Focus on Presence, Not Presents

Trish Harper

As each holiday season approaches, I must admit, I get a little grumpier every year – I may even be approaching “Bah Humbug!” status. Now before you label me a modern-day grinch, let me tell you, it’s not because I don’t like Christmas carols, cold weather, frosty windchills, or days that begin and end with darkness. It’s not even because I don’t like spending the holidays around my in-laws (to be honest, they are actually a lovely bunch). No, the real reason I dread the holidays more and more each year is because of the never-ending to-do lists and focus on presents, presents, and more presents. Materialism runs rampant during this time of year, and the constant busyness leads me to burnout.

I find myself saying things like, “I just want to have a nice meal with family” or “I’m really looking forward to spending time with my friends.” But I honestly feel so worn out by the time the Christmas holidays begin that I end up trying to hibernate in my house with a comfy blanket, good book, and hot cup of tea. I have had enough office Christmas parties, concerts, obligatory baking, and shopping (especially in crowds of people) that I’m not sure I really want to be around the human species again. It seems like I have so little energy left for what’s important.

Ask yourself, “How do I want to spend my time and attention this holiday season?” and take the time to listen to your answer.

The thing is, I don’t believe I am alone in feeling this way. For this week’s blog, I thought I’d focus on how to give presence this holiday season and feel good about connecting with my loved ones. When I consider what this means, it seems there are two main elements that comprise presence: time & attention.

Time is an increasingly precious commodity. The pace of modern life can be lightning-fast, with demands and responsibilities coming at us from all angles, not to mention the pull of social media and technology. The number of obligations does seem to rise during the holidays, and although many of them may be desirable, the sheer number can be overwhelming.

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”

Michael Altshuler

When we are faced with multiple demands, we usually go into “react mode” – the action that is required at that time makes it to the top of our priority list. Unfortunately for many of us, that action is buying presents. Now I know what many of you are thinking: get your shopping done early like I do, or skip the hordes of people and do it online (yes, I know that’s an option, but I like to see and touch what I am buying). The advice of putting some planning into the holiday shopping endeavor does have its merits, but I tend to put it off because I have better plans. I plan to make delicious meals and have people over to my house for socializing. The trouble is, my plans rarely come to fruition – especially during the holidays. Everybody is too busy!

I have now decided that the holidays may be a better time to focus on spending time with family. Without the rush of activities and sports, it is possible to have some regular meals together. In fact, just yesterday my two teenagers were both at home and actually did the evening chores together – one loaded the dishwasher while the other washed the rest of the dishes, with all of us in the kitchen at the same time. I must cherish these small victories!

Which brings us to the other component of presence: attention. Of course, it is also true that more time allows for increased opportunities for attention – the two are, to some degree, inseparable. However, attention can also be focused for shorter, more intense periods, while still having great benefits.

Remember that compassion should not only extend to others, but to yourself as well.

Our attention is also pulled in many directions. Perhaps the cold weather and longer periods of darkness should be seen as invitations to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N and simply spend time with each other. Some of us spend time with our families, including our blood relatives. Some of us choose our friends, and how we define “family” may look a little different. But what is important is the quality of the time we have together. Playing games, sharing meals, listening to music, caroling, sledding, or frolicking in the snow (if you are lucky enough to have some) are all great ways to spend time with loved ones.

“Whatever you focus your attention on will become important to you even if it’s unimportant.”

Sonya Parker, Designer

Perhaps we can make the biggest difference by changing our own attitudes and trying not to get caught up in the holiday “rat race” by making a commitment to staying in the present moment and making our choices consciously. Ask yourself, “How do I want to spend my time and attention this holiday season?” and take the time to listen to your answer. Remember that compassion should not only extend to others, but to yourself as well. Then you will have the ability to connect to others – that is a present worth receiving.

“The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”

Dr. Richard Moss


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Author: Trish Harper (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Trish is the co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. The book is available on our website.

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