Mindfulness for the holiday season: Christmas and the New Year

December is a time of year in which our sensations can be easily bombarded. It’s easy to get stressed about Christmas shopping, overcrowded malls, travel plans, holiday parties, familial obligations, and in some cases, snowstorms.  The practice of being mindful is the intentional practice of focusing attention on one thing. Focused attention calms and settles the mind, and circumvents the rat race of disorganized, divided, and unfocused attention. It is a way to come back to the current moment and show up for everything the moment has to offer.

Here are three different ways of being mindful this holiday season:

Five minutes of breathing:

Sit quietly for five minutes and focus on the rise and fall of your breath. Every time you notice your mind wandering or your attention scattered, bring your attention back to the rise and fall of your breath. This may be a useful exercise to do after driving in bad traffic, being in a crowd, or after coming home from work.

Savor sensation: Take a few moments to take in the entire experience of the following:

  • The taste of peppermint. Do you really taste peppermint when you eat it?
  • Do you ever notice how the air changes as it grows colder? Try figuring out how the air smells or tastes. I’ve noticed the winter air to be crisp, bitter, biting, heavy, cold, damp, salty, and even woody.
  • Pay attention to tastes and smells that you enjoy- in other words, don’t pass them up or take them for granted when you notice them.

Show up for the moment…even if the moment brings pain

Sometimes people experience a great deal of sadness during the holidays: Spending holidays alone, spending a “first” holiday after losing a loved one during the year, or being reminded of recent losses or relationships ruptures.

If sadness is part of your holiday, consider:

  • Reflecting on what is important and meaningful
  • Allowing yourself to grieve deeply and fully, to cry openly, to acknowledge everything you experience with your heart wide open
  • Honor what has been lost
  • Be gentle and tender with yourself

Singing, carols, generosity of spirit, pageants, and performances can move people deeply.  If joy is part of your holiday

  • allow yourself to be moved to tears
  • fully experience, absorb, take in, and reflect on what you have
  • share with others what you appreciate or love
  • allow for the positive
  • recognize times in your life in which things have been difficult- and how different they are for you now.

Wishing you a holiday in which your experiences are rich and meaningful- I will be back at my blog posting in 2012!

Meaning making, trauma, and 9/11

Dear readers,

Given that this is the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, I would like to share with you some excerpts from an adolescent fiction novel that takes place in the aftermath of 9/11. The characters are discussing the ways in which they are attempting to come to terms with what has happened, and offer some compelling thoughts about how they are going to get through this. The book is Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan.

Click on the link below to listen:


Anxiety, awareness, looking, and seeing

When our anxiety controls our attention, our attention becomes narrowed and constricted. We hone in on what is threatening- and often become pre-occupied with getting rid of our anxiety. We simply don’t want to feel as anxious as we actually feel!

When our anxiety controls our attention, our brains often shut down certain aspects of experience.  We have difficulty seeing what else is there.

As long as we can prevent ourselves from looking, we can avoid things that make us anxious. Often when we avoid what makes us anxious, we don’t have to come to terms with sadness, loss, or pain.

We actively avoid talking about certain subjects. We avoid conflict, emotions, and people. We fill silence with awkward chatter and exit the room if the intensity becomes intolerable. We avoid eye contact. We make up platitudes that aren’t true to what we are thinking or feeling at all.

Mindful practice enables us to pay attention to aspects of our experience that we simply don’t want to pay attention to. When we pay attention- with openness and curiosity- we can start to get our minds around the places that our anxiety tries to control.

It is the acknowledgement that sets us free. When we are open to this anxiety, this pain, this discomfort, this awkward moment, this silence- we can bear with it. We can receive, acknowledge, and understand. We can accept it and know it for what it is. “It” loses its power over our frenetic actions.

When we willingly re-direct our attention to that which evokes anxiety- we start to see what is in front of us. We no longer have to avoid people, places, subjects, or topics of conversation- because we acknowledge them. We recognize when others change- and when they don’t change- and the impact it has on us.

