Saturday, January 5, 2013

Minding the Indigenous Mind

Mindfulness over the Holidays


Happy Holidays Mindful Relatives and Friends,

It’s that time of the year when late fall and winter holidays and activities are upon us. This is a time we should ask ourselves what are the levels of good health, happiness, and peace we want to enjoy as we enter into this season and the New Year. During these next few weeks many folks will be involved in coming together for holiday parties, toasting others over drinks, sharing meals, gift-giving, and being thankful as they reflect on all that’s happened this past year. There will be feelings of excitement and warmth as stories and laughter are shared with colleagues, friends, and family. As we gather together we will say goodbye to the old year and welcome in the new one with hope, optimism, and a sense of well being.   

  Oh, if it were only that simple. While getting together during this time can be fulfilling, it is also a time when some of us will experience an uptick in our levels of stress, painful emotions, money pressures, unhealed relationships, and addictive behaviors. In fact, certain folks will experience even more feelings of being overwhelmed, fatigued, and depressed during the holiday season. According to the Nursing Times website, approximately 2.9 million people suffer from depression during the holidays. However, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season are not the time when people experience the highest levels of despair, as we’ve been led to believe. Research shows that it is the spring time and early summer when events such as suicide and depression are on the rise. Experts say that the reason that holidays do not contribute to an increase in emotional problems is because people are more likely to come together to do more visiting, sharing, and offering of support. Imagine if we did this all the time rather than just during the holidays.

So what can individuals, families, and communities that experience an increase in holiday stress do to find happiness, good health, and peace? I believe two good places to start are (1) examine our thinking and behaviors in this contemporary, consumerist society and, (2) consider shifting toward mindfulness practices that will help us improve our well being throughout the year.

What seems to be a major contributor to our seasonal stresses is that we have moved very far away from our spiritual roots that once valued simplicity, generosity, kindness, mindfulness, respect, and prayer (and I’m not talking about prayer that is about give this or that, but prayers of gratitude and love for one another). For me, one of our biggest obstacles to spirituality is the mindless, obsessive buying that we do during the holiday season. It is difficult for me to think that this contemporary holiday time is anything but the madness of consumerism; especially when I think about how our spending is ignited by events like “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.”

Purchasing stuff, whether we need it or not, is constant throughout the year in first world countries like the United States, and it increases exponentially during the holiday seasons. In fact, Business Insider magazine reported that the average American shopper spent $704.18 on Christmas gifts in 2011: $403.26 was spent on kids; $68.23 was spent on relatives; $21.06 was spent on friends; and $23.39 was spent on other gifts. The American Research Group reports that planned Christmas spending for 2012 will rise to $854.00 for the average shopper.

The amount we spend on Christmas shopping is disturbing. However, what is most troubling is that a lot of the products we purchase contribute to harmful climate change and local and global pollution. Many gifts we buy will contain traces of harmful chemicals, paints, and solvents that contribute to the body burden of toxins we all carry, and some will be recalled because they exceed safe levels, if there is such a thing. Some of the gifts we get from major retailers are still connected to awful, oppressive sweatshop conditions in the US and other parts of the world, and many of people will be harmed producing the these things. Sadly, it seems what we care about most is that we save money and get good deals. I find nothing sacred, spiritual, or ethical in the acquiring of products that are toxic, manufactured from suffering of others, and contribute to the decline of our planet.  

Purchasing things outside our normal buying habits explodes during and after what is known as “Black Friday,” the day following Thanksgiving.  Black Friday is considered the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and many major retail stores offer promotional sales to kick off the holiday shopping. Black Friday is known for attracting aggressive, frenzied crowds, and people getting assaulted, shot, and trampled to death. Sounds more like the action you find at a rugged Indian bar than a shopping mall.

