It's that time of year again, when into the dark little month of December we squeeze Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve, and a myriad of other celebrations... and all the school plays, office parties, and community gatherings that go with them. Throw into the mix a generous dose of unrealistic expectations, budget-busting shopping, dysfunctional family feasts, airplane flights, darker days, colder weather, excess eating and drinking, and no wonder that along with "peace on earth, goodwill toward men," come anxiety, exhaustion, and depression.

But this year you can do something to spin your stress into the gold that is the promise of the season. Understanding and relinquishing your unrealistic expectations are the best ways I know to beat the blues. Here are three truths about the holidays that may help.

There is no such thing as a normal holiday...
'The first thing you can do to reduce holiday angst is to delete the word "normal" from your vocabulary. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "Normal is someone you don't know very well." This is always a good thing to keep in mind, especially now, when we assume that the normal people are all having happier, healthier, and more harmonious holidays than we are. We imagine their mailboxes stuffed with Christmas cards and party invitations, their homes decorated in Martha Stewart splendor, their intact and idyllic families primed for weeks of good cheer.

I don't know these people--do you? In my work at Omega Institute, I have met thousands of people from all walks of life. I have yet to meet a "normal" one, if normal means consistently sane, contented, and capable. And yet most of us hold ourselves up to an unattainable standard of human perfection. The 12th-century Sufi poet Rumi called this phenomenon the "Open Secret". He said each one of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other-not some racy or evil secret, but the mere fact of our flawed humanness. We expend so much energy trying to conceal our ordinary bewilderment at being human, or our loneliness in the crowd, or that nagging sense that everyone else has it more together than we do, that we miss out on the chance to really connect, which is what we ultimately long for. Especially during the holidays. Even those people who may seem to be living out our idealized vision of the season have an Open Secret.

This holiday season, open up your Open Secret. Overcome your embarrassment at being human, and tell a friend that you didn't get one party invitation. Maybe she will reveal the same thing, or she'll bring you to the one party on her list, or together you'll go to your local homeless shelter and help the kids decorate the tree. Tell your brother that you are worried about how much your mother drinks at Christmas dinner; ask him to support you in dealing more honestly with her this year. Don't just say "Fine!" when a colleague asks how you are at the office party. Say, "Sometimes all this ho-ho-ho makes me feel lonely." You'll be surprised by the response. Suddenly a mere acquaintance will open up to you, and soon you'll feel more connected, not only to him, but to the real meaning of the holidays. And talking about meaning...

The holidays are about joy, but also about struggle...
All of the religious parables at the heart of the holidays are about awakening joy in times of darkness. They are about hope and hopelessness; home and exile; celebration and grief. They are never just about joy. Joy is the gold we mine on the spiritual path, but that path traverses all sorts of uncertain and difficult terrain. So when you feel the darkness of the season settle in your heart, you can connect with a whole lineage of spiritual seekers who have wrestled with the human condition throughout history.

This year, enjoy your wacky family...
Read more on page 2 >>

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  • Turn to the spiritual teachings of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, and the lesser-known December holidays. You probably didn't know that December 8 is Rohatsu, which commemorates the day in 566 BC when the Buddha attained enlightenment. Like Mary and Joseph who found no welcome at the inn and birthed the baby Jesus in a manger, and like the Maccabees who reclaimed the desecrated Temple and lit the miraculous light celebrated on Hanukkah, the Buddha awakened his joy after a long struggle, under a tree, alone and hungry.

    Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Father writes, "Truth and goodness are not always found at the top, but often on the edge and at the bottom. Not in the center of empire, but in the backwaters of Bethlehem. Not among the established, but clearly among those who are dis-established." Christmas is the ultimate story of outsiders finding sanctuary, creating family, and bringing forth joy against all odds. If you are feeling alienated, or anxious, or full of grief-or if the despair of the world is weighing heavily in your heart-you need look no further than the stories of the season to help you find light in the darkest month of the year.

    Imperfect holidays can be happy holidays...
    M. Scott Peck started his famous book, "The Road Less Traveled," with these lines: "Life is difficult... Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult." The same can be said for the holidays. Once we get with the program that no one skates through December, we can get on with having an imperfectly wonderful holiday season. We can let go of wanting a different family, and try to enjoy the wacky one we already have. If we cherish our childhood memories, we can be grateful for those we can duplicate in our adult worlds, and realistic about those we can't. Or, if our memories are meager and mean, we can hitch our wagon to new rituals that we create from scratch.

    If we feel lonely, or exhausted, or misanthropic, or angry, or overwhelmed, or just a little sad, there are all sorts of tricks in Santa's bag for climbing out of a blue mood. But don't try too hard: forcing any kind of mood usually backfires and turns into its opposite. Try too hard to be jolly, and you'll end up down in the dumps. Instead, let yourself be exactly as you are. Slow down, breathe deeply, and invite the sacred into your heart each time your mind races or your emotions sink.

    Perhaps down at the bottom of the quiet well of your heart, you will discover some questions brewing in the fertile darkness: Am I harboring an old resentment? Is there someone I need to forgive? Is there something I must say to a family member or a friend? Am I longing for more spiritual nourishment? Is my full aliveness being dulled by a relationship, a substance, work, weight, whatever? In the true spirit of the holidays, let the darkness of your moods lead you back up to the light, and when the New Year rolls around, your resolutions will be infused with new authenticity and power.

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