Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

Photo credit: MrSickboy50 from morguefile.com

Today's article is a guest post from Gregg Krech. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take a weekend workshop with Gregg on Naikan, which is a powerful practice of self reflection and cultivating gratitude with roots in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist teachings. The basic practice is deceptively simple. You focus on your interactions during the day, and take time to reflect on the answers to each of three questions.

What have I received from others?

What have I given to others?

What troubles and difficulties have I caused to others?

You can do this focusing on a single person, group of people (like family, friends, or co-workers), or you can bring in all your interactions during the day.

After that workshop, I did daily Naikan reflections for over a year and a half. Since then, I revive the practice whenever I feel like I've lost touch with the numerous gifts coming into my life, even during difficult times. My life has shifted as a result of this work, and I'm grateful to Gregg for having introduced us to it during that workshop, and also for his book on Naikan, which explores the topic more in depth.

I hope you enjoy Gregg's timely piece today. Given how challenging the holiday season can be for many folks, I think this exploration of an alternative set of "three poisons" is a helpful antidote.

The Ups and Downs of the Holiday Season

by Gregg Krech

One of the most common messages in a holiday card is, “Happy Holidays.” We generally expect the holidays to be joyful and happy. We hear uplifting Christmas music and we have images of presents under Christmas trees, menorahs and Santa Claus. But the reality of the holiday season is a bit different. More of a mix of up and down moods and moments. Along with the Christmas music there are financial pressures. There are also crowded stores, heavy traffic, family infighting, and a certain amount of loneliness. When we find ourselves feeling depressed, overwhelmed or in despair, we think, “What’s wrong with me – it’s the holiday season? I’m supposed to feel good.” But we don’t – at least not all the time.

Let’s look at what I call the Three Poisons:




How do they affect our experience of the holiday season?

Any time we have high expectations (actually, any expectations at all) we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. What are your expectations going into the holidays?:

• Everybody in the family should get along with one another.
• I should give people I love lots of nice presents and I should also receive lots of nice presents.
• I should send out and receive holiday cards.
• There should be wonderful decorations and lovely white snow (Note: I live in Vermont).
• I should feel grateful and joyful and other people should be cheerful and pleasant.

These are just a few examples. See if you can discover your own underlying expectations. When you have a moment in which you feel disappointed or angry, can you investigate the expectation you have that hasn’t been met?

Realistically, we can’t simply tell ourselves to drop our expectations. We don’t have that kind of control over our minds and hearts. What we can do is to bring an awareness to how our expectations create disappointment, resentment and even anger. We can become conscious of how our expectations often poison our ability to simply enjoy what life places in our path. That awareness itself can help us to better accept situations that would otherwise push our buttons.

The second poison is control. Many of us use the holidays as a time for reconnecting with our families including those family members who would be doing so much better if they would just take our advice about how to fix their lives.

Of course they haven't in the past, but this might just be the time they're ready to listen and "see the light." As an alternative, why not leave our teacher/counselor hat in the closet and just concentrate on being a loving son/sister/cousin/parent. We can play this role quite well without ever giving advice. And if someone else is trying to fix your life, well, just listen, thank them for their concern, and perhaps ask them if they'd like to go outside and help feed the birds or make a snowman.

Expectations are often the precursor to control. We have an idea of how we want things to turn out and now it is up to us to orchestrate the situation to make sure that happens. There’s nothing wrong with trying to host a nice dinner or party, but we have to allow life to unfold in its own way. There is a term in Japanese – jiriki. It means self-power. Making a conscious effort and taking action can be valuable. But trying to control the outcome is a guaranteed formulae for stress, anxiety and, ultimately, disappointment.

So use the holiday season as an opportunity to practice acceptance – it’s an undervalued quality that most of us could benefit from.

Finally, there’s the third poison of mindlessness – specifically the kind of mindlessness that comes from rushing. The more we’re in a hurry, the more our minds tend to abandon the present moment and think about what hasn’t happened yet. So we need to find a way to anchor ourselves in the present, even on busy days when there’s so much to do. When I traveled with Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1980’s, he taught us to use the ringing of the phone or a red stoplight as a cue for pausing and coming back to our breath. You can use this strategy with any external cue, or create one yourself with an app on your phone. The idea is to have a regular system for pausing and reconnecting with what’s happening right now.

In Japanese Psychology we learn not only to reconnect with the present, but also to reconnect with the world around us instead of getting stuck in our heads. So another way to enrich your holiday experience is to practice using your senses. Touch and smell the world around you. Close your eyes and just listen. Taste your food instead of reading the news while you eat. Self-focused attention is associated with almost every psychological disorder, so use the holidays as a way of engaging with the world around you.

When you find yourself caught up in the ups and downs of the holidays, just enjoy the ride. The bouncing is good for your spiritual muscles. And if you find yourself out of breath – that’s wonderful. It means your attention is in the right place.

Gregg Krech has been studying and teaching Japanese Psychology for 27 years and is the author of several books including, The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology (2014). He is currently conducting an online retreat for Tricycle magazine on the theme of Self-Reflection and Gratitude. In January, he will be teaching a distance learning program for the ToDo Institute called Living on Purpose as a way of launching the new year.

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