Many of us are very goal-oriented. We like to make lists and to tick items off those lists. We like order; we don’t like chaos.
Unfortunately, life is messy and sometimes chaotic.
At no time is this truer than during the holidays. All the demands of the holidays—the shopping, cooking, partying and gathering—will simply be heaped on top of our already overflowing schedule. We know that the price we pay will inevitably be snappishness, exhaustion, maybe the scratching of old scabs and regurgitation of old hurt.
In the interest of helping all of us not only to survive, but maybe even to enjoy the holidays, I offer you a mini-tutorial on a practice that has been known to help everyone from cancer patients to Fortune 500 executives. It’s even known to improve our sex lives, which is why we highly recommend the practice of mindfulness on our website.
Mindfulness is a straightforward concept. It’s developing the ability to pay attention to the moment—not to zone out, but to develop a facility of focused attention, without judgment or emotion, on the present. Mindfulness was a Buddhist concept, but in 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, adapted and developed it into a formal eight-week program for patients “who weren’t being helped” by traditional medicine. His program incorporates meditation, mindfulness exercises, and yoga.
The results were impressive. Patients experienced less pain, and they healed faster. The practice relieved stress and improved the immune response. The concept of mindfulness meditation quickly seeped into the broader zeitgeist.
Now, I know that it’s one thing to read about a spiritual practice, helpful as it may be, and entirely another to actually incorporate it into daily life, especially in the midst of holiday frenzy. The essence of mindfulness, however, is simple and almost intuitive. Best of all, it takes almost no time. You can practice mindfulness while you’re rolling out pie crust or brushing your teeth. It quiets our “monkey mind” and brings us back to the moment, which, after all, is the only moment we really have.
“Life is available in the here and now, and it is our true home,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and globally famous spokesperson for mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness practice doesn’t take effort, and it doesn’t take time. It just requires a focusing of thought and awareness. The basic meditation is to focus on your breath: Just paying attention to breathing in and breathing out. Your breath doesn’t have to be long or short. You just have to follow your in-breath and your out-breath.
You can think, Breathing in, I’m aware of my body; breathing out, I release tension in my body. You mentally pay attention to any parts of your body that are tensed—your lips, your neck, your back—and consciously relax that part. When you wait in line or stop for a light, you have a bit of time to practice this focus and release. And then smile, says Thich Nhat Hanh.
This principle can be applied to whatever you’re doing: cooking, cleaning, taking a shower, taking a walk. You bring your attention lightly but completely to the activity you’re engaged in. You don’t think about the next thing you have to do or the fight you had with your spouse this morning. Those thoughts are like the clouds crossing a bright, blue sky. You observe them without emotion or judgment and let them go, returning to your focus on your breath or your walk or the pie crust.
As you practice mindfulness, you may become conscious of the moment before you react to something. When you are aware of that moment, the moment before you react, then you have a choice about how you will react, whether in anger or kindness, fear or trust, passion or forbearance. If you’re aware, then you have a choice.
"Between stimulus and response there's a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom," writes Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
I’m thinking that if ever there was a good tool for avoiding those uncomfortable confrontations during the holidays, this might be it. If you’re aware of the moment of stimulus, when your brother makes a snarky remark about your son’s tattoos, for example, then you are given a moment of choice about how you’ll respond. And a moment to breathe in, breathe out without tension or judgment.
Even though it’s effortless, developing this practice isn’t easy. I guess that’s why it’s called a “practice.” I do know that improvement, however incremental, helps me to live with gratitude and gracefulness.
And during the holidays, I simply can’t get enough of either.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The real miracle is not to fly or walk on fire. The real miracle is to walk on the Earth, and you can perform that miracle at any time. Just bring your mind home to your body, become alive, and perform the miracle of walking on Earth.”
Amen to that!
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.