How To Keep Calm Over The Holiday Season
Illustration by Mr Avinash Weerasekera
“If we know how to be content, we can relax our endless striving and welcome serenity,” writes Korean-born Buddhist monk Mr Haemin Sunim in his book The Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down. Only then, he continues, we can “enjoy the time we have with the person next to us”, not to mention “make peace with our past” and “let go of our baggage”.
In theory, the holidays – the clue is in the name – should provide ample opportunity to have such thoughts, and do such things. Yet the sad fact is that this period in the calendar is too often a winter of discontent in which mounting commitments outstrip capacity. ’Tis the season to not only be jolly, but also somehow tie up all your work in a bow, cut loose at umpteen parties and reunite with family and friends over too much food and drink. (What could possibly go wrong?) Let’s face it, the holidays are typically more of a run-up than a wind-down.
Nevertheless, the end of the year can be an opportunity to pause and process. To rest and recuperate. To not just feel merry, but meaningfully rested. Read on for our top tips on how to make this happen for you.
Clear your diary
“The great theologian Abraham Heschel described the sabbath as a chance to ‘become attuned to holiness in time’, a ‘palace in time... made of soul, of joy and reticence . . . a reminder of adjacency to eternity’,” says Dr Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant, Stanford visiting scholar and author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. “I think we can bring some of that sensibility to any holiday.”
Take a second (or four)
One way to reduce holiday stress is simply to stop and recalibrate. To do this, Ms Natalia Bojanic, co-founder of Form Nutrition and a certified meditation teacher who has studied at both Buddhist monasteries and the Google-developed Search Inside Yourself leadership institute, recommends a 10-second meditation instruction “PRO” – an acronym that, actually contains three mini instructions. First, “Pause” to override your automatic reactions and foster greater awareness. Then try to “Relax” – the tension in your body and mind may make it difficult to instantly comply, but you can at least notice this tension and stop resisting, which leads to acceptance. And finally, remind yourself to “Open”: that is, extend that internal awareness and acceptance to the environment and those pesky other people.
The simplicity of the instruction(s) makes PRO effective, while the beauty is you can use it covertly whether you’re Christmas shopping or dealing with a difficult relative, says Bojanic. She also recommends “box breathing”, a calm-inducing tactic favoured by US Navy Seals. Inhale for a count of four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four and pause for four – think of the four equal sides of a box – for as little or long as you need to downregulate. (Granted, this one is a little more obvious if deployed at the dinner table.)
Change your vocabulary
Words have a “huge impact” on your mindset and experience of the world around you, says overwhelm coach Ms Amelia Kirk, who works with organisations and individuals. So, if you repeatedly tell yourself the holidays are “stressful” and “busy”, then get ready for that to play out. Yes, rebranding the holidays as “challenging” is a bit corporate-speak, but at least you might then rise to the occasion. You like a challenge – sometimes, anyway. And a “full” diary sounds a lot more positive than “busy” – even fun.
The holidays can turn your thoughts to what you feel you don’t have enough of: chiefly, time and money. So, practise gratitude for what you do have, says Ms Kirk – this is proven to alleviate stress and boost the mood. Every evening, write down three things you’re grateful for. (Kirk recommends adding why, to stop you mindlessly listing and force you to slow down and connect.) Choose things specific to that day, so you don’t just repeat yourself.
Fill your journal
The holidays are “an amazing time to reflect”, says Kirk. So, while you’ve got your pen and paper out, take a fresh sheet and ask yourself: what went well this year? What could have gone better? And what can you learn?
The clarity gained by processing thoughts in writing gives people perspective and helps to focus their attention and energy on what’s truly important to them, says Ms Bojanic, who employed this technique to change careers from luxury PR and since 2015 has journalled every day: “It has literally changed my life.” She suggests other prompts to get you started. What do you need to let go of in order to move forward? What personal and professional goals would you like to achieve this year? What areas of growth would you like to explore?
An annual “life audit” can appear less appealing, and more onerous, than a tax return. But you don’t need to edit yourself or worry about what others might think, says Bojanic: nobody else need read it. The goal of journaling is not to pen a masterpiece, but to use the powerful tool to master your life.
Focus on what matters
In the film Enter The Dragon, Mr Bruce Lee recounts the Buddhist proverb of the finger pointing to the moon: “Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Lee was talking about thinking versus feeling – and a martial arts kick with “emotional content” – but the finger-moon analogy also applies to the holidays.
The important point is that the finger isn’t important, says breathwork coach and “explorer of human equanimity” Mr Artur Paulins. The finger only matters in that it directs you to what really matters – something that in the holidays can get eclipsed: “Easily we can get caught up in all the stuff around, and forget the significance of celebrating this particular time in the first place.”
So instead of trying to make things “special”, who are the people towards whom you want to show your affection? As a byproduct of shifting your focus, says Paulins, you may discover meaningful solutions that express your love directly.
And what could you give yourself as a reward for all you’ve done or endured – not necessarily a material possession, and for no other, “better” reason than pure enjoyment? “Think of the moon, not the finger.”