Last week, we wrote about A Christmas Carol and how Ebenezer Scrooge’s miraculous change of heart can help us all examine our “selves” at the holidays. As a companion to that, I offer this guided meditation from the Brilliant Legal Mind collection. The holidays are a time for stories. They can help us connect with loved ones and learn from our experiences over the years.
Unfortunately, though, stories can also get in the way of connection at times or block us from insights about our lives when we let them play unconsciously in the background of our minds. In this meditation, I help you calm down and then walk you through the stories of the past and present so that you can bring more peace and joy to the future.
If you are interested in meditation or have studied Buddhism, you may know the concept of “not self”, but I bet you’ve never considered what that has to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. Of course you haven’t, but bear with me because they are connected and there’s a holiday lesson in it for you. “Not self” or anatta as it is called in Pali is an intractable idea to understand and, at first, can even be disturbing. The idea generally posits that there is no permanent, lasting self. So when you first hear or read about it, you may react “wait, is this saying I don’t exist?” and start to spiral in doubt like Descartes.
But, with practice, you see the concept isn’t so scary. I remember on one of my first retreats thinking to myself how the experience of being on a retreat—where I was discouraged from talking or engaging with others—was a chance to put my identity down for a while. A little while later, I noticed that I could do the same thing—even if for only a few minutes—any time I meditated. And then, with a bit more practice, I saw the real truth: I could put my identity—or the story surrounding it—down any time I was sufficiently aware and made the choice.
In truth, I always had the ability to see a story created by my reaction to a life event and wiggle my way out of it. It’s just that, most of the time, things moved too fast (or I moved too fast) to see it. On those occasions where I saw it and chose how to respond instead of merely reacting, it felt like magic. So the concept of “not self” when we start to experience it, is actually not as scary as it sounds. Instead, it can be extremely liberating and empowering. And this is what brings us to Scrooge.
I’ve never been the biggest Dickens fan, but I have a soft spot in my heart for A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ stock characters can make you cringe and his love of describing scenes can be overbearing. But Scrooge has been special to me for the last few years because I feel like I am one or at least was one. No, I’ve never proclaimed “Are there no workhouses?” (except ironically) and I’ve historically supported nonprofits, rather than hold onto my gold like a dragon in a cave.
But I had my own bad habits that I let calcify into an identity and one that was not very happy. Early in my law practice and as I was starting my family, I was plagued by overthinking and doubt. I wasn’t sure I could make it as an attorney. I wasn’t sure of my ability to network and make friends. For a few years, I basically hid out. I billed my hours and focused on myself and didn’t engage as much with the world as I really wanted to. I didn’t hoard my money from the world, but I hoarded my heart and personality and talents because I didn’t believe in them all the way and didn’t trust the world to accept me.
Amazingly, I was visited by some ghosts in the form of a difficult pregnancy, post-partum depression, the anxiety of never moving my career forward, and crippling loneliness. Those challenges forced me to learn to take care of myself, be compassionate with myself and others, and examine how I was living my life. When I did that, I changed what I did. Rather than withdraw, I started showing up, figuratively and literally. I joined (and even led) some organizations. I showed up to events. I reached out to old friends and invited new ones on adventures. I followed the things I thought were fun and learned to do things just because I enjoyed them. All of this happened after I started a meditation practice which helped me to become aware of my thoughts and learn which ones to follow and which ones to let go.
As this was happening, I heard someone mention A Christmas Carol at a business event and the idea took root in my mind. I bought the audiobook at Thanksgiving that year and have made it my personal tradition to listen to it every year to prepare for the holidays. Each year I listen, I notice something new. But this year, I listened and immediately thought “Oh, this is a great example of ‘not self.’”
And it is. What else could show us better that there is no permanent self than a story about a man who was dead inside one day, but brimming with life the next? How else are we to reconcile the potential for a man to ignore the needs of his assistant, Bob Cratchet, and buy him the prize turkey the very next day? We tell ourselves “people don’t change” and that may often be true. But stories like A Christmas Carol say they can. And so do stories like mine and I know I am not alone.
Of course, we all know the reality that people don’t change easily, but the fact that we can is a miracle. Our identities can sometimes feel solid and make us feel powerless and stuck. But we can examine our past and bring in compassion. We can explore the impact of our actions in the present and face the hard truths of where we are going wrong. And we can consider the paths that our present behavior may be leading us to in the future. When we do those things, we can get off the train tracks of identity and take the road less traveled to choose our steps more wisely.
