Whether you embrace Christmas and all the razzmatazz that comes with it, or you’d rather bury your head under the duvet until it’s all over, the chances are the stress will get to you, one way or another, before the 25th.
You might be tasked with putting on the perfect performance from Santa for your kids, navigating complicated family relationships, dreading the office party, or struggling to balance your yoga lifestyle with the heady social demands of the season. Maybe you’re just trying to find a way to slip quietly away and avoid the whole business without causing hurt and offence.
For most of us, there’s no escaping the slow and steady build-up of stress levels as we approach the big day. So, if ever there was a time to sit, breathe and work on cultivating that magical ability to pause before we react (the gift that meditation gives us), it’s right now.
Spending time with our nearest and dearest brings the biggest challenges for many of us. Much as we may love what the therapists call our family of origin, we all tend to slip back into our well-established childhood roles when we get together with extended family. And while the role we subconsciously adopted as a child may have served us well back in the day, responding to a present-day experience from the perspective of your 9-year-old self generally doesn’t end well. Yet, nowhere is quite as triggering as sitting around a table with those who know how to push your buttons. But are they pushing your buttons, or are you just reacting out of long-ingrained habits?
In Yoga philosophy, how we react to anything that happens to us – from a casual remark to being cut off in traffic to a significant life event – is based on our samskaras. These are deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and behaving developed over our lifetime in response to our experiences. The ancient yogis believed that samskaras carried through several lifetimes, but you don’t have to subscribe to the idea of reincarnation to get your head around the concept of samskaras. We often react to something that happens now based not on what is happening in this moment but on past experience. If you love what yoga does for you physically, remember that this is just a bonus. Yoga is essentially a process of self-inquiry that slowly lifts “the veil of avidya “(the inaccurate view you have of yourself), showing you who you really are and pointing you in the direction of an easier way to be in this world. It does this by revealing your samskaras and dissolving those that are unhelpful. You’ll feel it in that sense of calm you notice after practice – whether asana, pranayama or meditation – and how that calm slowly becomes part of who you are. It’s not that you turn into someone who never experiences stress; it just happens less often. And when stressful situations do arise, big or small, you’re much better at dealing with them.
Yoga scholar Christopher Wallis* talks about how we can identify our samskaras by the stories we tell ourselves. “Your unresolved samskaras are revealed by the assumptions you make about what other people’s words and actions mean, especially about friends, family, lovers, roommates, or partners. “Pay close attention, he says, to the difference between exactly what was said or done and your assumption about what it meant or where it was coming from. Is your interpretation the only possible interpretation of those words? If you pause and reflect for a moment, you admit that there are a range of possible interpretations. But notice how you feel compelled to believe your own interpretation and regard others as distant possibilities: this is because of the power of your unresolved samskaras.”
If you take away the influence of your samskaras, he says: “You actually have no idea which interpretation, if any, aligns closest to the truth. Only when you’re not at all triggered do you have any ability to intuit which interpretation points toward truth (this is why you’re so much better at coaching other people on their relationships than coping with your own).”
Wallis reminds us, “It’s when your samskaras are triggered that it’s most crucial to remember, if you can, that the thought you currently believe about the other person (or people), or about yourself, has no necessary connection to reality.”
Realising that you have no clue what anyone else is thinking is very liberating. Especially around Christmastime, when maybe that relative who drives you mad says or does that thing that drives you crazy. As renowned Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck*** wrote, “There’s a world of difference between saying, “”She’s impossible”, and “I’m having a thought that she’s impossible”. It slows down your reaction and gives you time to consider before responding. In the famous words of Victor Frankel**, “Between the stimulus and the response, there is a pause. And in that pause, lies our freedom”.
Sitting in meditation helps you find that elusive pause. You get better at allowing whatever comes up to be there without getting entangled in the narrative. So, you don’t drift off into a story about the thought that just arose. You see that a thought is just a thought, not reality. You find it easier to stay in the moment, letting go of expectations and accepting things (and people) as they are. As yoga scholar Daniel Simpson****, whose work makes yoga philosophy so accessible, says, “The mind digs grooves. We’re just trying to make the grooves less deep.“
So, with just under two weeks to go, why not make a commitment to yourself that between now and Christmas Day, you’ll find at least 10 minutes just to sit. Do it every day. Watch those thoughts arise, and let them go as you return to your breath. Let them float away before they take over, and notice how the calm develops. Don’t tell yourself you haven’t got the time (that’s just a story you’re telling yourself!).
I can’t promise you’ll float through the season on a sea of calm, but if you find time to sit every day, you could make Christmas a little bit happier for you and everyone around you.
* “The Recognition Sutras: Illuminating a 1,000 Masterpiece” by Christopher Wallis
**”Man’s Search For Meaning”, by Victor Frankel
***”Everyday Zen”, by Charlotte Joko Beck
****”The Truth Of Yoga”, by Daniel Simpson
Breathe & Meditate Online class is on Wednesdays, 8 am to 9:15 am. Beginners are welcome.