Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Holiday Moments: from Mania to Meditation (Or, how to learn to love doing the dishes.)

The approach of winter holidays can feel like a tingling, sparkling, surprise tip-toeing delightfully around each November corner to thrill and delight us. They can also feel like a punch in the gut, accompanied by the dreaded, jingle-tinged whir of the holiday machine. It seems especially unfair and unsavory that we can even feel both at the same time. The dueling realities of childhood history often contain both loving acts of kindness and shocking acts of betrayal, not only in the same lifetime, but in the same year, in the same day. This mosaic can leave us confused, exhausted, feeling hopeful, helpless, and spent.

Picture one of your best holiday memories, and then one that doesn't hold the same warmth. They might be separated by hours or by years. I'm guessing that each of us, each year, puts a decent amount of energy into trying to regain the feeling of the former, and avoid the experience of the latter. We spend quite a bit of time in the past each holiday season, trying to prevent those ugly feelings or re-create serene ones. We also spend time in the future. We imagine the kind of holidays we want our kids to remember, and task ourselves with providing them a blemish-free catalog of memories. We spend all sorts of time, all sorts of places over the holidays. Almost anywhere but in the present.

Wilfred Bion, a 20th century psychoanalyst, is famously quoted for suggesting starting each session "without memory or desire." His aim is to truly hear one's meaning in each new moment, and not confuse it with what you expect, hope, or hope it not, to be. What if we were to approach the holiday season the same way? What if we endeavored to forget what we know about our own heavy baggage of holidays, both the dirt and the dazzle, and just see what is there?

"What if we endeavored to forget what we know about our own heavy baggage of holidays, both the dirt and the dazzle, and just see what is there?"

This may sound as if I'm suggesting we walk through the next few months with an enlightened stillness that may seem hard to achieve amidst the responsibilities and rhapsody of holiday mania. So, I don't suggest that we expect ourselves to achieve perfect neutrality in the face of gift shopping and holiday cookie baking. But, that we set an intention, pick a moment, or commit to picking several moments, when we try out really noticing just what's there. This can be as simple as stopping, breathing, and looking around. Noticing the light, the temperature, and the sounds in the room without judgment or quickly labeling what we find. Maybe try it now for just a moment. Look up and just identify the colors around you. Nothing more. Just that. See if something inside of you relaxes.

Several years ago, I tried a silent retreat in the beautiful green hills of Massachusetts. Each day we were assigned a schedule. My first day included sitting meditation, yoga, self-led retreat, lunch, dinner, and something called standing meditation. When I arrived for standing meditation, I found myself at a sink full of dirty dishes. Fluctuating between feeling baffled and outraged, I begrudgingly began to work, furious, and awash with mixed up feelings. How dare they call cleaning up standing meditation? I wanted to be outside in the greenery. Wasn't that a better use of retreat? How dare they trick a paying customer into believing "standing meditation" on their schedule was something meaningful, when it was just washing dishes? As you can imagine, it took a long time for me to begin to notice the temperature of the water, the hypnotic, shushing sound of it rushing from the faucet, the glisten of each newly cleaned plate. I didn't have to love scrubbing pots and cutlery, it didn't have to be my new forced enthusiasm, but I could pay attention and see what I found. I found my shoulders relaxing, my thoughts settling into a hum. I realized I had never paid attention to washing dishes before, ever. I noticed that surrendering to just the moment and nothing more brought with it an opportunity. Standing meditation became an unexpected refuge and a time to just be, to just be present.

Since my life and most of our lives don't normally involve retreat, I might suggest baking chocolate chip cookies from scratch. Not just so that you can meditate while mixing the batter and striking a tree pose waiting for the oven timer to go off, but so that you can taste them. When you bake recipes from scratch you notice weird things. Like salt in cookies. When you taste what you've made, you pay attention differently. You try to ferret out the ingredients you measured a fourth of a teaspoon of to see how and where they show up. Salt, it turns out, is a really important part of a chocolate chip cookie, but we wouldn't notice that unless we stop and tried to notice it. To love it even. Not in the sense that salt must be your newest enthusiasm, but to love noticing and accepting what happens to be in front of us in subtle ways.

So, for better or worse, you will likely find yourself doing dishes this holiday season. And, I hope you get to bake cookies, if you are the one who gets to eat them. And I wonder what it might be like if for a moment, or even many moments, maybe even when attending a yearly event we usually don't look forward to, we are brave enough to surrender. What if our holidays were experienced with fresh eyes, in the moment, as if we had never known holidays before.

Jennifer Cutilletta, LCSW

*Do you have an opinion on this post? Have some insights to add to this article? We would love for you to leave us a comment below! You are now able to comment completely anonymously if you would like to share your wisdom but aren't comfortable with your identity being shared. Just type your comments in the box below and then click on the box next to "Comment as" and choose "Anonymous!"
**[Image Credits: Holiday Memories, MeditationCookies]


  1. This is such great advice, for the holidays and every day!

  2. How serendipitous! On my way in to work this AM, I stopped at Starbucks and impulsively bought a mug--it says, "Happy Here and Now!" Then I come in and read your post and I realize that the universe is trying to send me a message. I think I will try breathing throughout the day and the holidays!

  3. A beautifully-written article. I will try to take your advice about forgetting about my own "dirt and dazzle" of the holidays, and being more present and in the moment this season. Thanks so much for writing this!

  4. A beautifully-written article. Thank you! I will attempt to live by your wise words this holiday season! Happy Thanksgiving.

  5. "Thank you so much! I tried doing what you suggested, and it was the best I felt all day!"

  6. A perspective quite different than the mainstream, refreshing.

  7. Wise words to attend to at this time of holiday madness. Thank you for your thoughts.

  8. Being present in the moment is very rewarding. Your article reminded me how valuable it is to experience the moments. Too often I say, "where has the time gone?" Practicing- -being in the moment--eliminates that saying as all the moments then are precious and don't fly by.

  9. We all have experienced the "dirt and dazzle" of the holidays. Neither is worth remembering. Your idea of facing the holidays with "fresh eyes" is a better way of "being" in the holidays. Thank you for this idea.