A restorative antidote to holiday stress
Deena Kara Shaffer
Taking the time for contemplative practices can provide a deeply restorative antidote to the hectic holiday season.
From wrapping presents to winter upkeep, from vacations to visiting family and friends, or from cooking to cleaning up after entertaining, the holidays can be an especially busy time. With prepping and parties, setting aside a calm hour can be a challenge!
Morning to evening, weekdays through weekends, our lives are bustling with work, errands, and goings-on. Our minds are also on the go, packed with planning, analyzing, worrying, and jumping between past memories and future wonderings.
With so much we want and have to do, contemplation is often a small or nonexistent part of our lives. But, taking this time can be a deeply restorative antidote to our intense day-to-day.
What is contemplation?
Simply put, contemplation is the conscious bringing of attention. With whole awareness, or what some call radical openness, we might contemplate a particular literary or spiritual passage or a scene or entity in nature. We give ourselves over to that which we contemplate, shed our distinct selves, and become one. Contemplative practices reconnect us to ourselves, each other, the earth, and the cosmos.
Contemplation has been reported to reduce stress and physical pain, enhance the disease-fighting abilities of the immune system, help us cope with life changes, assist us as we navigate difficult emotions such as anger and greed, support us through times of grief, elevate empathy, reduce addictive behaviours, enrich our relationships and people skills, improve both athletic and academic performance, and unblock creativity.
Research also shows that contemplative practices enhance positive emotions, which are in turn connected to improved mental and bodily health and well-being. Studies in clinical psychology indicate that contemplation can help us regulate our reactivity, accept situations we cannot change, and strengthen our skills at recognizing our own needs, for example, when it would be best to step away from a situation or turn down an invitation.
What’s more, a link has been identified between the mindfulness that arises from contemplation and increased attention and focus, thus potentially helping us to be more present and joyful in our holiday activities.
Many ways to contemplate
What sets contemplation apart is that it’s not a task or to-do. In fact, it’s the opposite of striving. We don’t practise contemplation to get anywhere or achieve anything in that particular moment, even though over time the impact can be profound.
Instead, we take contemplative moments to be exactly as they are, neither longing for something nor feeling a lack, and become utterly attuned to the moment at hand. Reading, writing, being in nature, engaging in meditation, and movement are just some of the ways we can practise contemplation.
Imagine reading without critiquing, analyzing, or sleuthing out meanings. To read contemplatively is to do so slowly, without forcing or rushing, savouring a passage and allowing reflection to unfold. Instead of reading to finish a book or to arrive at some point, contemplation allows us to let the book work on us.
For example, readers could take an excerpt, or even just a single line, be it of literature, scripture, or any other type of writing, and without turning ahead or reading on, relish each word and phrase, bringing the mind back to the page when it begins to wander off or impose connotations.
To write contemplatively can look like jotting down a thought, overheard phrase, resonant lyric, or piquing question, and spending that journal entry exploring its sounds, hues, and implications. When the mind drifts, come back to your pen on paper, and sink into the profound experience of writing that has us focus intently instead of meandering expansively.
Natural settings offer an abundance of contemplative opportunities. Consider watching an evergreen heavily laden with snow, noticing a bare branch encased in ice, or taking an early morning walk listening to the crunch underfoot. Each of these quiets our racing minds and offers a healing reprieve from holiday obligations.
There are many styles of meditation, from mantra to visualization or loving-kindness. Each of these has contemplation as part of its practice. One specific approach is to focus on the breath, nonreactively watching one’s thoughts pass by like a flock of birds flying past a window.
The breath and the quiet pause between inhalation and exhalation become the object of contemplation. Being and breathing in the moment, we can continuously return to letting go of bodily tension, release emotional hangings on, avoid indulging any particular concern or storyline, and again and again return to the rhythm of the breath.
To bring a contemplative stance to movement means to bring full awareness. In yoga, for example, we can reground ourselves back into breath and asana when thoughts challenge our attention. In tai chi, we can contemplate the dynamic nature of the body and savour that flow.
When we walk, we can make each step the focus of attention, contemplating the equilibrium involved, the transfer of weight, picking up and placing down each foot. When we incorporate contemplation into our physical practice, what is important is not the destination but the invitation of intention to each sensation, including in-between transitions and subtle shifting, offering our entire presence to each movement.
Contemplation throughout our lives
We can attend contemplatively to all aspects of our lives, from nutrition to listening to music. We can even take a contemplative stance to our daily chores, such as cleaning house, simply by bringing full attention to the current moment. Through contemplation, we focus on the activity at hand, even if mundane, and enjoy its nuances.
Contemplation helps us to slow down, zero in, and really be with whatever it is that we contemplate. Contemplation can enhance our well-being and restore rootedness to our lives at any time of year, especially during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. a
Aim for a 10-minute meditation sitting each day over your winter break to quiet the mind and reground into the body.