Navigating the Holidays with Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Gratitude
A Conversation with Barbara Newell
By Emily Hanna, LLMSW & Barbara Newell, JD
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”
– Carl Rogers
The holiday season, while full of opportunities for connection with loved ones, downtime, travel and cheer, can also be a source of stress, comparison to others, pressure, and unmet expectations. Whether you are coming home from college, hosting or attending holiday get-togethers, or reflecting on the passing of another year, Barbara Newell explains how the application of mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude can be powerful tools to help navigate the holiday season.
The Concept of “The Second Arrow”
Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally, to whatever you’re experiencing in your body, heart, and mind. It can help in a wide range of situations with what we often call “the second arrow.” When a person is hit by an arrow, they feel a stab of pain. If they are then hit by a second arrow in the same place, the wound is much deeper, more painful, and longer lasting. There is vulnerability inherent in this human life that we are given to live. Sometimes we get to feel joy, connection, and ease; and sometimes painful feelings are going to come up, such as anxiety, anger, grief, sadness. We only need to watch a baby for a day to see all these are built into our humanness.
Painful feelings are like the first arrow. Let’s say it’s a feeling of loneliness while surrounded by couples at a holiday party. Mindfulness helps us to be aware when our mind has taken this one feeling of loneliness and telescoped onto it as the only thing we can think about. Our mind may be looping back and forth between the feeling itself and ruminative thoughts, such as “I’ll always be alone,” that deepen and reinforce the unpleasant feeling. Thoughts like this are “the second arrow.” Sometimes, even more arrows come. Desperate for a little relief, we may reach for a glass or three of whiskey, withdraw, or lash out at someone. We might feel better for a little while, then the self-reproach and suffering return and deepen even further. However, it might be the best we can do in the situation. It’s important to bring a nonjudgmental kindness not only to the original “arrow,” but whatever arrow we may be experiencing.
Applying Mindfulness to “Arrows”
With mindfulness, no matter which arrow we’ve got ourselves up to - the second, or the seventh - whenever we notice we’re in this mental spiral, we can notice what’s happening and remember we are not our thoughts or even our feelings. We are much, much more than our thoughts and our feelings. We have a larger capacity to be aware of all those things happening in the mind, without instantly jumping in to fix them – which can be just another reaction of judging and rejecting of our experience. We can simply pause and bring a kind, caring presence to acknowledge them.
In practice, you can find a few minutes to pause from the bustle, may it be in the middle of a holiday get-together or in the morning before the start of the day, take some breaths and bring attention to your sitting posture. Bring to mind your day, and notice if there are places in your body that tense up, or a particularly strong feeling. Bring kindness to that feeling, whether it be anxiety, anger, self-reproach, or whatever shows up. Make room for that feelings – and into the day, bring that same room and caring support for when those feelings make themselves known. These parts of ourselves are doing the best that they can to manage and secure ourselves in some way. It is bringing focus to a larger presence that is not caught inside the thinking and the emotional reaction that can allow the feeling to relax. It doesn’t put them down in any way or ask them to be any different. Those feelings can be there, no matter how big. With acceptance – perhaps saying “I see you, and it’s okay” – the feeling can eventually soften.
Bringing Mindfulness to Gratitude
Gratitude can be an extremely beneficial practice to cultivate a shift in perspective from what we may feel we lack to appreciating our own abundance. For more information about how to build a gratitude practice, as well as the evidence-based benefits of practicing gratitude, see Carryn Lund’s blog post, Gratitude: A Practice for Well-Being.
The holidays can be both an opportune time to begin practicing gratefulness, as well as difficult one when we may experience thoughts or feelings of resentment, pressure, lacking, or a general feeling of falling short from the experiences people put forth in person or on social media.
When practicing gratitude, it is important to notice if it does not come naturally because of dominating feelings that may be more salient around the holidays. If so, the practice can have the potential to become another arrow we hit ourselves with, such as the thought, “I should be grateful, but what I practice does not feel genuine”. With mindfulness, simply notice when practicing gratitude if you feel something starting to tense up. Maybe there’s something that’s feeling pain that needs attention and is not ready to smile about something. Instead turn toward it and make room for it. Moreover, if a gratefulness practice feels forced, you can change the aim towards noticing the resources that are supporting you. This may take the form of the heat in the building, a friend, a piece of music playing, or a supportive relative. This slight shift can help lessen the arrow of “I should feel grateful about X, but it is not coming naturally”
Painful feelings are the “first arrow,” and our subsequent thoughts and emotions are the arrows on top of the first. Bring a nonjudgmental kindness not only to the original “arrow,” but whatever arrow we may be experiencing.
Before, or even during a particularly difficult situation, simply take a few moments to make space for the feeling(s) you are experiencing. Bring a caring presence to acknowledge them with acceptance.
If gratitude practice becomes a “second arrow,” shift the aim of the practice to notice what is supporting you – no matter how small.
Practicing Mindfulness in a Group Setting
It also can be enormously helpful to practice mindfulness with people dealing with similar struggles. Grove has a wonderfully cozy space for small groups to come together for inspiration, mutual support, and practices to recognize and begin transforming mental habits that keep us in pain. Right now, we’re offering Self-Care in the Busy Season. Please take a look at Grove’s groups for information on groups coming up in 2019.
The Mind of Love starts January 25th and is a 4-week where we’ll be learning to cultivate love towards ourselves and others.
Mindfulness & Yoga for Teens is an 8-week course starting February 6th meant to equip teens with tools for mental, physical, emotional well-being, and resilience.
Introduction to Mindfulness is an 8-week course starting February 12th to learn daily practices that are scientifically proven to foster calmness, focus, and well-being.
Mindfulness for Parents starts February 21st and is for parents to come together and learn ways to navigate the ups and downs of family life more skillfully.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is an 8-week group beginning February 25th where we will learn evidence-based skills to help prevent depressive relapse, manage anxiety, and promote overall well-being.
About Barbara Newell
Mindfulness, meditation, and compassion have been a central focus of Barbara’s life for over twenty years. From 2003-2015 she trained and taught in a monastery and around the world with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Since 2016 she has been mentoring students in online courses with Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach. Barbara has seen how applied mindfulness practices can improve any and every situation. She finds joy in helping people rediscover how to embody genuine presence, connect meaningfully with others, tap into fresh insight, and enliven the everyday.
For other holiday care tips, you might check out last year’s blog post by Lisa Gorman Ufer, PhD, LMFT Holiday Expectations: Yours, Mine, and Ours.