It's the biggest holiday of the year for most of us, a time of joy and celebration, and yet also a time of emotional anxiety - the mad rush of last minute shopping, frustration, frayed nerves, family conflict, obligation, and overeating. A Jewish friend of mine observed that this is the time of year when she watches her Christian colleagues descend into a pit of frenzied insanity. Meanwhile, she is the one who sleeps in heavenly peace.
So, is there anything we can do to keep ourselves from getting swept away in the frenzy this holiday season? I consulted meditation teacher Simon Cole, author of a new book, Stillness in Mind: A Companion to Mindfulness, Meditation and Living. Cole has formulated a meditation path for a modern age grounded in Western therapeutic tradition and draws on eminent thinkers in the field of therapy and human relations. The result is a set of easy to learn exercises that bring one to a deep place of peace, awareness and groundedness -- which is exactly what we need at Christmas time.
Question: Simon, when we think of meditation, we typically think of creating an environment where "all is calm"...but this is especially hard to do this time of year. In the midst of the rush and frenzy, how can we find that calm on the inside?
Cole: The first thing to remember is that peace can only be an experience from within. So we create it ourselves and it doesn't have to matter what's going on around us. Mostly we don't feel at peace, not because of what is physically happening around us, but because of what we are doing with it in our minds. So, the kids shouting and running all over in excitement just when we get in from work aren't really what's destroying our peace - they're just making a noise. Our peace is being shattered because we're still going over what the boss said just before we left, and how we forgot to stop off and get the wife's present, and that idiot who swerved in front of us at the end of the road, and so on and so on.
But we could leave all that and focus on the kids - yes, even with the noise they're making - and see they're just being them and, if we let ourselves, we can just be who we are... and enjoy them.
Question: While it's often great to see relatives and old friends, this can lead to expectations, conflict and regrets. How can we keep ourselves steady on the inside?
Cole: Yes, it's ironic isn't it, we look forward to Christmas as a family time, but then it's the family that goes and ruins it! You're right, expectations have a lot to do with it. We build it all up - and let's not forget that mostly we get more of a kick out of anticipating something than we do out of the thing itself - so we build it all up and we forget to leave space for what we can't know. We forget that we haven't seen parents since last Christmas and father's always a bit out of sorts after the flight; that your mother expects you to be concerned about her spinster sister (whom you haven't seen for ten years) because she lost her dog; that your wife is a bit distant on Christmas morning because it's all your family that's there; that neighbours came in at just the wrong time and stayed just too long.
So, leave some space in the build up in your mind. What will come will come. The world's not perfect. But mostly family's are ok at doing what they do... being families.
Question: Overeating and over-drinking makes us not so merry the morning after. Can mindfulness help us control our appetites?
Cole: In Stillness in Mind I pose the question - what does it take to satisfy you? If we think about enjoying the taste, then we can't rush our eating, because if we finish too quickly we're robbing ourselves of some enjoyment. And if we're eating quickly so that we can get to that last turkey leg before uncle Mike, and we succeed, then the law of diminishing returns applies because the more we eat the less extra enjoyment we get. And if we're eating and drinking like a robot because we're talking so much, then we're not really giving others the attention they deserve. So there's a checklist. And it's not about being Scrooge-like, it's actually about maximising our pleasure.
Question: One of the keys to a healthy and happy life is gratitude, and taking time during the holidays to feel grateful for what we've got is a wonderful way to feel that all of life is a gift. Is there any specific method or practice that one can use for gratitude?
Cole: I once had an uncle, now long dead, whom I remember most of all because he kept on telling me: "Don't return a favour, pass it on". So what does it mean to be grateful? Nothing unless something grows from it. Abbé Pierre, the founder of the Emmaüs movement in Europe said: "You haven't acted, just because you've wept". I think these two say all that needs to be said about gratitude... and I hope my uncle would feel honoured to be quoted in such esteemed company!
Question: One of the most useful and new techniques in Stillness in Mind is the idea of a "felt sense" of things - which is very different than thinking or experiencing an emotion. Could you quickly describe what it is like to have a "felt sense" of something, and explain how we might use this wonderful technique to enrich the best parts of our Christmas?
Cole: There's always more about a person, or an experience, or an event in our lives, than we can put into words. And words are a problem because as soon we say them, we render whatever we've described lifeless: we stop it at the moment our brain last gave us the description. Felt sense is different. We let the image of a thing hover on the edge of our awareness without needing to completely define it. It consists of glimpses of images past and present, wisps of thought, fragments of memory, and a sensation deep inside of what it means to us. Nothing is fixed, so the experience stays real because it allows for change. And we need to remember that what we think we experience is never just the thing itself - it is us and whatever it is. So in the end our Christmas is much more about what we bring to it ourselves than what others do for us.
Simon Cole is the Author of Stillness in Mind. Cole has formulated a meditation path for a modern age, grounded in Western therapeutic tradition. He introduces into meditation 'felt-sense' and 'kindly attention' and invites the reader to sit alongside themselves and truly discover the person they are.