The fact that the last full moon of this year will reach its peak on Christmas morning feels special. In a year filled with super moons, what will surely be a big, bright celestial light brings to mind another bright light that filled the sky two thousand years ago. Natural displays such as these make us take pause. We look up, in wonder and awe. We become quiet and still. In that moment we feel part of something greater than ourselves.
This moon may be just a moon. That star, it can be argued, may have been just a star. Yet each offer us more than their light.
That star captured the attention of people scattered all over the countryside. It drew shepherds and wise men to a tiny, insignificant stable within the City of David. What they saw lighted something deep in their hearts. They dropped to their knees. Though they wouldn’t really understand who or what they were seeing for decades to come, they somehow knew they were witnessing a miracle. And they were right. Their presence was honoring the birth of someone who would grow to change the world around him, and to continue to change us even today.
The light of that star still pulls at us today. In fact, many of our sweetest holiday traditions center around light. We light luminaries along sidewalks and driveways, we string twinkle lights in trees, shrubs and along rooftops, and candles glow in windows to reflect the light of that first Christmas light. These man-made lights still have the power to slow us down, and even stop us in our tracks, to take in their beauty.
Each night during this darkest month of the year, my family takes a moment to light candles in a wreath on our dinner table. When lit, the glow of their light works real magic – transforming a weekly taco dinner into a celebration of love and connection. In short, their light makes the ordinary feel special. And, when you stop to think about it, these ordinary meals are special, as is any time we’re able to gather with people we love.
The sense of connection and love that these Christmas candles brings out in my immediate family is just the tip of the iceberg. The holiday can bring out the best in us. We feel keenly aware of our connection to our community and to the world around us. We yearn to give of our abundance to those we know and to those we don’t know. We reach out in countless ways – cards, calls, donations, gifts of our time. We seek special ways – small and grand – to express our love. We laugh more often, smile more easily and hug with more abandon. We celebrate and honor the people around us. In doing so, we live more like the people we were created to be – kind, caring, open-hearted and open-handed.
In short, we, like Christmas lights, glow from within. But we have to be careful not to allow the hectic activity (the hustle and bustle of the season) to extinguish our lights. There is a certain stillness required for a flame to burn brightly. If we run ourselves ragged going to every party, running every errand, making every meal, decorating every corner, and so on, we will not glow with the light of love and connection. Instead, we will begin to feel small, dark and very, very tired.
The way to find balance in a season so filled with busy-ness is create little windows of stillness. An hour sitting by your fireplace. A morning at church. Regular time on your yoga mat. A quiet walk. Yes, even taco night at your kitchen table counts. Any moment that pulls you out of the swirls and ripples of the rushing river that is December can be restorative and rejuvenating. These moments of stillness restore us to the state of mind and heart that Christmas can foster.
This is the stillness that Buddhist monk, teacher and world-renowned author, Thich Nhat Hanh refers to in his words –
And, while the raging white-water of December does slow, the river of life keeps flowing. Finding – indeed creating – stillness so that we can better reflect the light around us is a practice which can carry us through the whole year.
Perhaps this is the gift of this last full moon. This moon, if we let it, can draw us into a moment of silence. A moment of stillness to reflect not only upon this special night, but upon the spark that lights us from within. The spark that makes each of us the very special, wonderful person that we are. The light of this spark can pull us as inexorably onward as that long ago star drew the wise men. What we witness in its light is the birth of someone who can change the world. That someone is the very best you and me that we can be … if we add stillness into our days. What a gift that would be.
I ran around like crazy all weekend. A happy crazy, mind you, but still crazy. With Christmas carols blaring I was quite the whirling dervish. Business Christmas cards needed to be assembled and mailed. Our annual pilgrimage to Longwood Gardens to enjoy the lights had to be taken. There was shopping to be done (yes, sadly, at the mall with literally everyone else in the area). Gifts had to be wrapped. Decadent recipes needed to be dug out and grocery lists made. Boxes of presents had to be packed and labeled for the mailman.
On Sunday evening, I threw my church clothes back on and slid happily into a pew at church at the same crazed pace I’d kept up all weekend. My girls were singing in a service called “Lessons and Carols,” which I remembered enjoying very much last year. From the opening prayer, I was completely absorbed. I could almost feel my heartbeat slow as I listened to the “lessons” (9 readings from scripture selected to tell the Christmas story). The choir’s carols – some ancient, some in foreign languages – left me covered in goosebumps. When the congregation rose to sing more familiar carols, I sang freely and joyfully.
As we bowed our heads for the final prayer, my weekend was turned on its head. All the running around that I’d done made a little more sense now that I’d reconnected with the reason behind the seasonal hubbub. Not only that, but the list of projects, tasks and errands left ahead of me now seemed much less daunting. In fact, as I dwelled in the hope and glory of what we’re celebrating – God’s exquisite, selfless love for us and our desire to mirror that love in the world around us – whether or not it all got done suddenly felt less important. I found myself returning again and again to the intention behind it all – Love.
