Dealing with the holidays
The holidays aren't as jolly for some as they are for others, and that's normal. But if you're hit with the blues, take Elizabeth Lesser's advice on dealing with stress, unrealistic expectations and depression this holiday season.
Before you start reading this article, do me a favor. Put down what you're holding (in your hand or your head)—your shopping lists, your third cup of coffee, your date book, the phone call you should be making—and sit quietly for just 60 seconds. Take in a full breath, let it pool gently in the bottom of your lungs, and then release it slowly. Inhale deeply again, and exhale with an audible sigh. If you're at work, don't worry what your colleagues might think—this time of year everyone would love to sigh deeply, and often. Inhale again; exhale with a long "aaahh." With each exhalation, let your shoulders drop and your jaw relax. Do this a couple of times, with your eyes closed. Let the "aaahh" sound emerge from your belly, move up into your heart and drift out into space as you exhale, slowly, smoothly, steadily. Now, open your eyes and continue reading.

Hello? Anyone there? It felt good to escape for a minute, didn't it? But come on back—it's that time of year again: the modern miracle known as The Holidays , when into the dark little month of December, we squeeze Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and a myriad of other celebrations, from ancient Solstice rituals to the more contemporary rites of school plays, office parties and community gatherings. Throw into that mix a generous dose of unrealistic expectations, budget-busting shopping, dysfunctional family feasts, airplane flights, darker days, colder weather, excess eating and drinking, and no wonder that along with "peace on earth, goodwill toward men," come seasonal stress, exhaustion and depression.

But this year you can do something to spin your stress into the gold that is the promise of the season. Understanding and relinquishing your unrealistic expectations are the best ways I know to beat the blues.

3 truths about the holidays that may help

Let's start with the word "normal." I once saw a bumper sticker that read: "Normal is someone you don't know very well." This is a good thing to keep in mind always, but especially now, when we assume that the normal people are all having happier, healthier and more harmonious holidays than we are. We imagine their mailboxes stuffed with Christmas cards and party invitations, their homes decorated in Martha Stewart splendor and their intact and idyllic families primed for five full weeks of good cheer.

I don't know these people, do you? The most effective thing you can do to reduce holiday angst is to wipe the word "normal" from your vocabulary. In my work at Omega Institute—America's largest conference and retreat center—I have met tens of thousands of people from all walks of life. I have yet to meet a normal one, if normal means consistently sane, contented and capable. And yet most of us hold ourselves up to an unattainable standard of human perfection. The 12th-century poet Rumi called this phenomenon the " Open Secret ." He said each one of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other—not some racy or evil secret, but rather the mere fact of our flawed humanness. We expend so much energy trying to conceal our ordinary bewilderment at being human, or our loneliness in the crowd, or that nagging sense that everyone else has it more together than we do, that we miss out on the chance to really connect, which is what we ultimately long for. Especially during the holidays. Even those people who may seem to be living out your idealized vision of the season have an Open Secret.

So, here's something you can do this holiday season: Open up your Open Secret. Overcome your embarrassment at being human, and tell a friend that you didn't get one party invitation. Maybe she will reveal the same thing, or she'll bring you to the one party on her list, or together you'll go to your local homeless shelter and help the kids decorate the tree. Tell your brother that you are worried about how much your mother drinks at the annual Christmas dinner; ask him to support you in dealing more honestly with her this year . Don't just say "Fine!" when a colleague asks how you are at the office party. Say, "Sometimes all this ho-ho-ho makes me feel lonely." You'll be surprised by the response. Suddenly a mere acquaintance will open up his secrets to you, and soon you'll feel more connected, not only to him, but to the real meaning of the holidays. And talking about meaning…

All the religious parables at the heart of the holidays are about awakening joy in times of darkness. They are about hope and hopelessness; home and exile; celebration and grief. They are never just about joy. Joy is the gold we mine on the spiritual path, but that path traverses all sorts of uncertain and difficult terrains. So when you feel the darkness of the season settle in your heart, you can connect with a whole lineage of spiritual seekers who have wrestled with the human condition throughout history. Turn to the spiritual teachings of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, winter solstice and the lesser-known December holidays. You probably didn't know that December 8 is Rohatsu, which commemorates the day in 566 B.C. when the Buddha attained enlightenment. Like Mary and Joseph who found no welcome at the inn and birthed the baby Jesus in a manger, and like the Maccabees who reclaimed the desecrated temple and lit the miraculous light of Hanukkah, the Buddha awakened his joy after a long struggle, under the Bodhi tree, alone and hungry. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Father writes: "Truth and goodness are not always found at the top, but often on the edge and at the bottom. … Not in the center of empire, but in the backwaters of Bethlehem. Not among the established, but clearly among those who are dis-established." Christmas is the ultimate story of outsiders finding sanctuary, creating family and birthing joy against all odds. If you are feeling alienated, or anxious, or full of grief—or if the despair of the world is weighing heavy in your heart—you need seek no further than the stories of the season to help you find light in the darkest month of the year.

Why it's never too late to have a happy holiday

M. Scott Peck started his famous book The Road Less Traveled with these lines: "Life is difficult … Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult." The same can be said for the holidays. Once we get with the program that no one skates through December, we can get on with having an imperfectly wonderful holiday season. We can let go of wanting a different family and try to enjoy the wacky one we already have. If we have cherished childhood memories, we can be grateful for those we can duplicate in our adult worlds and wistful, yet mature about those we can't. Or, if our memories are meager and mean, we can hitch our wagon to new rituals that we create from scratch. As the novelist Tom Robbins reminds us, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood." If we feel lonely, or exhausted, or misanthropic, or angry, or overwhelmed, or just a little sad, there are all sorts of tricks in Santa's bag for climbing out of a blue mood. But don't try too hard: Forcing any kind of mood usually backfires and turns into its opposite. Try too hard to be jolly, and you'll end up down in the dumps. Instead, let yourself be exactly how you are. Slow down (use the little exercise at the top of this article) and invite the sacred into your heart and into your holidays each time your mind races or your emotions sink. Perhaps down at the bottom of the quiet well of your heart, you will discover some questions brewing in the fertile darkness: Am I harboring an old resentment? Is there someone I need to forgive? Is there something I must say to a family member or a friend? Am I longing for more spiritual nourishment? Is my full aliveness being dulled by a relationship, a substance, work, weight, whatever? In the true spirit of the holidays, let the darkness of your moods lead you back up to the light, and when New Year's rolls around, your resolution will be tinged with new authenticity and power.

As the co-founder of Omega Institute , America's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity, Elizabeth Lesser has studied and worked with leading figures in the fields of healing and spiritual development for decades. A former midwife and mother of three grown sons, she is also the author of Broken Open and A Seeker's Guide .

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