A Year of Living Mindfully: Give yourself a sanity clause this Christmas

Where has 2013 gone? Hasn't the year flown in? Suddenly, it's December. Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl are singing to us at every shop corner about their fairy tale gone wrong. George Michael is lamenting the mistakes he made last Christmas and swearing never to repeat them.

Whether we dread it or love it, Christmas is here. It’s a drama that unfolds in shopping centres, main streets, churches, schools, around kitchen tables and living room TVs.

It’s a Greek tragedy where the core themes of what makes life bearable and unbearable are often played out with full-on intensity.

What makes Christmas an ordeal are those invisible threads of memory and grief that bubble up to the surface at this time every year. Death can make its presence felt. Who’s not at the table often hits home more than who’s present.

Christmas Grinch
I'm not a Christmas Grinch. Promise. But it's important to acknowledge how challenging a time it can be.

Some people try hard to get into the spirit of Christmas because they see that’s what’s expected of them. They hide any “negative” feelings, grit their teeth, and brace themselves. Because no one is allowed to say, “I can’t stand it.”

Even those of us who love Christmas can also find it stressful. We pour ourselves into preparing our homes as though we’re getting ready for the Stations.

Cupboards are packed with food, presents are parcelled and cards are sent out at the last minute.

Worries about what it’s all costing are pushed to the back of the mind, knowing full well that these same worries will be back in force when all the jingle music stops.

Mindfulness offers us a sanity clause. We stop, we take time to breathe, and slowly re-connect with our bodies. This very act of pausing restores balance to how we look at things.

Snatching these moments of sanity is possible for all of us. As you blend and bind the ingredients for the pudding and the cake, you can stop. And breathe for 60 seconds. And in your oasis – the kitchen – you can step out and have a mindful moment. Don’t forget to add a sprinkling of kindness.

Last Christmas you probably visualised the new extension, a slimmer body, or jobs for your unemployed graduates. You didn’t factor in the Troika and setbacks. So give yourself a break. Be happy with how far you’ve come and what you’ve weathered to get to this point. Soften your gaze and try looking at your life through the lens of compassion.

When we look at Christmas mindfully, we can let go the “musts” and the “shoulds”, the rules that can drive us over the edge.

Maybe this Christmas, we could focus on doing things together instead of obsessing on what we can get. What if we could concentrate on the things we can share – the local panto, a visit to the Crib, a winter walk, our favourite Die Hard movie.

This Christmas does not have to be a re-run of what happened last year and for years before. We don't need the smells, tastes or the precise traditions of Christmas past to make this year work. We can allow Christmas to be different.

Think and talk ahead
We may need to talk to others, ahead of time. Being mindful in how we approach them allows us to think about the way we say what we have to say. "Let me tell you how I'm doing and where I'm at . . ." could be a better conversation opener than a request loaded with "you should" or "we always do it this way".

When we’re mindful, we pause and give everything room to breathe. We are present in this moment, but does not mean we don’t look ahead.

We put our own shape on Christmas, and we bring a light touch to our plans. We keep things simple; we stay flexible and we’re able to consider others. We are prepared for what is within our control, and can let go what’s beyond our power.

We remember to always make space to be surprised. Whatever darkness there may be is not without a hint of light.

Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health