Not only that, but there is the pressure to be social. There are work parties, family get-togethers, and many other kinds of social gatherings that many of us feel obligated to attend. Our schedules get packed during the holiday season, and many of the things that pack our schedules require some extra effort or preparation: meal or appetizer preparation, Christmas baking, purchasing, preparing and wrapping gifts, etc. To many, the obligations of the holiday season can become a burden. Worrying about our obligations can prevent us from being in touch with celebrating and enjoying the opportunities in the present moment for connection with those we care about.
Essentially, the holiday season - as it manifests in Western culture in 2014 - has the potential to both obstruct the practice of mindfulness and to lead us down a potentially destructive path of craving-oriented consumerism. Luckily, mindfulness provides potential antidotes to these potential problems. Practicing mindfulness - the moment-to-moment awareness of the present moment and what is actually happening in it - gives us the capacity to respond to circumstances rather than react to them out of habit (or out of social convention). For example, rather than choosing an expensive gift out of a sense of obligation or in a drive to compete with other gift-givers, mindfulness allows one to choose a potentially more meaningful gift that is within one's means.
Here are my tips for using mindfulness to guard against holiday stress:
1) Be generous
Take back the meaning of generosity! Being generous doesn't have to mean giving the most expensive or the most trendy gift (remember, one year the "it" gift was a talking rodent robot named Furby). Be generous with your time and attention. When speaking with someone, let go of your holiday planning and mentally reviewing your gift list, and become present with and for that other person. It seems trite and cliché, but give the gift of your presence. You don't have to wait until Christmas morning to give the gift of presence, either.
The holiday season is full of obligations. Remember that many of them are only perceived obligations. Take time to mindfully examine invitations and requests for your time to determine whether it is actually an obligation and whether it will actually benefit you to go accept the request or to attend the event. Give yourself permission to let go of the events and tasks that aren't actually required or that won't actually serve you. Just as one lets go of distractions and non-judgmentally returns the attention to the breath when mindfully sitting, can you let go of events and tasks without judging yourself? This is an example of how practice on the cushion mirrors practice in everyday life. When you sit on a cushion or a bench, you are literally practicing for everyday life. That is the benefit of sitting practice. Sitting practice is all about creating neural networks in your brain architecture; it is about building and strengthening capacity and creating new habits of mind and heart to replace the old ones that lead to suffering and dissatisfaction.
Ajahn Chah said, "If you have time to breathe, you have time to meditate." No matter what is happening or how stressful it is, you can take a moment to mindfully notice one breath, and it will allow you to perceive what is happening with a new attitude, perhaps allowing you some comfort or the ability to respond rather than react. Being mindful of your breathing allows breath to act as the glue to connect mind, body, and breath. One doesn't need to sit in meditation to take advantage of the mindfulness-boost that mindful breathing provides; the breath is portable, and you take it with you everywhere you go. As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, "As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you." Taking time to notice this always has the potential to help. Taking this piece of advice to the extreme really helps with simplifying, too.