Saturday, November 28, 2009

Getting Through the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us. For a lot of us, this is a time when family and friends gather for the annual feasts and culturally sanctioned vacations from work and school. However, for many of us, this is also a time when we feel the absence of a loved one, or the immensity of changes we've lived through since the "way things used to be."

Milestones such as holidays are signposts in time that describe our life's journey. It can be humbling to think that in general, few of us have 90 Thanksgivings or New Years' Eves to live through, much less remember. It doesn't seem like that many when we count them off one at a time, like beads on a necklace. As we grow into a fleeting adulthood that mercilessly and seamlessly gives way to old age, we can tick off another holiday season that has passed and will not return.

Those of us who are mindful of grief, either of our own or of others, have come to anticipate the holidays with bittersweet longing. We remember seasons past, missed opportunities, and the pain of loss at sensing an empty seat at the table. We may also feel the pressure of the finite nature of our lives. How many more holiday seasons will we have, who will we spend them with, and what kind of condition will be in during the next season?

These milestones don't only have to be poignant reminders of life's impermanent nature. A transformative exercise to do to help steer your life on the path you wish it to be is to consider what kinds of memories you want to reflect on next year. Holidays and milestones can trigger grief, but they can also be rallying points for generating meaningful change. These changes can be minor, such as menus, decorations or outfits, or major, such as the relationships we will pursue or not pursue, and the type of inner work we will have done by then.

Rather than get swept up in the storm of your emotions, you can try two things that are the cornerstone to my approach to getting through life's challenging moments:

1) Transform your automatic stress response into a voluntary one by practicing mindfulness skills. Start with basic belly breathing to help your body send the message of mindfulness to your brain, rather than allowing your brain to control your body. Then attach your mind to your relaxed body by tracking your breaths, one at a time.

2) Set realistic, attainable goals. Most of us won't be climbing Mt. Everest in our lifetimes. However, we all have some emotional or mental peaks to climb, or changes we want to make in how we live.

What would you like to reflect back on during next Thanksgiving, New Years' Eve 2010, gathered around the Christmas tree or lighting Hannukah candles? Would you like to be living out the same routines you have found? What would you like to change?

The holidays can be reminders of the impermanent nature of life, but depending on the choices you make, this impermanence can fuel the anguish of grief or mindfulness of life's endless possibilities. Choose wisely, and choose mindfully.