This past year I watched news stories about Black Friday and saw video of shoppers screaming and threatening each other, a man threatening to stab other shoppers if they got in his way, some folks being trampled, cops arresting shoppers, and a riot at Walmart over Iphones (  The people fighting over the phones reminded me of scene from the movie Black Hawk Down, where starving Somalia folks were frantically rushing the NATO trucks to get food. In no way do I intend to be demeaning to the suffering of Somalia people since their circumstances were, and continue to be a dire life and death situation. I only want to make a point of just how “hungry,” “starved,” and “addicted” Americans are when it comes to wanting products that are marketed as things that they desperately need; things that are optional and spiritually bankrupt. I’ve never participated in Black Friday shopping and for years have preferred to spend my money on gifts, clothes, and foods that are made by local producers and sold in local stores.

So, with the challenges of holidays upon us, how can mindfulness be helpful?  First, let’s revisit what mindfulness is. Mindfulness refers to being deeply aware of what is happening from moment to moment outside and inside us, without judging or attaching to the content, feelings, and emotions that arise. It means to live deeply and richly in the present moment and to not respond to life in a distracted and mechanical manner.  Mindfulness means we thoughtfully observe, listen, and respond to all that we or others do.

During the holidays our schedules can become hectic due to increased visits with relatives and friends, whirlwind shopping sprees, and attending special events that we may not want to attend. Since it is a time when many of us reflect on the family and friends we may have lost during the year, we can experience higher levels of anxiety, sadness, and depression.  There are many things that can be done to reduce the stress of the holidays. Here are five: 

  1. It’s important to hang onto healthy rituals such as quiet walks, visits with good friends and family, and getting quality alone time and enough sleep. One of my rituals I do when I first wake up in the morning is to focus my eyes on a spot on the ceiling or wall. I keep my attention here for a minute taking slow, deep, mindful breaths that enable my brain waves to gently rise to a state of calm alertness. To prime my mood in a positive manner I whisper to myself word or phrase such as “peaceful,” “healed,” or “I am blessed.”  I quietly ask my inner (wise) self what I should learn today.
  2. When you get out of bed take time to sit quietly in a mindfulness sitting position for 5 to 10 minutes, paying attention to your breath as you calmly breathe in and out. Make sure that you practice accepting your thoughts and feelings and what you’re thinking so that you do not begin mindlessly judging or attaching to them. Just focus as much as you can on the miracle of your breathing. If this is a time that you normally pray, use it to express prayers of gratitude rather than prayers that ask for something to be given or taken away.
  3. Spend a portion of your first meal of the day sitting silently, mindfully eating, making sure to chew your food slowly, and deliberately tasting the what you eat and the liquids your drink. Ask your body if what you’re going to eat is what it is hungry for and if it will make you healthy and give you the optimal nutrition you need. Make sure to pause between bites and drinks. It’s important to remember that mindless eating during the holidays contributes to overeating, upset stomach, and at worse heart attack.
  4. Shopping and buying gifts can be a very stressful, costly, and energy-draining experience. Instead of purchasing gifts from major retailers why not make your own stuff or buy from local producers or artists? Buying locally is better because you get better service; it supports the local economy; reduces waste, pollution, and energy costs; and the products are much less likely to rely on sweatshop labor and contain dangerous chemicals.
  5. When gift shopping it is important to ask yourself, “How much is enough and how much is too much?” To solve this dilemma, always go with less is better. Instead of purchasing multiple holiday gifts for family, friends, and relatives, give less, way less. Giving a lot of gifts does not make family or friends love or respect you more. If you are afraid your children will love you less if you get them less, you have nothing to worry about.  According to a recent study by psychologists at the University of British Columbia, young children are happier to give than receive.

In closing, it’s important to remember that a key teaching of mindfulness is that life is about impermanence; all things are constantly changing, whether good or not so good. Mindfulness means that we gently ride the good times and the bad, pressing ourselves to stay present, and in touch with what is happening in this moment. We accept and honor all that is unfolding before us, but avoid attaching to it with expectations, judgments, or disappointments. And, if we wish to enjoy a lasting sense of happiness, good health, and peace, it is important that we embrace the practices of mindfulness during the holidays as well as throughout each moment of our lives. 




Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education  in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He leads a regular morning mindfulness practice for staff, students, and faculty in his department. He can be reached by email at: 

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