Mindfulness Holiday Survival Guide

Practices to ground us in the midst of food, family, gift-giving, and ritual this season

The holiday season is upon us. And for most of us, this brings up a multitude of contradictory feelings: excitement and dread, nostalgia and anger, connectedness and loneliness. We carry so much more than packages wrapped with paper and bows into this season: we carry memories and associations, both painful and joyful; we carry heavy expectations of ourselves and our families that often fail to be met; we carry our bodies, with our complicated relationship to food that often gets even more guilt laden with holiday treats at every turn; we carry busyness, rushing, guilt, shame, grief.

So how do we set some of these heavy, unwanted packages down? How do we slow down? How do we show up in a deeper, more meaningful way to this time of year that, at its heart, is meant to be deep and meaningful?

Well, mindfulness can be one way through. No, I’m not suggesting we all clear our schedules so we can sit on a yoga mat and meditate for the next month and a half. (Although, to some of us, this may sound nice.) The simplest definition of mindfulness, from Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Awareness, paying attention, present moment, without judgment. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Those words don’t usually permeate our experience of the holiday season. And yet, for most of us, I think we crave this slowing down, this showing up. We want to connect and rest and open, not isolate and rush and push away. We want magic and mystery, not emptiness.

I want to explore four aspects of the holidays and propose some ways in which to access our innate ability to show up to the present moment.

First off, food: How many of us associate food with this time of year? How many of us struggle with this association, feel guilt or self-criticism around our relationship to food this time of year, or always? How many of us have trouble setting appropriate limits for ourselves or our kids with food and sweets?

Mindfulness offers us a way to really experience our food and come into a different relationship with it. Mindful eating practice can teach us how to slow down just enough to really taste our food, to really notice the texture and color and scent. Try it, if you have a piece of food with you right now. Take a moment to look at the food, think about where it came from, the sun and rain that it took to grow; smell it, feel the texture, notice your mouth watering before you bite it. And then, take just a tiny bite. Notice the sensation in your mouth. Is it cool or warm, crunchy or smooth? Notice if each bite tastes exactly the same, or different. Notice your body’s response to putting the food in your mouth. Notice emotions that come up, thoughts or stories that arise. Notice thoughts around “I like this” or “I don’t like this.” All around this one little bite of food.

Of course, most of us won’t eat every single thing mindfully. We will still crave a cookie that we’re not really hungry for, and grab it, or stuff our bellies too full. But what if we just noticed, I’m not actually that hungry, or, I think I ate that cookie because I was feeling sad or lonely and not really hungry.

And then, even more radically, what if, instead of beating ourselves up about this, we practiced self-compassion instead of judgment, kindness instead of harshness? What if we acknowledged how hard it is to be lonely or sad at the holidays, how much of ours lives we are taught to “shovel it in” rather than to savor and notice our body?

Mindfulness means being curious about ourselves and our experiences instead of jumping right to judgment or story to analyze them. We can approach ourselves with interest, wondering about our experiences and ourselves, instead of judging them.

Mindfulness Takeaway #1: Take a moment to reflect and plan a time during the holidays, whether at a big family meal or once a week throughout the next month and a half, where you feel confident you can practice mindful eating. This may be your own practice, or you may want to integrate into your family ritual. Make sure that kindness sets the tone for any practice you embark on.

Second, family.

Whew. How many of us have complicated relationships with our families that seem to be exacerbated by the holidays? Whether it brings up feelings of loss of the family that is gone or the family we wish we had, feelings of anger about past pain or politics, feelings of frustration with different choices around career, parenting, politics, or other things, or joy and excitement followed by some measure of disappointment, we have a lot of feelings around our time with our families at the holidays. So how do we show up to be right in the moment with our families, just as they are?

One way to do this is to talk about and explore expectations, for ourselves, for our kids, for our extended families. What are the things we are looking forward to? What are the things we may be dreading? What has worked in the past years to make family time feel meaningful and go more smoothly? What hasn’t worked?

One of the gifts of reflection and of mindfulness is that it really clarifies for us just what is in our control and what is not. We can come to understand that we are entitled to feelings about family members and family time, but that we are limited in our ability to control other people. Just like the weather, we have to figure out how best to prepare for the day. If it’s a sunny beautiful day, we take in all that sunshine, feel it on our skin, let our defenses down, wear fewer layers. If your family time is loving and peaceful, take it in!

