Life is messy and sometimes chaotic. At no time is this more true than during the holidays.
All the demands of the holidays — the shopping, cooking, partying and gathering — will simply be heaped on top of our already overflowing schedule. We know that the price we pay will inevitably be snappishness, exhaustion, maybe the scratching of old scabs and regurgitation of old hurt.
In the interest of helping all of us not only to survive, but maybe even to enjoy the holidays, I offer you a mini-tutorial on a practice that has been known to help everyone from cancer patients to Fortune 500 executives: mindfulness. It’s even known to improve our sex lives, which is why I highly recommend the practice of mindfulness both through my menopause care medical practice and my publishing to midlife women.
Stress Changes Your Brain
First — because I am a doctor — the biological landscape: The amygdala is a specific part of your brain programmed to respond to stress. This nut-shaped structure deep in the primal area of your brain is intended to quickly mobilize your body’s resources to respond to a threat. You breathe faster to pump more oxygen into your blood; your heart beats faster; adrenaline floods your system; vision narrows and attention focuses. All good stuff for an emergency.
Unfortunately, your brain and body respond to stress in the exact same way regardless of its cause. That may be trouble at work, financial strain, that last gift that’s out of stock, tension among family members — you know, modern life plus holidays. Chronic stress keeps your body on “high alert,” in emergency mode. Neither the body nor the mind is equipped to handle chronic stress.
You can practice mindfulness while you’re rolling out pie crust, wrapping gifts, or brushing your teeth.
Not only is there physical toxicity in chronic stress, it trains the brain in a kind of biofeedback loop. By continually reinforcing certain neural pathways, the amygdala actually grows measurably larger.
The neural pathways that you reinforce tend to become the default, habitual way that you respond to life’s challenges. You lose the ability to more easily respond with higher-brain functions, like cultivating a sense of well-being or contentment.
Rewiring the Circuits through Mindfulness
Conversely, meditation, prayer and positive thinking activate the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas in the brain. Over time, when people do those things regularly, the neural pathways become stronger and those parts of the brain become larger.
“You shape [your brain] by your thoughts and behaviors,” said Jo Marchant, author of Cure: a Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, in an interview on National Public Radio.
Back, then, to mindfulness: It’s a straightforward concept. It’s developing the ability to pay attention to the moment — not to zone out, but to develop a facility of focused attention, without judgment or emotion, on the present.
Mindfulness was a Buddhist concept. But in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, adapted and developed it into a formal eight-week program for patients “who weren’t being helped” by traditional medicine. His program incorporates meditation, mindfulness exercises and yoga.
More Healing, Less Pain
The results were impressive. Patients experienced less pain, and they healed faster. The practice relieved stress and improved the immune response. The concept of mindfulness meditation quickly seeped into the broader zeitgeist. Kabat-Zinn has since authored a number of books on the subject.
It’s one thing to read about a spiritual practice, helpful as it may be, and entirely another actually to incorporate it into daily life, especially in the midst of holiday frenzy. The essence of mindfulness, however, is simple and almost intuitive.
Best of all, it takes almost no time. You can practice mindfulness while you’re rolling out pie crust, wrapping gifts or brushing your teeth. It brings us back to the moment, which, after all, is the only moment we really have.
“Life is available in the here and now, and it is our true home,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and globally famous spokesperson for mindfulness meditation.
Focusing on Breath
Mindfulness practice doesn’t take effort, and it doesn’t take time. It just requires a focusing of thought and awareness. The basic meditation is to focus on your breath: Just paying attention to breathing in and breathing out. Your breath doesn’t have to be long or short. You just have to follow your in-breath and your out-breath.
You can think, Breathing in, I’m aware of my body; breathing out, I release tension in my body. You mentally pay attention to any parts of your body that are tensed — your lips, your neck, your back — and consciously relax that part. When you wait in line or stop for a light, you have a bit of time to practice this focus and release. And then smile, says Nhat Hanh.
This principle can be applied to whatever you’re doing: cooking, cleaning, taking a shower, taking a walk. You bring your attention lightly but completely to the activity you’re engaged in.
You don’t think about the next thing you have to do or the fight you had with your spouse this morning. Those thoughts are like the clouds crossing a bright, blue sky. You observe them without emotion or judgment and let them go, returning to your focus on your breath or your walk or the pie crust.
Choosing to React Differently
As you practice mindfulness, you may become conscious of the moment before you react to something. When you are aware of that moment, the moment before you react, then you have a choice about how you will react, whether in anger or kindness, fear or trust, passion or forbearance. If you’re aware, then you have a choice.
“Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom,” wrote Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
I’m thinking that if ever there was a good tool for avoiding those uncomfortable confrontations during the holidays, this might be it. If you’re aware of the moment of stimulus, when your brother makes a snarky remark about your son’s tattoos, for example, then you are given a moment of choice about how you’ll respond. And a moment to breathe in, breathe out without tension or judgment.
Even though it’s effortless, developing this practice isn’t easy. I guess that’s why it’s called a “practice.” I do know that improvement, however incremental, helps me to live with gratitude and gracefulness.
And during the holidays, I simply can’t get enough of either.
As Nhat Hanh wrote: “The real miracle is not to fly or walk on fire. The real miracle is to walk on the Earth, and you can perform that miracle at any time. Just bring your mind home to your body, become alive, and perform the miracle of walking on Earth.”
Amen to that.