For many of us, the festive season around Christmas brings out our worst over-indulgent habits: we eat, drink and spend more than we would normally do, and regret it come New Year when we step on those scales, or the credit card bill lands on the doormat.
While it may not be desirable, or even realistic to aim for an indulgence-free Christmas, if you find yourself wishing that you could avoid some of the excesses, then perhaps consider having yourself a Mindful Merry Christmas.
The idea behind Mindfulness, which comes from Buddhism and is growing as a psychotherapeutic approach for stress reduction, pain management and behavior change, is to fix one’s attention more on the “present moment”, to perceive things as they really are, stripped of the labels, habits, and subjective thinking that they normally trigger.
Many of our actions in daily life are “mindless” responses to triggers that we have become habituated to. That is not to say that all these actions are undesirable. Take for example brushing our teeth, we do it almost without thinking, and although once in a while we should do it “mindfully”, with our full attention, just to make sure the habitual brushing action is correct and finding all the right places, it is not causing us undue harm to do it mindlessly.
But there are also other actions that perhaps do cause us harm or we wish to do less of, because they have potential negative consequences for our health or our wallet.
This article suggest three “habits” that might benefit from a more mindful approach at Christmas time: Drinking, Eating and Shopping.
For example you can be mindful when you drink. Take a sip and really taste the drink. Shut out the other senses for a few moments and concentrate on the flavor, the taste, the texture of the liquid as it passes your lips, dwells in your mouth, and sinks down your throat. When did you last do that?
When we drink mindfully, and bring awareness to the sensations that the drink brings us here and now, we drink more slowly and feel more satisfaction: so we drink less and enjoy it more.
But if we have a drink while our mind is on other things, like having a conversation, watching the TV, or thinking about tomorrow, we only have a fleeting awareness of the sensations brought by the drink, and we end up drinking more, in order to reach our desired level of satisfaction.
Mindfulness operates not just at the tactical level of the individual decision, but also strategically: by making us more aware of choices and decisions that we make in our everyday lives, which are often shaped by habitual thinking. This aspect of mindfulness is what Dr Jean L. Kristeller, a psychologist who specializes in applying mindfulness approaches to eating disorders, calls “wisdom functioning”.
For example, consider the habitual, socialized nature of drinking during the festive season. Most of the time it is not our mind making a rational decision based on thirst that controls our drinking habits, it is automatic responses to social and environmental triggers (“fancy another one?”, “how about a top up?”, “try this one, you’ll love it!”, “why not?”).
Applying the principles of Mindfulness to decision-making would cause you to pause and reconsider for a moment, the nature of the choices available to you here and now, and give you the opportunity to weigh them up, for instance, to ask yourself “do I really want this?” and to consider whether the consequences are worth it.
With respect to alcohol consumption, for instance, you may wish to consider this “top tip” for good mental wellbeing over Christmas, that Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, gave recently:
“The celebratory spirit of Christmas and New Year often involves social drinking and although the consumption of alcohol might make you feel more relaxed, it is important to remember that alcohol is a depressant and drinking excessive amounts can cause low mood, irritability or potentially aggressive behaviour.”
“By not exceeding the recommended number of safe units, you will be better able to sustain good mental and physical wellbeing,” he added.
Being mindful when you eat is about devoting your senses to the experience of eating. Beginners are often introduced to mindfulness techniques with the “raisin exercise”.
The raisin exercise
- Make sure you have about 20 minutes on your own when you won’t be disturbed, and have a small bowl of raisins with you.
- Pick up a raisin: put it in the palm of your hand, press it, look at it, examine it from all angles, see how it reflects the light, then squash it a bit between your fingers, explore its textures, colors, and smell.
- Then put it in your mouth, gently roll it around and let the taste buds on your tongue slowly sense the raisin, without biting it.
- Then, bite into it, and again, roll it around in your mouth, explore its taste and texture with your tongue.
- Now chew it, slowly, and again, be aware with all your senses of the stage by stage transformation of shrivelled, dried up grape to the chewed morsel releasing its sweetness and flavor in your mouth.
- Then, and only then, allow yourself to swallow it.
- Imagine what is happening to the raisin as it travels down your gullet into your stomach, and then into your gut.
Designed primarily as an introduction to mindfulness-based ways of reducing stress, the “raisin exercise” also demonstrates how rarely we focus on “the present moment” when we eat. Like drinking, we eat “mindlessly”.
Dr Brian Wansink, an expert in food psychology at Cornell University, where he directs the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, describes in his book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think”, how removed our appetites are from our eating habits.
He says we make about 200 food-related decisions every day, mostly triggered by a plethora of subtle cues in our environment that encourage us to keep eating, even when we are no longer hungry. These triggers include smells, the variety and color of foods on offer, the number of people we eat with, labels and packaging, and even the ambient lighting.
