As I write, it’s December 23, 2019. We’re fully into the “holiday season” and the big day is almost upon us. And, I think for the first time ever in my entire life, I am calm, completely at peace, and immersed in joyful simplicity.
Typically, what I call the “holiday season,” the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is the hardest time of the year for me. It’s historically been the season of getting together with dysfunctional family members that I would ordinarily never choose to spend time with, and being around all the chaos that comes with that. In order to quell the inevitable turmoil, my old pattern of controlling perfectionism kicks into high gear, agonizing over the absolute best presents for people, wrapping them in the most beautiful paper and ribbons, having a fully decorated house, a gorgeous tree, and flawless family portraits to send out. It’s so ridiculous. And stressful and tense and awful. And then, to top it off, there is the issue of the incongruous square-peg-in-a-round-hole fit of my spirituality into religious dogma. I’ve never believed the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth to be actual fact, but rather a metaphorical and mythological story, somehow pointing the way to something much deeper than the “facts” presented in various churches I have attended.
So, every year, right before Thanksgiving, the “here we go again” brain grooves of the holiday season start running. Even though many of those dysfunctional family members have passed on and aren’t even in my current holiday season experience, the grooves are so deep that they’re still there and my awareness slides easily into them, like a needle on a vinyl record, playing the same tune the same way.
This year, I decided to create some new brain grooves.
I decided to have a 4-week “calm and centered for the holidays” class; 4 weeks of discussions, study, and practices to keep us anchored and grounded in this difficult time for many. I wanted to be intentional in walking through these holiday weeks in the spirit of exploration and change and wanted to walk through them in the divine company of the amazing people in my Freedom Yoga community. We began the Monday right after Thanksgiving and finished last week.
When I decided to create the class, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. Over my 20-plus years of being involved with Yoga, I have learned that “I don’t know” is the preferred place, the desired space I want to occupy when I’m opening myself to guidance and allowing something new to be created. Letting go of what I think I know is paramount to creation flowing in. And what came in really surprised me.
The vision came to revolve the 4-week class around the 4 weeks of Advent, as told in the Godly Play Advent story. Godly Play is an early childhood Montessori-based curriculum that I taught in the Episcopal Church a long time ago when my children were very young. It involves mystery and wondering, with the knowledge that children are still very close to their innate sense of the presence of God all around them.
The guidance communicated to me was that in order to create new brain grooves for the holiday season, I would need to enter into the mystery of this holiday season like a little child. I would need to let go of everything I thought I knew and dive fully into the gift of the present…the now…and be taught anew.
I had forgotten how special the Godly Play Advent story is. I borrowed the materials from the Episcopal school where I teach pre-K and shared the story with my new “calm and centered for the holidays” class and also one of my restorative classes, as well as two pre-K classes at school. This story is deep and profound, full of childlike mystery and wonder.
The story opens with this sentence: “Everything is changed.” It’s about the journey toward Bethlehem from four points of view: the prophets, the holy family, the shepherds, and the magi. The beauty of storytelling in the Godly Play way opens each child (or each yogi!) to individual interpretation and deep wondering. For me, this journey toward Bethlehem represents the journey that each of us makes toward the re-emergence of the light inside ourselves, the birth of the light after a winter solstice season of darkness, quiet, and gestation. Each of us is a prophet on a hope journey, someone who listens to God and points the way for others; each of us is Joseph and Mary on a faith journey, staying the course even though it’s rough and we get tired; each of us is the shepherd, being terrified when we hear messengers of God, yet joyfully following the message; each of us is a magi, someone through whom deep spiritual wisdom flows; and…each of us is the Christ child, a gift from God to help light the world.
