The holiday season can be a perfect storm of stressors: financial strain, crowded malls, striving for perfection when we’re entertaining or buying gifts, travel, over-indulgence in food and alcohol, dealing with seldom-seen relatives, and for some of us being on our own while it seems everyone else is merrymaking.
This is where meditation comes in really handy! It’s been shown to reduce stress, so that we can feel at least a little calmer when the world around us is going into a consumeristic frenzy. It helps to reduce depression, too, for those who find that the holiday season is a downer. It promotes joy and other positive emotions. And it helps boost empathy and kindness, which is a mercy when you’re dealing with your drunk, racist uncle.
So here are a few tips for helping you to keep calm and stay positive during the holiday season.
Be mindful of your purpose
Mindfulness (observing our present-moment experience) is closely associated with a quality called sampajañña, which could be translated as “mindfulness of purpose.” Mindfulness of purpose helps connect us with the kind of life we want to create for ourselves.
It’s good to remember that holidays are “holy days.” They’re supposed to help us develop spiritual values that enrich our lives. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to a synagogue, church, or temple; spiritual values include things like resting (so that our batteries are recharged), connecting with others, experiencing gratitude and appreciation, and giving. It’s easy for things to get our of balance. It’s good to give gifts, for example, but giving material things to loved ones doesn’t mean much if we’re so stressed we’re also making them miserable.
So, reflect on what the holidays are about for you, and keep that in mind. It might help you catch yourself when you’re acting in ways that undermine your overall purpose.
Don’t just do something, sit there!
If you don’t have a meditation practice already, you might think that the holiday season is a bad time to start, and if you already have a practice, it’s tempting, when things get busy, to stop meditating. But regular meditation doesn’t have to take a lot of time. A five or ten minute meditation is enough to help us bring a bit more calm and balance into our lives. Start (or keep) sitting!
Keep coming back to compassion
The Reverend Ian Watson, whose pen-name was Ian Maclaren, used to say, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Keep reminding yourself that all those people you tend to get annoyed by are just like you. They want to be happy and don’t like suffering. And, just like you, they don’t experience as much happiness as they’d like and encounter way too much suffering for comfort. Bear this in mind, and you may find that you’re just a little gentler and more understanding with people. The reduced conflict will reduce your stress levels.
Don’t stress out about stressing out! When you lose your patience, remember that we all slip up. When you feel frazzled, remember that this is the normal human response to being overloaded. When you find you’re getting down on yourself or things are hard, place a hand gently on your heart and say, “It’s OK. I care about you and want you to be happy. I forgive you.”
Be kind in crowds
When you’re in a crowded mall, it’s easy to get stressed by how slowly everyone is moving. Try repeating “May we all be well and happy” as you navigate the throng. It’ll help displace some of those “My god, could these people move any slower!” thoughts
Take a breath
Get used to coming back to your breathing. Paying attention to the sensations of your breathing helps you to let go of stress-inducing thoughts, which allows you to dial back on the adrenaline. You can take a few mindful breaths while you’re standing in line, while on an escalator or in an elevator, or as a mini-break while cooking or wrapping gifts.
Somewhere in the boxed set of Game of Thrones videos you’re giving to a loved one, it says “Valar Morghulis” — everyone must die. Although that might seem like a depressing thought at a time of the year that’s supposed to be about celebration, you’re actually more likely to appreciate people you care about, and to be patient with people you have difficulty with, if you remember that our time together on this planet is short.
Lastly, a meditation practice is for life, not just for Christmas! Keep sitting, even once the holiday season is behind you.