Tis the Season for… Presents or Presence?
Tis the Season for... Presents or Presence?
By Dr. Rachel Greenberg
The decorations, the excitement, the music, shopping, screams and tears on Santa’s lap, events and gatherings, holiday movies, lights and decorations, office parties and ugly sweaters, booze and food, presents and gift cards, prayer and ceremony, family feuds and white elephant gift exchange, seasonal smells of pine wood, pumpkin, maple, and apple crisps, chunky sweaters, boots, and warm winter jackets in the brisk, sharp air. These are only some of the essential components that make this season unique and distinctly knowable.
The holiday season brings with it, too, an incredible and firmly unparalleled array of societal expectations, standards, roles, requirements, practices, routines, rituals, and opportunities. It is a dynamic time of the year in American culture, primarily dictated by a dichotomous mix of consumerism and materialism, as well as the potential for a deepening of connection through gathering and time off from work to relax and be merry with loved ones. It is a season that can bring to life both the highest and lowest parts of our humanity. Either serving as a reminder of the importance of fostering gratitude, offering time and acknowledgement to the others in life who make it all worth it, or, for others, the holidays provide a reckoning of suffering in isolation, oppression, disappointment, diminished health status, pain, fear, loneliness, and lack of resources. Holding both the joys and trials that may be confronted this time of year can undoubtedly be bolstered and softened by a mindful and compassionate approach to whatever is right for you as you embark upon the holiday season.
The realities of our experience seem to confront us in bold and unavoidable ways during the holidays, and I see this come alive in the patients I treat and the multidimensional realities that unfold for communities of people who both celebrate and dread what the holidays bring. Cultivating mindfulness is indicated now more than ever during the season of what boasts of joyfulness, to allow oneself not only to be present and aware but to embrace whatever the current reality is, and become attuned to how the holidays influence our response to these truths. Our lives don’t stop when the seasons change, and we may still be dealt the uncertainty of life’s ebb and flows, its stressors, pains, losses, requirements, and woes. Too, we may be in a place of celebrating the highs of our experience in the form of new relationships, intimate love, exciting opportunities, spiritual transformation, job success, or cultivation of a new skill/hobby/practice.
Whatever it is that happens to be alive and real for us when the season changes can often be intensified by the cheerful disposition of the holiday season and the elements of gift-giving, congregation, and celebrating. Religiosity aside, this is a season that tells us to spend a lot of money, show our love through the accrual of new stuff, and also be happy, connected, kind, and generous. These inherent mandates can serve as a gut-wrenching reminder for some of what feels like is lacking in their lives or for others an invigorating reinforcement of the greatest of life’s gifts. Whatever the circumstance is for you this holiday season, it ultimately doesn’t matter, and you can be present with whatever it is. Presence, not presents, is the real task here. Presence is where joy truly resides.
We know the circumstance will change and develop and transform or halt or evolve or shift or grow. It is all in flux for us always and so we can, for ourselves and our well-being, for our families and communities, partners, pets, and close others, make a conscious and mindful decision to be with whatever it is our experience is patiently and honestly, noticing the reality of it with curiosity and offering ourselves compassion in the face of the suffering and gratitude in the face of the abundance.
The holidays, regardless of whether or not you choose to or your religion dictates you celebrate them, can serve as a not-so-gentle reminder that life is meant to be spent together, present and alive, awake to the reality of what we go through and offering ourselves nurturance, patience, love, and understanding through whatever it is. It is about telling other people we love them, despite our hardships, and taking advantage of every moment we are given however we can. We can stay reminded of the things in life in which we have no control, and hold tightly to the things in life and ourselves in which we do. We can make a mindful decision to be caring towards ourselves and others, to notice our self-defeating beliefs, thoughts or attitudes and offer ourselves a gentle switch to compassion.
If suffering feels palpable, let the holiday season serve as a reminder that you may feel alone, but you are not actually and do not have to be. There are always opportunities to connect to one another if you allow yourself to be courageous enough to take the risk.
Regardless of the celebration, you choose to participate in, make it whatever it is you want it to be. If solitude and respite are what you long for, listen to your spirit that is asking to be re-energized with the stillness. If you desire celebration via a rowdy and roused party with a community of others singing and exchanging ideas, stories, and gifts, seek out that opportunity and let yourself experience it. If a walk in nature is what calls you, follow that feeling. If it’s meditating at a retreat, or volunteering at a local shelter, or visiting the library, working, staying on the couch for a Netflix marathon, talking on the phone, painting, reading, road-tripping, eating out, cooking, working out, whatever it is. Do whatever it is you most want and need to. Allow yourself to listen to your deepest needs and let that guide you this holiday season. You do have the power to make this season what you most want it to be if you allow yourself to be quiet, present, and steady enough internally to determine what that is.
However it is you most need to celebrate, albeit subtle or overt, soft or bold, quiet or busy, alone or together, do give yourself that chance to be present with your needs, offer yourself kindness always, and take stock of what is real for you, knowing it may be different tomorrow. Today, right now, at this moment, you have control to make this celebration whatever it is that will help you feel connected, alive, awake, and present. And that matters more. That matters the very most this holiday season
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