Posted by Deborah Atherton
We would probably all be reasonably happy and productive during the holidays (after all, who doesn’t like a nice turkey?) if it weren’t for our memories of the past and the way they create expectations of how things will be—or should be—in the present. And of course, our memories are selective—we don’t remember the family disagreements, or how our parents couldn’t put our new bicycles together right, or how Uncle Phil always had a little too much too drink—we remember the wonderful presents our grandparents gave us, and decorating our homes, and baking cookies, and the way our mothers always made the stuffing just right.
Intellectually, we probably understand that the present can’t compete with the Hallmark version of the past our memories present us with, and yet every year we rush into the holiday season full of plans and expectations. We may accept too many invitations, or not be invited enough; we may find ourselves exhausted in the middle of cooking a big holiday dinner; we may attempt to gather the entire family together and be defeated by distance, expense, and competing schedules. And in the midst of all this—of parties, families, and events—we feel frustrated at our inability to get back to our projects. Our novels, our paintings, our films, our photograph and videos call to us—but we are too busy trying to squeeze in one more must-do activity to listen. We are almost like addicts, seeking to recreate the holiday high we had as five-year-olds, and, like addicts of all stripes, we are usually doomed to disappointment.
As humans, we are always going to have memories and expectations, and as creative people, we depend on them for our work, but we do have a tool that allows us to not lose ourselves in them to the point of misery. We can practice mindfulness; we can focus on the present moment, and understand that this moment we are experiencing is unique and deserving of our full attention.
In The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, Susan Orsillo PhD, and Lizabeth Roemer, PhD, define mindfulness as: “a specific way of paying attention to things. It involves purposefully expanding your attention to take in both what you are experiencing inside –your thought, feelings, and physical sensations — and what is happening around you. But the kind of attention you bring to noticing is an essential aspect of this practice. Mindfulness involves bringing a gentle and honest curiosity to your experiences. It involves looking at familiar thought, people, and situations with a fresh perspective, as if you had never encountered them before.”
At a time when every bite of food is subject to comparison, we can allow ourselves to simply savor the eggnog we are sipping and not worry about whether it tastes as good as our Aunt Sharon’s or is up to Iron Chef quality. We can understand that as hard as we try to get the whole family together, there is going to be someone who can’t or won’t make it and that although the gathering may not be complete, it can still happen (and hey, they invented Skype for just this reason!) We can occasionally close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and let everything fall away but the chair we are sitting on and the air we are breathing, and let go of all the memories, and all the expectations, and know that life, in this minute, is as important as it gets.
And most of all, we can be a little kind to ourselves. So many of the people with creative projects I have talked to in the last few weeks have been upset about their inability to get anything done since Thanksgiving, and worried that the rest of the year will slip away with nothing accomplished. But time only slips away when we aren’t fully experiencing it, if it is filled with anxiety, or frustration, or a nagging dissatisfaction with things as they are. Fifteen minutes of just being in the moment—of just listening to what is going on around you, or really tasting the food in front of you, or taking a short walk and smelling December in the air—will bring you back to the present moment, and may even help you get to your computer or studio or camera to do a little work.
And you know, it’s possible that the work, when we all do get back to it—even if it isn’t until after New Year—will have benefited from the break. The fog will have cleared, the excitement and disappointment will have lifted, and we will all be ready to work again.
Thanks to Eric Ember, the Intuitive Edge Photographer in Residence, for the holiday photos!