When we are vulnerable and receptive, we are moved and touched and influenced by the world around us. We might get hurt. We may need to get up and brush ourselves off. But we participate in life and we take risks.

We live as if we are alive.


The value of revisiting trauma

The value of revisiting traumatic experiences is that it gives a person an opportunity to organize, make sense of, and gain clarity on past events. Many people who suffer from post-traumatic stress experience memories and associated events in ways that are intrusive and beyond personal control. This makes the memory itself something to avoid at all costs.

However, the benefit of revisiting memories and recalling traumatic events is to decrease fear that is associated with the remembering of the memory. When a person can remember the memory without shutting down, avoiding, or dissociating, the person can then begin the journey of grieving and meaning-making. The past becomes clearer- what actually happened, happened.  A person can begin to get their mind around it and talk about in a way that integrates self-experience in the context of space and time.

One way of getting through painful times includes valuing, spending time with, and paying attention to the people you care about. Sadness lets us know who matters and what matters. If we did not have sadness, we would not know what is important. Reality as it is cannot always be avoided, but the sustaining relationships we do have are worth investing in, paying attention to, and fostering.


Life is about loss

One of the best classes I took in graduate school was called “grief and loss.” I loved this class because it normalized the concept of loss in a broad and meaningful way. Losses became not only about finite loss through death, but losses experienced throughout life. Loss became a myriad of unspoken or unacknowledged grief. It was a very intense summer (the class was brief but powerful). Participants were encouraged to consider losses throughout their life and to acknowledge intense losses through a meaningful class project.

When I started the class we were asked to brainstorm “what” is lost. Here is an example of some of the brainstorms:

Loss of youth
Loss of home
Loss of relationships
Loss of pets
Loss of an ideal way of being parented
Loss of innocence
Loss of security
Loss of safety
Loss of opportunity
Loss of culture
Loss of job
Loss of career
Loss of health
Loss of functioning
Loss of being able to eat flavorful foods
Loss of a sense of place

What person, place, or experience are you missing right now?
What loss or losses are unacknowledged in your life?
What are you grieving, mourning, or missing out on?

Click on “comment” below if you want to share your loss.

Dead Like Me

When I was in graduate school I got hooked on the series “Dead Like Me.” This is a show about an 18-year-old girl who dies when a flying toilet seat drops from the sky and kills her. As a dead person, she acquires a job as a grim reaper, which entails touching people who are about to die. Her assignments come on post-it notes with the estimated time of death from a boss who doesn’t provide a lot of answers to the questions she has.

Somewhere early in the season (as she is learning her new job as a grim reaper) she is given an assignment to “touch” a young girl who dies in a train crash. She rebels against this job, as she doesn’t see any reason for this young girl to die.  She begins questioning her control over death as well as the non-sensical aspect of it, and refuses to follow through in “allowing” this girl to die. In the end, it creates additional problems, but she eventually comes to terms her assigned task.

I really liked this episode because it really got me thinking about acceptance and death. When people can’t accept or tolerate that horrendous things happen, there is a way extremely painful events can sort of “not happen”. And it kind of makes sense, because who does want to accept painful realities?

On the flip side, the piece about acceptance that continues to intrigue me is that acceptance is such a critical aspect of grieving. People who stanchly refuse reality get stuck. Really really stuck. Every time the person is reminded of the pain/trauma/death, there is an active effort to avoid it at all costs. The active avoidance or inhibition of grief can actually make things worse.

The painful process of grief involves extremely intense emotion- the ups and downs- the ebbs and flows. It is different from being stuck. Not everyone can be accepting at all times. But moments of acceptance bring moments of movement. And if movement is happening than “stuck” is not happening. And when movement happens, change comes, and when change happens, growth happens. And this is the process of bearing with intolerable life situations.