If the holidays bring up stress, obligation, perfectionism, grief or frustration for you, then you have a strong motivation to prioritize practicing mindfulness awareness.

Here’s a short-list for sane, open-hearted holidays, however you observe them (or don’t):

1. Give yourself some time in silence. For some people this could be forty minutes of meditation and for others it could be turning off the radio when driving. Most of us are habituated to a constant background of stimulus. Opening to quiet is skill, or an acquired taste, for many people. Becoming friendly with silence can offer a deep form of nourishment. Commit to trying some silence, in one form or another, most days.

2. Notice whenever you think always and never, and look for exceptions. Always and never are helpful flags on painful beliefs about ourselves and others. “She never helps me.” “I’m always left out.” “He always interrupts me.” Notice what happens when you use these words aloud or in your thinking.

Always/never thinking is likely to be associated with some sensation of constriction, stepping back, or checking out. When we’re believing always/never we often don’t even notice (or we see and disregard) anything that doesn’t support our painful beliefs. Notice your physical sensations and internal experience when you really want to justify or hold your belief. Be curious and experiment with letting it go, and with holding on.

Look for exceptions to the belief. When you hear an always/never, pause, come to present to awareness through noticing your breath or body, and then ask yourself to be open to other possibilities for a few moments. Poll for disconfirming data. When was this person helpful to me or to someone else? When have I felt connected and included? When was I uninterrupted? Make an effort to see when others aren’t supporting your always/never thought.

Want to go deeper? Notice when you disconnect from being present through judgement. “He’s rude.” “She’s always mean.” “He’s just selfish.” “She’s a bad houseguest.” We often make these evaluations in order to feel less anxiety or to justify our own feelings. When we’re more centered and present, we can access our internal wisdom.

We can say No with love. We can say when we’re uncomfortable, instead of mentally writing someone off as rude or selfish. Begin by seeing always and never.

3. Alcohol is a depressant. Drinking lots of it, or even imbibing moderately several nights in a row, might make you feel more emotional even when you’re sober the next day. In addition, even a couple glasses of adult punch can interfere with getting nourishing sleep. Not getting complete sleep makes us feel lousy and can intensify painful emotions. If you live with chronic pain, migraines or take daily medication, a night or two of social drinking can make you feel awful for days afterward.

And, obviously, drinking alcohol can interfere with our ability to stay true to our intentions and integrity. Everyone knows this and it’s one of the most common plot-devices in film. Most people have done something they regretted while under the influence.

I’m not referring to big drunk mistakes, like driving intoxicated, shagging people in hurtful ways, or committing felonies. I mean, the less visible, internal dissonances that are more likely to emerge when we’re squiffy. When we’re drinking, it’s just generally harder to access wisdom and to function from integrity, from what we truly want for ourselves and others.

With all the holiday socializing, many people find themselves drinking more, and more frequently during this time of year. If you drink, just notice how it affects you.

So here’s the sanity short-list for the holidays in brief:

Have some silence.

Notice when you think and say always and never.

Alcohol is powerful stuff. Notice how it’s affecting you.

In her collected letters, published in the large and luminous volume The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor wrote,

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and in the same place.

Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, a painful and debilitating autoimmune disease, when she was twenty-five years old. She died at thirty-nine in 1964. During her lifetime she published two novels and two collections of stories. Three more books of her writings were published posthumously. At this moment her works rest on bedside tables across America and are being taught in universities. With her talent and two hours a day she wrote with a haunting grace that continues to capture readers nearly forty years after her death.

I am not a writer but I recognize Flannery’s instructions for writing as directions for joyful living. I have no innate genius for sanity and joy, and had little apparent talent for happiness at all until some years ago when I discovered the power of doing the most important things every day.

If I were to break Flannery’s wisdom into the bullet-points favored by the blogosphere, it would look like this:

1) Find what feeds you and do it every day at the same time and the same place.

For me there are three activities that support focused awareness throughout my day and that nourish everything in my life. Seated meditation, yoga and outdoor exercise. I rarely do all three each day, but I always do one, and often two. Seated meditation is the priority, but I rarely go more than two days without outdoor exercise and/or yoga.

Same time & same place: Doing things every day at the same time makes it easier to build and maintain the habits that support sanity and joy. It frees us from constantly planning and re-planning and strategizing when we’ll do what’s most important. When you do it at the same time, every day, you don’t have leak effort into solving the same problem–When am I going to _____?–repeatedly.

Activities that require focus are strengthened when grounded in a specific space. With no distraction in searching for tools or sorting out posture, the mind can more quickly settle in concentration. When I’m traveling I tend to designate places in my temporary spaces for meditation and yoga. Other practices, exercise, for example, demand a different kind of focus and often benefit from variety.

2) Be sensitive to the reality of your life’s circumstances and don’t schedule impossible ideals.

Flannery devoted two hours a day to writing because that was as much as her bodily energy would allow. Perhaps you are caring for children or elders, or maybe you work shifts. You might have two hours but they aren’t consecutive. Perhaps you have twenty minutes. Just take the time you can and use it every day you’re able.

3) When you have found what works for your body and circumstances, don’t let anything interfere.

Flannery O’Connor was deeply humane and knew great difficulty in her life. She was intimate with the nature of interferences and she’s offering encouragement here. I hear her saying, It’s possible. You can write every day if you’re willing to value your being. Protect this time and use it for the work of living, for your life’s work.

If you let yourself write, you will discover you’re not Flannery O’Connor, you’ll find out what kind of writer you are. If you let yourself sit still each day, your life will change. If you let yourself exercise every day, your body will likely become stronger and this will change your daily experience. But you will only meet your joys when you grant them time and space to emerge.

Most of us are mere talents at this life-ing, not geniuses, and our talent has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away.

For people with celiac disease: One simple way to save a lot of energy

November 3, 2011

Hold on, let’s be clear. This post is for people who are open to it. It’s meant as encouragement for celiac self-empowerment. I offer only things that have been useful to me, people I know, and stuff that has some empirical grounding. That’s all. If you’re someone who tends toward harsh internal criticism, please don’t […]

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Newly diagnosed? Caring for the new celiac you

November 1, 2011

The first weeks after being diagnosed with celiac disease are intense. There’s often some combination of confusion (What’s gluten?), emotional relief (I’m not crazy! I don’t need surgery!), hope (I can feel better?) and sadness (I can’t eat anything anymore). Keep in mind whenever you can that you will feel better soon, if you can […]

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Three steps to stop being stressed right now

October 20, 2011

For many of us stress is the mantra we repeat to ourselves and each other. I’m so stressed. We try to avoid getting stressed and we often feel painful guilt or self-righteousness when we do feel stressed. We make lists, multi-task, stay up too late and get up too early trying to get it all […]

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Starting out

October 3, 2011

Over lunch a close friend told me she is considering taking wheat out of her diet. She’d heard from other people that they felt better, mentally sharper and less fatigued when they abstained from wheat. She is a person with a very rich and demanding life, which includes a running small business and a son […]

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