This time of the year is always challenging, at least for me. We’re always told that it should be full of magic and bounty and laughter, and I sincerely hope that it is for you. But, as many of us know very well from our course, wanting things to be other than they are can make us feel so much worse. So, wanting (or even expecting) this season suddenly to bring about the end of quarantine or dark nights or racism is not going to make it better; it’s going to make us feel worse. Sadly, December doesn’t come with a wave of magic to make things instantly better, even temporarily. Reality just sits there, waiting for us to notice that we’re pretending it’s vanished. No amount of misdirection or distraction can change that.
The weight of expectation at this time of year, and perhaps especially this year, can really hurt people ...
... As you might recall from our course, focussing our awareness on how we’d like things to be, or how we fear they might be, or how terrible they might have been, moves our awareness away from the simple question of how things actually are right now. And right now … right now … is when we live our lives.
So, if you’re one of the many people whose festive season doesn’t feel right this year, if you find yourself resenting travel bans, quarantine, lock-down, hand-washing, and mask-wearing because these are not how the holiday season should be, then why not see what it might be like to allow yourself to feel how things actually are? What are the features of this moment? Are you warm? Are you hungry? Does the floor support your feet? Does your chair or cushion lift you from the ground? Do you miss someone – and what does missing them actually feel like right now?
Perhaps you can remember how this simple way of paying attention (on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally) often helps us deal with anxiety, stress, and dis-ease? Well, it still works, even during ‘festivities’! Just as December doesn’t come with a magic that eradicates disease, injustice, or suffering, so it also doesn’t come with a curse that disables our access to the present moment. It’s still right here … right now.
In the commotion of this time of year, many of us struggle to maintain a mindfulness practice. Some of you have written to say that you feel busier and more stressed than ever as you strive to make this season conform to expectations. Some of you have written to say that you’ve been working really hard on your mindfulness practice for the last few months, just trying to survive until December … and now that December’s here you feel like everything should be ok, you should be able to stop. But, of course, December didn’t arrive on a wave of magic. Life keeps moving on, moment by moment. This moment, now.
One of the other risks associated with expecting this season to be magical is that such expectations cloud our clarity of awareness. If the suffering caused by disease and injustice matter to us, then pretending that they vanish for a few weeks is not going to support our efforts to combat them. Today, just as on other days, when we sit and contemplate what actions we can take in the world to make it better, safer, more beautiful for everyone, we are better served by paying skilful attention to how things actually are than by lamenting that they don’t conform with a magical ideal.
If this sounds harsh or humbug to you, I would understand. It’s completely true that I’m saying, as I’ve said to this little community many times before, mindfulness practice takes effort and commitment and stamina … all the time. And, in fact, the more we really want things to be different, the more effort it takes to remain in the qualities of the present. Mindfulness is not supposed to be a distraction from our dis-ease during the year only to suspended when December comes along and magically vanishes all our problems.
The bright side of this, however, is that we’ve trained for this! You’ve got this covered. Try right now, for instance: do a short practice right now and find a sensation, a sound, a smell, an emotion, or a thought that feels positive. Just sit there and let it arise into your awareness and then, instead of letting it go, see what it might be like to approach that thing. Sit with it. Touch it. Befriend it. Let it resource you. After all, the present moment is full of such a richness and diversity of sensations. There is not only pain, discomfort, and suffering, but also sensations that are gloriously resourcing, empowering, or simply comforting. For me, for instance, if I close my eyes right now and let my consciousness open up, I can feel the gentle pressure of my sweater giving me warmth and comfort, especially on my shoulders. That subtle feeling of being held is part of this present moment for me; I just have to do a little work to notice it. And, you know what, it helps me.
Sadly, as you also may recall from our course, our brains have an automatic negativity bias – we much more easily remember and give attention to bad experiences. When we close our eyes, our attention immediately goes to worries, fears, and sensations of pain. When we look back over 2020, for instance, we tend to see it as a year of fear, suffering, and pain – all of which were certainly present. However, just as we can notice a positive sensation when we close our eyes, we can also look back and see in 2020 a story of courage, compassion, heroism, and accomplishment. We have to work a bit harder to hold that story in our minds, but it is every bit as true.
So, my final assignment for you of 2020 is this: every day until 1 Jan 2021, give yourself some time each day to do a practice – as long or short as you like – and during that practice devote some time to holding a positive experience, thought, or sensation. You’ve done this so many times with negative things – approaching and sitting with pain, for instance – so, now you can do it with something positive. Don’t hold onto it in order to prevent it passing – don’t attach yourself to it – let it pass when eventually it needs to go – but take some time feeling and appreciating it, watching how it changes and changes you. And then, when you finish your practice, make a note in a journal or on a scrap of paper or wherever, recording for yourself what was that pleasurable moment. You might add to your list throughout the days as you notice other pleasures arising and passing. Perhaps these experiences motivate you to take new actions in the world – note those too – perhaps you decide to call someone or write or make a care-package or just curl up on the sofa. What a gift to give to yourself at the end of the year – the gift of simple pleasures and comfort and commitment.
As we approach the end of 2020, I’d like to thank you for all the time and effort you have put into this course. It’s been truly a privilege and an honour to spend so much time with you in various different ways this year. You have inspired me and motivated me. Some of you have called for help, and many of you have answered those calls either for yourself or for others (or both). So, I am not someone who’s trying to sell you anything (this course is free, after all!) – I’m not trying to tell you that you can master mindfulness in a few weeks and then never suffer again – which is why I so often write about the importance of effort and endurance. You may recall previous messages about the concept of virya?
A famous little poem that captures this idea for me is by eccentric 18th century monk Ryokan Taigu, and I think it’s a fitting way to end this message today:
a foolish monk.
Wishing you health, safety, and freedom from enmity,
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.