Wansink conducted a series of experiments, using labs disguised as restaurants, with concealed cameras and two-way mirrors, to show that in judging how much we eat, we tend to trust our eyes more than our stomach. In one rather amusing “bottomless soup bowl” experiment, soup bowls were imperceptibly and repeatedly refilled with small quantities of soup, with the result that the diners actually consumed much larger quantities than they thought.
Wansink’s solution is to be mindful of what he calls the “mindless margin”, where we mindlessly every day consume a few extra 100 or 200 calories here and there, without really thinking about it. And he points out that is how weight gain happens: gradually, year by year, we put on the extra pound or two.
So his advice, is, make yourself aware of your own mindless margin, and do something to shave off that daily extra 100 or 200 calories.
By being aware of your “mindless margin”, you can shed 30 pounds in a year, says Wansink.
He advocates portion control, and making yourself more mindful of the difference between no longer feeling hungry and feeling full. If eating at home, use smaller plates, or at the restaurant, don’t have three courses, have just two, and when you buy those bulk packs of snacks to save cost, split them into reasonable portions when you get home (read the label to check the calorie content).
Another way is to identify three “mindless habits” where you can reduce your consumption by 100 calories a day each, and practise eliminating them from your daily life. It takes about a month of concentrated effort to make the change stick, says Wansink, who suggests you keep track of your daily progress on a visible chart during that time so you can see what is actually happening rather than relying on memory.
Shopping is another activity that we put as much thought into as we do to digesting our food, says Dr April Lane Benson, author of the book “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop” . For many of us, shopping has become impulsive, recreational, spur-of-the-moment, and this is most evident at Christmas, when stores and malls are filled with people ready to fall victim to the habit of “mindless shopping”.
As any marketing expert will tell you, persuading people to buy consumer goods is about pressing emotional buttons: “will that look good on me?”, “my life would be so different if I just had this …”.
Yet in the current economic climate, perhaps now is a good time to be more mindful about what we buy, what we can afford to spend, and what is really controlling our urge to purchase and how that compares with what really matters to us.
The pressures to overshop are everywhere, says Benson, a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorder. And the opportunities to do so are greater than ever: you don’t even have to leave your home, as well as catalogue shopping we now have Internet shopping.
Benson says the way to make shopping succeed for you is to plan your shopping trips. In chapter 4 of her book she describes a very useful method for mindful shopping called the “Daily Weigh-In”. This is where you itemize your shopping expenses and assign each item a “Necessity score”. This helps keep track of shopping expenditure in a way that prioritizes rather than just records the amounts spent. It’s a reality check of your spending habits.
You can also do the necessity scoring before you shop. Before each shopping trip, make a list of the things you intend to buy, and then review the list and give each item a necessity score. If the item seems “completely unnecessary”, then give it a zero. If it’s “somewhat” necessary, give it a third, if it’s “very necessary”, two-thirds, and if it’s “essential”, give it a 1. Now look at the list again, with the scores, and reconsider carefully the low-scoring items.
Benson suggests you also decide beforehand where you are going to shop, how long for, who you will shop with, whom you will be shopping for, and last but not least, what your affordable budget should be.
As well as this strategic method, Benson has some tactical mindfulness tips for when you are in the shop and have actually picked up an item. Before you place it in the basket, she suggests you ask yourself six questions to bring your attention into mindful awareness of the act you are about to commit:
- Why am I here?
- How do I feel (good, bad, uncertain, guilty, sad, frustrated, etc)?
- Do I need this (how much would it score on the necessity index)?
- What if I wait?
- How will I pay for it?
- Where will I put it?
You can also apply mindfulness to other aspects of everyday life. Even if you just stop now and again and give yourself a few minutes of stillness: sit down in a chair, quietly close your eyes, with your hands resting in your lap, and open your senses. What do you hear, smell, feel? Observe also the incessant internal chatter of the mind. Notice the individual thoughts, without judging whether they are good or bad, whether you should be having them or not. Just observe.
As Henepola Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, explains in his book “Mindfulness in Plain English”, mindfulness is quite different to how we go about our everyday existence. We don’t notice what is really in front of us:
“We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for reality. We get so caught up in this endless thought-stream that reality flows by unnoticed. We spend our time engrossed in activity, caught up in an eternal flight from pain and unpleasantness. We spend our energies trying to make ourselves feel better, trying to bury our fears. We are endlessly seeking security. Meanwhile, the world of real experience flows by untouched and untasted.”
Have yourself a Mindful Merry Christmas.
Jean L. Kristeller (2003); “Finding the Buddha/Finding the Self: Seeing with the Third Eye”; Chapter 5 of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology & Buddhist Teachings Seth Robert Segall (Ed); State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
Mental Health Foundation (UK) press release 22/11/10
Brian Wansink (2006); Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think; Bantam Books, New York, NY.
April Lane Benson (2008); To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop; Trumpeter Books, Boston, MA.
Henepola Gunaratana (2002); Mindfulness in Plain English, Updated and Expanded Edition; Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA.
Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD