On Faith: Zen and the art of living through the holiday season

December 09, 2011|By The Rev. Deborah Barrett

The holidays are filled with anticipation of happiness while enjoying family gatherings, parties, cookie baking, house decorating, music programs, travel, shopping and gifts. For those who have financial worries, relationship difficulties, grief, health concerns or other problems, the sharp contrast can make the season a time of additional stress and sadness.

Even for those not experiencing any serious problems, the extra time needed for holiday-related activities may feel like a new part-time job requiring 20 hours per week — when many people are already rushed, tired and over-extended even before Thanksgiving arrives.

Religious traditions celebrate major events in December and whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice or Bodhi Day, they share three important teachings: the value and dignity of each person; appreciation for life (the years we have been given); and the importance of giving to others.


For those struggling to keep their balance during the 48 days of Christmas (the week before Thanksgiving through the New Year), these messages can provide focus and support. The end of the year and beginning of the New Year are natural times to explore new spiritual paths or to reconnect and deepen already existing ones.

Zen offers perspectives and tools helpful for appreciating the holidays.

One teaching is to focus upon experiencing each day, rather than over-emphasizing one "big" day or special event during the holiday season. It is easy to become entangled in future thinking, planning and worrying, rather than to appreciate the now.

"The holiday season" is an abstraction, a concept, whereas today's activities are immediate and concrete, providing ample opportunity for satisfaction if we are attuned. Too much anticipation of future events not only detracts from appreciation of today, but also creates unrealistic expectations. We try to give ourselves fully to experiencing each day, whether in holiday season or not, and whether circumstances are favorable or not.

"Do the next thing" is another Zen teaching.

If ideas about how the holidays should be celebrated are held too rigidly, it is easy to be upset when things do not go as planned or hoped. Tradition, memories of Christmases past and too many demands can result in frustration and disappointment.

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