And if being with our family is more of a storm cloud or a blizzard waiting to happen, we do what we need to do to feel safe, dry, warm. We bring extra layers, umbrellas, warm boots. We take breaks. We set boundaries. We check in with partners or friends throughout the day to feel connected. We acknowledge past patterns and wounds, we offer ourselves and our families compassion. And we grow in our capacity to feel okay with disappointing others, realizing that just as we cannot control their actions, so too we cannot control and thus cannot be responsible for their feelings.

And we use tools to ground us. We practice feeling our feelings and noticing our thoughts rather than becoming our feelings and thoughts. We can notice feeling guilty, rather than just being guilty. We can notice anger, frustration, sadness, notice how they feel in our body (tightness in our chest? change in our heart rate or our breathing?). We can notice thinking about particularly charged memories of the past, or fears about the future, reminding ourselves that thoughts are just thoughts. And then we can feel our feet on the ground, solid, unchanging. We can breathe, notice the feeling of our breath going in and out. We can take a break, take a walk.

And in doing so, we can practice acceptance of our family’s imperfection and our own. That each person, each family, holds both darkness and light. This doesn’t mean that we allow darkness to violate our boundaries or trust; sometimes, it means removing ourselves from our family in order to heal and hold a healthy boundary. But for most of us, darkness and light together define our experiences, including our families. And our capacity to hold and expect both of these things, the good and the bad, the easy and the hard, the darkness and the light, enhances our ability to stay grounded and present in the midst of our family time, whatever it may bring.

Mindfulness Takeaway #2: Think about a situation which you anticipate and look forward to with your family this holiday season. Notice how you feel in your body, what thoughts and emotions arise in you. Feel your feet. Then, think about a situation which you dread or hold heavy feelings towards this holiday season. Notice again how your body feels, what thoughts and emotions are present. Then once again, feel your feet. Last, spend a moment reflecting on ways in which you can take care of yourself in the midst of your family. What is one thing you can do for yourself during together time that can be grounding and supportive to you? Give yourself permission to do it.

Third, gift giving.

When we can cut through the consumerism that is driven by companies trying to make money and reconnect to the gift-giving that expresses loving thoughtful connection, gifts can be a beautiful part of the holiday season.

But who can avoid the build up to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the constant “deal” promising to help us save (while we spend)? So much of gift giving and consuming is focused around the story of scarcity: a fear that we don’t have enough to be happy. Our breath is such a wonderful teacher about scarcity and enough. We cannot hoard our breath; we can only take in and let out just what we need in any given moment, and then we take the next breath to fill us up for the next moment.

If you’ve never seen it, I’d highly recommend The Story of Stuff, a brief documentary about our consumption and production patterns. Mindfulness helps us settle into the truth that there is enough for this moment, and offers us tools to reflect on our gift-giving patterns, acknowledging the ways in which they affect our families, our communities and our world, and step back to find meaning and value in them.

So what does mindful gift giving and receiving look like? Some of it just looks like slowing down. We practice being aware of our feelings when we give a gift and sharing how it makes us feel to give someone we love something that they enjoy. And when we open gifts, we take our time, noticing the sound and smell of tearing paper, the feeling of anticipation, or other feelings that may come up, disappointment included, as we slow down and open the gift.

This may feel like a pipe dream in the midst of the chaos that can be Christmas morning with children around. Even with our kids, though, we can help them open at least one present mindfully. We can talk with our kids about getting gifts that they don’t like, feeling disappointment. The weather metaphor is a great tool with this. Encourage our kids, or ourselves, to think about our day. We are having a beautiful, sunny day, filled with gifts that we are enjoying, and a couple we don’t like as much. Those couple clouds don’t ruin the sunshine, do they? They don’t force us back inside, do they? No, they just come and then the wind blows them away and the sun is bright again, and maybe we appreciate that beautiful sunshine even more.

We can also incorporate mindfulness into the way gift giving is approached — is it chaotic where there is too much going on, too many gifts being rushed through all at once? Do we watch one another and notice, guess how the other person feels as they open it? Is it possible to take a breath between each gift being opened, together? Maybe we want to try ringing a bell between rounds of gifts as an opportunity for gratitude — this can be a game kids enjoy, as they can take turns ringing the bell.

