Mindful Challenges

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Be a beacon of non-specific cheer.

Friday, December 20, 2013

I admit it, I’m straight-up a sucker for Christmas. But then again, I grew up in Iowa, in a frosty little burg bordering a sliver of the Mississippi River where on the worst days of winter it can feel like the wind is opening up your bones with a box-cutter and pouring in jiggers of liquefied woe. Those of you in California, or the BosWash megalopolis, or other areas bordering the ocean cannot comprehend how bad it can get—you at least have the illusion of not being boxed in on all sides, of being able to escape to a Bahama or a Turk & Caico at a moment’s notice. We’re too deeply interior to allow for even the illusion of escape to mean anything. I mean, where would we go? In every direction, Midwest and more Midwest, stockades of ice, and somewhere beyond that, Canada.

Given such prospects, even a tuft of pea-sized lights sewn into a fusty wreath can seem like an unbearably bright beacon of hope, life, and promise: a real celebration of the triumph of humankind over the crushing elements of Nature, that wolf at the door. Moreover, it just feels right to me to do certain things at certain times of the year, and not do those things at certain other times of the year. Like, water-skiing is holy-shit-good-times in the summer, and drinking an alcoholized stew of raw eggs and cream makes a ton of good sense in the winter. These things never have to overlap. I find this to be of considerable importance in an age when you can almost literally have anything you want delivered to your door at a moment’s notice. Hammacher Schlemmer will deliver a personal submarine to you right now. You don’t even have to wait to become a supervillain fixated on deep sea domination, like I had to when I was a kid.

Christmas is the only time of year when I find myself completely and constantly taken in by seasonal displays in grocery stores. No matter what the product is, if it’s featured in one of the first six themed displays I pass by in Whole Foods, it’s going to end up in my cart. As long as you can make me believe it is even borderline Christmassy, I am sold. I buy every fruit that is advertised as “a holiday favorite!”, even though I know that is nothing more than code for, “it’s not in season in this hemisphere!” Meanwhile, pre-roasted chestnuts look like a glass jar full of goat testicles and taste like honeyed Tums, but I will buy those, too, because that is what the song said I should do. That, in spite of the fact that they cost, in jar form, something like $15 a pop, which is insanity when you consider you can have everything that’s edible inside of a pumpkin handed to you in a can for, like, a buck twenty-nine. I am confident I could hire a man to bring me a jar of actual goat testicles for fewer than fifteen dollars. Though if Whole Foods was already selling that, and marketing it correctly – “pound of cleaned goat testicles—a holiday favorite! Grass fed!” – I would buy those. I would buy those.

What can I say? Christmas is a season in which we all go a little bit off our rockers. Ironically, though, it is not greed or self-interest that ends up driving us to the brink, but rather the desire to make our loved ones happy. We can become so concerned with making said beloveds happy, with sustaining their glee and wonder, that we make everyone else around us miserable. Once you get into this groove, it can be devilishly hard to peel yourself free from it, given that everything around you seems to be supporting your mania. If you buy into the Christmas-industrial complex as hard as I do, pretty much any trip outside the house between Thanksgiving and Christmas is destined to be tied either directly or indirectly to the pursuit of dispensing holiday joy. The grocery store is no longer an obliging purveyor of foodstuffs, but a fervid machine designed to turn you, the consumer, into a purchaser of snowman-themed disposable dinnerware and cookie cutters shaped like what might be a Christmas tree, or possibly a Klingon dagger (it’s all in how you apply the frosting). Movie theaters cease to become the establishments you thought you knew, peddling a couple anonymous hours in a dark, soft room, and instead emerge as crypts, in which an amorphous “big season” vibe is forced through the patrons as they hover nervously over their buckets of popcorn. Even the office where one might work, once a blessedly sterile container in which no overly ripe emotions could long survive, is liable to become a kind of weeping wound of forced jollity.

Despite the ardency with which we apparently want to keep ourselves latched to the cheer-teat, the faces of the people who are out there, right now, pushing carts through ice-pocked parking lots and waiting in line to buy perky pine cone arrangements and cookie-scented candles, are not the faces of happy people. They are the faces of people who desperately want to unmake the situation they have found themselves in, but who are already in too deep to plunge anywhere but forward. They are the faces of people who have opened up the wrong email attachment, and are now looking at a never-unseeable picture of a man who’s somehow managed to stuff three cats up his ass and still lives. (Is it porn? Is it a joke? Does it matter?) These are people you do not want to cross. Those spreading joy are so much more dangerous than those spreading, say, pestilence or dread, even.

So here’s your mindful challenge for this week, people: be a beacon of real joy, by helping to hold back the rage of sorrow that is building behind the tight faces of everyone everywhere around you, including – especially? – yourself.

Keep in mind you will not be rewarded for this, which is why you can know for sure it’s a real thing that you should actually do.

For example. When somebody cuts you off on your way home from buying a duffel bag full of hot Furby Booms from a guy you know only as “Blunchkin” who met you in a motel room outside of Jersey City, instead of running them off the road, look into as much of their stupid face as you can glimpse reflected in their side mirror as they pass under a streetlamp and think, “You, idiot, are beat down from trying to make everyone you love so fucking happy. I wish you peace, sir. I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to keep my shit together. You fucker.”

In other words, try to rage on one less person today than is deserving of your awesome, purifying, Krampus-like wrath. Imagine if this were to balloon outward: imagine if every person you decline to retaliate against declines to retaliate against one other person, until we’re all feeling something resembling actual joy. Not even season-specific joy, but a kind of joy that transcends seasons. Imagine!

