the remote control, for several minutes until you suddenly realise that it’s not your car?
This is a time to bring your awareness fully to your breathing. Noticing your breathing at a faster rate than usual and quite shallow. Feeling areas of tension across the top of both shoulders and a knotted feeling in your stomach. Recognising that this is how your body feels when you are anxious. Resting your awareness in your breathing until the tension and panic begin to subside. Telling yourself that right now you’ve lost your car but it’s not going to stay like this. Returning to the barrier where you entered the car park. Retracing the track you drove with your car, painstakingly row by row until there it is, exactly where you left it after all!
Sometimes we think life is too busy for us to be mindful but in reality, the busier we are, the more we need mindfulness ….
Tip 12 Mindful Queueing
At this time of year it’s near impossible to avoid queues while shopping. Sometimes it can even feel that the run-up to Christmas is like one long queue. When you are in a queue, do you ever think about all the things you could be doing if you weren’t stuck there? Do you wish you’d done your shopping at a different time, gone to a different shop first, done it on-line?
Another way to queue is accepting that for this moment, this is where you are. Perhaps acknowledging any frustration, or annoyance, or other feelings. Some experiences are unpleasant and it’s fine to feel like this. Then focussing on how you are standing, feet rooted to the ground and upper body rising tall. Bringing your awareness to your breathing, and following the course of the in-breath, all the way in and then the out-breath, all the way out.
Exploring the sights around you, from your position in the queue. The colours and sparkle of Christmas. The noisy bustle of Christmas. Consciously looking for anything around you that is pleasant. Then taking a moment to be fully aware of that experience, whatever it is, and savour it. Explore this moment for what it is. You may even find a moment of stillness amongst the noise and chaos ….
Tip 13 Be Kind to Yourself
Chances are, we are not going to handle the Christmas season perfectly. We may forget things, even seemingly important things. We may feel as if we are completely disorganised and out of control. Or we may completely ‘lose it’ and have a major falling out with someone in our family.
Often in these circumstances we are our own harshest critics. We beat ourselves up over what we could have done differently. Our minds carry us away with thoughts about why things have turned out like this. Perhaps we judge the other people involved and ruminate over why they acted in such a way. We can lead ourselves into a downwards cycle of negative thoughts.
Research is showing that being kinder to ourselves has powerful effects on how we cope with life’s stresses. By accepting that we will make mistakes and forgiving ourselves when we do, without judging ourselves, we can feel soothed and calmed.
Tip 14 Three Stage Breathing Space
Tip 3 Three Stage Breathing Space
Mindfulness First Aid, for those times when you feel your stress levels rising. Perhaps you are in a traffic jam, yet another queue, or just ‘up to here’ with family! Before you lose your cool completely, try the 3 stage breathing space:
Stage 1: taking a few moments to be aware of what’s happening right now. Becoming still, taking your awareness gently through the body, noticing any sensations whether pleasant or unpleasant. Just being aware, without trying to change anything.
Stage 2: bringing your awareness to your breathing. Letting the breath breathe itself without trying to change it in any way. Following the in-breath all the way in, then the out-breath all the way out. Feeling the sensations of the breath at the tip of your nose, as it enters and leaves your body.
Stage 3: gently broadening and expanding your awareness to include the whole body. Feeling the breath in the whole of your body as if the whole body is breathing. Noticing how you feel right now. Carrying this awareness with you to the next part of your day.
Tip 15 Wrapping Presents: from mindless to mindful
Do you love wrapping the presents or do you find it tedious? In mindfulness training we talk about ‘drainers and sustainers’. Drainers are the mindless kind of tasks that we have to do but without enjoyment or lasting value, they deplete us and can make us stressed. Sustainers are the activities that make us feel better for doing them, the life-enhancing things that we enjoy.
Sometimes it is possible to turn a drainer into a sustainer. Think of present wrapping: really absorb the colour of the paper. Be aware of the sound of the scissors as they cut through the paper. Feel the texture of the paper – really focus on whether it is smooth or rough, soft or stiff, warm or cool. Take a moment to focus on what is inside the present, and who you are wrapping it for.
Doing a task mindfully means bringing your full awareness to the task and doing it to the best of your ability. Wrapping doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Why not add a tiny sprig of green from your garden to make the present extra special. Even on basic brown paper, it will look fantastic. Thanks to Laura @pinkspaghetti for that great idea.
Tip 16 Moment by Moment
Christmas Eve leading into Christmas Day is a time I have found, in recent years, to be particularly challenging. There is something about Christmas that brings me up sharply and makes me notice any difference between how life is and how I think it should be.
In the run-up to Christmas this year, the Dickens story ‘A Christmas Carol’ came unexpectedly to mind. The miser, Scrooge, is haunted by the ghost of Christmas past: memories of his previous Christmasses and realisation of how things could have been different.
This set me thinking. It is so easy to get trapped in ‘Christmas Past’ with seemingly idyllic (but perhaps rose-tinted) memories of how Christmas used to be. Or to get caught up in ‘Christmas Future’, worries about how we want Christmas to be.
Scrooge’s solution was to live ‘Christmas Present’. And, guess what – his Christmas was completely different to how he had imagined it would be.
So this Christmas Eve, every time I have been aware of expectations of how I think things should be, I have acknowledged my thoughts and brought myself gently back into the present moment and how things actually are right now. I’ve noticed lots of special moments that I might otherwise have missed.
Wishing everyone a Mindful Christmas. Moment by moment …..
Sheila Bond is the Founder of Living Well Mindfulness. Sheila’s mission is to ease the suffering caused by pain, stress and illness and really improve people’s quality of life. Sheila teaches the programme developed by Vidyamala Burch.
Sheila runs Mindfulness Courses and Mindfulness Classes & Retreats and is passionate about sharing the benefits of mindfulness as widely as possible through the Living Well Mindfulness Blog.