Feast is defined as "something giving great pleasure or satisfaction" in the American Heritage Dictionary. And something that gives great pleasure is gathering with family for the holidays. In my family, Christmas Eve is the one time of year we all try to come together in my hometown, St. Louis. For many years, when the big Christmas event was hosted, my mother's parents and as many as 50 of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would cram into a big living room sharing gifts. Over the years, the hosting duty has been passed on to the next generation, and each year our gathering becomes a little smaller.
In more recent years, there's been a shift in the dynamic of our big holiday event. Now, Christmas Eve is when my four siblings and I, their significant others and our children come together with my parents, who are both 87. We used to feast spreading out from the kitchen into the dining room, then opening gifts in the family room. In the past few years, however, it became too much for my parents to host so now the eldest, a brother, brings us all together at his home. Since his wife's parents are now both deceased, her two siblings join us for the feast and gift exchange.
To gather together from near and far (I come the farthest, from California) is indeed a feast, a time of great pleasure and satisfaction.
In years past, at Christmas there would be times that I would try to hang on to the moments of togetherness and think, "maybe next year we won't all be here together" -- inevitably, that has been true. This year, for example, my younger daughter will be missed since she is in Europe for her senior year of college abroad. Other years a sibling might be visiting a partner's relative across the country or in another country. A year will come when someone's passing will permanently change the place settings, and the family Christmas will be changed forever. In preparation for this experience, I will be practicing the art of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a concept and a practice growing in interest in scientific as well as spiritual circles. It's the practice of leaning into tender moments of reflection in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life. In preparation for the holidays we often feel the pressure of getting things done to get ready to "slow down" and be immersed into the holiday gatherings. The joy of anticipation is muted by the never-ending "to do" list, wrapping up a task at work or classes at school, shopping for gifts and preparing for travel. We often forget to just stop, breathe and listen. Allowing ourselves to stop and be present offers moments of clarity, joy and the experience of an abundant and full life. We touch the feelings underneath of excitement, passion, and wonder, and also our inadequacies, unfulfilled wishes and the thought of losses ahead. Those precious, tender moments of pause are what make us most alive yet most vulnerable. These are the moments of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is a great addition to the holiday preparation and the feasting itself.
Dr. Rick Hanson, an expert in mindfulness, addresses fragility in his "Just One Thing" blog. There is the truth of the robust and enduring nature of things and the truth of fragility, that things "bruise, tear, erode, disperse or end." With families, all of this is true. Families have ancestors, legacies, and stories handed down generation to generation. Yet there are families split by misunderstandings, unhealed wounds and literally by death. As Rick advises, "We need to embrace fragility -- to see it clearly and take it into our arms -- to be grounded in truth, peaceful amidst life's changes and endings, and resourceful in our stewardship of the things we care about."
In practicing mindfulness, we pay attention. We behold experiences in each moment and embrace the audacity of change. There is an expression about never stepping into a river in the same place twice. Water is a great analogy for change. It takes form in miraculous ways -- such as a rainbow emerging through clouds, both of which are shapes and colors of water. Yet water can also destroy homes and other elements of nature, uprooting trees and carrying them into a path of destruction. Like the breath, however, without water we cannot live. How often do we stop to appreciate each drop of water we drink, its source, its quality and its life-giving nature? With each breath in, do we acknowledge the air as life-giving, and in exhaling, allow ourselves to release what our body and mind no longer need?
So in anticipation of holiday gatherings with family, frequently gift yourself with the mindful practice of sitting with the breath, appreciating the air, sipping seasonal drinks and really tasting each drop. Feast on feelings, honor each morsel of the moment. As the season unfolds and swells into the new year, each moment is a building block of our solo and collective memory bank. And yet each moment passes and can never fully be recaptured. So too, our family time together is a culmination of all our past experiences, while forging new memories to savor... in the moment.
My goal this Christmas season is to live into each moment as it unfolds -- by being in a state of mindfulness. I will also acknowledge my grieving for what will change in the future, honoring all my feelings, the sadness as well as the joy, and appreciate the fleeting nature of feelings. I will also listen to my older daughter's fears about facing change, knowing that as her grandparents age, her own parents grow into their elderhood as well. This presence for her is a gift as she grows into the changing landscape of her own life.
Mindfulness is a gift that grows in what it gives. To savor each moment, honor each feeling, feasting on whatever is and nourishing the soul. There is no better present than being present in the moment of experience!
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