We often think of A Christmas Carol as a man learning not to think about himself so much, but that only captures a part of the magic in that story. Yes, Scrooge did indeed become less selfish, but he did it only after he became more self-aware. When Scrooge finally started (with prompting from the ghosts) to think about himself, and to examine all of his self’s permutations over time with clarity and compassion, he was finally able to break out of the mold of identity. He was no longer a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner”. He was no longer as dead inside as Jacob Marley. He was alive and ready to walk among the living again because, through exploration, he saw that his conception of the self was an illusion and he could just start living a different life—one that was not full of thin gruel, perpetual cold, solitude, and “Bah! Humbug!” And I can tell you from experience that when you see this in your own life, you will definitely feel “as merry as a school boy” and as “giddy as a drunken man.”
So as we go about looking for holiday miracles, it’s always great to think of ways to be less selfish and more focused on others. But don’t neglect the other piece of the puzzle. Routines turn quickly into habits. Habits turn over time into identities. And identities—these selves we make in our mind—can sometimes block us off from the good and prevent us from doing good out in the world. So don’t just ignore your “self” at the holidays, explore it a little too. Reflect with compassion on who you’ve been, who you are, and where you’re going and don’t ignore those demons who may be there to prompt you along. By seeing the limits of the “self”, the boundaries between you and the rest of the world may start to fade away and your spirit can reemerge. And that would be a holiday miracle indeed.
When I teach mindfulness, I always stress that you don’t need to buy anything when you start a meditation practice. With that said, some accessories can support a practice. Beyond that, around the holidays we always need some gift ideas for those in our lives. If you have someone in your life looking to create or establish a mindfulness habit, some of these ideas might help.
1. Meditation Cushion or Bench
A chair is perfectly sufficient to meditate, but if you do it regularly it can help to have a defined space for the practice. In addition, once you are able to sit for longer than 15 minutes, a cushion can help you maintain a good posture. You can find any number of meditation cushions or benches online, including on Amazon. I recommend a buckwheat fill for your cushion because it offers support and you can refill the cushion with more hulls over time.
2. Meditation App
A meditation app can help make a practice accessible because the world’s best teachers are always with you on your phone. Many apps also have courses available to teach the practice to you. Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier each have gift subscriptions available.
There are so many good books on mindfulness and meditation practice out there that you really can’t go wrong. Any of the books we have mentioned on this blog would make a fine gift, including:
You may be able to find courses and retreats at your local yoga studio, dharma or zen center, or other public facilities. If you can’t, Sounds True has a number of self-paced audio or video courses available from the best teachers in the world. They also regularly have sales that make these courses really affordable. For those new to the practice, we recommend Tara Brach’s and Jack Kornfield’s Power of Awareness.
It’s not unusual to get cold during meditation practice since you are sitting still for extended periods of time. In addition, a blanket can add a sense of comfort and even protection to help you calm during your practice. I recommend a blanket that is soft and comforting, but also light so that it doesn’t make you too hot as you sit.
6. Candle or Diffuser
The jar candle seems to be the ubiquitous holiday regift. But, on the bright side, nice smells can support a meditation practice. In the same way, an essential oil diffuser can do the same thing. If you are intending it to be used during meditation practice, pick something with a scent that is soothing so it doesn’t overpower or distract you while you sit.
7. Gift Card to Yoga Studio
Sitting isn’t the only way to learn mindfulness. You can also learn it from yoga and many yoga studios offer practices or courses on meditation. Many yoga studios offer holiday promotions for gift cards or class passes. In this way, you can support a local business while offering a friend a chance to establish or refresh their mindfulness or yoga practice.
8. Yoga Props
Restorative yoga is an excellent way to ease into meditation practice but this practice is not as prevalent at brick and mortar studios now due to the pandemic. You can solve this problem by offering the gift of yoga props. With a couple of blocks, a yoga blanket, and a bolster, your friend could easily start a restorative practice at home on their own. In fact, Amazon even has a restorative yoga starter kit and Judith Lasater has several great books that teach the practice for beginners.
Extra devices aren’t really necessary for a meditation practice, but some items can support it or solve a particular problem. A nice set of wireless earbuds can make your meditation practice mobile or help reduce distractions while you sit. If you are really into gadgets and have a larger budget, you could look into the Muse. By the time I tried the device, my practice was already established so I have not really used it much but it could be helpful to someone new to meditation. I also recently discovered Zenimals which offer a screen-free way of providing guided meditations to kids.
The biggest impediment to a meditation practice is the lack of time. So, if you want to give the gift of mindfulness, you may not have to spend any money. You could offer to babysit, take care of pets, or water plants for a friend who wants to go on a retreat or take a meditation course.
As a caveat, don’t push any of these gift ideas on anyone. Meditation is a deeply personal practice and it may not be right for everyone. Thus, I wouldn’t give any of these gifts unless I knew that the person was interested in mindfulness, yoga, or looking for some help with their stress management strategies. For those friends or family members looking to develop or establish a meditation habit, however, any of these gifts can support their practice and help it grow.