by Teresa Johnson
As Valentine’s Day (a holiday projected to generate $19.6 billion in related spending) arrives, I’m reminded that the practices of mindfulness and compassion can make all the difference in how we approach this holiday or any other.
Noticing the hidden A’s in Holiday - Assumption, Automatic Action, and Aversion
Because we grow up in families and social/cultural circles, humans are deeply conditioned from birth regarding the celebration (or not) of holidays and special events. The associations patterned in our neurology through childhood can set us up to expect ourselves or others to behave, feel, and think about a holiday in ways that may be unnecessary, incongruent with the rest of our values, or even hurtful to others.
The assumption that others celebrate the holidays we do, stems from the blind spot of our conditioned world view. When we assume that everyone is celebrating a holiday, we can lack sensitivity to the suffering that may also be present on that day. True we celebrate friendship, love, and romance on Valentine’s Day, but for someone who has just experienced a break up or loss of a loved one, this day is a stark reminder of their loneliness or heartache.
Mindfulness reminds us to take off the blinders of insensitivity, helps us to tune in, paying attention to clues of body language, facial expression, and voice tone. It cues us to listen as well, to our own gut, with its 40,000 neurons of intelligence offering a hunch…sometimes to keep silence and others to ask with compassion, the question that frees someone to share and release their suffering.
All of these ways of turning toward others suggest the open, kind, and discerning qualities of mindfulness as defined by researchers Linda Carlson and Shauna Shapiro, and serve as a counterweight to assuming we know anything about another person’s internal experience.
The 2nd A of Automatic Action is often fueled by two other A’s, anticipation and anxiety. As a holiday approaches, deeply rooted habits compel us to do and buy without a conscious thought of whether the stockpile of decorations, gifts, and cards are within our budget or even essential to the receivers. We act automatically because a life of mental, emotional, and physical conditioning is a force propelling us onward until, as Newton taught, an equal and opposite force intervenes.
Mindfulness is that force—causing us to stop, to check in and ask, “What’s happening with me right now?” We may notice tightness in the abdomen or chest, tension in the jaw, anxiety coiling up the emotions, critical commentary about not doing enough. Sometimes just a moment of noticing begins to open the door to see a bigger picture, to view ourselves with some understanding and compassion and say, “Well of course. This is all you ever knew.”
After which we may decide that the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year will be to sit down for a long conversation with someone we love and listen to them deeply.
AversionNot everyone is compelled to rush headlong into holidays though. Some of us have the exact opposite way of reacting. It might begin with a feeling of general irritation, undergirded with judgement about all the “fuss”, “silly sentimentality” or “waste”attributed to holidays of which we want no part. We may think we’re just being practical and unfettered by sentimentalism. However, like Automatic Action, Aversion also keeps us from making a well considered, unbiased choice to participate or
Mindfulness invites us to notice first the reactivity, to see where it takes root in the body, what emotions arise from the center of it, and what thoughts may be swirling in the midst of it. We can turn toward the habit of averse reactiveness with compassion to say, “This part of me that judges and pushes away…we all have it.” We might then ask ourselves “What suffering might be hidden underneath the reactiveness?” When we can offer ourselves compassion, we’re more likely to offer it to others.
As we open the heart, we can see our common humanity, that we too, have causes or events to which we devote time, energy, and money. And while they may be different from those around you, the value and joy we derive from them is similar. From this vantage point, we may still choose not to participate in a holiday, but can maintain a respect for and connection with others who choose to celebrate, leaving the door open and remaining curious.
So this Valentine’s Day, whether we celebrate the holiday is not most important thing. As the beloved Buddhist Teacher, Suzuki Roshi, has said: "The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.” Perhaps we can all move more mindfully through this day, more aware of ourselves in relationship to this cultural phenomenon we call a holiday, acknowledging assumptions and letting them go, acting with purpose, being less hurried and driven, opening our hearts to others, practicing tolerance and openness toward each other, and to ourselves. And maybe then, we’ll be celebrating, really, what it means to love.