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Are you finding yourself constantly thinking about your to-do list this time of year? Maybe you need to plan a menu, shop for the holiday meal, coordinate travel plans, purchase gifts, and get ready for family visiting from out of town.
If you dread the start of the holidays and want to escape, you are not alone. In fact, fleeing from Thanksgiving is sometimes a go-to method of handling the madness and sadness that many people experience this time of year.
Regardless of your everyday level of stress, the holiday season can kick those uncomfortable feelings up a notch. You may be in the midst of grief, your family members may challenge you, and you may feel pressured to create a Pinterest-worthy table setting.
What can make this Thanksgiving bearable, and perhaps even pleasant? Try being present. Research shows that when we’re focused on the present moment, we tend to feel happier, but when our mind is wandering, we are more likely to feel unhappy.
When you’re present, you’re aware of what’s happening in this very moment, (and this very moment and now this very moment.) This awareness of the present moment is also known as mindfulness.
In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness can be broken down into three elements of awareness:
- Awareness of your thoughts
- Awareness of your sensations
- Awareness of your emotions
Kabat-Zinn’s description of mindfulness includes “non-judgment,” which means that you’re noticing what’s happening with curiosity and without giving yourself a hard time.
What’s an example of non-judgmental awareness? Let’s say you stop for a moment and notice that you are:
- Imagining using a zipper to keep your outrageously outspoken aunt quiet for a moment
- Feeling the sensation of a knot in your stomach
- Feeling the emotion of annoyance
Without the non-judgmental aspect of mindfulness, you might say to yourself, “What is wrong with you? Eighty-five-year-old Aunt Judy probably doesn’t have long to live, and you’re annoyed and want to zipper her mouth shut? You are a terrible person!” Those thoughts can just keep going and going.
When you include the non-judgmental part of mindfulness, your inner voice sounds more curious. It’s more like, “This is interesting … you’re feeling annoyed and have a knot in your stomach. You’re imagining a zipper over Aunt Judy’s lips. That’s a funny image!” Then you can take a deep breath, take a bite of food, tune into its flavor, and move on.
At any point in the day, your mind might start flipping out about what will happen if you run out of whipped cream for the pumpkin pie. Or perhaps you’re playing back the moment when your aunt argued with your mom over politics. The practice of mindfulness can be brought into the mix in various ways over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Here are some ideas to help you come back, compassionately, to the present.
1. Come to Your Senses
Since mindfulness includes awareness of your sensations, one way to come back to the present is to focus on what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell.
You can stop at any moment during the day and focus on one or more of your senses. Let’s say you notice that you’re worrying about what’s ahead (like an overcooked meal) or ruminating about what happened (like last year’s tense political-focused conversation). Once you notice that your mind is hanging on to these less-than-helpful thoughts, you can bring your attention to one of your senses. When you engage with your senses, you’ll very quickly be back in the present moment.
Here is a simple meditation practice focusing on the five senses that you can try on Thanksgiving and any other day.
- Begin with your eyes closed or with an unfocused gaze. Take a few moments to settle your mind by focusing your attention on the sensation of your breath.
- Next, silently open your eyes and notice five things you haven’t seen before now.
- Now close your eyes again and tune into the sense of sound. Can you notice four sounds?
- Keep your eyes closed and shift to the sense of touch. Can you feel three things … perhaps the air on your face, the clothes on your body, and your feet on the floor.
- Now inhale slowly and notice what you smell. Can you notice two distinct scents?
- And now focus on the taste in your mouth. What’s one taste you can notice?
- Finally, notice how you feel after spending a few moments engaging your senses.
2. Practice Mindful Eating
There’s not a more appropriate time to practice mindful eating than during a holiday that centers on gathering for a big, beautiful, delicious feast. By practicing mindfulness, you will not only truly taste your food, but you can lessen the chance of suffering from an over-stuffed stomach.
If you have a habit of shoveling food into your mouth during meals—whether it’s because you’re in a hurry, chatting with someone during the meal, or letting your mind wander about aimlessly—it may take some effort for you to slow down and notice each bite. But when you do, you will have a much better culinary experience.
