Five or six years ago, I began to notice it. That tingly tightening of anxiety across my chest as I thought about the many favorite cookies I wanted to make for the Christmas season — a feeling that that emerges far too soon after engaging in the simple delight of perusing loved recipes. Or that pin-in-a-balloon deflated feeling when I realized I forgot a very important friend on my Christmas card list. Or that panic-stricken urgency that crops up while you’re putting the final flourishes of ribbon and sparkle on a gift for a far-away family member. The soreness in my feet after trudging into the millionth store to find the perfect gift. You know. THOSE feelings.
I felt those feelings of panic, exhaustion and inadequacy far fewer times this holiday season. Five or six years ago I decided that Christmas didn’t, shouldn’t have to be this way. The season of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian calendar) WAS about preparing; but not preparing enough cookies, gifts and cards. Rather it is about preparing one’s heart to be ready for the mind-blowing love that would emerge with the birth of the Christ child. That tiny, living evidence that God came into being to live as a human, sharing in everything — the delight of the taste of first birthday cake, the pain of losing your first love, the joy of finishing your college degree long after friends and family had given up on you, the searing pain of breaking a leg or the devastation of learning of a cancer diagnosis. Yes. God came to share. All. The. Things.
Making cookies and putting ribbons on a sparkly gift didn’t seem to do this wondrous miracle justice.
I began to pare down my holiday season. I stopped sending Christmas cards. I made only my absolute favorite cookies and treats and sent them to a few special friends who I knew would most appreciate them. I bought virtually no presents and instead spent more time with friends and family and gave more money away to charitable causes that embodied God’s love in the world. I even convinced my family to do give money away with me. I began to offer my young nephew the option of doing something together rather than buying him another gift. He actually chose the activity of doing something together, affirming that kids really do want more time rather than more stuff. But, most importantly, I began to pay attention to when I felt the most anxious, stressed over my to do list and then asked myself, “Do I REALLY need to do this?” Many times, the answer was, “No.”
This Advent I also got to prepare my heart for Christmas by teaching a yoga class in a local church designed around the four themes of Advent — Peace, Hope, Joy and Love. Although this may seem like adding onto my workload (and to some degree it was), I had seemingly endless energy for prepping a class that helped me and other adventurous souls connect to the higher values of the season. It helped me, as much as my students, embody those values more profoundly.
My Advent practice, first focused only around the trappings of cultural Christmas practices, began to seep into other areas of my life. When I felt panicky at 8 p.m. at night that there was one more email I just had to send for work, I breathed through it, and made a note to do it the next morning instead. When someone asked me to do one more thing before the end of the work day, I would pause and really evaluate whether or not I had time and ability to do it, THEN decided whether or not to say yes or no. Saying NO was a perfectly acceptable response.
As shame researcher Brené Brown writes and says, setting boundaries actually makes you more generous and loving. I felt myself doing things on my to do list or upon the request of other people out of a spirit of love and generosity rather than pure obligation. That felt much more like embodying Christmas love than the grumpy, grinch-like alternative.
Setting an intention and practicing it, which my yoga practice has taught me to do, is so much less stressful than setting a goal or a resolution and then checking it off the list. I feel my way into a practice over much longer than a year. Over that time, they grown and change me in ways I never could have predicted or expected. A practice allows me to explore and experiment with playfulness and curiosity — that feels a lot closer to God’s love to me.