One thing people talk about is whether they’ve gotten Christmas trees yet. My family has not, yet. No lights either, although we’ll be getting both. I’ve enjoyed seeing people’s displays outside going up, mostly trees wrapped in lights, sometimes more complicated setups.
I’m going to write a little about the holidays in relation to the talk I’ll be giving tomorrow at the Rowley Public Library (Mass.).
So this is some self-promotion (come see the talk! it’s free!) but also based on stuff I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last year or so, and of course, having celebrated the holidays with varying degrees of success since I was a kid. All of this is in the context of the dharma, and of meditation practice. That’s pretty odd, in a way, although to someone who meditates, it all becomes part of a kind of stew, it all gets brought in together.
I think one direction I could take this in, which I won’t, but it would be interesting- why would a Buddhist think about celebrating Christmas? There are so many problems with that- the commercial aspect, the religious aspect, the fact that there are a number of Buddhist holidays. Worth thinking about.
Instead I think I want to write about, briefly, the idea of holidays as legitimate spiritual experiences. In one way, that’s the big question starting out- if you’re going to examine how you celebrate the holidays, in terms of spiritual practice and the path, you have to look at the possibility that holidays are not a good way to practice for a variety of reasons-
the aforementioned commercialization
not being a natural fit with your beliefs (Buddhist Christmas, Yogic Hanukah, Christian Halloween)
randomness of celebration
it being merely social or conventional
So that’s a start. Obviously, my bias is more towards the legitimacy of celebrating (eccentric) holidays as spiritual practice. Some responses to the previous problems:
Don’t do it in an overly commercial way. Don’t buy too much. Even if making presents doesn’t seem appealing or good enough, you can celebrate in do it yourself ways as far as decorating, food, and so on. Bottom line, I think, has to do with seeing that the craziness of the commercial aspect of the holidays is not pleasant, and not wholesome.
If it’s not a fit, fine. I’m greedy, though. And I like some of the holidays. (Not New Year‘s so much, because I’m not great with crowds, don’t really drink much, and I get my own, better, New Year’s in February.) Even if the fit is not completely apparent, I want to enjoy the food I’ve always eaten, some of the music (some of it), some of those old movies. This is nostalgic. That is not necessarily a problem. Another angle- there’s just tremendous energy involved in this stuff, having to do a lot with the group feeling. I enjoy that. I find it interesting, and want to make the most of it.
This one goes like this- these days are not inherently special. It’s just a day on a calendar. The day you got married, the day you were born, the day something amazing happened, these can feel like significant days. The day something very old happened, maybe something you’re not psychologically or idealogically invested in, is just another day. This used to be a big one for me. At this point it somehow seems unimportant. So what? The atmosphere exists, whether or not I’m going to contemplate Christ’s birth, or his resurrection, or the spirits going to walk among the living once a year.
(As a side note, I think part of my thought about this has to do with looking at contemporary American culture, so-called irony, and self-mockery. These fit under what one teacher called “frivolousness” the last two, that is. My very rough and unstudied understanding- at a certain point in recent history, lots of modern people lost faith. Religion, as well as the humanities, hadn’t protected us from terrible tragedies on a global scale. People felt they couldn’t assume the traditional way of having faith, of going along with the rituals and calendars, worked. The traditions seemed corrupt, bankrupt, a way to corral people, take their money, and worse. This contributed to a view of everything being equal. There was not high culture, and low culture. You could appreciate all of it. This was because, in part, it was all garbage. You could mock all of it, and find some distance, some safety, some perspective. Clearly, I have a problem with this kind of ironic remove. Watching a cheesy movie can be fun, and it’s also not the same as watching a movie that was carefully made, that touches you, or moves you.
The holidays, I’m positing, used to have more power. People’s lack of faith, their lack of connection to their traditions, especially in America, although I’d guess in many places that have modernized, led to disconnection from the rituals and experiences of the holidays. People doubt the holidays. I think this is a missed opportunity.)
(Another side note- there are other responses to the randomness objection. One is about the actual contemplation of the meaning of a holiday. Personally, this one doesn’t do it for me exactly, but it’s there, and is legitimate, I think. So, Christmas could seem random, but if you connect to some of the ideas it embodies, then it becomes about that. It’s about the teachings a holiday embodies. Another, more interesting to me, response, is seasonal/natural. Holidays are specific to times of year. As seasons shift, things feel different. There are actually real energies that come into play at various times of year. It’s not just about the temperature changing. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia or association. Energy changes as nature shifts with the seasons. It follows that holidays connect to this. I’m enjoying playing with this idea, and practicing with it. It’s, as they say, “a bank of energy.” That’s worth exploring.)
The last one is easy enough to take apart. First, saying something is merely social or merely conventional is misguided. Social norms, conventions, what you could call a larger body language, are really powerful. How often do you just jump outside of those norms? They’re really powerful. They shape everything. Second, this begs the question: why would such social experiences arise? Why would people engage in them? Why would they last? It’s not enough to see a habitual pattern and dislike it. You have to do something more.
I wrote a lot more than I thought I would about that. Sorry for not including lots of little pictures to make it more fun. If you can, come to the talk tomorrow, in Rowley. It will probably be very different from what you’ve just read. Happy holidays!
- Got Christmas Spirit for me? (misifusa.wordpress.com)
- Scrooge (jeaninjackson.com)
- Christmas in Las Vegas: The Venetian and The Palazzo Las Vegas Host ‘Winter In Venice’ Holiday Celebration (prweb.com)
- How Advent Can Be Much More Than “The Christmas Season” (glennpackiam.typepad.com)
- Multi-Faith Christmas Traditions | Multi-Faith Hanukkah Traditions | Multi-Faith Holidays | Babble (babble.com)
Thanksgiving has something to do with being thankful, hopefully.
If you don’t feel grateful for some parts of your life, spontaneously, then it’s a good time to start. I’m not talking about feeling guilty for others having less, or suffering, but actually feeling good about what you do have. This is a practice. It does not happen just in your head, but in your heart, too, eventually. It should not be something that happens especially around this time of year, either, at least that’s my experience. It feels good. Why not feel that way more, throughout the year?