What does mindful eating entail? You simply eat slowly while paying attention to your food.
- Begin by examining the food on your plate and noticing the colors and textures.
- When you raise your food-filled fork, take a whiff and notice what you smell.
- As you begin to taste the food, tune into what you’re tasting and what the food feels like in your mouth.
- You can even notice what your tongue is up to while you’re eating. You may be surprised at how busy it is!
Not only does mindful eating help you be more present during your meal, but it has tremendous health benefits as well. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that mindful eating promoted better weight management and glycemic control for people suffering from diabetes.
3. Try a “Just Like Me” Practice
Your Thanksgiving stress may be less related to what’s on the table and more related to who’s sitting around the table. A lifetime of family history, differing political views, and stored emotional pain can lead to disagreements and tension at the dinner table.
If you notice that you’re getting frustrated with someone sharing your meal, you could try a phrase to help you remember that the person is a fellow human being, just like you. In fact, using the phrase “Just like me ...” can be very helpful. When you find yourself being triggered, silently repeat one or more of these phrases:
- “Just like me, this person wants to be happy.”
- “Just like me, this person wants to feel safe.”
- “Just like me, this person suffers.”
When you recognize your common humanity with those whose values and views don’t align with yours, it’s much easier to connect and stay present with them. If you want to prepare for Thanksgiving Day, you can practice using the “just like me” phrase as you go about your daily activities. Whenever you find yourself getting irritated or provoked by something someone says or does, use the phrase to remind yourself that just like you, this person suffers and wants to feel safe and happy. This practice will train your mind to view others through the lens of our shared humanity.
You can also use the “just like me” phrase as part of your meditation practice to help you prepare for Thanksgiving and any other holiday or event. Begin by creating a list (mental or written) of the people you will be sharing the day with who has the potential to trigger you. During your meditation practice, bring each person to mind, one at a time. As you visualize each person, you can say to yourself in your mind:
- “Just like me, <insert person’s name> wants to be peaceful.”
- “Just like me, <insert person’s name> wants to be appreciated and loved.”
- “Just like me, <insert person’s name>, this person has gone through difficult experiences and might be going through a tough time right now.”
Similar to a loving-kindness meditation practice, you can start with someone who makes you smile, then you can move to a neighbor or someone you don’t know very well, and then you can visualize the person who challenges you. The more you practice viewing people this way, the easier it will become.
4. Take Three Deep Breaths
If you’re at your wit’s end and ready to throw the turkey out your window, you might not know what to do. Luckily, there’s a useful tool that already exists within you—your breath.
By taking a few deep, intentional breaths, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of your “fight-or-flight” system. By activating your parasympathetic system, you can slow down your heart rate and regulate your emotional reactivity. In other words, you can calm yourself down before you say or do something that you will most likely regret. Here are a few tips for deep breathing:
- To breathe deeply, imagine filling not only your lungs but your entire body with your breath as you inhale.
- Imagine the breathtaking up the entire space, all the way to the top of your head.
- Then exhale all of the air until there is nothing left.
- Take a few deep breaths and then bring awareness to those three elements of mindfulness: your thoughts, sensations, and emotions.
Taking three deep breaths can give you a moment of peace that might seem elusive in the heat of the moment.
5. Practice Gratitude
In the midst of chaos, you can come back to the present by simply taking a moment to be grateful. When you’re giving thanks, you’re not focused on what’s ahead or what mistakes you’ve made.
Bring in an attitude of gratitude whenever you start feeling the stress of Thanksgiving. After all, this holiday is a celebration of gratitude.
Through these simple techniques of noticing your five senses, eating mindfully, remembering “just like me,” taking a few deep breaths, and being grateful, you might be able to be a little less overwhelmed and a little more thankful and calm this Thanksgiving.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
Ready to start flowing with the Universe, instead of against it? Learn a natural, effortless style of meditation that helps make every day feel easy, fresh, and fulfilling with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.