Updated: Jan 11
After a year of uncertainty and heartbreak, we can tap into the restorative power offered up by the holiday spirit to reset, refocus and reclaim the good.
When we watch the Christmas movies and holiday advertisements, that start to roll out this time of year, we would tend to believe that the season is supposed be filled with family, food, and fun, topped off with lots of happiness, contentment and excitement. In reality this is not always the case, and as we face this winter season and the upcoming holidays with the added dynamic of COVID, it may be more common to be grappling with a lot of difficult emotions. Many people are experiencing grief over the loss of loved ones or lost experiences. Some feel anxious and fearful about the pandemic, politics, sick family members or finances. Others are experiencing anger and frustration over various aspects of life that are currently outside of their control.
No matter what our experience has been during the preceding months, there is a certain mystical quality to this time of year that inspires awe and reverence in people from different faiths across the entire globe. The various spiritual traditions celebrated between November and December can provide us a unique perspective on universal concepts that we can use to shift our consciousness and strengthen our wellbeing. In these traditions may lie clues to help give us relief and restoration during these trying times.
Let's start by sharing some brief highlights from a few of the sacred traditions celebrated during this time of year.
Beginning in mid-November, Diwali originated as a Hindu holiday, but is now celebrated by most Indians of all faiths including Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs. The history of Diwali varies from region to region and between the various faiths who now celebrate it, but is generally known as the "Festival of Lights". It lasts five days, during which candles, firecrackers and clay lamps are lit to signify the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. The celebration serves as a time of personal cleansing, signifying the release of the past year’s worries, and troubles and immersing oneself in the light.
In the dark night of all beings awakes to Light the tranquil man. But what is day to other beings is night for the sage who sees.
- Bhagavad Gita
On December 8th, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day, the "Day of Enlightenment". This is the day that the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) experienced enlightenment, while meditating under a Bodhi tree. The Buddha was born into much material wealth, with every want and need tended to. When he was 29, he encountered an awareness of suffering for the first time. He realized that all beings were subject to this experience no matter how much material wealth one possesses, and he dedicated his life to understanding the root of suffering and how to free himself from it. His teachings which include, The Four Noble Truths and The Eight Fold Path, became the foundation for the Buddhist religion.
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. Suffering is temporary, enlightenment is forever.
This Jewish holiday, also known as the "Festival of Lights", occurs in late November or early December each year, and commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, as a way to commemorate a miraculous event, when the soldiers at the sacred temple only had enough oil to light the menorah for a single night, but the little bit of oil lasted for eight full nights. The Hanukkah menorah has a central light which alludes to the light of the Divine that guides the eight inwards inclined lights that symbolize human awareness and knowledge.
We light the Hanukkah candles to remember the miracle that even a small light can dominate a vast darkness. The light represents the holiness that lies within each of us.
- Michard Strassfeld in A Book of Life
On December 25th, many people around the globe celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday focused on family togetherness and gift giving. For Christians, however, this is a day commemorating the birth of Jesus, a child born with both human and heavenly natures, and viewed as the ultimate gift from the Divine, sent to save humanity. There are many beautiful metaphors of great spiritual significance that can be taken from the story of the birth of Jesus around compassion, innocence, higher consciousness and hope.
Christmas is based on an exchange of gifts, the gift of God to man – His unspeakable gift of His Son, and the gift of man to God – when we present our bodies a living sacrifice.
- Vance Havner
As a human family, we are living through some incredibly difficult times. Whether we are personally facing any particular challenges right now or not, it is difficult to ignore the massive amount of human suffering on the planet right now. People are feeling sad, scared, angry, exhausted and just plain heartbroken. It can feel very challenging to have faith in things unseen and to remain hopeful when our minds cannot conceive of answers because the problems of this world seem too big and insurmountable.
So how do we restore hope? What are we to do??
Whether it is the celebration of light over dark in Diwali, acknowledgment of our ability to overcome human suffering with Bodhi Day, remembrance of the miraculous during Hanukkah or deep gratitude for the greatest gifts in this life at Christmas, the winter holidays each offer us a chance to examine principles of transcending difficulty. Each of these holidays is a celebration of how challenging circumstances were overcome, not by denying our experience, but by tuning in to higher levels of thought, emotion and consciousness. Similarly, this is what we are called to do in this moment of difficulty. Fear, anger and hate are normal experiences right now, but they won't save us. The good news is there is something that can.
The Science of Love as Medicine
When examining the various faith traditions, you can always find a single thread that runs through each one, holding them side by side, like beads on one string. This thread is rooted in one central idea which is love. When we take time to focus our thought patterns on love, it can almost instantaneously create a shift within that helps align your awareness with a higher "love" energy.
This may sound "woo-woo" to some, but the idea of love being the ultimate healer is deeply rooted in science. The HeartMath Institute, using a technique called heart rate variability, has been researching the heart-brain connection for 25 years and is actually able to measure the effects that love has on the heart, as well as on cognitive and emotional functioning. They have shown that stressful stimuli causes erratic and disordered heart rhythm patterns. This in turn causes signals from the heart to the brain that shuts down higher cognitive functions like memory and decision making.
On the other hand, when someone is in a loving state and experiencing positive emotions like appreciation, compassion and gratitude, the heart rhythm has a more ordered and stable pattern, known as coherence, and sends input to the brain that supports cognitive function and emotional stability. This science shows us that we literally become what we focus our thoughts on. So by focusing on love, we can find the inner stability and wellbeing we crave. If we allow our minds to focus on uncertainty, fear and stress then our internal reality will be chaos. We really do have a choice in our experience, despite the circumstances around us. We simply need to build our love muscle.
And what if that is the key to it all? What if the only thing we are called to do in these uncertain times is to turn back to love, not just once, not just some times, but as often as we can - again and again and again. What if every time we feel a tough emotion or face an impossible circumstance we stop, breathe, quiet the mind and tune into the love all around us and in us? What if every time we want to judge, criticize or condemn someone else we instead close our eyes and imagine ourselves filling up with love energy and radiating loving energy from from our heart to theirs? Every time we "mess up" and act without love, we simply return to love and try again? What if it really is as simple as that? It just might be. There's only one way to find out!!
Putting Love into Practice
Let's run this love experiment using this simple exercise from The HearthMath Institute:
Heart Lock-In Technique - set a timer for 5 minutes
Step 1. Focus your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual.
Step 2. Activate and sustain a regenerative feeling such as love, appreciation, care or compassion.
Step 3. Radiate that renewing feeling to yourself and others.
Try this for even 5 minutes to start and end your day. You can certainly do it more often if you wish but for now just focus on consistency.
This holiday season may be different from all the rest, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. It may be just the thing we all needed to slow down, so we can truly remember and appreciate the things really worth celebrating and the power that truly heals all.
Much love and happiest of holidays!
* If you are struggling with your inner peace and it is affecting your wellbeing, we are here to help. Please call 470-266-1380 to get support and feel like yourself again.*
Rabia Vaughns, MMS, PA-C is a certified physician assistant who specializes in helping people overcome chronic illness using a functional medicine approach to healing the mind, body, spirit. She is a co-owner of Elevate Functional Medicine.