Whether you're religious or secular, this time of year is full of meaning, activities and emotions. But, it's also a complicated time of year: there's magic and wonder, but also expectations and disappointments.
In fact, many of us look forward to celebrating with family, friends and festivities until we spend too much time with family, friends and festivities. Then we count the days until life returns to normal, but feel disappointed all the same.
The problem is, we lose heart measuring "what is" against "what might be." Comparisons like these, especially when reality fails to meet high expectations, transform the holidays from an opportunity for rejoicing into an ordeal that (not surprisingly) marks the darkest time of the year.
But, it doesn't have to be this way. Here are a few tips that can help you have a happier, easier and less emotionally loaded holiday season:
• Take a breath, and then another, so you create little pauses during the busiest time of the year. Simply taking a breath (and consciously shifting your attention to that breath) helps your body relax. And, when the body relaxes, the mind can rest. The key is remembering to take that breath so you punctuate your day with pauses. This means practicing the three steps of mindfulness: Focus, Observe, and Refocus.
o Focus on taking a purposeful breath and pay attention to how that breath feels. You can do this anytime: it's fast, invisible and effective. For example, take a mindful breath before you leave your house for a party or as you toast the coming year. Pause in the midst of shopping and when your kids clamor (again!) for more presents.
o Observe your attention as your take that breath. Simply breathe and feel yourself breathing, without thinking about what just happened or what's coming next. Give you mind a brief rest while observing the sensations associated with breathing (and without multitasking).
o Refocus on that breath if/when you notice that you lost focus. Begin taking that one, conscious breath fully focusing your attention on the sensations of breathing and watch what happens. As soon as you notice that you've lost focus, shift your attention back to observing the focus of your attention. Distraction happens, but you can train your mind so that your mental detours are shorter and less frequent.
• Know what's happening so you can do something about it. In other words, honestly and accurately assess reality, and then make practical, constructive decisions. If you like your reality, enjoy it fully. If you don't like it, know why and then deal with it. Reality is often simpler than we think:
o If you don't like where you are, or what you're doing, and you can change things... then do so as politely as possible. For example, if you're having a dreadful time at a party, thank the host and leave. Stop suffering (for your own sake and others') and make the break.
o If you can't leave or change the situation, figure out how to mitigate it. If you really are stuck at that party, find (and focus on) something that brings you pleasure. Maybe it's eating a food you like, looking at the holiday decorations or finding a quite corner where you can hide without attracting attention. You can always give yourself good company -- in your mind.
• Notice your expectations and let go of comparisons.
o Measuring reality against ideals usually leads to disappointment and anger... just as the Santa at the mall is but a shadow of the magical Santa in a child's imagination. We all have expectations, but they don't need to make us miserable. When they appear, try to know them for what they are: projections of your own mind. Then return your focus to what's really happening so you can seek meaning and beauty in the here and now.
If these tips make sense to you, then weave them in to your experience over the next few weeks, and may all your holidays be light.