spiritual wellness holiday season

the holidays Hit and we tend to hyper-focus on maintaining our physical and emotional well-being, but what about the deeper stuff? This time of year, where we’re constantly feeling full and/or fatigued, re-tuning our joy barometer is a crucial step to staying well throughout the season. LA-based rabbi, Jaclyn Cohen, is sharing some simple but meaningful tips for nurturing our spiritual wellness during this revved-up period. Whatever flavor of spirituality feeds your soul, this grounding advice is something to take note of…

It’s a trope as old as the Torah itself: The holiday season’s classic messages of joy, gratitude and giving often stand in complete contrast to their batshit-crazy reality.

For many, the holidays truly are the most wonderful time of year. But for the rest of us, late November through early January yields a bubbling cauldron of stress, fatigue and loneliness. From the pressures of gift-giving to demands on time and resources to expectations of friends and family, the season can certainly be far from merry. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, refers to this phenomenon as the “holiday blues,” sharing that up to 64 percent of Americans suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety at this time of year in particular.

The holidays recognize major moments in the evolution of our modern religions. And at their core, each respective holiday holds universal messages of hope, opportunity and new beginnings, themes each one of us – whether we identify as religious, spiritual or “other” – can relate to. Yet today it feels far more common to focus on what’s beneath the tree than on the symbolism of the tree itself. Or perhaps after lighting the hanukkiah, we’re so eager to discover what goodies await us, we forget the meaning behind the ritual. As the weeks progress from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, we can lose sight of the “reason for the season,” our spiritual compasses pointed every which way.

And so, one might ask, how can we maintain not just sanity over the holiday season, but a sense of authentic spiritual wellness, too?

Having served a diverse collection of Jewish communities over the years, I’ve seen just how powerful and meaningful the holiday season can be. I’ve witnessed families – including my own – elevate their holiday experience through simple yet significant rituals. By adding depth to our celebrations and traditions, we who spend much of December in holiday mode can transform our experience of the season itself, remaining not just sane, physically healthy and well-rested (all important!) but spiritually nourished, as well.

Here are five tips for maintaining spiritual wellness as we close out 2017:

Reclaim the Stories Every holiday has a story. From triumphant to devastating, these time-honored tales of ancient people doing radical things touch on some element of who we are today, no matter the faith in which we might have been raised. Christmas and Hanukkah are no exception; the stories behind them are profound, moving and wholly relevant to our modern lives.

For me, Hanukkah’s most inspiring message involves the piece of the story people often know best: in rededicating the Temple and igniting its sacred lamps, the jug of oil believed to last only one day went on to burn for eight. Thousands of years later we light our hanukkiot by adding one candle each night; by the final night of the holiday our homes are steeped in a gorgeous glow. Today we increase light during the darkest, coldest time of year, allowing our hope and love to grow even when the world outside is bleak. Increase the light – now that’s a message relevant to all faiths and all people.

This year, don’t just re-read the stories of these holidays; reclaim them. Allow them to inspire, reinvigorate and root you in the events which led to the holidays we hold dear. Revisit the stories from your past, but experience them in new ways – read an updated twist on the traditional tales; watch (with your kids!) a web series’ approach to a holiday and its rituals; attend an avant-garde interpretation of a timeless narrative. Even better? Literally place yourself in the story – put on a play with family members and friends, capturing the story in your own voice. Who knows? It could become a new family tradition!

Pray Your WayI’ve heard it said countless times by countless individuals: Rabbi, I just don’t know how to pray. It’s a heartbreaking statement, often couched in a disconnect from one’s designated spiritual space. Harder still is the fact that millions of Americans see religion as inconsequential or irrelevant to their modern lives, as just about any formal survey will tell you.

The holiday season offers multiple opportunities to head to one’s church, synagogue or community center for an experience rooted in some form of prayer or ritual. However, for many the very notion of setting foot in a House of God feels anxiety-inducing, daunting or completely antithetical to who they are and where they’re at. I get it, I feel you and I’ve been there, too.

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize how true it is that “prayer” itself has no one definition; there are unlimited ways to conceptualize and experience its beauty and grace. We clergy may not do the best job of communicating that message to the masses, but this year I’m doing my part to spark a change.

This holiday season, instead of forcing yourself to have a spiritual experience in a place that feels wholly unspiritual to you, try doing something different: Pray your way. Open yourself up. Radically realign your approach to prayer. Seek. Hike. Practice yoga. Meditate. Study the ancient and sacred art of mussar, Judaism’s approach to seeking balance in everyday life. Spend time studying the writings of those who speak your truth – I frequently refer to Brene Brown’s teachings on vulnerability and authenticity as “my Torah.” Visit a house of faith totally different from your own, then bring the messages that resonate into your own life and practice. Create your own new songs, rites and rituals. And then recognize that all is prayer.

The common thread of the holidays is one we can all relate to: gratitude. Don’t dwell on whether your sense of gratitude is connected to God or not. Don’t worry about whether you have the proper language to express said gratitude. Just give thanks and let the rest fall into place.

