The need to balance work, home and social activities can be intense at Christmas time. Order is admirable but it can be stressful to shape our lives around an overly rigid to-do list. I've found that leaning a little less on human planning and a little more on the guidance of spiritual intuition can be both a calming and energising influence.
So here are eight spiritual gifts you might want to give yourself this Chrismas - to help smooth the way to happier and healthier holidays.
1. Start with stillness. It helps if we can start each day by making time to shut out the drumbeat of demands and simply be still. Gaining a sense of spiritual poise might be the best gift you can share with family, friends, fellow workers and fellow shoppers. To paraphrase Gandhi, "Be the calm you want to see!"
2. Let love govern your lives. Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said: "We are all born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end." Let us make it our daily priority to spot opportunities to fulfil the original Christmas promise of spreading peace and goodwill. Viewing love as a governing principle and reordering priorities accordingly can surprisingly help, rather than hinder, the ability to get everything done.
3. Value your family and friends as God does. Even those we know best shine more radiantly when seen through the lens of God's unconditional love for them. A friend told me how a tedious task became a genuine joy when she realised time spent sewing labels on her kid's clothes could be used to prayerfully cherish their individual qualities. So as you sign, seal and deliver your gifts and cards, why not take the opportunity to value the spiritual uniqueness of those you're preparing them for?
4. Don't squander your peace of mind on anger. Scientific research has shown kindness is good for your health and anger unhealthy. So turn the other cheek when you're cut off on the road or someone nabs your parking space - for the sake of your health as well as your safety. 19th century US essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson advised: "For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind."
5. Be unconditionally grateful. Scientists are accumulating evidence which verifies what spiritual thinkers have long affirmed: that a gratitude attitude can reduce the blues which the holiday season sometimes exacerbates. A friend's suicidal depression turned around when, during a moment of spiritual clarity, she began appreciating the everyday things of life. She felt impelled to make this a practice until, slowly but surely, she saw more significant things to appreciate. Finally, the permanent lifting of the depression itself became a cause for heartfelt gratitude.
6. Embrace the spiritual ideas at the heart of the holidays. "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light", Frank Sinatra famously sung. But the composer of "Have yourself a merry little Christmas" later rewrote the popular standard as a gospel song in which Christmas went from merry to blessed and "the shining star upon the highest bough" gave place to "hosannas, hymns, and hallelujahs". Our holidays can include both. Beyond that seasonal light in your hearts, why not let the Christmas or Chanukah stories of divine light lift your hope even higher?
7. Don't forget the needs of others. The season of goodwill seems to bring out the worst in some people's lives. So spare a prayer for those in need and you may be surprised how much of a difference you can make. The Bible message of the coming of Christ is that divine Love is present for everyone. We can strive to bring out more of that reality by giving from the heart. And there's icing on the cake. Research shows that altruism is good for the giver's health too.
8. Forgive even if you can't forget. I call this the Nelson Mandela approach to rocky relationships. As a leader, the South African icon heeded his own warning: "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." In contrast, it's amazing how long we sometimes let petty feuds and hurt feelings persist. Christmas offers us an opportunity to review and revise our mental list of grievances before they ruin our holiday break or, worse, our health. Overcoming resentment has been found to be beneficial to health. As the Mayo Clinic once put it: "If you don't practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being." We can't always change others, but we can change how we think about them and act towards them.
Entertaining a spiritual outlook is not just for Christmas. It is Christmas, any time of the year. US President Calvin Coolidge said: "Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas."
If this Christmas "state of mind" helps free us from stress during the holiday season wouldn't we want to keep bringing out these same spiritual elements in our lives throughout the year?
Doing so would not only help us have that "happy New Year" we all wish one another but could also be the key to a healthier 2013.