“This ache in your heart is holy”
Sutra 98, The Radiance Sutras, Lorin Roche
The run-up to Christmas can be a tender time for our hearts.
As much as the world of advertising might use its hypnotizing wizardry to spin a spell that makes us believe this season is about pure joy, peace, and love, our reality can tell a painfully different story. For many, this is not “the most wonderful time of the year,” but can instead provide a trigger for almost-unbearable memories, a harsh spotlight on the loss of loved ones, or a push into overscheduling-induced stress and exhaustion.
There might be no experience more exquisitely painful than that procured by being unable to reach the “magic” being piped relentlessly through every shop speaker and flashed across every screen. The experience that everywhere we turn there is a Christmas we cannot have can bring intense suffering.
There is undoubtedly added pressure at this time of year – to participate, to celebrate, to “be merry” – and many people find their hearts are over-sensitive as a result.
Our hearts often call to us through tenderness. Sometimes we skip over that call and don’t feel it—we are busy with work and all the added extras of this time of year. And sometimes that tenderness can turn into a deep ache, much in the way any physical sensation can, when we are not paying attention. We are unsettled on the inside, but we swallow the discomfort down—because discomfort is not allowed in this season of being jolly—and battle on through the line-ups at the till and the treadmill of social events.
Sometimes we try and distract ourselves from our discomfort by being social, being busy, eating lots, buying lots—all the anesthetics peddled by the marketeers of Christmas—but those things are external and often bury our feelings even deeper.
If your heart hurts at Christmas, you may feel alone. You may feel abandoned by a part of life everyone else gets to enjoy. Don’t. This is a false energy created by the power of advertising and perhaps the particular hold that our wishful thinking and inner-child longing can have at this time of year. The truth is that so many of those around you who seem to be “in the spirit” are, in fact, feeling as achy as you are. That could be why those around us can seem more cranky and edgy than usual!
What can we do with that ache? We can answer its call, meet it, and be with it. When our hearts and our feelings are extra-sensitive and tender, what they need and are asking for is some loving attention and maybe a different way of “doing Christmas” than is traditional.
As a mentor, I see a lot of people struggling at this time of year, and in full disclosure, I have to work extra-closely with my own heart in this season too. In acknowledgement of how important and wonderful it is when we share our strategies in this journey of the heart that is being human, I reached out to my community here in Brisbane, Australia, to ask them how they look after themselves and others and address the challenges of the season.
I believe the most meaningful work we do is when we share and connect in honest ways. What follows is a selection of strategies from real humans who have found ways to care for the aches in their hearts around the holiday season.
“If your heart hurts a little harder at this time of year, it’s ok to cry and to retreat, and it’s ok to sit and watch from a distance. You don’t need to explain yourself. Take the time to feel, reflect, and acknowledge that you are hurting.”
“For me, the Christmas season has traditionally been a time when I would cringe, grin and bear it, and close down my feelings. I’ve had many demands that I felt obligated to go to, some that I even want to, but it leaves little time for me to do me, and I guess that comes with some resentment that I didn’t want to acknowledge. I’ve also had the feeling that no matter what I do for Christmas Day, I end up disappointing someone by not being with them, which makes me feel like I can’t win no matter what. I’ve felt Christmas was a horrible time when I would ignore my own needs trying to please others and end up letting them down somehow anyway.
This year I am acknowledging my needs and paying attention to my body, face and breath—am I open or closed? Am I acting from obligation or joy?”
“Everyone’s saying they’re so busy and they’ve got so much going on. I don’t want to be busy, and I don’t want to have that much going on. I purposely create more space in my life. I choose to enjoy the time. My favourite thing to do is go for a coffee just with Alfie, my dog, and really take our time. As we walk to the coffee shop, someone will pass me in the street and say, ‘Maybe I need to get a dog so that I can learn to slow down.’ That is what Alfie does. He literally stops to smell the roses, and then I slow down as well and get to enjoy that time.”
“I let my heart and body dictate my boundaries, rather than use a knee-jerk “yes” to control my schedule. Because that knee-jerk always leads to stuffing my time with things until there’s no space for me, and my heart responds by feeling crushed. Literally. It’s not even a question of saying, ‘This is the last thing I can squeeze in, my schedule is now full.’ It’s about making sure I have all the free time and space I need to stay whole and healthy, which is more a question of saying, ‘This is where my schedule needs to be right now.’”
I developed and practice this soothing, reassuring, and encouraging voice in my brain and mind, which I now use when I feel sad, anxious, spinny, and need to re-center, especially around Christmas time (which is also the time of my birthday). It’s a time of great joy but also sadness for me as I live really far away from my family. It’s a time where I always feel torn and need to go back to the grounding practices in my toolkit to help me feel better and to reinforce the fact that I’m exactly where I am meant to be. I tell myself things like, ‘It’s normal to feel this way,’ ‘It’s ok,’ ‘You’re doing well,’ ‘I am proud of you.’ I accept and welcome those feelings more than I try to fight them off. And when I feel sad, nervous or unsure about life, especially at that time of the year, I ask myself, ‘Would the Emilie I want to become do it?’ or ‘If sadness (or any other feeling) wasn’t part of the equation, would I do it?’”
“I do anything that brings me JOY: a walk in the forest or by the sea, watching or creating art, a new sports class, watching the sunset, playing with a kid or a dog, a dress-up party with a friend, doing something new and enjoyable.