Give DifferentlyConfession: I love gifting. I love the experience of giving and receiving gifts. Oh, and I love gift packaging – anyone else ever taken a stroll through Paper Source and thought, “I. Need. All. The. Things?”

Gifting is important. Gifts recognize a moment in time, relationship, life milestone, a “just because…” and so forth. But at their core, gifts send a message. Gifts tell someone they matter to you. And, when chosen carefully, gifts can be deeply meaningful, regardless of their price tag.

That’s not always the message around gifting we hear over the holidays. Some of us are inundated with advertisements for the hottest new toys and games, pulled like magnets toward Black Friday sales before we’ve even finished basting the turkey on Thanksgiving. Others are told gifting is overrated, shamed by various parties for a focus on consumerism and greed.

This year, don’t eliminate gifting altogether – but give differently. Instead of centering on that seemingly endless acquisition of Things and Stuff, begin by shifting your focus. Ask yourself, how can I best honor the important relationships in my life? How can I physically show someone what they mean to me at this time of year? What’s a gift that will really matter?

Some suggestions for more meaningful gifting:
+ Start with a card, picture or poem – put into words why someone matters to you
+ Seek out local vendors and neighborhood artists for more personalized, unique gifts
+ If shopping online, browse broad-reaching artisan sites like UncommonGoods and Etsy
+ Contribute to nonprofits working to make a difference in people’s lives – your generosity can do so much good!

Finally, consider a way you and your family can give back to the community through volunteering. Serve a meal at a soup kitchen. Visit a local homeless shelter and share books with children. Contact your local representatives and ask what holiday-themed or year-round projects you and yours can get involved in. The sky’s the limit when it comes to doing good for those in need, especially at this season.

In realigning our approach to giving, we can focus more deeply on honoring relationships close, familial, civic and human. And through this, we can elevate our experience of the holidays – because honestly, what feels more spiritually fulfilling than bringing joy, happiness and love to others?

Seek – and Participate In – Community

Early on in the Bible, right in the thick of the story of creation, God steps back from the busywork of creating the universe – including Adam, the first human being. God surveys the scene and offers this commentary: it is not good for man to be alone. A few verses later, we witness the creation of Eve, Adam’s partner. And from there, humanity grows – imperfect, complicated and glorious as it is.

Millennia later, God’s gem of statement reminds us that physical presence, companionship and connection are our natural state. That might seem like a given to most, but sadly it’s not our modern reality. We spend our days communicating through screens, rushing from commitment to commitment. For some the idea of joining a community feels like an added stressor on our time, energy and resources. Yet it’s precisely when life moves at such a fast, demanding pace that we need community most of all.

Some find community in religious institutions, others through Ultimate Frisbee teams, many through service work. Plenty are still discovering what their mode of connection can be – and (spoiler alert) that’s a lifelong pursuit. This holiday season, don’t just seek that community of purpose and presence – unearth what you can bring into it. Renew your commitment to those who make up your tribe. Ask yourself what unique gifts and attributes you bring to the core. Make your contribution to this ever-growing, ever-changing world.

We humans thrive not just when surrounded by a village that supports, nourishes, teaches, challenges and lifts us to our highest potential, but when we do the same for our fellow villagers. In spending this season in a state of authentic, meaningful connection there’s no limit to how much we – and those we love – can grow.

Practice Sacred Solitude

Yeah yeah, I know I just said, “seek a community,” but hear me out!

How often do we spend time really, truly alone? As in, solitude. No one else around. No texting. No movie screen in front of you. No podcast-listening. No strangers beside you at the spa. Alone. In the quiet. With only your thoughts, your breath, you.

I’ll be honest: this type of “alone-ness” terrifies me. Not just because I’m an extrovert who loves being around other humans, but because it requires discipline. It demands that I tune out the noise of the world around me, set aside the needs of those who depend on me and ignore the constant dings and pings of obligation.

Being alone is hard. It’s unusual, unfamiliar – and yet, the tough act of solitude is an ancient, sacred practice common to all world religions. There is a quiet, fierce spirituality in separating ourselves from the demands of our universe, even if only for an hour or two at a time. And when we emerge from the quiet of solitude back into a world of action and chaos, we realize just how much we need the former to endure the latter.

The holidays carry endless opportunities to drain us of our energy, but there is nothing quite like being alone to help us recharge our batteries. This season, take an hour each week to tune out. Sit on a park bench (without your phone!) and watch the world go by. Take a solitary hike to a beautiful spot, then just sit. Breathe. Look, watch and listen. You can even practice sacred solitude in your home; just be careful to disconnect from electronics, roommates and to-do lists. Just be, and breathe, alone. And then witness a profound transformation on your sense of self, awareness of others and engagement with the physical world.

Altogether, the holiday season gives us numerous opportunities to gather, celebrate, give, love, learn, laugh and express gratitude. Yet sometimes we need just a bit of guidance and realignment to focus on what really matters. Through these five methods – reclaiming the stories, praying your way, giving differently, seeking and participating in community and practicing sacred solitude – our celebration of the holidays holds endless potential to nourish us, body and soul.

How do you find inner-peace during the holidays?
Share with the TCM community below!

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