Mindful

Are you already feeling some stress at the very thought of the upcoming holiday season? If so, you are not alone. And, it doesn’t have to be that way!

Instead of being overwhelmed or exhausted by the many demands of the holidays, you can take a different approach—one involving more “being” and less “doing”. The results could mean you connect more fully with your holiday experiences, and your life in general, and you begin to feel more alive and present.

We human beings have within us the capacity for deep calm and ease, and an awareness that reflects accurately what is happening in the present moment. “Mindfulness” is a name for this awareness. Mindfulness arises when you pay attention on purpose without judging and in a friendly, allowing way. By paying attention this way and establishing mindfulness of your inner and outer life, moment-by-moment, a certain ease arises, and you can connect more deeply with what is happening. You are less likely to be hijacked by the urgency of the stress reaction.

“Stress” is the term often used to describe the experience of meeting life’s challenges and demands. What this includes is your total response—in mind, body, and spirit—to these demands, or “stressors”. The experience of the “stress response” involves multiple systems. Familiar examples are the tightening of muscles, increased heart and breathing rates, interruption and disruption of digestive processes, and an array of cognitive and emotional changes such as slowed thinking, poor concentration, irritability, and anxiety.

When the stressor/demand extends over time—such as an illness in a loved one, or the schedule disruptions of the holiday season, the stress response becomes extended over time as well. The effects on the body begin to mount in such a “chronic” stress environment. Signs of physical and emotional fatigue begin to appear. Disruptions in the sense of physical, emotional, and even social well-being arise under chronic stress.

Holiday activities can add stress in many ways. For example, there are likely to be more things to do, more disruptions of your usual routines of life, more disturbances of rest and sleep, and changes in what you eat and drink. While many of these are enjoyable, they can take a toll on body, mind, and spirit. And don’t forget “time stress”. This is the feeling of never having time enough to do what is needed, is often experienced as a restlessness and uneasiness, and may appear as legs or feet shaking vigorously as if to say “Hurry up, let’s go” to the rest of the body.

What can you do to gain freedom from this seemingly endless round of busyness?

Take time each day to stop and to be present with yourself and life, just as it is. For example, for 5 minutes 4 times a day, stop and practice “being” instead of doing. Bring attention to the sensations of your own breath and body and allow them to flow naturally as you simply pay kind attention to the experience. See the exercise at the end of this article for more instructions. Practice for longer periods than 5 minutes if you wish.

Give yourself time each day for rest and play. You may need to schedule this, just as you would schedule a meeting or a lunch date with a friend. Also, learn to use the time you are waiting for something or someone as “free time.” Practice being mindful and connecting and being present through paying gentle attention during these times.

Give yourself permission to say “no” to invitations, or to leave events early. This will result in more time and flexibility for you. It also leads to a feeling of being back in control of your life.

Look for ways to simplify your life, not only during the holidays but afterwards as well. For example, review your holiday patterns of gift giving, card sending, or party going. Look for ways to simplify without losing the essence or meaning of what you are doing. Apply similar review to other aspects of your life. Be willing to let go of anything that is no longer important or meaningful for you.

Above all, have kindness and compassion (a little “holiday spirit”) for yourself. Especially when you don’t do things “perfectly.” Or you forget to do any of the above or anything else you meant to do. 
Remember, inner peace exists outside the domain of time. Learn to connect and “be” with what is here. This will lead you to dwell more in your own inner stillness regardless of the outer circumstances. As you do that, you will surely be “home for the holidays.”

A Personal Mindfulness Exercise
 of Breathing: An exercise for paying attention to the breath as a way of stopping “doing” and simply “being.” This way of being with the breath as it flows in and out enables a deeper and richer connection with life itself, moment by moment.

Take time (any where from a few breaths to 5 minutes or longer) to do this exercise. 
Sit or lie down comfortably in a place where you are not likely to be disturbed. After you get some experience with this practice, you will be able to do it anywhere. 
Relax, close your eyes, soften your belly, and allow your breath to flow naturally in and out. 
Bring a gentle and allowing attention to the sensations of the breath as it flows. 
Concentrate your attention on the breath sensations. Allow yourself to feel the in breath, a pause, the out breath, and another pause. Keep as continuous and fine attention on the breath as you can. 
Whenever you become distracted, by thoughts, sounds, other sensations, or anything else, notice that, allow it, and gently return attention to your breath. 
As your concentration strengthens, and awareness of your breath sensations grows clearer, try expanding your focus and breathe with any thoughts, other sensations, sounds, indeed, anything else that happens. In this way, you are including any “distraction” (not fighting it). You simply breathe with it, allowing it to unfold within the experience of your breath sensations—as you pay kind, non-judging attention. 
Practice this way as long as you like, whenever you like. 
End your practice by opening the eyes and gently moving the body.

Photo: Colourbox.com
Jeffrey Brantley

Psychiatrist Jeffrey Brantley is the director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. He is author of Calming Your Angry Mind.

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