Its been a week since the tree lights were unplugged for another year and, having more than sunk my feet into the freshly turned earth of 2013, I’m getting the urge to take one last look over my shoulder to survey what sort of Christmas I’ve just had because it felt profoundly different to all the rest.
Well, coming at the end of a year in which the way that I perceive just about everything has undergone something of a revamp, I suppose that was to be expected. Don’t get me wrong, the basics of Christmas were the same – spent in the same place with the same people – and I went through many of the same motions as usual but my reactions to what was happening were often quite new and fresh, a bit like experiencing the whole thing for the first time, which was both odd and interesting, as well as strangely liberating.
What I learned from all this was that my previous experience of Christmas had been almost entirely hung upon, and shaped by, an outline of Christmas Past, a kind of amalgamation of all the previous Christmases of my life, stretching all the way back to earliest childhood. I also realised that, because each year had been, both consciously and unconsciously, assimilated to all of those previous years in so many overt and more subtle ways, the continuation of this had become pretty much guaranteed, delivering the same sort of Christmas, year-in-and-year-out. It was as though every smallest act, every ritual of Christmas had become an action replay of earlier times so that the past-present distinction had become fuzzier over the Christmas period than at any other time of the year. To some extent, we tend to live all of life this way, building our experience of ‘the now’ upon a thick layer of past associations that flit through our sub-conscious like an endless video stream – in fact, this comparison of what is happening now with what has gone before is how the brain learns and is crucial to the way we evolve, safeguarding us from experiences that have been deemed undesirable. However, the sub-conscious is also something of a comfort meister, tending to opt for the relative predictability of all that has been safely experienced before in preference to pushing out into territory new and so this willing submersion in nostalgia can also be a limiting experience. A reluctance to play the script of life in any other way than how it ‘has always been done’ can amount to a serious case of being stuck in a rut.
Christmas, I realised, is particularly prone to this kind of ‘stuckness’, being one of those key times of the year that play out according to staggeringly similar patterns year-after-year, as well as being invested in so profoundly at the emotional level (don’t we all tend to chase after that ‘perfect’ christmas as though its the be-all and end-all of our year?) which, again, makes us prone to guard it’s traditions with a strange kind of ferocity.
In past years, I now realise, I could hardly make a single move from early December onwards, from the decorating of the Christmas cake to the exact way we spent Christmas Eve, without a power house of old emotions, associations and supposed obligations entering the room – and it wouldn’t just be my own sub-conscious that I would find myself wrestling with at every decision-juncture, since any slight deviation from the ‘norm’ would lead to a chorus of objection from a certain young family member who, from as tiny as 7 or 8 years old, was so grounded in the comfort-zone of how things had ‘always’ been done that she would go into meltdown at tradition not being followed to the letter!
I would even find myself playing exactly the same music while I did these ‘Christmassy’ things and, of course, the weight of all the associations that our culture has tagged onto the enormous stockpile of so-called ‘Christmas Music’ is why many people find themselves listening to, tolerating and even self-confessedly enjoying the kind of musical dross at the tail end the year that would have them reaching for the ‘off’ switch at any other time. But then, I suppose, anything that has the power to transport us back to Christmas 1975 or wherever we can re-experience the safe and syrupy magic of childhood Christmas is going to be welcomed with open arms by the sub-conscious, which is always at its happiest paddling around in the shallow waters of all that has been tried and tested before! All good and well, I should add, as nostalgia can be a lovely place to park up for a couple of weeks and I’m the very first person to drag out their dubious Christmas playlist for a sing-along while I decorate the tree – just ask my long-suffering husband!
None of this is a real surprise to any of us, really, but what I became acutely aware of this year is the sheer extent to which our sub-conscious mind is the overlord at this time of the year so that, for the large-part, its as though we are running on automatic-pilot.What other excuse do we have for creating consumer demand for endless replays of Slade, Wizard and “Do they know its Christmas Time” (from October onwards!) in our shopping emporiums, boiling our brains watching so many tv re-runs and filling our supermarket trolleys with so much over-packaged rubbish that we wouldn’t give a second glance, let along put on our menu, at any other time of year. Its as though all our intelligent thought-processing goes into suspended animation for a month as even those of us with an eco-conscience persist in sending out dozens of cards delivered by thousands of carbon-fuelled vehicles to people we can speak to daily on social media if we want to, then purchase half a rainforest of paper to be torn off with hardly a glance on Christmas morning. Any wonder we often fall in a heap as the New Year arrives…its not just the over-spending and over-consuming; at a deeper level, we can also feel ‘undone’ by that small nagging sensation of having lost our authentic self (that part of us that would have pointed out that we were losing our mind weeks ago, if anyone been prepared to listen…) somewhere along the road to Christmas.