Joy gets me out of my head.”
“My home town of Paradise, California, was burned to the ground in the bush fires there this time last year. Now I am living in Northern New South Wales, Australia, and once again I find my home under threat from fire.
The biggest thing that I’ve been doing during this time is reaching out for connection. I don’t usually post a lot of personal stuff on the Internet, but I’ve been putting out personal posts and getting lots of responses from loved ones near and far. I’ve been sharing with people in my community and reaching out to people that I want help from. I’ve been connecting for coffees and lunch dates and dinner dates. I’ve been reaching out and offering community support. I’ve been holding others as well as myself—that’s how I have been tending to my heart this season.
There has also been constant ongoing anxiety, so the other thing I am doing is planning to retreat for a weekend, and I am simply going to listen to my heart. That’s it. For three days. If it wants to go out and have a luscious dinner and some champagne, we’ll do that. If it doesn’t want to go out and wants to eat apples and peanut butter, I’ll do that too.”
“I drastically reduce my time on social media—I almost stay off it altogether. Instead, I make real connections with people. I walk with my friends, I write letters to put inside Christmas cards, and I volunteer in places where the community can use my presence. I do this for two reasons. One is that I am living overseas, and seeing the pictures from home and all the people I am missing in that context where there is so much content is overwhelming. I would rather spend time with them individually on Skype. The second is that it seems there is so much “Christmas showing off”– like everyone feels they have to compete to show they have the best, happiest, most perfect Christmas. That doesn’t make me feel good, so I choose not to look at all.”
“The hype is what gets everyone. I’ve been so focused on grandbabies that everything has fallen to the side. The little humans are what is most important now.”
“I have had a year filled with heartache after heartache. I watched both of my children go through traumatic life experiences, I lost my mom four months ago, and have helped my dad through hospitalization after hospitalization following my mom’s hospice placement. In the midst of it all, I hurt my back, which took months to begin to recover from. Instinctive Meditation’s philosophy of creating a safe sanctuary where every thought, emotion, and feeling is welcome has helped me to not only experience and process the best and worst of life, but has given me the ability to hear the wisdom of my self that knew when to ask for help and accept it. To know when I could no longer bare pain with the support I currently had and be able to seek it outside of my normal circle has been crucial in this journey. I am so grateful that I trust myself to know when it is time to bring in extra help.”
“Most of my life, I have experienced my emotions as being too much for significant others in my life; I learnt from a very early age that it is safest to not ask for too much, be good, and above all, to not express your emotions, especially the challenging ones. Now, I have promised myself not to abandon “me” and attend fully to my emotions with a loving and tender heart.
Here is one of my many little practices:
Whenever I feel any heightened emotions, I notice where I’m feeling it in my body, i.e., heart, solar plexus, etc., I put my hand on that part and acknowledge the emotion. I name it: this is grief or joy. I say hello and really feel into it. I ask, ‘What is this really about?’ Or ‘Do you have something to tell me?’ and I take notice of whatever comes up. With negative emotions, I offer support in the way of tender loving care to a challenging situation and the ‘me’ that is or was affected, and I offer heartfelt excitement and encouragement to emotions I want to hang onto like joy. In a sense, I provide the attention and love that only I know how to give to myself, and I keep doing this until I feel more whole.”
“Like many families, Christmas had always been my family’s favourite time of the year. We loved the summer season, Christmas, Santa sacks, great food, the joy of giving, and holidays by the sea. Many family traditions were established at Christmas time. There were changes of course as the family grew, but we always came together for Christmas celebrations.
Sadly, one of the family is no longer with us, having tragically passed from this Earth at only 20 years. As you can imagine, Christmas is only one of the many times of the year that is tender now.
I have a long list of heart caring tips, but the following are my top five for the Christmas period from my lived experiences:
- Don’t celebrate it. If it’s too raw, I do something else. One Christmas, I just let my family know I loved them and went to the beach for the day.
- Change a tradition. I no longer put up the typical Christmas tree. Instead, I buy a living plant and gently decorate it and then it goes into the garden. One of my daughters now makes her tree from nature. Creating a new tradition does wonders for the heart.
- Give to others. Along with being extra attentive to my family at this time of year, I volunteer serving meals to the homeless and disadvantaged in Brisbane. My problems tend to seem insignificant in comparison.
- Be kind to yourself. In the lead up to Christmas, I treat myself more tenderly. I purposely plan time to be pampered, such as a massage, a float, or a delicious meal (or all the above!)
- Practice yoga and meditation. A saving grace.”
Leo (aged six)
“I only do what’s fun because Christmas can be really fun, but only if you do the fun things. And I never eat Brussells sprouts because I think they are horrible, but I always eat lots of chocolate. Yes, you see—I just have fun. And if it’s not fun, I don’t do it. Easy!”
I am inspired by and have learned from all these approaches but also the universal themes of being heart-felt, being present with and attentive to our feelings and their needs. Together we learn that finding our particular brand of healing and not asking for the world or circumstances to change, recognizing we have choices and widening our perspective, not trying to escape from strong emotions but being friendly to ourselves and finding what brings us pleasure, comfort, connection, or rest. Whatever it is our hearts are calling for, we can choose to be responsive. We don’t have to “fit in” to this season or any other season. We can create our own energy, and with it, bless others with the permission they may need to do the same.
Many thanks to all those who contributed to this piece. Have a safe and blessed holiday season.
Edited by Jaimee Hoefert