Holiday Spiritual Practices to Soothe the Soul

Practicing "holiday spirituality" means to make the simple but often incredibly difficult decision to meet life's difficulties with self-awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and love. (This is the position developed in my new book: Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters—a book that not only answers all of life's important questions, but has a really nice cover!).

So if inescapable Christmas music, endless "JUST FOR TODAY, GET IT NOW!" sales, and long lists of gifts for everyone from your brother-in-law to your daughter's day-care provider are getting you down, let's see what these simple, quite traditional but challenging spiritual virtues have to offer.

To start, let's ask ourselves what is going on. Through meditation, reflection, self-examination, or just plain free associating at the keyboard, what might we find? Disappointment that your family doesn't match the quirky-but-happy, deeply-caring but non-intrusive, rooted-in-tradition but open-to-difference ones on the greeting cards or the TV specials? Resentment that as a non-Christian you have to listen endlessly to all this holiday stuff? Bitterness that everyone else has (fill in the blank: a job, a lover, children, healthy children, a nice house . . . )? The religious revulsion that any serious Christian might feel at seeing the birth of the savior turned into consumerism and family get-togethers shaped by an awful lot of drinking?

Realizing the source of your irritability, frustration, or even downright depression, the next spiritual move is acceptance. This is what God, or fate, or your genes, or a crummy economy, or your bad choices or other people's bad choices, or the current state of American culture/economy/politics have given you. It might be far from what you want or deserve. But it's what you have. Perhaps we can settle in with it, examine it with as much detachment as possible, and repeat that simplest of old time mantras: "Yes"—a "yes" not of approval or endorsement, but one that allows us to relinquish the exquisite torment of believing that it is up to us to change something which in all probability can't be changed very much right now. We have and we are what we have and we are, and all the negative feelings won't help.

So, moving on to gratitude, let's try something else. Despite the hypnotic attraction of negativity (I mean, what's sweeter than a pure blue, nasty funk, after all???), can we find something, anything, that not only makes us feel good but for which we are thankful? That we have ears to hear the interminable carols and eyes to see all the decorations? That we have food and drink, and the ability to take it in? That even if we are stuck in a hospital with a desperately ill child, or in a 12-step group fighting the demons of alcohol or heroin, that we are alive, that some people are trying to help us (a doctor or nurse, a sponsor, or the guy who tells you to "hang in there, you can make it"). That despite everything we've done to it, the world still turns, at least some birds still fly and sing, and that we ourselves, no matter how much we've lost, still have the chance to make tomorrow a little better than today.

And how will we do that? First, we will extend a little, and then a little more, compassion: to the people who seek to show love through buying stuff, for we remember first that they are trying to show love, and second that many times we ourselves have been loving in ways that were clumsy, foolish, even destructive. And if we are not Christian, we can be happy that our neighbors are celebrating a holiday that, at least for some folks, is about peace and good will. There's little enough celebration of such things and every little bit helps. And in our own family situation, we also try a little compassion: for the intrusive, judgmental mother; the overbearing, foot-stomping father; the alcoholic uncle; even our own spouse who has—just like we ourselves—failed us over and over again. We remember the good times, rare though they might have been, our own less than perfect behavior, and the pain that these men and women have suffered in their own lives.

And don't forget to try a little compassion on ourselves: for our frailties, addictions, casual cruelties, and refusals to change what we know we should. It's not easy being human, truly human, and that's a reason we all deserve compassion for the times we miss the mark.

Finally—and this, by the way, is something that has a basis in physiology—we feel a lot better when we show other people some love. Give some money away to people who need it more than we do—whether that's fifty cents, five dollars, or a thousand—and see how rich that makes you feel.

Offer a kind word to someone who is down, and you might be a little more up yourself. Give a little time to a positive campaign—about global warming, human rights, or to raise funds for a local hospital. Listen to your grandfather tell the same old story and pretend you've never heard it before. Let your sister brag about her boyfriend or her job. Smile and realize that we're all in this together. In these and countless other ways, the world is just waiting for what you, in particular, can do.

The greatest gift of the season—more precious than a 67-inch flat screen or a new iPhone—would be your own practice of these spiritual virtues. They would bring you some honest, long-lasting, and genuine pleasure, and make you a lot more fun to be around for everyone else.

And what could more in the spirit of the holidays than that?

12/5/2012 5:00:00 AM
Roger Gottlieb
About Roger Gottlieb
Roger S. Gottlieb ( is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters.