HAVE A MINDFUL HOLIDAY

By on December 16, 2014

Enjoy your presence, take time to smell the evergreens

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – There’s a great scene in the 1995 movie Home for the Holidays in which the family patriarch, Henry Larson (played by Charles Durning), gives a Thanksgiving prayer that, two decades later, still speaks to the nostalgia, ambivalence, hope, and longing wrapped up in the winter holiday season.

“Even those old-fashioned, pain-in-the-ass traditions like Thanksgiving, which really means something to us (even though, goddammit, we couldn’t tell you what it is) are starting to stop,” Henry says. “And thousand-year-old trees are falling over dead. And they shouldn’t.”

I think many of us feel caught in this kind of dilemma. We know family traditions and rituals are supposed to be meaningful, and we strive to experience that meaning. We don’t want to abolish the holidays. But in the meantime, crises around the world – global warming, torture, ISIS, police brutality, and, yes, ancient trees falling over dead – can put a damper on “tidings of comfort and joy.” Not to mention the season’s potential travel disasters, consumerism, family tensions, or simply having too much to do, too many parties, and eating too much sugar.

It’s enough to make a person bury her head in the covers and wait until January 2 to emerge.

Since hibernation is not a realistic option for most of us, I’ve pulled together some ideas for “how to have a mindful holiday.” Drawing on diverse local resources and experts, plus a few national notables, I present you with some Rx for surviving – and enjoying – the next few weeks.

Mindful what?

First off, what do I mean by “mindfulness?” According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness is about paying attention. “The best way to capture moments is to pay attention,” Kabat-Zinn has said. “This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”

Kabat-Zinn is the author of one of my favorite book titles, Full Catastrophe Living. I mention this because terms like “mindfulness” can conjure images of floating on puffy clouds amid rainbows. Just like “Christmas” can evoke a candy-cane-colored scrim we put over our own eyes. But actually, mindfulness is the total opposite. It’s about being present in the moment with what is … as in, whatever is. Like your bad mood, your dog’s misbehavior, the melting snow, the ache in your knee. And breathing through it all.

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Deeksha is “a hands-on energy transfer that shifts the brain out of conflict and into peace, calm and joy,” according to Oneness Jackson Hole organizer Edie Bennett. PHOTO: JAMYE CHRISMAN

Mindfulness can be practiced in everyday moments. It is also used as a specific meditation practice. Mindful meditation focuses on developing attention to and awareness of breathing, thoughts, and emotions. While Buddhists and yogis have known for ages that meditation has long-lasting health benefits, now the science is in to show how exactly the brain is affected by meditation. A 2012 study by Harvard Medical School found that participants in an eight-week mindful meditation practice not only had better emotional regulation during meditation, but that the effects lasted. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” the study’s author, Gaëlle Desbordes, stated in a report. Meditation was shown to decrease activation in the amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of stress response.

As The Planet has reported (“Meditation in the Mountains,” Feb. 26, 2013), meditation resources abound in Jackson. Pictured here is a participant in the Deeksha Meditation group at Akasha yoga studio on Wednesday nights.

Kindness campaigns

Jackson-based yoga instructor Ariel Mann says mindfulness is “showing up one hundred percent in your life.”

“Being one hundred percent present, loving one hundred percent, being conscious, accepting without judgment, and acting in a way that is in line with our values, beliefs and morals,” Mann said.

On December 1, Mann launched a Holiday Kindness Campaign on Facebook to encourage people to use the spirit of the season to be kinder and more generous to others.

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Yoga instructor Ariel Mann started a Holiday Kindness Campaign on Facebook. PHOTO: CATHERINE COE

“I hereby challenge you to a month of giving,” Mann writes on the campaign’s main page. “The month of December is a perfect time to take the compassion, gratitude and kindness that we have in our awareness from Thanksgiving and … make it part of our lives and share it with the world. Every single day this month I vow to ‘commit’ a Random Act of Kindness (RAK) and I challenge you to do the same.”

Being mindful of others is a good way to become more mindful in general. When I asked friends and acquaintances what their ideas were for being mindful during the holidays, I was surprised and encouraged by how many people responded with versions of “doing something good for others.”

Mann says the participants in the Holiday Kindness Campaign have reported buying groceries for the person next to them in line, bringing food to a family with a sick kid, giving away gift cards and presents.

“A child donated cat and dog treats to the animals at the shelter,” Mann said. “A mother went to her daughter’s house and washed the dishes when no one was home. Another person left a 12-pack of beer on top of the garbage can for the trash collector.”

The Jackson Hole Jewish Community also encourages kindness during the winter holidays. Each year they host Mitzvah Days, with the biggest Mitzvah being Christmas Day. (Mitzvah is generally interpreted as Hebrew for “good deed.”)

