Today, I hope you’re spending some special time with those you love the most. It can indeed be the “most wonderful time of year.”
But, in reality, the holidays aren’t always all snowflakes and mistletoe. They can also make us feel sad and lonely — with longer, darker days; stressful expectations; and remembrances of holidays from years past with loved ones who are no longer with us.
And even if you’re fortunate enough to spend time gathering with those closest to you, that can sometimes be a real challenge. Whether it’s the in-law who can’t get off his or her soapbox, or the granddaughter who’s too focused on her “smart” phone to even notice you’ve arrived, the holidays can actually make us feel quite disconnected.
But there’s good news…
Your ability to connect with others is something you can improve upon. Like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, your benevolence increases the more you interact with others. And recent research gives us a concrete way to “train” and prepare for the social connection-marathon we call “the holidays.”
First, ditch the techno-gadgets
Back to that granddaughter who just can’t seem to look up from her phone…I’ve certainly noticed that many of us spend more time than ever staring at those portable glowing screens.
And this technology craze comes at a price…
By remaining “connected” all the time with these inanimate devices, we continue to lessen our ability to emotionally, spiritually, and physically connect with one another.
Plus, when our brains are only given opportunities to find gratification from artificial screens, we forget how to find it from other people — or Nature, or passions and hobbies… or ourselves.
Fortunately, an age-old mind-body practice can help you rewire your brain to reconnect in meaningful ways to yourself and the living world around you. And it all starts with the vagus nerve…
Vagus nerve helps us all stay connected
I’ve told you before about the vagus nerve, also known as the “wanderer” nerve. It connects the brain to the heart, lungs, GI system, and other important organs. It’s a key part of the autonomic (or reflex) nervous system, which influences breathing, heart, and digestive functions.
The vagus is also responsible for the body’s relaxation response — and ultimately your mood. And that’s why keeping this nerve properly toned is essential for ensuring your mental health…and happiness. Plus, people with better vagal tone typically respond better to stressful events.
This all-important nerve also plays a part in your social interactions. It helps you control your facial expressions and your tone of voice — as well as read the social cues from others around you. And when you improve your vagal tone, you increase your capacity for connection, friendship, and empathy.
Best of all — research shows the ancient practice of mindfulness meditation can improve your vagal tone.
So, as you go about your day today — and throughout the rest of the holidays — put down your device, step away from the computer, turn off the TV, and rid yourself of unnecessary distractions.
Instead, find some time for yourself to meditate. Even if it’s just five minutes a day!
Your step-by-step guide to a happier holiday season
Most people think meditation is something only Buddhist monks practice…or it’s something you really have to work at.
And nothing could be further from the truth.
Short, daily, five-minute mindfulness sessions can significantly help you make it peacefully and lovingly through those holiday dinners and family gatherings…and beyond that, the stressors of daily life.
Here’s a simple, five-minute mindfulness program that you can easily work into your daily routine:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and take a few deep breaths. Perhaps by the roaring fire or next to the fragrant Christmas tree.
- Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold that thought and repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy.” (Or peaceful, happy, etc.)
- If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your wish for yourself.
- After a few minutes, picture someone you care about.
- Repeat that same wish — “may you be healthy” — for your loved one, while holding his or her image in your mind.
- Now picture someone you don’t have any feelings about — maybe the person who was in front of you in the grocery store line or the barista at the coffee shop — and direct the wish to them.
- Next, think of someone you have negative feelings toward. Perhaps an obnoxious relative, annoying neighbor, or a difficult co-worker you may encounter at a holiday party. Then direct the wish toward them.
- Lastly, direct the wish toward the whole world: “May everyone, everywhere be healthy.”
- Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you.
Of course, this process can be repeated with different mantras and intentions, and for different people or causes. The purpose is to take the time to be present and focus on positive thoughts. I think you’ll find the result to be quite calming and will help you gain some perspective on what really matters the most to you.
All in all, you’ll find that when you regularly practice mindfulness meditation, you’ll discover how you have the power to control your outlook and how you react to what happens around you. And when you acknowledge this ability, every day has the potential to become the most wonderful time of year.
You can learn much more about the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, as well as other drug-free therapeutic therapies, in my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.