Contrary to popular belief, we here at the Monash Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative studies (M3CS) are not all enlightened beings, calmly preparing for a perfectly Zen holiday period.
Alas, we are mere mortals, navigating the stress and intensity of this season just like everyone else. However, we’ve had the benefit of some years of training that we’ve baked into our work at the centre, and at 3pm each day, we down tools and sit together for a short mindfulness meditation, led by a team member. This year, as a team, we also studied Professor Craig Hassed’s “True happiness: The art, practice and science of human flourishing” course.
But even with regular meditation practice and daily contemplation, the festive period can trip up the calmest of people, especially where family dynamics are involved.
As the spiritual teacher Ram Dass said:
“If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.”
In light of this, I sat down with our M3CS Director of Education, Professor Craig Hassed OAM, to delve further into the ways mindful awareness can help us thrive and enjoy the holiday period, even in the most trying times.
“Some of the ways that mindfulness can be useful is that firstly, it helps us to stop and to be present and to really savour,” says Professor Hassed.
“Mindfulness might help us realise that we don’t have to cram every moment with another thing to do, or another place to go. We might just find a little bit more balance, keep a little bit of space, not just in our calendars, but in our minds as well.
“It’s good to slow down, remember we can control that brake pedal, and remember to take one moment and one day at a time.”
Sure, that sounds great. But I identify more with there being a thousand things to be done, and feeling overwhelmed at the thought of being able to do them all. How do we shift that thinking, practically speaking?
“Well, meditation helps a lot,” he says with a grin. “But as a metaphor, it’s like punctuating your day with a couple of full stops and a number of little commas to put some space between finishing one thing and starting another.
“Mindfulness isn’t just about meditation. Anything we do with presence and attention, where we’re completely in the moment with what we’re doing, that’s mindfulness, too. If there’s a lot on our plate, often we’re complicating simple moments by overthinking things.
“If you’re doing something simple, keep it simple. For example, if you’ve just finished preparing some food and you’ve just put it in the fridge, and there are many other jobs to do, just stop and give yourself 15 or 30 seconds, a comma, before you start your next task.
Stop, sit down and just be aware of where you are, be aware of your body.
“A full stop is just the same thing, but a bit longer. So maybe in the morning, before you start getting into your day, give yourself five or 10 minutes to just stop.
If you’re going for a walk and there’s a park bench there, you might decide to stop and hear the birds, hear the breeze in the leaves, and notice how many different shades of green there are in the environment.
“If you’re walking from point A to B, let that five-minute walk be an opportunity to experience the elements and give yourself five minutes of mental space.
“It’s watching yourself, not in a judgmental bad way, but just being curious and noticing how you’re being. Maybe you’re rushing, maybe you’re not noticing what’s around you. Actually just being where you are at the time, just doing the thing that you are doing at the time.”
It’s so true that so much of this period can be on autopilot, rushing from one place to another, or doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them. It’s one thing to be aware of the way things are, but how can we navigate circumstances that aren’t the way we want them to be?
Christmas isn’t necessarily a stressful period, Professor Hassed says. In fact, it can be the expectations or baggage that we bring to it that builds that pressure for ourselves in the lead-up.
“Mindful awareness also gives us the opportunity to notice how we pre-empt potentially challenging situations. We’ll often find that we’ve lived that scenario in our heads a thousand times before we get there.
“So not only do we create stress a thousand times out of thin air before it even happens, but then we’re loaded with this stress and attitude when the situation actually arrives, which can greatly exacerbate it.
“And, of course, the rest of your family might be doing the same thing, so we often unconsciously and habitually bring a lot of baggage and a lot of history into situations that we really don’t need to.
Mindfulness can give us the awareness to drop that mental baggage ahead of time, and meet the situation in the moment.
Even if it’s not the way we want it to be, we can just be more open and curious. Instead of saying to ourselves, ‘that sucks’, we can just notice and say, ‘that’s interesting’.
“Practising more awareness is like turning the lights on and seeing more, which can mean seeing parts of ourselves we don’t like. But that’s not a sign that we’re getting it wrong. Actually it creates an opportunity for us to reconcile those things, to come to terms with them and not to be a prisoner of them.”
Ultimately, Professor Hassed says, this is a period in which we can practise cultivating an attitude of gentleness and acceptance.
“It’s about allowing ourselves and others the space to be human. It’s OK that those thoughts and feelings and stresses are there, and we can soften our attitude toward them.
“When you make space for the ebb and flow of these things, then you realise they come and go, but you remain. You’re bigger than those passing thoughts, reactions and feelings. You expand a bit yourself and make space for all of it. It all passes – and that includes the pleasurable things as well, so try and avoid clinging to them too.
“These celebrations are there to be enjoyed. It could be the food, it could be the company. It could just be that we finally have a bit of time to slow down. So savour what you can, find gratitude in those little lovely moments and learn from the others.”
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius