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Mindfulness and Compassion for the Holidays

by Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on November 10, 2018)

With the Holiday season upon us, many different emotions may arise; from the joy of connecting with friends and family, to the feelings of separation and loss remembering times of connection which have ended.  I know this for myself; my mother passed away as the leaves fell last autumn.  It is a difficult time of year for me, the warmth of this maternal connection just a memory.

Perhaps mindfulness and compassion can help with the suffering that comes from loss and feeling isolated, as well as the suffering of being extra busy and at times stressed out this time of year.  Can learning to employ simple present moment awareness techniques help?  Could they bring us into a more intimate and nourishing relationship with our experience during the holidays?

Mindfulness is the clear direct seeing into experience, without imposing habitual layers of judgment or interpretation.  It is also remembering to observe simple aspects of our natural experience, like the breath, to strengthen this capacity. Compassion, as I am using it here, means the holding of our own and others suffering with spaciousness, care and responsiveness. Here are specific strategies we can practice as formal meditations or in the midst of daily life.

One way is simply to take ‘mindfulness pauses’ in a way that momentarily gives us relief from stress and difficult emotions.  When we feel loss, isolated, or overwhelmed we can just pause and take a mindful breath, take a few mindful footsteps, or bring full care and attention to the process of taking a sip of tea, coffee, or a bite of apple pie while gathered with family and friends or sitting alone. We can be reminded that we are here, and have some power to separate from the difficult emotion.  We can touch a quiet inner strength, and start fresh.

Once we have grounded and steadied our attention in the present moment, we can open our field of awareness to include a wider range of our inner experience without being thrown off balance.  We can continue to open, not only to our own experience but to that of others as well.

We all know suffering and joy.  We are not alone in this fact.  Sometimes we feel like we are but when we touch moments of freshness we can use this strength to connect with others and feel our togetherness, our shared humanity in the joys and sorrows of being alive.  This can open our hearts with empathy and natural compassion.  Actions that come from this place can support others in need this time of year, as well as nourishing our inner sense of wellbeing.

A final strategy is the simplest one of all. It is our capacity to turn to life just as it is and meet it with an embracing awareness without using any step-by-step approach to get there.  To make this last possibility more likely, formal training in mindfulness can be very helpful, but this practice in itself is extremely simple:  This moments experience is just as it is. When we give our attention to it fully in a relaxed and steady way there is no room for separation. Even when an emotion is difficult we can let that be as it is, and it washes through us.

Deep present moment awareness allows us to be just as we are, and others to be as they are. Moments are full, and fleeting. We embrace life and it embraces us.  Recently, I was watching birds fly south in an empty blue sky as the sun rose.  My heart and mind opened, silenced by the magnitude and the mystery of the passing season.

What will unfold for us each moment this holiday season? The eyes of someone we are talking to, a bite of food, a text, a feeling of excitement or loneliness; all welcome.  When we are fully here, mindfulness and compassion are not separate.  When we offer our full care and attention to each situation, others benefit and so do we. What we experience is direct, clear, and intimate.  When this moment is gone the next moment fills us with its uniqueness.

And when this possibility is not a reality we can turn to simple mindfulness practices to remind us that we have inner strength, that we are together in our perceived separation, and that we can start fresh right where we are.

Enjoy the holidays!