If we can agree on one thing, it’s that this holiday season is especially stressful. This year it’s not just about the crush of shopping, decorating, cooking and traveling, but the whirl of emotions about getting together with friends and family, some of whom may disagree with you on matters more weighty than whose holiday sweater is ugliest. It may be the year to spike the eggnog.
Better yet, it may be the year to try meditation.
We spoke to Tara Brach, a psychologist, teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., about how mindfulness and meditation can help you cope with this special brand of holiday stress.
Q: How can meditation help with stress, holiday-related and otherwise?
A: There’s a real power to just pausing. Meditation helps us to get out of our thoughts about the future and really be in the present moment. It helps us gain the capacity to relax, to connect with what is going on right here and right now, to connect with other people, to re-access our resourcefulness, our clarity and our ability to focus and keep an open heart.
It may sound lovey-dovey, but there’s research showing the positive effect of meditation on parts of the brain that control emotion . When you are in touch with your body and heart, it allows you to then be in the world and act with intention and clarity and kindness. Meditation can change the flavor of the season.
Q: What do you say to doubters?
A: The resistance is typically “I will never have the time for 45 minutes a day.” But you don’t have to do that. You are just going to start with three minutes each day. Just come into stillness. Have your intention be to relax with the breath. That will begin to set in motion a habit that will start to train the mind.
Q: Can you offer some motivation to give it a try?
A: Start by saying to yourself, “Okay, I am going to sit still each day.” Find a comfortable way of sitting. First scan through the body and relax obvious areas of tension like the shoulders. Place your hand on your belly as a way of focusing attention and finding breath. Then when the mind wanders you just say, “Okay, come back.” Gently, with no judgment. It’s like training a puppy. You are never going to be harsh, just firm and steady. In time you will actually develop the capacity to calm yourself.
Q: Do I need to do a full meditation — go to a class, listen to a recording — to get into this frame of mind?
A: No. You can just do it at the dinner table. Take an internal time out. Feel your breath, offer a message to yourself that is comforting and kind and take three cleansing breaths.
Q: Tell us about these breaths.
A: Take three deep breaths and with each out breath, slowly let go.
With the first out breath, you are releasing worries, plans, mental tensions.
With the second out breath, you are releasing physical tightness and tension.
With the third out breath, you are releasing difficult emotions.
Q: How can you use mindful techniques to defuse a tense conversation?
A: Offer complimentary words, like “I love the way you ask those questions” — something that’s honest. If you let someone know you appreciate him or her, especially when you’re going to disagree, it gets that person’s defenses down.
Just remember that everyone is struggling; everyone is living with fear and uncertainty and it doesn’t matter what their politics are. People don’t behave in angry ways unless they are feeling stressed and conflicted too.
Q: What are some other stress-relieving exercises?
A: Offer some gesture of kindness to yourself. Sometimes it’s just a message, to say: “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. We’ve been through this before.” The intention is reassurance, that you are not alone and you can do this. It is the most powerful way to come out of what I call the “trance of unworthiness.” Underneath the stress is fear, and the biggest is our own personal fear of failure. When we are in this “trance of unworthiness,” it’s a swamp, you’re caught in this feeling of deficiency.
●Become a witness to your thoughts. When caught in conflict and blame — make a U-turn and shift your attention from blaming thoughts to what’s going on emotionally in your body. Let’s say I was angry at my partner for coming home late for a special dinner. Doing the U-turn would mean pausing and turning my attention from thoughts about him to the feelings in my body. This would allow me to find out what’s buried under the anger, perhaps that I’m feeling hurt. When I communicate to my partner, instead of blasting away with blame — which only creates defensiveness — I will be able to say, “When you came home late, I felt hurt, because I need to feel special to you.” Making a U-turn from our thoughts to our feelings re-connects us to our own inner experience and creates the grounds for connecting with others in a more authentic way. It’s a movement from head to heart.
●Take moments to savor what is beautiful and good. If you can, do a gratitude practice: Each day write down three things you’re grateful for. There are different ways to do this. You can have a gratitude buddy, someone with whom, at the end of the day, you exchange messages listing these three things you are grateful for. Also, you can journal it or reflect on it silently.
●Extend an act of kindness each day. No one has to know. It can be a smile, reassuring words, a small favor — without expecting something in return.