This isn’t meant to sound like a “bah, humbug” kind of a post – I really, truly do love Christmas and, if anything, rediscovered some of its best bits this season…the Christmas markets, mulled wine, open fires, long country walks, winter sunsets, toes kept warm in thick knitted socks, singing, laughing and spending time with loved ones. These things never become jaded, could never be staged and can be enjoyed anew each year without reliance on ritual re-enactment since you just can’t plan for a fiery December sunset or a memorable evening laughing with friends by the fire.
The problem inherent in just surrendering to doing the same old things ‘because you’ve always done them that way’ is that your ability to enjoy anything new can become all but disabled, like an ‘app’ that’s never switched on, so that there is very little opportunity for the growth that comes with stepping into unexplored territory. If you’re the sort of person that regards life as a progression, a journey of self-discovery, as I am, the constant tug-back to your life in an earlier format can be hard to deal with. As I started to identify this downside to Christmas, it made me wonder if its why I’ve often entered the New Year feeling somewhat jaded and carrying a distinctly leaden feeling in my stomach (and not the kind that can be blamed on too much Christmas cake). That leaden feeling can often be in proportion to how positive your year to-date has been so that, if its been one of considerable personal growth, the impact of Christmas can seem hard and heady, like that first hangover after a detox. It can even feel like landing on that longest of serpents towards the end of a game of snakes and ladders; you know, the one that lands you almost right back where you started! By New Year, a lot of people can feel that all of their ‘growth’ momentum has been lost and, bewilderingly, they hardly know why.
I imagine I’m busily alienating readers who wouldn’t have Christmas any other way than how it popularly is and, yes, I know – I do understand – that at a surface level, we all actively conspire with the status quo of Christmas, entering knowingly and enthusiastically into the season as some kind of time-travel theme park or a tinsel-bedecked retreat from the demands of ordinary life; we choose this and we deserve it. There’s a part of us that relishes being transported back to our childhood or youth, when family members that are no longer here were larger than life – we may even feel we can bring them back for a moment or two by mimicking the way they ‘did’ Christmas, as do I when I bake my Christmas cake from my mother’s old recipe whilst listening to her favourite Perry Como Christmas songs! There’s nothing wrong with that when its a conscious process; in fact, its one of the marvels of this human ‘piece of kit’ that we can take a trip back to a medley of experiences in a way that presumably eludes our family pet (who, we presume, sleeps and eats his way through Christmas without a thought for how he spent last year or beyond). It means we can opt into those recollections we want to have, even encourage them along a little using props that help bring them back to us, much as we can play through an old family video. Quite simply, we can choose to bask in a melting pot of our happiest memories, on demand; how great is that?
Yet not all of the associations that we have with this time of the year are likely to be ideal when dragged into the context of our present-day life. When the season makes us feel emotionally floored for no apparent reason, or suddenly ‘stuck’, ‘powerless’ or just plain ‘down’, our experience of Christmas Present can feel thoroughly tarnished by these apparently random emotions, although they are anything but. When ghost-memories of the past become more overt, it can feel as though Christmas Past has taken us hostage for a month; perhaps explaining why so many people feel depressed or go off the emotion rails at this particular time of the year! The book ‘Super Brain‘ refers to sticky memories, explaining that “vivid memories are sticky by nature”. Christmas produces some of the most vivid memories of all, going back to earliest childhood so, by its very nature, can leave particularly vivid impressions in our emotional memory bank stretching back decades.
The difficulty inherent in the re-enaction of circumstances in much the same way as they have ‘always’ been played out is that the mind so often works as follows, as ‘Super Brain’ explains:
A is happening
I remember B, something unpleasant in the past
I’m having reaction C, just like I always do
We only move past this pattern of events once we apply conscious awareness to C and teach ourselves a new reaction, something we get better at the more often we practice the new reaction and reinforce a new behaviour. However, when the trigger event A only happens once a year because it is a circumstance particular to Christmas, therefore one to which we have become emotionally attached and so welcome back into our experience (like someone holding a backstage pass, we allow it access to the most privileged zone of our emotional-self…) and is one which has the power to transport us right back to bad circumstance B because it exactly mimics the sights, smells, people and so on of the original event, the effect can floor our emotions in a way that totally disarms us.