Here’s a sense of how you might approach this. The other day I’m walking back from our little neighborhood grocery store with my wife and it’s the first snowfall of the season, or, to be more accurate, the first really good snowfall of the season. It’s the first one that’s comprised of husky, heavy-duty snowflakes, not just flurries and grits of, like, angry rain. And I say out loud, “Why does it always seem so tranquil and still when the snow is falling?” We go on to theorize that it could be as simple as there being fewer cars and fewer people on the street during even a modest snowstorm—less stuff, less noise. Or, maybe it’s that the falling and fallen snow actually does something to soak up sound. Who knows! I’m no scientist! But my wife came up with the nicest idea of all, which is that when everything is blanketed in a uniform coating of soft whiteness, our minds find it easier to become witnesses to everything around them. The riot of the environment having been temporarily  calmed – like the sky went and helpfully wrapped the whelping baby of the earth in a fluffy white blanket – we are paradoxically able to see things more clearly, inasmuch as the lack of distractions encourages an inward turn.

It is no different in formal meditation practice: when the mind is temporarily installed in a relatively quiet, relatively controlled environment, it tends to become a better witness to itself. The jagged edges of troubling thoughts can then themselves be “snowed over,” robbed of their disruptive potency simply through our awareness of them. Called out, forced to account for themselves, they are obliged to become mere players in an even, well-tempered scene.

When the white hot noise of the Christmasing crowds starts to get to you, try to let a kind of snow settle over the twisted snarls and shrill demands of those around you; having snowbound them, turn and examine how your own mind is reaching out to react. Reduce the more precarious thoughts to their outlines: “Frustration.” “Pissiness.” “Anxiety.” “Vulnerability.” Reduce them further until they are just: “Thought.” And, “thought.” And, “thought.” And, “thought.”

When you’re out there, people, please stay safe, and please stay mindful. Help your brothers and sisters be their most joyous selves, and don’t forget, while you’re at it, to help yourself to be your most joyous self as well.


(1) As a bonus, the festive pastime of digging dime-store decorations out of the attic and tacking them to a tree simultaneously serves as a way to degrade and humiliate Nature in effigy, allowing us to really show it who’s boss. Now, if you want to take Nature down a few more pegs, you can march straight out into the woods with a denuded ax blade in hand and lay into the prettiest, most lushly appointed tree you can find. This you prop up in the corner of your living room tarted up like some sort of deranged doll, and after it’s all used up you literally “kick it to the curb” alongside an emptied out box for something called “Doc McStuffins.” I imagine it’s harder to feel victorious over nature in the warmer climes, but I’m not judging, hotbodies. You have your own causes for weeping and wailing, not excepting all the weird shit that hides in your preternaturally tall grasses waiting around to kill you. Thanks to the winter, anything aspiring to stamp out a northerner’s life tends to have its forces decimated annually, which prevents their worldending potential from ever properly evolving. Yes, we may in the north may all be five feet tall and pale as bacon fat, but we’re also sturdy like axletrees and it’s generally impossible to break our skin unless you’re using a subsoiler. As far as I can tell you people of the south are all featureless wisps that taper off at both ends and are forever being eaten by snakes.

(2) Occasionally the packaging of said “holiday favorites” will try to con you into thinking qualities of the fruit that have obviously resulted from their being freakish abominations should in fact be considered fun selling points. As though we should be proud of giant seedless grapes, for instance! Why should we indulge an industry that passes gigantism-afflicted fruit eunuchs off as a treat? Because it’s Christmas, and goddammit, that’s the time of year when I give everything a pass. If there were a bushel of apples with what appeared to be teeth growing inside them but you slapped a bow onto their basket, I’d stuff the hell out of some stockings with those unnatural fuckers.

As a bonus, the festive pastime of digging dime-store decorations out of the attic and tacking them to a tree simultaneously serves as a way to degrade and humiliate Nature in effigy, allowing us to really show it who’s boss. Now, if you want to take Nature down a few more pegs, you can march straight out into the woods with a denuded ax blade in hand and lay into the prettiest, most lushly appointed tree you can find. This you prop up in the corner of your living room tarted up like some sort of deranged doll, and after it’s all used up you literally “kick it to the curb” alongside an emptied out box for something called “Doc McStuffins.” I imagine it’s harder to feel victorious over nature in the warmer climes, but I’m not judging, hotbodies. You have your own causes for weeping and wailing, not excepting all the weird shit that hides in your preternaturally tall grasses waiting around to kill you. Thanks to the winter, anything aspiring to stamp out a northerner’s life tends to have its forces decimated annually, which prevents their worldending potential from ever properly evolving. Yes, we may in the north may all be five feet tall and pale as bacon fat, but we’re also sturdy like axletrees and it’s generally impossible to break our skin unless you’re using a subsoiler. As far as I can tell you people of the south are all featureless wisps that taper off at both ends and are forever being eaten by snakes.
Occasionally the packaging of said “holiday favorites” will try to con you into thinking qualities of the fruit that have obviously resulted from their being freakish abominations should in fact be considered fun selling points. As though we should be proud of giant seedless grapes, for instance! Why should we indulge an industry that passes gigantism-afflicted fruit eunuchs off as a treat? Because it’s Christmas, and goddammit, that’s the time of year when I give everything a pass. If there were a bushel of apples with what appeared to be teeth growing inside them but you slapped a bow onto their basket, I’d stuff the hell out of some stockings with those unnatural fuckers.

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