What Matters Most This Christmas: Presence
Updated: Dec 20, 2017
Dr. Angele Close
As I reflect on where I’m at right now compared to this time last year, with less than a week away from Christmas, I notice a striking difference. Last year, I distinctly recall feeling tapped out, overwhelmed and much more stressed, while this year, I feel much joy, excitement and well, happiness. What’s the difference? Sure, working one less day a week has allotted me more time to knock off my To-Do list (which is not to be underestimated with 3 children), but it’s more than that. This year, my heightened happiness is a direct outcome of my deepened Mindfulness Practice. I truly believe that it’s my capacity for presence that is allowing me to experience the joys of this season, despite its hectic atmosphere.
Presence, or mindfulness, means paying attention, on purpose, and nonjudgmentally to each moment by moment experience (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Basically, it’s the opposite of being on auto-pilot. You know, when your body is doing one thing (like waiting in line at the store) and your mind is in the future (like going through the evening’s tasks or your To-Do List). This is how we all live much of the time, either in the future or the past, all the while missing the present moment. To be in the present each moment, in our bodies, is no easy task. In the holiday season it’s particularly easy to get lost in the stress of it all, with its busy-ness, sense of urgency and countdown.
When we are stressed, we are really not in presence. Literally, on a physiological level when we are stressed, our cortisol levels increase and our breath shallows as it prepares for the anticipated ‘threat’ (i.e. think fight, flight, freeze). Our mind goes into over-drive in thinking, planning and ultimately getting caught up in imagining the many possible things that might go wrong. It’s not our fault. This is our evolutionary hard-wiring, the neuro-gear we’re born with called ‘the negativity bias’ (Rick Hansen). The same mental set up that helped us survive being eaten by predators can get activated when we anticipate hosting a Christmas Dinner for twenty family members (or three, depending on who the family members are).
The good news is we can train ourselves to shift out of this inherited mindset. Mindfulness meditation has helped me regularly shift out of this automatic over-drive into a state of presence, with awareness of what I am experiencing, what surrounds me. The more I practice coming back to the here and now time and time again, the more expansive and profoundly I am able to notice and receive the goodness that surrounds me, us, the beauty of this world that is exemplified in the holiday season. While I am certainly appreciating the beauty of the Christmas lights, the sparkling tree ornaments and savoring the tasty treats, I am also attuned to the acts of kindness, stories of love and collaboration and generosity that abound as many of us think more of others who are struggling and going without this holiday season. As the infamous character personified by Jim Carry puzzled and puzzled, “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”
This capacity for love and connection that Cindy Lou so beautifully modelled, and which touches the heart of this season’s message, is not possible if we’re not present in mind and body. This type of love and compassion requires mindfulness. Our heart needs us to be here, in this moment, fully and completely. When we can pause and see clearly, we can experience the love that surrounds as always.
With the hectic pace of life and need to multi-task, it can be hard to find the time. But it doesn’t take a lot. I find that many mini-pauses throughout my day go a long way.
Take a Pause:
When you notice you are lost in thought and not fully in the moment, take a deep conscious breath. Intentionally shift your attention to your body as you feel the breath enter through your nostrils or chest and ‘be with’ your lungs as they expand with the inhalation. Follow the breath as you exhale completely, with awareness. Take 2 or 3 more breaths like this, scanning your body from the inside out, observing and noticing what is present. What thoughts are here, what emotions and sensations? It can be helpful to gently try to soften and relax your body as you exhale, but don’t force or strain, just lightly setting an intention to relax or soften any areas of tightness or tension. You may find it useful to whisper a word or two as you ground yourself in the present moment (e.g., “Here” … “Now” etc.).
This brief pause using the breath and body as an anchor can have a powerful impact in helping you to feel grounded and aligned in your mind, body and heart as you move through your day. Practice it as needed organically (i.e. when you can ‘catch’ yourself lost in the future or past), or attach it to certain times of your day to help remember and integrate it into your life (e.g., when you brush your teeth, at a red light, when you touch a door handle to go into a room, etc.). Small moments of presence add up and are not to be underestimated.
The gifts of presence cost nothing and it’s available always, with each new breath. Here. Now.
This is my wish to you and for everyone. May you be present for the beauty that surrounds you this holiday season.