I suppose what has been different for me this year is that (through meditation, endless research and an ever-increasing familiarity with the state of ‘conscious awareness’, gained with the assistance of courses like the excellent “Changing The Paradigm” series from Jeddah Mali) I’ve worked tremendously hard at applying conscious awareness to every nook and cranny of my life. As you continue to do this, you find less and less circumstances have the power to disarm you. In tandem with learning to live in ‘the now‘ rather than letting yourself drift back into a repeat of old reactions, this practice can totally reinvent the way you perceive what is going on in each moment and brings with it a tremendous feeling of having shed old baggage that you had hardly known you were carrying until you experienced the liberation of (finally) finding somewhere to put it down!
Another long running fascination that I have is with how our memories of the past colour our perception of the present and here was a prime example. In fact, I would say, the tug of the emotion-associations can be so strong for some of us at Christmas that we actually start to inhabit our younger selves, in an emotional sense. Given this, is it any wonder that Christmas can be an emotionally-charged time of year as we slip into an echo of the mindset of our much younger selves and then – from that place – have to cohabit with a whole cast-list of others from the script of our early life (parents, aunts, siblings… people we hardly see the rest of the time), all of whom are very likely to be going through their own ‘stuff’. It’s like we are all busily writing a script entitled ‘Perfect Christmas’ (such are the high expectations of the season) when our computer crashes and, when we reboot, we find the file we were working on has reverted back to a much earlier, less-refined draft of itself, full of minor errors and omissions which are inconsistent with where we were going with the current script. Our subconscious frustration at all the work that has been lost is only exacerbated by feeling at sea in the company of all those other family members and friends who have been similarly thrown overboard into the waters of, perhaps subtle yet often strangely potent, emotional flux. So it is that petty aggravations and sibling rivalries that we thought were long finished-with are sparked back into being current irritations or, with abject horror, we observe our successful and confident middle-aged self revert back to the traits of the awkward teenager in front of the aunt who will always expect us to be that way, no matter what. Any wonder that, to many, the family gatherings of the season can turn into the stuff of nightmares!
What’s more, these ‘tug-backs’ to an earlier self are so unconscious that it can be as though invisible strings are being pulled, generating random emotional responses, just as maximum poise is called-for as you embark on managing a two-week continuous food-fest, a tight-budget and the considerable expectations of young children.When the hostess (you) throws a tantrum worthy of a three-year-old because the pastry doesn’t hold, others may raise an eyebrow or two but, in general, people seldom stop to wonder why Christmas is really so emotionally charged other than to lean on the excuse that it’s a particularly busy time of the year.
This year, it was as though I had pulled the plug on all that fraught behaviour; I was fully engaged in the hub of my family doing many of the same things as before but I wasn’t getting emotionally involved with the idea, the mental-construct, of Christmas itself to the level of being tugged or pulled into any whirlpools of unconscious behaviour. It was like enjoying all the basic structure of Christmas – a sort of sparkly, more than slightly surreal version of ‘real life’ (isn’t that what it is?) – but with a grasp that I was experiencing it fully in the present, not as a symbol of the past, and that I had a moment-by-moment choice as to what I did and how I did it, without any obligation to re-enact anything. With this, a sort of alert curiosity was brought back into the proceedings, along with a whole lot more lighthearted enjoyment. I was free to pause at every juncture and think ‘what would I like to do now?’