I also want to propose that we can integrate mindfulness into our choices about which gifts we give to one another. How do our gifts to one another help us to be more present to our days, to use our creativity, our curiosity, our five senses? Why do we give what we do? Because we always have or are supposed to? What is the meaning and connection that we get from giving and receiving gifts? Does gift giving add stress and obligation, guilt and worry to our holiday season? Is it serving our family’s overall well-being or not? Again, mindfulness can give us space to reflect on the meaning of practices that may have just become routine, and allow us to reevaluate and make a choice that truly serves us.

Some of us feel loved by gift giving; for some, we may even identify it as one of our “love languages.” Figuring out one anothers’ love languages, the ways in which we feel cared for and valued, can help us figure out what gift will actually communicate the feeling of love: for example, if quality time is the thing that your child feels loved by, maybe giving the gift of a special date together will be more valuable than yet another box of legos. If your spouse values acts of service, maybe doing a special project around the house or even donating to a charity in line with his or her values will communicate love more than another wallet or pair of earrings.

Mindfulness Takeaway #2: Take a moment for reflection — what are the ways in which you approach gifts that you want to continue? What may you want to add? How do you feel about giving and receiving gifts? How can you find acceptance and a sense of “enoughness” in the midst of a season that feeds consumerism and discontent?

Gratitude is a good one with this, which can move us into our last area for mindful holiday integration.

Lastly, ritual.

Depending on your religious tradition, if you have one, you may already have some rituals that have become a part of your holiday season. We can see mindfulness as additive to the traditions or rituals that we already hold, or as helpful in inspiring us to add new ones. Mindfulness, the practice of being in the moment, can mean that we can set apart special moments to honor and mark meaningful times.

There are many, many rituals that can be incorporated into any time of the year that help us to slow down and show up, tuning in to our senses and ourselves in deeper, more healing ways. Here are a few to consider:

-Practicing gratitude, whether nightly, at a meal, before bed. This may mean a journal entry, saying it out loud with friends or family, sharing a daily gratitude on social media, or even integrating it with a craft — a gratitude chain, gratitude snowflake decorations.

-Pausing at thresholds — taking a moment to take a breath and feel our feet, when leaving, when coming in, when going to someone’s house, whenever we move through a threshold. This is a sacred ritual I learned at Joseph’s House, a way to enter a dying person’s room with intention, but it can be expanded to any coming and going.

- Thinking about sensory rituals to have a special time together — lighting a candle, baking a treat, decorating a home. As we do this, again, we can practice thinking and talking about all five of our senses.

-Practicing self-compassion. Maybe it’s a ritual of being kind to ourselves — when we find ourselves being critical, take a moment, pause, breathe, and shift our inner voice to one that says, “For this moment, I’m allowed to make mistakes, I’m allowed to be human, I am good enough.”

-Practicing mindfulness together with your friends or family—whether using an audio recording online, a guided imagery that you relate to, or just sitting in silence with a timer on to breathe and be quiet. (Here is a really awesome meditation to use with kids to connect them to their five senses like Spiderman.)

-Connecting to others — is there a volunteer opportunity to make this season at a non-profit whose mission you care about? A gift to be bought for a child who has less? Toys to be passed along to other kids? Growing up, my family had a ritual of singing and serving a meal to men in an inpatient recovery program every Christmas morning, and it is the most meaningful childhood memory I hold of Christmas.

-Reflecting on why we do what we do this time of year. Why do we think it’s important to gather with family? To spend time with friends? To enjoy special meals or treats together? Reflecting for ourselves on our values and the ways in which we are living them out, whether in a journal, in an art or collage project, or just in silent thought, can be a meaningful ritual.

Mindfulness Takeaway #4: What is one new ritual you want to include this season that involves slowing down rather than speeding up?

Each of us has the capacity to be present, to show up to the moments in our lives, both big and small, in deeper ways. This is the invitation — to rest, to meaning, to connection. It may not mean your holiday has fewer events or less family drama, but showing up to ourselves, being in our bodies, with self-compassion and kindness, will shift our inner experience of the holidays.

Maybe we can even find the magic that is really only ever in the here and now. Breathe it in, wherever you are, in traffic, in grocery store lines, browsing the latest online deals, coping with screaming children, staring into loss. Just breathe. This moment is the sacred one.

Katy is a psychotherapist who practices in DC; she also facilitates a mindfulness-based support group for new moms. www.bewelldc.com