One of the best ways to keep the holidays from turning into a holidaze is by practicing mindfulness during this season. Not only will a mindfulness practice help you through many of the challenges of the season – like travel, family dynamics, and spending – it will take you into a richer, “realer” experience that’s satisfying, peaceful, and healing.
What is mindfulness? My favorite definitions of mindfulness come from Thich Nhat Hanh. He describes it as “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.” Essentially, this means being “all in” with whatever you’re engaged in, rather than going somewhere else in your mind. TNH also describes mindfulness as “taking hold of your own consciousness.” It’s a powerful choice, especially during difficult situations.
In practicing being alive to the present reality, there are some attitudes that help, explained thoroughly in Buddhist scriptures. Contemporary mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, emphasizes the following seven (which I’ll explain in my own words below): non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go.
Non-judging is a great place to start. Judging is something we do continuously, even when we’re not aware of it. We judge some things as good, others as bad, some as desirable, others as undesirable, and using judgment to categorize everything we come in contact with. The problem is that habitual judgment deprives us of the opportunity to engage with what’s present in a totally authentic, truthful way. Furthermore, judgment keeps us in polarized states, in continuous micro-conflicts.
Mindfulness and patience go hand-in-hand. A major trigger for departing from a mindful state is our desire to make something more interesting, intense, or productive happen right now. Staying with whatever’s at hand – say, filing your nails – can initially feel painfully bland. But it’s rewarding to feel your impatience. How does it feel in your body? How does it produce greater interest, intensity, or productivity by inducing you to leave the present reality? If you notice that you aren’t very patient, remember non-judgment.
Practitioners of mindfulness often speak of discovering a new depth in everyday activities, an unexpected richness – even in filing nails. This is facilitated in part by observing a beginner’s mind – experiencing reality as it actually is, rather than through the many lenses that produce preset expectations. I prefer the term innocence for this state – meeting each new moment with total innocence and wonder. It’s difficult for spiritual expansion (i.e., freedom) to occur without a willingness to relinquish what we think we know.
Trust helps keep us in the moment. When we pin our consciousness to the present, inevitably some squirming will start happening. The mind says, “I need to go somewhere else! I need to be entertained! I need to get stuff done! I need to get out of this discomfort! I’m claustrophobic!” When we trust that we’re in the right place (and, frankly, anything else is a lie) we root into the here-and-now. Trusting is an act of holding space for ourselves. And then, something does change – the claustrophobic feeling opens into a new spaciousness.
I mentioned that one of the hurdles to maintaining mindfulness is the mind’s desire to be productive – more productive, that is, than whatever we’re currently doing. The attitude of non-striving is meant to address this tendency. Non-striving means do this for the sake of doing it rather than for the outcome you hope it will achieve. This is especially important when practicing mindfulness in difficult family dynamics. If you’re hoping it’s going to fix something, you’re not going to be able to be truly mindful with whatever happens. Non-striving doesn’t mean we don’t do anything useful, we don’t do our best, or we don’t intend to improve ourselves. We simply trust that when we bring the full aliveness of our consciousness to whatever we’ve chosen for the present moment, this is enough.
Acceptance is the key to relinquishing striving. Jiddu Krishnamurti once disclosed the “secret” of his enlightenment to a group of eager students: “I don’t mind what happens.” Said another way, it’s total acceptance of the inevitable. In contrast, most of us spend considerable energy in resistance to what once happened, what’s currently happening, and what might happen. Mindfulness entails being with reality – which is always whatever is here and now – without judging, departing, resisting, or manipulating it. For most people, one of the biggest shifts involved in such a practice is feeling all the time. Rather than giving our consciousness away to a mind that is always one step removed from reality, this means fully welcoming the total experience of now, right as it happens.
Finally, letting go is essential to staying in the present and being free. Every thought can be let go. Every grievance can be let go. Every form of resistance can be let go. Every identity can be let go. And layer by layer by layer, we become freer to simply be with whatever comes up. In any moment, you can ask, “What can I let go of right now?” and there’s always something, if only the current moment itself. When we’re attached to anything – an old story, a desire for things to never change, the belief that we’re right – it limits our freedom and distorts the way we see the world.
Since there are seven practices and seven days in the week, I recommend you devote one day of each week to each practice. Write down the schedule for yourself on a piece of paper (or put it in your Dreambook). Don’t expect to remember all seven all the time – especially during a stressful moment in the holidays. Just trust that the one that’s most relevant to the nature of your challenge will come to mind.
Be well (and tell me what happens),