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How to Embrace Life’s Difficulties at Christmas and the New Year

First appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

Christmas and New Year may be the most stressful times of the year but they also offer countless opportunities to become more mindful. So use these ideas from my new book Mindfulness for Creativity to embrace life’s difficulties and become more adaptable, creative and resilient. And when you do so, you will gain as much peace and contentment as any number of weeks spent in a meditation retreat.

 

Drink a glass of wine (or beer) mindfully: At this time of year it’s easy to drink too much while barely tasting a drop. So try drinking a glass of wine or beer with mindful awareness by following these steps:

1) When you ask for your drink (or pour it yourself), briefly ask yourself why you chose it. Is it your genuine favourite or was it out of habit?

2) Take a few moments to soak up the smell of the drink. Close your eyes if that helps. Flick through the aromas, noticing as many as you can without trying too hard. Connect with them and soak them up. Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness.

3) Take a sip. What’s the first taste that you notice? And the second. The third…. Wine has scores of different flavours. Other drinks can be similarly complex. Try to gain a sense of the different flavours washing over you. How many of them do you normally taste? When you drink without paying attention you miss out on so many wonderful flavours, textures and aromas.

4) When your taste is saturated, swallow and take another sip when you feel ready.

5) You may feel the need to drink the whole glass, or you might feel satisfied part way through. Either way, tune into the thoughts, feelings and emotions that may be pushing you one way or the other. Notice how compulsive they feel.

6) Carry on repeating steps two to five for about five minutes or until you’ve finished your drink. Did it taste different to normal?

 

Go to the cinema with a friend at precisely 7pm: Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected – the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these. Most of us only go to the cinema when there’s something specific we want to watch. However, if you turn up at a set time and date and only then choose a film you will discover that the experience is totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally consider. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness. Once you’re inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film.

 

Only give gifts to children: Everyone else can be given a card where you explain your rationale and how much you appreciate them. You could even make your own cards and write the greetings with a calligraphy pen. And while you are writing, feel the pen gliding over the paper. Try not to make anyone feel guilty about giving gifts but simply explain why you have chosen to focus your energies on children and on making and writing the cards. How does this make you feel? Creative, stingy or relieved?

 

Watch adverts: Research carried out by former ‘Mad Man’ Dr Robert Heath at the University of Bath suggests that the best way of evading the influence of advertising is to pay it full conscious attention. If you try to ignore it, your deep subconscious will latch on to the adverts and soak up their seductive emotional messages. Paying full mindful attention undermines this and helps you to spot the tricks that are played upon you. So one day this week actually watch the adverts on TV and pay attention to the ones in newspapers and magazines. Notice the sounds and images used. Pay attention to each element of the advert. Deconstruct it. What emotions are aroused? Can you notice any flickerings of sexual desire, humour, or perhaps wonderment and awe? Some latent fear? Fear that you might miss out, or that you are not young or attractive enough? Shame even. Can you notice the overwhelming pull of these emotions? Now pay attention to your body. Can you notice how each emotion is localised in different parts of the body? Fear or shame might be found in the tightness of your stomach. Desire in your hands or face. The precise location isn’t important. Each time you become aware of your emotions, return to paying attention to the adverts. Do you feel immune to them or a little annoyed that they influence you at such a deep and visceral level?

 

If you’re a party animal – don’t go to ANY parties over the coming week. If you’re normally shy and retiring, or simply hate parties, go to one (or even arrange an impromptu one). Any disturbance to our normal social life can feel unsettling. So pay attention to how you feel when you are ‘deprived’ of your normal social life – or thrust into the centre of a new one. Do you feel a little nervous or relieved? Disappointed or uplifted? Remember this isn’t a permanent change, just a taste of a different way of approaching the world.

 

Watch the traffic for 15 minutes whilst driving: Begin by broadening your awareness and paying close attention to the vehicles around you. Do they travel in straight lines or weave slowly from side to side, speed up or slow down without rhyme or reason? Do some push in aggressively while others passively give way?

 

After a few minutes of watching the traffic, take a moment to ask yourself:

What is going through my mind?

What sensations are there in my body?

What reactions and emotions am I aware of?

 

If you are feeling angry, stressed or frustrated then your mind has switched on its emotional autopilot. You can defuse these unpleasant emotions by teasing apart the two major flavours of suffering – primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as being stuck in traffic. Secondary suffering is the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration. You have no control over primary suffering but you need not make the situation worse by reacting to it and creating secondary suffering. It’s akin to being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink. If you instead pay attention to your frustration, by accepting its unpleasantness rather than struggling against it, then it will tend to melt away of its own accord.

 

Continue paying attention to your reactions to the traffic for another ten minutes. In this way, you can learn to respond rather than react.

 

Go on a Creative Date: this is a block of time for you to nurture your inner spirit or creative flame. It can be a visit to a museum, art gallery, or perhaps a trip to the theatre. You might like to climb a hill, visit a castle or perhaps watch a murky sunrise or sunset… or perhaps learn how to be a fire-eater, a circus clown or how to ride a unicycle. If you can’t think of anything to do, think back to a time when you were half your current age, what did you enjoy the most? Why not do that? Try to approach this Creative Date with a spirit of open-hearted playfulness. Set aside the time to do it now, otherwise it will get squeezed out by seemingly higher priorities.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers here:

You can download free meditations from ‘Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World’ from here:

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