Judd Grossman does his best to lead Christmas carols he doesn’t know the words to during a Jackson Hole Jewish Community Mitzvah Day at the Living Center. PHOTO: MARY GROSSMAN

Judd Grossman does his best to lead Christmas carols he doesn’t know the words to during a Jackson Hole Jewish Community Mitzvah Day at the Living Center. PHOTO: MARY GROSSMAN

“Typically, the Jewish families get together on Christmas afternoon and go to the hospital and Living Center to offer food and treats to the staff,” said The Planet publisher Mary Grossman. “I have to say, my kids have gotten addicted to doing this and they look forward to it each year. Giving on a day centered around receiving is a good habit, and I hope they continue this tradition when they become adults.”

Mann says practicing “random acts of kindness” often leads people to be kinder to themselves. “Random acts of kindness force us to look outside ourselves,” Mann said. “They can teach us to be more mindful of how our actions (or lack of action) can have a positive (or negative) impact, not only on our lives, but on the lives of those around us. As we cultivate more kindness and mindfulness, we can translate that same awareness to ourselves by being kind to our bodies and minds, and present to our experiences.”

HOLIDAY GRIEF

So, you’re all primed to give presence rather than presents, as one of my friends says, but what if all this mindfulness is making you aware of difficult emotions? The holidays can be a reminder of loss – deaths, ends of relationships, difficult pasts.

I spoke with therapist Laura Santomauro about how to handle grief during a season of festivities. Santomauro is the executive director of Jackson Hole Family Solutions counseling services.

“For those going into tricky situations for the holidays, I would encourage slowing things down, understanding their own emotional roots, and finding someone to share it with as the way to navigate the distress of disconnection,” Santomauro said.

She explained that she tends to look at things through the lens of attachment. “There is a ton of research supporting the idea that we are hard-wired as social mammals to be connected to others. Therefore, when our attachment does not feel secure, or isn’t secure, we have a neurological panic response, which easily can show up as anxiety or depression.”

The antidote, Santomauro said, is to share our feelings with a trusted confidante. “Sharing our pain with a person who is secure and can be responsive is the key … being able to have someone else see our pain and respond to it is what makes it better.”

Laura Santomauro, executive director of Jackson Hole Family Solutions, recommends nurturing our connections during the holidays. PHOTO: LAURA SANTOMAURO

Laura Santomauro, executive director of Jackson Hole Family Solutions, recommends nurturing our connections during the holidays. PHOTO: LAURA SANTOMAURO

We can also be there for ourselves during times of grief, Santomauro says. She recommends creating a ritual for holding space for a lost loved one, maybe 20 minutes a day or once a week. “I find a special place, a comfy chair, where I bring a cup of tea and light a candle, and allow myself the time I need regularly.”

Personally, I am a fan of balancing my quiet grief ritual with a good session of thrashing around listening to music. And I’m not talking about Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” A particularly cathartic song for me is Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” in which he evokes his many friends who have left the world too early.

Music can be a tonic during the holidays. I asked two local DJs, Rocky Vertone and Nona Yehia (‘Takes one to know one,’ Friday mornings on KHOL) to provide playlists for chilling out this holiday season. This is not your grandma’s Christmas music! In fact, it’s not Christmas music at all.

SLOW IT DOWN

Santomauro recommends participating in traditions to enhance our sense of well being. “When we have traditions, we know what to predict, and that fosters safety as well as a sense of belonging,” she said.

Yoga instructor and owner of Akasha Yoga Neesha Zollinger encourages people to think outside the box for holiday traditions and rituals. “Create family traditions that reflect your values,” she said. “There is no reason to blindly follow these traditions that have been established by our culture. Times are changing. Be an agent of evolution.”

Priscilla Marden, director and founder of Horse Warriors youth empowerment program, has created a personal tradition of five minutes of gratitude every day. “We are so blessed every day that we can take it for granted too often,” Marden said. “I try to practice giving five hugs a day.”

Yoga instructor Vanessa Sulzer has a tradition this time of year of carving out a few minutes of quiet in the morning and turning off computer screens by 8 p.m. “It adds so much peace,” she says.

When it comes to celebrating and traveling this time of year, journalist and father Rich Anderson drops his expectations. “I find having no expectations means everything that happens is unexpected and exciting,” he said. “Suspend the usual ways you measure time and surrender to the currents.”

Carter Cox chats with guests at a Slow Food in the Tetons ‘Taste Education’ event. PHOTO: JONATHAN CROSBY

Carter Cox chats with guests at a Slow Food in the Tetons ‘Taste Education’ event. PHOTO: JONATHAN CROSBY

Carter Cox also recommends slowing down and going with the flow. As Director of Operations for Slow Food in the Tetons and a mom of two young children, Cox is well versed in the mechanics of keeping it simple when there is a lot going on.

