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

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.

It is helpful to be flexible and respond naturally. Being free to create new ways of experiencing the holiday season is an important skill, as changes in our life-cycle inevitably will call for change.

Zen is known for valuing simplicity. When gifts and parties are excessive, agitation and greed may be triggered, and we become like the child with too many gifts who opens one, then tosses the toy down to reach for another.

It is important to be able to savor simple pleasures such as a walk on the pier, a cup of seasonal blend coffee, a school holiday concert or getting out the decorations.

Being simple might mean agreements not to exchange gifts, making gifts, spending time with people, doing free things (listening to holiday music, looking at holiday lights). For those who are grieving or in difficult circumstances, limiting activities or participating differently may be the appropriate choice.

Part of the holidays is about giving to those in need.

At the Zen Center, our prison project sends books and meditation cushions to inmates and offers pen pals to those who want to learn to meditate while in prison. In Orange County there are many kinds of opportunities available to anyone who has a few hours to give. It can be hard to reach out to help others if you are feeling depleted or depressed, but we are always ourselves helped when we help others.

Regular meditation, even 15 minutes a day, can help us to stay in touch with our selves and to revitalize our connection with the deepest dimensions of our lives. Any daily spiritual practice such as prayer, 12-step study or inspirational reading will help us to keep the larger picture in view, to clarify values and to restore balance.

The enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is celebrated around the world on Dec. 8 every year.

As a young man, the Buddha was sheltered in his family's palace. One day he ventured out, and for the first time saw an old man, a sick man and a dying man.

He then left home to embark on his spiritual quest to understand the meaning of his life. He tried the severe religious practices of the time, but he was not satisfied.

At last, he resolved to sit under a tree and meditate until his questions were answered. After eight days, he awakened at the sight of the morning star. His example was to be quiet, to listen, to look inside and outside, and to awaken to the wonder of simple things. This is the teaching which will serve us not only during the holiday season, but all though the year.

THE REV. DEBORAH BARRETT is a Zen teacher, minister and counselor at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. She teaches comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World