That chill in the air and those leaves turning from green to gold are the heralds of the holiday season, which is supposed to be the happiest time of year. Certainly it highlights family gatherings, rekindled friendships, feasts of plenty, the satisfaction of gift-giving and other comforts and joys.
The season also arrives with self-imposed stress and anxiety as we try to cope with the usual pressures – navigating crowds of shoppers and crushing traffic, keeping family traditions alive, cooking perfect meals and finding the “just right” gift, entertaining our friends and families, and keeping those around us as happy while working to put on a cheerful face ourselves.
Enter the acclaimed teacher-writer-inspirational speaker Roger Housden, offering wise counsel ahead of the season. He’s part self-discovery guru to the heart and mind, part practical adviser for the day to day, but mostly the voice of directed calm and reason.
“The underlying processes that happen in our minds often cause us more trouble than (the physical things) that are causing trouble outside ourselves,” Housden said. “Finding your happiness is always an inside job.”
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In a special edition of The Sacramento Bee Book Club, Housden will tell us how to deal with holiday stressors and find the most effective routes to enjoying the pleasures the holidays offer.
He is the best-selling author of 22 books, including the six-title “Ten Poems” series, “Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran” and his latest, “Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have” (New World Library, 176 pages, $20). He has contributed articles to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and O magazine. Visit him at rogerhousden.com.
Q: What’s the first step in preparing ourselves for the stressful situations the holiday season will bring?
A: Realizing that even when we do our best in a given situation, there is always an unknown factor and something will happen we don’t expect. What’s important is we acknowledge that we cannot control the way things work out.
Q: How about an example?
A: (At a social gathering) someone will suddenly say something that makes everybody stop talking. Or somebody will spill a plate of food at a buffet dinner in your home. Or a 10-year-old will go into a tantrum. No matter how much we plan, we don’t have ultimate control over the way the world works out.
Q: Somebody’s not going to be happy with any of those things.
A: It’s a question of attitude, of letting go of our expectations for things to turn out exactly as we would want them. That fundamental shift is really important, because the quality of our experience in any situation is determined not so much by what is going on outside ourselves, but by what is going on inside our minds. We have a choice of the way we respond, which takes a degree of attentiveness and awareness.
Q: OK, say Uncle Ted drops a gooey dessert on your just-polished hardwood floor. What is the most effective reaction?
A: We have three choices of how to respond. We can have a “closed mind,” where we essentially try to ignore what is happening, except that it did.
Or we can have a “lost mind,” in which we climb into finding fault and making judgment, with the feeling of, “Uncle Ted, you idiot!” We say that as if our response is the truth, but in reality we’re riding on the wave of our own feelings, which is simply a reaction. When we’re lost in reaction, we’re likely heaping more trouble on the trouble that is already there. Ideally, we need to look to ourselves rather than to the circumstance.
Q: Is there a third choice?
A: Yes, the “open mind,” which is all about being present to ourselves. Can we be present enough to experience the thought or feeling we’re having, but without judgment and anger? Fault is a narrative imposed on reality, and not actually the truth. Something happens outside of us that we don’t like, and we tend to make it personal and get angry. What is happening is simply happening – Uncle Ted drops his plate – and the rest we make up in our own minds. The open mind is aware of that.
Q: How can we get into that awareness mindset, so we don’t embarrass ourselves and poor Uncle Ted?
A: Something that’s very helpful is a practice that has been done by people all over the planet for thousands of years, and it all comes from being consciously aware.
Let’s say you’ve planned a party or a dinner. When everything is ready, and before anyone comes through the door, nothing can be more useful than sitting down for a moment and feeling our own existence. The key to doing that is being present to ourselves. The easiest way to let our attention rest back in ourselves is to become aware of our bodies.
Our minds wander, but our bodies are always present. So, for example, sit and feel the aliveness of your hands. You can also focus on your breathing – slowly merging with it and feeling it – which is another way of entering the awareness of your body. This will allow you to let go of mind chatter, that struggle of your journey.
Q: Let’s talk about the hands technique.
A: Sitting quietly, bring your attention and awareness into your left hand and fill it with the sensation of aliveness. Feeling it, not thinking about it. Then add the right hand, so that your attention and awareness have dropped down from the mind into your hands.
When that happens, the anxieties of the struggle going on in your mind – “Will there be enough food? Is Auntie going to be happy or unhappy? Should I do this now or later?” – fall away because you can’t be both in the mind and in the body at once.
The degree to which you can (focus on your hands or breathing) is the degree to which your stress will drain out and lead to the “open mind” (attitude). It’s an incredibly simple but helpful way of becoming present. And when you’re present, you’re more still and quiet, and more willing to accept the present circumstance in whichever way it shows up.
Q: What about handling holiday crowds, like waiting in a long line at the supermarket or in a department store?
A: We’re talking about the same thing in a different context. If you’re in line behind 15 people, what are you going to do? Have steam coming out of your ears because you’re meant to be somewhere else? The mind wants to project you ahead to your destination, but you’re waiting in line.
The truth is, the external situation is not in your control. So you have a choice: Drop everything and leave, which is not a very viable option. Or allow yourself to be exactly where you are.
How do you do that? Again, you return to your body, simply becoming aware of your breathing and feeling your feet on the ground. The anxiety that goes on in the mind is ungrounding, which is what gives us anxiety. So bring your attention to your feet and your breath, and that will ground you. You’ll better accept the reality of your situation: There are people in front of you, and you’ll get there when you get there.
Q: What about distracting yourself by observing the people around you, or chatting with other people in line?
A: My goodness, how that can change things! You are becoming present when you do that. You’re looking at what’s happening around you or interacting with others, you’re not in your head thinking, “I’ve got things to do, I have to get out of here.” Instead, allow yourself to enjoy the moment.
Q: One infamous holiday stressor is making Thanksgiving dinner, a trauma that comes with pressure caused by the the weight of family tradition combined with childhood memories. “OMG, the turkey has to be step by step from Grandma’s recipe and can’t be overcooked, and I’ve never cooked one before!” Or, “This casserole has been in the family for 50 years; what if mine doesn’t taste the same?”
A: The best way we can honor that past is by building on it with our own unique approach. In that way, the tradition is carried on, but in a way that gives it added richness with each new generation.
You can say, “This is my grandma’s recipe, and her instructions are going to be carried out by me in this unique moment I’m living now.” Even though the recipe is the same, the one thing that’s different is it’s now, it’s you, and it’s a completely new experience from hers, with unknowns. You’re not duplicating the meal; it’s being re-created anew by you. The turkey won’t be the same turkey your grandmother cooked, which is OK; the tradition is still being honored.
Q: At any holiday entertainment, what is the host’s role?
A: It’s important not to try to control what happens or the way things happen, yet at the same time the host is setting the stage and giving shape to what will happen. When you do that, the actors – that is, the guests – will perform their roles, which do not depend on you. At that point it becomes an adventure. You did not write the script, so who knows what play will unfold? You’ve already done your job, so just be part of the play.
Q: And the role of the guest?
A: To feel real gratitude for this person who has invited you into his or her home, which will express itself in warmth and friendliness. Those are the best things you can bring into a room.
Bee Book Club
Roger Housden will appear for a special holiday edition of The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online at www.rogerhousden.eventbrite.com. Please bring your tickets to the event for entrance. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free.
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
Teacher-writer-inspirational speaker Housden will answer audience questions on how to navigate the emotional challenges and stressful situations that commonly mark the holiday season.
Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “Dropping the Struggle” for 30 percent off the list price (New World Library, 176 pages, $20).
“Dropping the Struggle” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Nov. 10 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the four Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.