This is the time of year when many families around the world are preparing for winter holiday celebrations. It is a time when speediness, busy-ness and materialism can overwhelm us and fill what we expect to be a happy time with aggression, depression and stress. It can be easy to have our minds stolen away by anxiety, desire, poverty mentality, and disappointment during these days. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to create the perfect holiday, to give our children everything they want, to reciprocate with family and friends. Our to-do lists seem endless, and our mind and body are often in two different places.
In the United States, it can often seem that a kind of never ending, naked materialism has taken over what has traditionally been a time when we cultivate and honor a radiance that cannot be dampened even by the darkest days of winter. Whether celebrating the inextinguishable lights of the Temple, the brilliant love of the Christ child, or the liberation of the Buddha - or simply the light of the returning sun on the shortest day of the year - this time has traditionally not been about buying X-boxes and knick knacks that will soon be discarded. In my own sangha, we celebrate Children's Day, a day when we honor our children for their constant reminder of goodness, even during dark times. Whatever we celebrate, these holidays all reflect the unchanging luminosity of our own basic goodness that shines in every moment, no matter what the weather or mood.
How can we honor our goodness and that of our children during these days, rather than giving into our confusion? How do we stay mindful and aware, when things are swirling and we have so much to do? How do we continue to cultivate appreciation, rather than create more wanting?
Following is a list that is helping me and my family to stay mindful and connected to appreciation during this time.
First, of course, is practice. What has helped me is to find a time each day, morning or night, where I can practice some sitting meditation, no matter how briefly. This clears away my discursiveness and joins my mind back to my body. Throughout my days, when I notice my mind is somewhere totally separate from the present moment, without judgement, I bring it back again. I take a breath.
Secondly, I continue to let go of "the perfect holiday", whatever that may mean. There is no such thing, and everything is perfect anyway! There can be the impulse to try to attend every holiday event, do every holiday craft, bake every cookie and so on! If our tree isn't like this, the holiday is ruined. If we don't see those lights, the holiday is ruined. Whatever - it is different for all of us. But to let go of externals, to let go of how the holiday "should" look, creates space for the true magic of this time to occur and be noticed. It is different for every family, but I encourage you to look at your "must do" lists this season, and see what is really doable and enjoyable. Young children in particular do better with spaciousness, so to clutter each day with an outing can be overwhelming for them as well as for you. Sometimes we discover that even cherished traditions or events are either too much right now, or no longer really resonate with our family. Be brave and let them go! The space created will have its own gifts.
During this time, I continue to contemplate what nurtures goodness and appreciation, and attempt to focus on creating traditions that align with that. For instance, although I am buddhist, I find Advent calendars to be a lovely way for young children to connect to the magic of this time as well as a helpful channel for their anticipation - an energy that can quickly turn to grasping if left to its own devices or fed in the wrong ways. I made our own calendar and filled it with pictures of birds, elves, stars and other animals. They are enjoying opening a picture each day, though it can be hard to open just one. It is an interesting dance of patience and impatience! I have found this to be a lovely, grounding ritual to begin our mornings with, and each day we are also doing a small craft or baking session that produces a present to give to friends or family. Again, it is different for every family, but what traditions, either from your own lineage or another, resonate with you and your children, and remind you of goodness and appreciation? What traditions encourage generosity and reflection? I recommend focusing on those - just be careful what you choose, as young children will expect them to be repeated the following year!
In terms of gifts, our full undivided presence and attention are the greatest ones that we can give to our children. Notice if you have the impulse to overwhelm with material items. Is there another way you can share your love? Can you spend an afternoon sledding with them, baking cookies to enjoy together and give away, looking at the seasonal light displays? How much do our children really need? How can we celebrate these days without encouraging materialism and grasping? I leave this to you to contemplate for your own family. For us, we give only a couple of toys, and try to focus on spending time together doing special activities, most connected with crafting or being in nature as a family. For me, buying gifts can actually be an awareness practice - before buying something, we can look at 1) what is motivating me to get this? 2) what will the impact be on our family? 3) what is the impact on the earth? 4) is there something else, simpler, more connected, that I can give instead? 5) will this gift create more wanting in the recipient, or does it satisfy a more profound need?
There are many opportunities during this time to encourage the seeds of generosity in our children. Baking cookies to give to others, making cards together to mail, letting a little one put some money into a Salvation Army can. On Children's Day at our center, we will be bringing food to bless and give to a local food pantry. Just as there are countless beings suffering, there are countless ways to ease them, and children often have an intuitive grasp of how that can be done, although our own modeling will be a great influence.
Ultimately, we can use this time of year to create deeper connection and appreciation in our family rather than stress and discord. We can use this time to nurture our goodness rather than simply feed our fleeting desires. I wish everyone a beautiful season, one of compassion, peace, love and unshakeable confidence in basic goodness.