Compassion & Christmas

christmasIt’s Christmas and YET AGAIN I’m in a rush. I don’t know if I’m creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for myself but I always do this. Every year I swear I’m going to be organised. I promise myself that this year I will methodically do my christmas shopping, write thoughtful messages in all my cards and deliver them on time, calmly arrange travel between family engagements and not arrive at Christmas a stressy, exhausted mess dripping with cold sweat. It’s now three days before christmas and I have managed to do exactly none of the above.

At this years work do, and then at a Christmas dinner with friends the next day, I was dishing out Christmas cuddles rather than cards. Cards that I had bought from WHSmith, but had not written in yet and totally forgotten about, because I was more concerned with finishing an elaborately decorated Raffy toy for a competition in my studio than wishing my colleagues and friends a merry Christmas through a scribbled note on printed paper.

Maybe it’s just me trying to justify my distinct lack of organisation, but it felt like the giving of a warm hug and telling someone face to face that they’re important to me and that I wish them a very happy, peaceful holiday, could be equal to – or perhaps more meaningful than – giving a card that says ‘Merry Christmas’. Which got me thinking about the spirit of generosity at Christmas, the sacrifice of giving to another, and about the conflicting worlds of competition, commerciality and capitalism and that of kindness, compassion and love.
After the first blog post I did this year after a long silence, where I decided to be unashamedly frank about the fact that my wellbeing was totally out of balance, I received so much loving feedback and helpful advice. A particularly kind family friend advised me to read a book called The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert, and a few days later it arrived in the post with a lovely, encouraging note attached.
I have since found this book immensely helpful. It talks about how human beings have evolved to naturally respond to kindness and compassion, and how modern psychology and science is placing pro-social behaviour, caring and compassion at the centre stage in the development of well being. It also talks about how learning to accept and love yourself is important but can also be immensely difficult, especially in a competitive world where we are constantly rushed and easily feel disconnected from the ‘flow of life’. The dark catch to having an innate ability to understand the mind and thoughts of others in this environment is that it can perpetuate anxiety, depression, paranoia and violence.
Paul Gilbert writes “Although we’ve learned that we can build efficient systems, cut our costs and do things increasingly cheaply, this is not a very pleasant way to live. We can end up in an efficient world that is uninhabitable – except for the relatively few wealthy…Sadly, the Western world is riddled with people who don’t feel happy with themselves, who are critical and self-blaming. Treating yourself unkindly and critically is not good for your brain; it stimulates all kinds of stress…Although we in the West now live in a world with advancing medical science, material comforts and pleasures, we still yearn to find deeper meaning and sources of inner peace and joy”.
He looks in quite a bit of detail at the evolution of our behaviour, and especially emphasises how learning to develop a powerful awareness of our thoughts, desires, fears and drives – mindfulness – is intrinsic to creating a life filled with kindness, love and compassion – and he argues, with strong backing from new studies within psychology and brain science, that this is the source for meaning and happiness.

Throughout the West now there is a gradual movement towards seeking a more compassionate way of living. But in the East this has been a central philosophy in the guidance towards happier living for many thousands of years. Ancient wisdom traditions have developed exercises and practises that train the mind in compassion – particularly Mahayana Buddhism, the school of The Dalai Lama. But although you can practise and train your mind to be kind, almost like a musical instrument, it doesn’t need to complicated, or religious. As His Holiness says:

“There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” 

This time of year does inspire and encourage generosity and kindness, but it can often also generate feelings tension, competition and stress along with a chaotic sense of grasping and commerciality. We spend so much money and effort on Christmas, in a sort of attempt to create physical displays of our kind hearts and generous spirits. But in the process do we distract away from true compassion to ourselves, others and the world?
Thoughtful presents are a wonderful way to communicate your willingness to help make another’s life easier and better, but in the rush to buy do we forget that the most powerful gift of all is love and compassion? And what about kindness to our environment? Is that buried underneath a mountain of shiny products that we are told we need, wrapped in so much paper that it must surely be significantly adding to the destruction of the earth’s lungs. What about the approximately 10 million turkeys killed before Christmas, the majority of whom are crammed in their thousands into tiny sheds without sunlight or fresh air. These birds experience pain, discomfort, fear and distress just like any animal. Or if you want to reign your compassion in to just encompass our own species – what about all the hungry, cold and desperately poor in the UK? Luckily my buddy Matt has now got housing (until the Tories decide they’d rather spend more money on bombs than sheltering the homeless), or I’d be inviting him home to stay over the holidays!
And what about the kindness we show ourselves? The pressure of “avoiding gift face”, cooking the ‘perfect’ Christmas lunch and cramming the calendar with social commitments, not to mention the financial burden of Christmas, can all be incredibly draining. I know I haven’t been very kind to myself recently…Apart from the bashing my wallet has taken this December, I’ve been constantly on the go with deadlines, spending far too much time in front of a screen and averaging about 4 hours sleep per night – which is terrible considering my last blog post was about creating a bit of healthy detoxifying balance before the season of festive indulgence…today, as I am writing this, I am remembering to give some loving kindness to myself, to take the time breathe consciously, go outside in nature for a walk, eat well and to smile at myself in the mirror. And although I have plenty to learn and am sure choosing recycled wrapping paper or a nut roast over Turkey is only a drop in the ocean of environmentalism, I am trying to keep in mind the consequences of Christmas on the environment. The main thing I am determined to focus on in the lead up to Christmas (and throughout the holiday…and even beyond!) is making sure COMPASSION and KINDNESS is at the forefront of every action I take. This year I am giving my love as my main presents (but don’t worry mum, I’ve still taken note of your wish-list) and handing out reminders to my friends (old and new), family, and my wonderful boyfriend, who is far too patient with me, what crazy fantastic people they are.
 And here is my Christmas Wish to you….that you will find the peace of mind to spread your Christmas Compassion…because in the end this can only flow out of a calm, centred, loving, empowered, creative and positive mind.

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