Interestingly, I’ve been in the midst of a similar epiphany on my yoga mat. Ever since I began practicing, I’ve known that the reason it’s so easy for me to maintain the discipline of my practice is the way it leaves me feeling inside and out. Yet on a regular basis I can make myself crazy (not necessarily happy crazy like I was this weekend) over the trappings of the practice. I can get obsessive when I’m working on an elusive or challenging new posture. I can become sick with worry when an old posture slips away. I’ve been known to completely wear myself out working on a single posture, so that I drag around for the rest of the day. I’ve certainly had moments when my frustration makes me wonder why I’m doing this all anyway.
In other words, I lose sight of why I practice.
A few weeks ago, because life has been extra-full and I’ve been navigating some off-the-mat worries, I decided that my time on my mat was time I needed to nurture myself. To be honest, it’s difficult to put into words exactly what has changed, but as soon as my intention shifted away from “success” in postures and toward taking care of myself, my whole practice felt different – light, peaceful, content. Interestingly, what I’m doing on my mat hasn’t changed. In other words, I’m not doing easier or fewer postures. It’s as if I’ve somehow softened, and, in so doing, the work I’m doing (even postures that have been real challenges for me) feels less like work and more like time spent caring for myself inside and out.
In other words, I’ve reconnected with the intention of my practice.
The serendipity of these lessons is not lost on me. In fact, my newly awakened awareness feels like a priceless gift. In neither instance was I aware that I’d allowed myself to drift away from the deepest meaning behind my activities. I was as happy zipping through my Christmas “To Do List” as I was in my daily yoga practice. I didn’t feel depleted, rebellious, lethargic or ambivalent – all typical signs that I’m off track. Yet, looking back, I can see that I was in danger of veering away from the real meaning of both.
My return to the true intention of my practice – to be quiet, to make space, to reconnect with my spirit and with God, to live more like the person I yearn to be – has restored my practice’s ability to take care of me so that I can better take care of the people who fill my life. Likewise, my return to the true intention of the holiday season – to love, to give, to spend time with family and friends, to celebrate – has slowed my pace so that I can savor the joy of the days leading up to Christmas.
Why not slow down for a moment yourself? Pause to check in with why you’re doing all this anyway. I suspect the answer will leave you, too, feeling lighter and brighter.
Worry is insidious. It can masquerade as prayer, day dreams or even a virtue like planning ahead, but it is none of these things. At its most fundamental level, worry is a distraction. When we worry, we are focused on the future rather than the present. Worse, when we allow ourselves to worry, whatever is worrying us feels harder to manage. A lot harder to manage.
Rather than facing the next step in our challenge, worry leaves us frozen, staring up in horror at the bottom of a towering, seemingly insurmountable staircase. With that many steps to take who could blame us for feeling petrified? With that far to go, who could fault us for feeling small and helpless?
But the thing about worry is that it’s self-induced. It’s a choice that we make. The good news is that not worrying is also a choice. The “other news” is that not worrying can actually be the more challenging of the two choices. There seems to be something hard-wired in us to look ahead, plan ahead and worry ahead. Not worrying keeps us firmly focused on “now.” When we manage to pull this off, when we manage to stay in the moment, not worrying centers us, calms us and actually empowers us. In short, it is well worth the hard work and extra effort that it can take not to worry.
Those of us who are familiar with yoga or meditation or mindfulness (or just read about these practices which are earning so many headlines lately), know that staying in the moment takes practice. In fact, the word practice is critically important here. Each time our mind wanders off into the future – on a yoga mat, this is often to a posture yet to come or to the To Do List that awaits you after class – we have the opportunity to draw it back to the current moment. Each time we do so, we find that the current moment is plenty full of work to do, sensations to have and experiences to sink into. In short, whenever we refocus on the current moment we find that we would have hated to have missed out on it because we allowed ourselves to be distracted by the future.
Better yet, we find that the current moment is way easier to navigate than any future moment or moments that we can imagine. Whether you’re working a problem, planning your reaction to a possible event, or are steeling yourself against a worst case scenario, worry inevitably makes your situation seem a thousand times worse than it is. By comparison, what is happening right now seems smaller and infinitely more manageable. On a yoga mat, for instance, whereas imagining the next hour of postures that looms ahead of you can leave you feeling daunted, it is always manageable to take just one more breath in the challenging posture you’re currently in.
Best yet, choosing to stay in the present, in other words, choosing not to worry, makes things brighter. Worry casts a dark pall over everything. The gigantic, worst-case problems that worry fabricates tower so high over what actually is that it’s hard to see through the shadows. When we manage to hold our awareness in the present, all that is going well slips into the light of your awareness. These could be teeny-tiny things, but they’re still worth noticing and celebrating because, no matter how small, they’re able to fill you with a sense of possibility and hope.
This is where that feeling empowerment comes in. When we stay in the moment, when we force ourselves to focus on the possibility, when we think only of the step we need to take right now, we feel strong enough, we feel brave enough, we feel capable enough to handle whatever is challenging us. Not only are we able to take the next step, but feeling strong and brave and hopeful enough to do so zaps our worry into proportion. At least for the moment.