Week one of our class series was the prophet theme of hope and expectation. Prophets know what matter most; they look, listen, notice, and point the way for others to notice that something amazing is happening. Good things are happening and good things are coming, if only we stop and pay attention. What do you want to experience this holiday, this the new year, with a certain event? Get clear on it, make a mini vision board, draw a picture, write words, whatever it takes, and put this up where you can see it every day. Take time to do a noticing practice – pause all movement and thoughts and listen to a piece of music, light a candle and really watch the light, or simply get outside and look at the world like a little kid would, being wowed by everything. One night during the prophet week, I was sitting outside on my porch, noticing the world, looking at the light on the leaves, the shadows, the colors, and just before I went inside, a great horned owl swooped down in front of me and landed in the top of the tree beside me. I couldn’t believe it. I never would have seen her if I hadn’t been out there sitting quietly, noticing the world in soft peace…which were my hope/expectation words for what I wanted to experience this holiday season.
Week two was the holy family week of faith.When we know what we’re looking for and expecting good things, then our faith becomes strong. We begin to have confidence that good things are gestating, coming our way. We’re able to rest in the expectation and hope, even when things are hard or don’t make sense. We’re able to persevere and keep going with trust and patience. Part of this faith journey involves knowing when you need to stop and rest and feed your soul. What kinds of things feed your soul? What things do you love doing that help you draw strength from Spirit? During this week, we incorporated a few practices to feed the soul: simplicity – make one batch of cookies instead of 10; do one thing at a time, get out in nature every day, immerse in silence at some point every day. This year, I put up the tree only. My husband and I agreed to give one gift only, under $20. Instead of presents everywhere under the tree, like usual, there is one present only for each recipient. It’s enough. It’s so nice. Oh, and that flawless Christmas portrait this year? It was taken on a phone in the spur of the moment, before we left to take my son and his girlfriend to the airport. I’m wearing sweats and my hair had been up in a ponytail all day. It’s fine and I didn’t stress one little bit about it. In fact, soft peace was happening.
Week three of our journey was the shepherd week of joy. When the hope is clear, the faith is strong. When the faith is strong, we experience a feeling of subtle joy; a sense of well-being and a beautiful feeling of oneness with everything. We have the image of the shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their sheep when suddenly a bright light appears in the sky that scared them half to death and voices, which scared them even more. “Don’t be afraid,” the angels said. “Run and go see what has happened and tell the world.” These themes of staying awake and being present are hugely important in allowing joy to flow through us. If the shepherds were out in their fields on their phones, texting away like most of us do constantly, they would have missed everything, the whole mysterious miracle. Not only that, but this joy journey of the shepherds, and this place everyone was traveling toward, wasn’t a palace or the Hilton. It was a barn with a dirt floor and animals all around. What could be simpler? As much as we chase joy and try to find it “out there,” as soon as we slow down, become present, notice the more of what’s in our experience, and simplify…there it is…because joy is our natural state. And when you know what to look for, when you know the state of mind required to feel it, you’ll see and feel more of it. I was certainly feeling more of it.
Week four was the magi week of wisdom. Plato once said, “I am the wisest man alive…for I know one thing and that is that I know nothing.” Wisdom has everything to do with surrender, with letting go of that which we hold onto so tightly: knowing and being right. It’s only when we are able to rest in the place of “I don’t know” that they mystery of divine wisdom flows into our awareness. Spiritual wisdom is mystical; that is, it only comes from direct experience. It’s soft and quiet, like snow falling. Simple. Natural. And the whole point of spiritual wisdom, inner guidance, intuition, is to dare to follow it, to put it into action. So take time to meditate, to pay attention to what The Universe is guiding you to do. Nothing could be more important. Week four of the holiday season and I couldn’t believe how good I was feeling.
Of course, the last part of the story is the birth of the Christ light. Our light. The light of The Infinite as it comes up through us, guiding us, giving us joy, faith to rest in the mystery, and so much hope.
Presenting this child’s version of the Christmas story to my yoga class and revolving the class series around it was completely unexpected. Somehow, it allowed me to bypass the religious story that I never really identified with and helped me enter into the mystery of something so deep and profound: the light within myself. New brain grooves have definitely been created and I feel amazing; clear, buoyant, and just fully me. I never would have thought it possible to experience such a new thing at this time of year: real hope, strong faith, actual joy, deep wisdom and, of course, soft peace.