The week between Christmas and New Year has always been difficult for me. Don’t ask me why. Every year I tell myself I’m in for a treat… a week of unscheduled time when I can finally clean out my desk or hem my jeans, read a book all day in bed, or rise at 4:00pm to make a homemade apple pie.
In reality I am never able to pull off that flexible spirit of ‘anything goes.’ The desk remains untouched. I use up a whole day cooking something complicated but unsatisfying. I make the apple pie but convince myself this is evidence of indulgence, and can’t be counted in the grand tally of my post Christmas accomplishments. Inevitably, my week of unencumbered ‘me time’ morphs into a stream of red sand, piling up at the base of an imagined hourglass.
By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around I am determined that the rest of the year be better spent. I restlessly sit at my desk pondering resolutions, wondering if this year I will be able to progress myself as a human being . Is there a way of beating time before it dissolves like Alka-Seltzer in the bottom of a glass? At the very least, what can I do to make this uncomfortable feeling go away?
I suspect most people deal with this sort of neurosis by downing a few glasses (or bottles) of wine or booking a holiday in the Bahamas but I did not have this luxury when I was a little girl (which shows you just how long this has been going on). Five years old and dispirited by the stillness that followed a chaotic Christmas, I knew it was only a matter of time before the tree would be stripped of its ornaments and tipped into the woods to rot. And where did that leave me?
Thirty years on, having never taken to heavy drinking, I have come to expect this discomfort every December, squirming in new ways as I try to avoid the fallout. What a surprise then to find that after a lifetime of the yuletide blues, 2011 would be so different.
So how have I rid myself of such restlessness, you ask? The short answer is: I haven’t. The change has been in how I’ve responded to that niggling voice that whispers loudest at this time of year: I feel sad. I am not enough. I must do better.
I suppose the first step in moving beyond these voices is to notice they are there in the first place, witnessing how one thought leads to another in a complicated spiral. We believe that much of what bounces round our heads like a pinball in a machine is the truth when in reality this is not the case at all. ‘That woman doesn’t like me,’ we tell ourselves, dredging up evidence of why this is the case until we feel downright angry at such unfair treatment. Never mind the possibility that this woman may have just had some bad news over the phone or a bad night’s sleep. This bit of info never enters the equation. Before we’ve had a chance to question our original thought, the mind has already accepted its particular version of the truth.
Unfortunately tracking thought patterns isn’t as easy as you would think. To do it well you need to actually practice paying attention so your wily thoughts don’t get the better of you.
Here is an example of how my thoughts might have progressed last year at Christmas:
I shouldn’t be bored.
I should be using this time productively.
I am not productive.
I waste time.
I am wasting this time.
I might not accomplish anything between Christmas and New Year.
This is proof that I might not accomplish anything this year.
I feel sad.
I don’t feel like doing anything.
I am a lazy person.
Lazy people are not good people.
I am a life waster.
I am a bad person.
I need to eat large quantities of chocolate under the covers in my bed.
Most years I find myself at step 15 and can’t understand how in the world a person could be this sad so soon after Christmas. Beyond step 15 are the hours I spend telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling the things I’m feeling. I’ve memorised every word of this terrible song.
This year I have been reading a lot about something called mindfulness, which is the act of paying attention in the present moment. Some of the things I’ve tried include following my breath, tuning in to body sensations, and listening to the myriad of sounds inside and outside my bedroom. Essentially I have explored the ‘texture’ of the present moment, little things like the weight of my hands resting on my thighs, the subtle coolness of the air on the side of my face, the way my toothbrush feels against the roof of my mouth. The aim of all of this is learning to be where you are, instead of spiralling into the past or the future. And though there are supposed to be many benefits to cultivating a bit of mindfulness in your life, the only real goal is being ‘awake.’ I confess I entered into the whole spirit of this process with the hope that it would improve my life. I wanted to feel less anxious, more peaceful and content. I wanted a solution.
The day after Christmas my gloomy thoughts appeared, determined to dig their familiar rut. At first I was alarmed. This is not what I want, I thought, and it isn’t fair because I’ve been diligently practicing mindfulness . I suppose I erroneously thought that learning to be aware in the present moment would act as a shield against discomfort.
For a moment I just sat there watching my thoughts gurgle to the surface. I took a few seconds to note where I was in the room and how I felt. I was sitting in my wicker rocking chair, my feet resting on the wooden base. Dave was playing his new Bob Marley record. The flickering bulbs on our Christmas tree were competing with the winter light coming through the window. I followed my breath, trying to make out my own rhythm, separate from the reggae beat. I began to emerge on the map of my experience. This is me, I thought. This is me sitting in my living room feeling disconcerted. This is what it feels like to be on the edge of sadness: shoulders a bit tense, restless hands, a slight heaviness at the centre of my chest.
The only thing absent this year was the mad scramble to make it go away, to get up and do something, quickly and efficiently, in an effort to avoid my emotional state, moving away from the present moment.
It’s not that I believe there is something inherently wrong with doing things. Some of my friends actually joke about my incapacity for sitting down… The real problem is doing things because we have met with an emotion or a situation that is troubling us and we don’t want to feel the pain. We flick through the channels on the television so we can forget the fight we had with a sibling. We assume that a few hours in front of the tube will make us more able to cope. What we find, more often, is that we are just as desperate when we finally get up from the sofa. Annoyingly, our problems are still there.
I’m not advocating a chair in the corner of the room where you battle with your inner demons until they are defeated. What I’m proposing is allowing unpleasantness to come and go, noticing that it is there, and noticing inevitably when it leaves… because it always leaves. Very few people are in a constant state of agitation.
At some point I got up from the rocking chair and decided to look through my new book on baking bread. I was still feeling blah but I allowed that feeling to be there while I curled up on the sofa and read about the advantages of fresh yeast. I was being mindful of where I was in that moment, even though it wasn’t particularly pleasurable.
At some point I felt the heaviness lift. It came back at different points in the day and drifted away in its own time.
So it seems feeling a bit down the day after Christmas isn’t the end of the world. I suspect that these emotions and physical sensations will visit me for the rest of my life but that doesn’t have to be a travesty. Am I strong enough to allow a little emotional pain to enter my life without fanning it into the very full flames of distress? It seems I am.
I assure you there is no other Christmas gift I will be treasuring more as I move into January 2012. Expect more posts on mindfulness throughout the year!