Remember that I said the operative word to staying in the moment is practice. Depending on the scope of your challenge or how near to your heart your worry lies, you may have to drag your awareness away from the looming tower of your worry many times a day, or an hour or even a minute. This can feel like hard, physical labor. It really can be exhausting. In fact, despite over a decade of practicing mindfulness and awareness on my yoga mat, I’m still floored at how astoundingly hard it is to do off my mat and in my life. But still, I take a deep breath and do it. Over and over.
And in the moment, which is really all that counts, it works. My perspective shifts. My mood brightens. My state of mind stabilizes. The towering staircase of my worry shrinks down to a single step, which I take. And because I do, I know that, like the next breath in a difficult yoga posture, I’ll be able to take just one more step when the time comes.
Fifteen years ago, I was grumpy. I woke up one morning to the realization that I didn’t want to be a person who lost her temper as often as I did. For some miraculous reason, my epiphany centered on my own behavior rather than on the cause of it. I knew without a doubt that I didn’t want to feel bothered by my children because I cherished them. I certainly didn’t want to feel irritated by my husband whom I loved. It was clear to me that I wasn’t dealing with rotten kids or a bad marriage. What I was dealing with was a habit. Each time I raised my voice, used a sarcastic tone or stormed out of a room, I was further deepening a habit I wanted to break.
Luckily for me, I had just discovered yoga and was learning a great deal about habits. I was learning as much about making new habits as I was about breaking old ones. It wasn’t long before, I stumbled across the notion that creating a new habit was a very effective way to break an old one.
Let me explain. I remember my teacher pointing out that I was swinging my leg out to the side when I stepped forward into a lunge (something I had to do ten times in every class during the sun salutations). Initially, I would get very frustrated ten times during the sun salutations because I could feel myself swinging my leg but couldn’t figure out how to change it. I watched my classmates. I asked my teacher. I pulled my yoga books off the shelf. I realized that the movement I was trying to create required two things. First, I needed to gain more range of motion in my hip. Second, core strength played a larger role in stepping into a lunge than I’d ever imagined.
I set to work on building core strength and developing more flexibility in my hip. I added some postures and exercises that I did every day at home. More importantly, I began to tweak the way I was stepping forward into my lunge, shifting my focus from my hip to scooping my belly and moving from my core. Because I was learning something new, I was better able to ease up on myself when I messed up. I simply returned to Down Dog and tried again. Over time, I needed “do-overs” less frequently. Eventually, with lots and lots of repetition, the new habit became established and the old one faded away.
In a yoga practice (at least one like mine), this happens over and over again. You realize you’re doing something wrong and for a little while it really bothers you. You beat yourself up because you can’t stop doing it incorrectly – you can’t break your habit. But, you learn pretty quickly on your yoga mat that beating yourself up isn’t all that helpful. It just steals the peace and joy from your practice. What does help is asking questions, reading and experimenting. This study helps you understand the new skill that you want to create. So you practice – you practice an awful lot. You work so intensely on creating this new habit that you almost forget you’re also working on breaking an old one. And, one day, you realize you’re not working anymore. You’ve figured it out. In this small area of life, at least, excellence is now a habit.
Thankfully, I knew I could trust this kind of approach when I realized I wanted to change my behavior off my mat. Repeatedly catching myself losing my temper or acting grumpy was only making me grumpier. So I looked for a new habit to create that would eventually replace my old one. I settled on two. The first was easier. It had already become a habit on my yoga mat. In situations where I noticed myself feeling irritated I decided to breathe (one long, deep, slow breath) before I spoke. This often (not always) defused any sharp or snarky words that were on the tip of my tongue.
The second took some more practice. First thing in the morning, I spent some time reflecting on how profoundly lucky I was to have my family. I wrote in my journal about my childhood dreams of being a wife and a mother. I prayed prayers of thanks for my husband and my children. In the beginning, this felt stilted and artificial. But the more I wrote and the more I prayed, the more I realized the truth of my gratitude. The more I practiced, the more my feelings of thankfulness filled me and there just seemed to be less room for irritability.
Note, I said “less room,” not “no room.” Because I did still get irritated. I did still have grumpy days. (I still do.) But these slip ups no longer felt like the death knell of the woman I wanted to be. They just felt like slip ups. Sometimes, I would apologize to whoever I’d snapped at. Sometimes, I would apologize to myself. Sometimes, I’d even catch myself mid-stream, take a deep breath, and change what was coming out of my mouth. Whatever the case, I found I was happy to give myself another “do-over” along the way toward creating a new habit and breaking an old.
As there came a time when I could easily and without thought step forward into a lunge, in time (a really long time, actually), I woke up one morning and realized I was no longer grumpy. In fact, I couldn’t really remember why I’d been so grumpy in the first place. I was no longer writing in my journal about my family and couldn’t recall deciding to stop. I was praying for my husband and kids, but not with the same fevered desperation. They were simply part of my prayers each morning.
Once again, with some practice, a new habit had replaced an old. Unlike a silly trick or movement on a yoga mat, this one comes a lot closer to the “excellence” to which (I suspect) Aristotle was referring.