Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Love it or loath it, Christmas is a stressful time for many people. Money worries, anxiety about ‘getting it right’ and spending extra time with the family can all crank up the pressure. Perhaps part of the solution is to bring some mindful presence into your Christmas.

Christmas presence: the perfect gift

Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to reduce stress. John Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness meditation as “the intentional cultivation of nonjudgemental moment-to-moment awareness” (1996). In essence, mindfulness is about being present to the moment. Typically mindfulness mediation will focus on the breath, but you can use any aspect of your immediate experience. If you find yourself starting to get stressed about what to buy someone for Christmas, just pause for moment. What is happening for you right now? Be with the experience, however unpleasant it feels, and try not to make a judgement about it. You may find all kinds of narratives going on in your head: ‘They’ll hate that’, ‘I’m running out of time!’, ‘She/he is so hard to buy a present for’. Can you hear yourself for a moment? Can you just listen to that narrative without getting caught up in it? The key here is to be with the feelings and thoughts but not be in them. It’s as if you’re sitting next to those feelings and worries with compassionate awareness.

If that seems impossible, then just try to become more aware of your physical sensations. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Notice your breathing; there’s no need to try to change it, just watch it for a few breaths. Listen to the sounds around you. More than likely it’s Christmas music, but don’t judge it as good or bad. Can you just listen to the way the sounds come and go around you? By simply paying attention to what is going on for you right now you are becoming more present. Even 30 seconds of mindful presence can help reduce your stress.

Often the most tricky part is noticing that you’re getting stressed in the first place and that’s where a regular mediation practice really helps. If you spend 10 or 15 minutes a day practising watching your breath, you begin to notice what’s going on for you during the rest of the time.

By calling presence ‘the perfect gift’ I risk making it sound like a commodity and it’s true that ‘mindfulness’ is now a business for some. But presence is not something you can buy and it can be transformational. Being more present will help you manage Christmas stress, but mindfulness practice also nurtures compassion, calmness and wisdom. So although the immediate benefits are mostly for you, your mindfulness practice will benefit all beings. That’s why I call it the perfect gift.

The Endorphin Effect

I’ve recently facilitated a series of workshops on mindfulness and spirituality at a drug and alcohol rehab clinic. The most popular workshop by far was the one where I taught people how to use William Bloom’s Endorphin Effect. Endorphins, which are the hormones of pleasure, improve your mood, promote physical health and help to reduce stress. When you exercise or experience something pleasurable, endorphins are released. Endorphins are the body’s natural opiates – our ‘endogenous morphine’. The runners high, the bliss of sex and the pleasure of drinking alcohol are all due to endorphins.

But you don’t have to run a marathon, have sex or booze to get your endorphins flowing, because your body will react in a very similar way to a powerful visualization as it will to reality. Let’s suppose – for the sake of argument – that lying in a warm bath eating chocolate truffles feels really good to you. That actual experience will feel great and result in the production of endorphins, but so will vividly imagining the experience. Visualization techniques are well established in sports science, where they are used to improve performance. You can use visualization to stimulate the flow of endorphins at will. No wonder that workshop was popular!

I usually teach the Endorphin Effect as a stress management tool, but there are many more applications. Professor Karl Schmidt, a Consultant Psychiatrist, believes that the Endorphin Effect “is so self-empowering that … it should be an essential strategy in any addiction treatment unit” (Schmidt, 2010). The Endorphin Effect works well with other approaches. I’ve been using Focusing and NLP strategies to enhance the Endorphin Effect for a while and I’m now exploring how it might be tied in with more traditional meditations like Metta Bhavana (‘loving kindness’); another synergy between modern science and ancient practice.

The last word should go to Candace Pert, who pioneered the research into endorphins:
“we are physically hardwired to pay attention to, and plan for, pleasure” (Hardwired for bliss).