It's Thanksgiving. Once again, lifestyle magazines are offering "tips" for navigating the holiday season. You know, making perfect decorations, gift-wrapping shortcuts, holiday menus and recipes galore, or creating new family traditions and rituals.
The overall message of this barrage of "useful" information is that we, mostly women, can "do it all," should do it, and can expect a marathon of activities, negotiations and juggling for the next six to seven weeks. Many of the suggestions can be useful or inspiring, but the result can be the opposite: adding more things to our already bulging to-do list and increasing our stress. I want to challenge the underlying assumption that overloaded holidays and the relentless pursuit of perfection is the way to find connection, renew our spirits and celebrate meaningful traditions.
Deep down, we know that holidays are not just sugar and spice. Too often for many of us they are also about taking care of everyone else in the family, playing the role of caregiver, nurturer, exemplary host(ess), peacekeeper, logistical coordinator and cook. The real source of stress may be augmented by our expectations that this is supposed to be fun, and that if only we do it right, we will reap the real gifts of the holidays: a sense of sharing, gratitude, joy, family, friendship, the return of light, the miracle of faith. How depressing it can be if we don't really feel this way or if we, in the midst of family gatherings, find the scene emotionally challenging, or downright painful.
Last Saturday, I conducted a workshop directed at mitigating holiday stress from another perspective: learning to identify our own vulnerabilities, fears and needs during the holiday season. By doing so, we can more easily see how our expectations and often unconscious responses can undermine our sense of well-being and real opportunities for satisfaction and joy. We used a combination of guided meditations, visualization, mindful reflection and sharing to access our internal processes, our "gut reactions." We then worked on ways to shift our perspective, shore up our sense of well-being, and identify an "early-warning system" to avoid the usual pitfalls we had uncovered.
Each participant gained a unique insight. One person identified how her responses to a recent situation in her work arena mirrored her response to family gatherings. Another, who wanted to restore the family holiday routine to a previous tradition, realized that his own responses had always been the same and fraught with tension and a sense of dread over the family disruptions that inevitably occurred. One participant noted how her own lack of real presence in the events kept her from feeling any connection with her family. At a time when expectations are for genuine connection, that sense of isolation can be especially painful.
Everyone felt overworked and verging on a meltdown.
The process allowed us to get at the essential core of our discomfort in a gentle and non-judging way. By using relaxed meditative awareness and mindful inquiry, it was easier to feel and clarify. By changing our focus and perspective, we created a new vision that was both spacious, flexible and often surprising. We covered a lot of ground. Below I will share the basic process and invite you to try out the primary exercise that we used, which I call "Your Own Holiday Movie: A Three-Part Visualization."
But first, here's a quick warning. Don't trade the tyranny of perfection and self-sacrifice for the tyranny of feeling you must now be a paragon of zen-like tolerance, balance and bliss. I suggest an approach that is experimental, open and even playful.
Act One: Seeing and Feeling What "Is"
Get in a comfortable seated position. Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Do a brief mental body scan to identify, relax and loosen any tension. Visualize one holiday celebration. It can be from the past or one that you anticipate this season. Who is there? What does the scene look like? Note any special details. Are there special foods? What does it smell like?
How do you feel? How old are you? How old do you feel? Take another brief body survey. What do you feel as you walk through the gathering? Tension? Anxiety? Joy? Where in your body do you feel these reactions? When you have a good sense of the "movie" and your role in it, open your eyes and make a few notes of your experience.
Act Two: Finding Your Center, Finding Your Strength
Once again close your eyes and take a few deep breaths and survey your body to find ways to relax any tension. This time, you will bring your conscious focus to the area of your body just below your navel. It is called the don tien. In Eastern philosophy and practice is it considered the center of balance and the reservoir of our life force, energy and power -- our chi. Breathe into this area. If it is helpful, you may place one or both hands there and feel your breath fill this space. Now, keeping your awareness focused on this area, imagine yourself in the holiday scene once again. Note your responses, both physical and emotional. Are there any differences? How do your interactions and actions differ this time? If you find yourself losing focus, go back to the don tien. When you are ready, open your eyes and make a few notes.
Act Three: Shining a Light
You will re-visit the holiday scene one more time. But this time after you relax once again, you imagine a soft, warm light around you. You can choose a color for this light or think of it as a soft cloud of iridescent gold. The light represents the quality of unconditional love and awareness. It is abundant, infinite and always available to you. Allow it to permeate your being and extend outward from you. Feel how your body and emotions respond to this golden light, creating a feeling of intense well-being, safety, compassion, wholeness and love. You are able to both feel this and to extend if effortlessly around you. Once again re-visit the holiday scene and note your experience of it from this perspective.
Take time to review the different ways that you saw and experienced your holiday scene. How did it change for you with each different perspective? How did others change?
Further questions may help you identify certain "warning flags": feelings, responses to things that were not going well, or feelings of anxiety, stress or distress. Can you notice when you first begin to feel these responses physically? (Signs include tension in the neck or jaw, headache, stomach tightening, etc.) Noting your own "warning flags" can be a reminder to relax and utilize one of these other approaches previously stated.
I hope this exercise is useful to you. You may use it for envisioning any potentially difficult situation, such as in the workplace or social gathering.
The process is simple. First we see "what is", then we see what happens when we choose to add new ingredients: a sense of power and balance from centering on the don tien, then unconditional love and self-compassion. All that is required is to be willing to create your own movie and to watch it without judgment.
This does not require "perfection", as a host, organizer, family member, cook or gift-giver. It invites you to give yourself the gifts of peace, confidence and acceptance, a wonderful thing for you and potentially a powerful gift for those around you as well.
Happy holidays, and peace to you and your loved ones.
Kay Goldstein, M.A. is a writer, cook and meditation teacher. You can read more of her stories and essays in her Huffington Post archives and at www.lessonsforthecook.com.