As a result, there was a whole lot more shrugging at dishes that needed to be cleared away and sitting around doing whatever I felt inclined to do, for as many hours as I chose. There was no compulsion to do anything because I felt I ought to or because others like me (parents, wives, celebrators of Christmas…) would be doing it. There was a lot more laughter and music (not always of the Christmas variety) and the television was hardly ever switched on. Quietly (because there simply was a lot more quiet than usual) I found myself giving much more consideration to how others less fortunate might be spending their Christmas and sending my thoughts and deeds outwards to them seemed a most valid way to spend my time, rather than blocking out thoughts deemed uncomfortable for fear they might interfere with the festivities, whereas the watching of old reruns on the telly for the sake of it did not. I continued to meditate, to read, to write – none of the practices that have become part of the core structure of my life were put on hold for the duration as there was no sense of needing to suspend the reality of my life in order to have a good time – and long daily dog-walks in all weather (often rain!) became the profoundest part of my Christmas-week ‘entertainment’ rather than an interruption from it. For the first time in years, circumstance meant that we didn’t attend carols on Christmas eve, a breaking of a family tradition that may have shaken me to the foundations in previous years but, no, the world didn’t cleave or the clocks stop, in fact I felt strangely ambivalent about the change and we simply reinvented how we spent the time.
Which brings me to one of the biggest changes I felt able to make this year – one so immense that it even took me by surprise when it came about just 10 days before Christmas, and that is that I became a vegetarian. I won’t go into my rationale for doing this here; I’m quite sure I will write all about it in the fullness of time. For the purposes of this blog, what this taught me was just how deeply our key lifestyle choices, such as what we eat, can be rooted in inherited beliefs made concrete by a lifetime of repeat practice and an overlay of traditions and happy associations. Given this, and I understood this as I embarked upon the change, Christmas was going to be about the hardest time of year to go veggie that I could have picked…and maybe that’s why I did it!
As I began the process of questioning the belief that eating meat fits with who I Am at a soul level, then prising it from all the happy food-associations of the season that had come to mean more to me than I had ever realised, the shock waves of what I had taken on began to reverberate through me. There was actually a point where I felt like someone had ‘stolen’ Christmas from me because I wasn’t going to be able to share in eating the same meals as my family, the ritualistic eating of Christmas-associated food that stretched all the way back to my earliest childhood, linking me to the precious traditions of my parents and beyond and contributing many of the aromas that were part-and-parcel of conjuring up the very essence of Christmas nostalgia in my experience. It made me realise that the sharing of meals is one of the most powerful and ritualistic tugs upon our behaviour traits that there is, dictating tribal habits that are continued long after they serve us because they become ingrained in the very fabric of our being. The emotional side-effects of disengaging from a whole lifetime of tradition like this were so very powerful, in the midst of Christmas, that I was forced to shake myself and ask “really, why is this making me feel so uprooted, so disoriented?”
After that crisis point, a fever pitch of self-pity with no rational foundation (to the point it was even making me laugh at myself, in between moments of longing to eat ham and turkey ‘like everyone else’ – and isn’t that compulsion to ‘do’ what everyone else is doing one of the strongest determinants of how we spend Christmas?), I began to get over it. The slightly unexpected result was that, apart from thoroughly enjoying all the new food options and creative cooking that this change necessitated, I seemed to inadvertently sweep other family-members along on a wave of sampling new food and looking at the potential for Christmas fare to be quite different, for all of us, in future years – an outcome that I had hardly dared to expect or set out to achieve. So it seems that even those traditions that appear so concrete to us as to be pillars holding up the very ceiling of our world can be uneventfully dissolved in a moment once the mind is at least open to experiencing something new.
So, what (if anything) is my conclusion to all this? Well, through the reading of books by Gregg Braden, I have come to see the universe in terms of the cycles or fractals that he tells us are fundamental to its pattern of growth and evolution. I have seen these patterns demonstrated time and time again in my own life and they can be traced throughout all of history. One of the fundamental truisms that I have come to believe, based on the very real existence of fractals in nature, is that we continue to repeat the same cycles of behaviour – round and around and around, often accompanied by a great deal of frustration and the belief that we are going nowhere – until we have learned whatever lesson they are trying to teach us; only then can we break out of the cycle and leap forwards into something new.
This year’s experience of the festive season feels like the end of one such cycle for me. The endless reliving of Christmas Past is no longer required for the full enjoyment of all that Christmas has to offer and that alone has give me the gift of uncommon elation as well as eager anticipation of all the fresh new experiences to come. I’m also enjoying the feeling of profound liberation that comes with being unplugged from the mainstream, that place that had always made me feel more than a little bit ‘fish out of water’. The season is no less festive for all of this – in fact, it feels more so in ways that ring true for who I Am, right here and right now. Let’s leave Christmas Past and its hefty burden of old chains to Jacob Marley – I’ve unplugged my Christmas from the past and made it my own.