“My personal favorite approach to a slow holiday is actually being in the kitchen with my friends and family,” she said. “My three-year-old even made our Thanksgiving pumpkin pie – or, at least, she stirred all of the ingredients!”

Mindfulness at the holidays means making choices about how to spend our time. Cox suggests, “Resist the urge to fill your days with busy activities or shopping.”

ABOUT THOSE ANCIENT TREES

While we may feel as helpless as Henry Larson in the face of deforestation and climate change, this is the season when many of us make trees the centerpieces of our homes. So why not bring a little mindfulness to the tree itself. Rather than simply thinking of it as a prop for ornaments and lights, emulate the ancient Egyptians who valued evergreens as a symbol of life’s victory over death.

As noted photographer Beth Moon says in her new book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time, “Time is the shape of an old oak as the winds caress and sculpt the bark, defining hardship and beauty. Time is the trunk that splits apart in great age to accommodate the tempest.”

Jackson Hole native Kelly Halpin says she honors trees whenever she is in the mountains. An avid climber, snowboarder and artist, Halpin spends much of her time outdoors. “I always give trees a tiny thank-you whenever I grab onto a branch for balance, or when I use one to build an anchor for climbing,” she said. “We’re just passing ghosts to most of the trees and I think they deserve our respect.”

On that note, one last idea for a little mindful holiday ritual: Take a walk in the forest, and make sure to stop and smell the evergreens.

Nona Yehia’s Theory ON Holiday Music:

“I’m a big believer of having options over the holidays. Options keep you sane. I start by choosing songs that have an earnest bent. I love Louis Armstrong’s voice over the holidays, from the playful ‘Zat You Santa Clause,’ to ‘White Christmas,’ to the soul-warming sounds of Ella and Louis engaging in ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ banter. Another favorite is Bing Crosby’s ‘Kalikimaka,’ but you can only pretend that you live in Hawaii for so long. You can turn to indie interpretations, like Sufjan Stevens’s ‘Songs for Christmas,’ but, in the end, it’s a bit too cerebral considering the myriad Christmas party hangovers one must endure this time of year. The Walkmen put out a few good holiday tunes, but they are fairly limited. It’s the cynical holiday songs that put a smile on my face and keep me rolling out the cookies. Surly classics like Holly Golightly singing ‘Christmas Tree on Fire,’ or Thee Headcoatees asking Santa Claus to do unseemly things, or the rockabilly sensibility of the Sonics dancing around the fact that they don’t believe in Christmas. Those are the songs I look forward to year to year. Who can resist ‘My First Xmas (As a Woman)’ by the Vandals? Not me, that’s who!”

Rocky Vertone’s (DJ Vert-One) Chill Out Holiday Playlist

• Smashing Pumpkins, “Drown”

• Beirut, “Nantes”

• Sufjan Stevens, “The Mistress Witch from McClure

   (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)”

• The Decemberists, “Sons & Daughters”

• SBTRKT, “Wildfire”

• Santigold, “Lady (Marki’s Refix)”

• Bjork, “Venus as a Boy (Parker Remix)”

• Cal Tjader, “Soul Sauce (Fila Brazillia Remix)”

• D-Funk vs The Verve, “Lucky Man

   (D-Funk’s Dugstep Retake)”

• E.H.R., “It’s About Luv”

• Lana Del Rey, “Video Games (Jamie Woon Remix)”

• Boozoo Bajou, “Night Over Manaus”

• Brother Of Soul, “The Projects”

• Black Bombay, “Revelation Dub”

• Chakra Lounge, “Karma Shabda”

• Johnny Farmer, “Death Letter

   (Organized Noize Remix)”

• Alex Cortiz, “Smooth”

• Boozoo Bajou, “Camioux (ft. Wayne Martin)”

• Tangle Eye, “John Henry’s Blues”

• Aim Feat. Kate Rogers, “The Girl Who Fell On Ice   

   (Votel Remix)”

• Little Axe, “Midnight Dream”

• Time Passing, “Red Sky”

• Solaris, “Changes (Spectrum Mix)”

• J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, “La Sangre”

• J. Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, “Try Me”

• Thievery Corporation, “Witness (Erotic Lounge)”

• Cinemascape, “Boulevard (Parisian Mix)”

• Tosca, “Suzuki”

• J-Walk, “Soul Vibration”

• The Free Association, “Whistlin’ Down The Wind”

• Butti 49, “Kalas”

• Thievery Corporation, “Samba Tranquille”

• J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, “Oceanic Lullaby”

• Troublemakers, “Fatigue Univerelle”• Mo’ Horizons,

   “Gonna Be (Ben Human Remix)”

• US Conductors, “Under Palms”

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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