Have a Happy, Gift-Light Holiday

Here's how to deal with gifts in a saner way than some of us, at least, might be used to.

Black Friday signals the beginning of the buying season for the holidays, and with it, the snaking line-ups starting before dawn in front of some stores, and mobs of people eager to snap up the sales.

Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, and is co-author, with Susan Smalley, of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, and the CD “Mindful Meditations.” Here she talks with UCLA Today’s Judy Lin about dealing with gifts and consumption in a more mindful, saner way than some of us, at least, might be used to.

So many of us tend to think that everything about the holidays and gift-giving has to be fantastic and fun. Isn’t that a lot of pressure?

The holidays can be a joyful experience, but they’re also challenging, a chaotic time of year in our culture. Families getting together can be lovely and can also be very hard for people. Sometimes when you visit your relatives, you feel like you’re 15 again instead of an adult. I think people tend to feel a lot of obligation because there are all sorts of cultural and family expectations, many of them vague or unspoken, about the holidays. There can be a lot of agonizing over “What am I going to get from him?” or “Am I going to give her the right thing?” It can be very unpleasant.

What is it about people that makes us think if one gift is good, a hundred gifts are better? 

While it’s often pleasant to receive a gift, that basic experience is very different from all the hype that goes on around the holiday season. The problem is when things go above and beyond pleasant and segue into greed. This isn’t uncommon—it’s happening in our minds all the time. It begins with simply experiencing something pleasant: You’re walking down the street and you see something in the store window that’s attractive to you, and there’s a feeling in your body and a thought that says, “Oh! This is nice.” Next comes the sense of wanting that thing simply because you want to sustain the pleasurable feeling. Then the wanting turns into greedily grasping: You really want it. You feel like you can’t live without it.

How do our minds move to that so easily?

The mistake we make is thinking that happiness is inherent in an object, that this object is going to help us hold onto that pleasant experience. In my experience, that’s not true. How many times have you gotten something that you really wanted, and then after awhile it’s, “Okay, I’m done with that.” Or two people can get the same identical thing, and one person can love it while the other person hates it. So how can it be that the object is inherently pleasurable?

But isn’t it true that sometimes things—like beautifully wrapped gifts from our loved ones—can make us happy? 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t give or receive gifts. Of course we can, and being generous is a wonderful thing to do. Just notice what’s actually happening inside yourself in the process. My experience, from my perspective as a mindfulness practitioner, is that happiness comes from within. It’s completely an inside job. It’s all about how we relate to ourselves and our mind, how we find peace and tranquility no matter what our life circumstances are. We can be happy when we have very little, and we can be unhappy when we have a lot. It’s about what our mind is like.

So wanting things that we think will make us happy can make us unhappy?

Wanting, desire, longing—all this greed can make us unhappy. Greed is this sticky thing. It sort of enters our mind, takes over and won’t let us go. We suffer because we’re stuck on things. It’s like the monkey traps in Thailand. When the monkeys reached for a banana, their hands got stuck in a trap. All they needed to do to get free was let go of the banana—but they didn’t want to let go. And we don’t want to let go either.

In one of your greed management classes you did an a mindful awareness exercise with your students at a Bed, Bath & Beyond store. For 20 minutes, everybody had to walk around, no talking allowed. You could look at things and touch them, but not buy them. What was this all about? 

The main task was to observe the desire arising in the mind. A lot of people afterwards reported that it was extremely difficult and painful. I did the exercise myself and noticed the sort of incredible automatic-ness of it. I would see something attractive—this nice chenille comforter that I really didn’t need. And my mind would think, “Oh, pretty! Oh, I want it! Oh, I really want it! I really need that!” In fact, with another item, I found myself strategizing how I was going to go back after the exercise and purchase it. I started feeling like I was dealing with a child that just wants and wants.

So how do we deal with this inner child?

The important thing is being conscious. Pay attention when desire arises in your mind, particularly when you’re in a situation where there are a lot of things that you can desire—at a mall, for example. Watch the way your mind says, “Oh, I have to have that!” and goes for it, without having any space for any recognition that you’re in the throes of desire. And then you hope someone will give that item to you for Christmas and that this will mean love. Notice that it’s all just that feeling of pleasantness and thinking about ways to cling to it. You can even feel the desire in your body. It’s sometimes experienced as a clutching in your throat or stomach. Longing actually hurts! By bringing awareness to our mind, we can loosen the grip of desire. One thing we teach in mindfulness is, “Don’t believe everything you think.” So you can have a mind that is spacious that’s not caught in the wanting.

And maybe also reminding yourself that it’s not the item that will bring happiness?

Yes, just say this to yourself: It’s not the object that I want. The object will never satisfy. On Christmas I appreciate the gifts I receive. I might think, “Oh, I like this new sweater.” But I know that the sweater’s not going to make me happy. Sometimes you can do a reflection on impermanence. Everything is always changing. Think about how that iPad is just plastic and circuits. It will fall apart. It’s just a bunch of stuff.  

But be gentle with yourself. The fact that we want things all the time, and that there’s this process inside us telling us we want things – it’s okay. These tendencies of our mind are reinforced through years and years of habit. Our culture’s consumerism doesn’t make it any easier. We’re encouraged to go out and be greedy because that’s what keeps the economy going. Every billboard, every message from television, radio—everything is telling us to consume.

I try to live fairly simply, and at the same time I notice tendencies in myself to want to hold onto pleasurable things. For me to feel bad about it would just be making myself really unhappy.

How does living simply and mindfully translate into raising a child in media-driven Los Angeles?

We don’t have a television, so our daughter doesn’t see commercials. We don’t have a lot of stuff for her. We actually are very deliberate about that.  We have nice toys that she enjoys, but she gets bored with them. And when you’re little, anything is a toy. So we have library books, and we circulate toys with other parents. I really want to teach her the values that I want her to have. For the holidays, we’re giving her one special gift. I want her to see this as an expression of love and generosity, not as “I’m supposed to get things because it’s Christmas.”

So maybe we should just forget the whole gift thing during the holidays?

I’m not saying that. But probably the thing that people want more than anything is you. Supplement your presents with presence. That’s one of the greatest gifts you can give another person. With my daughter, for example, what she really wants and needs isn’t another toy but parents who attend to her and share experiences with her. So make a commitment to listen wholeheartedly to a loved one. Another great gift is doing some kind of volunteer work together as a family. This is something we plan to do when our daughter is a little older. I also like to take some time at the end of the year to reflect on organizations I care about and send them donations.

What I’m interested in is gift-giving in the spirit of generosity and connection to people and things I care about—not obligation and frustration of getting caught up in the consumerist model. When I think about how to make holidays more meaningful, it’s about how do I show up more fully. I recommend we all use this special time for introspection instead of unwarranted, unbridled consumerism.

(Reproduced here by permission of UCLA Today.)

Photograph by Joakim Jardenberg/Flickr.com