A Different Perspective on the Holidays: Is It the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Have you noticed how amazing the holidays look in commercials?

We see visions of perfection—“Martha Stewart” tables filled with fabulous, cooked food and matching napkins; people laughing and getting along; crackling fires and soothing music in the background; perfectly decorated homes and the image of the perfect family.

We would all love to be the protagonists in these holiday commercials.

But the truth is, that for many of us, the holidays are not as wonderful as the commercials show.

In real life, in the US alone,

  • Many of our families are devastated by pain from the loss of a loved one—a pain that resurfaces as we approach the first holiday season without them. Heart attacks and cancer claim the lives of a million of our loved ones each year, car accidents a million and a half, and 35,000 of us every year experience the unfathomable grief of losing a loved one to suicide.
  • 6 million of us have to survive the holidays after the devastation of divorce, and an additional number of unmarried couples cope with the aftermath of breakups.
  • Have you considered that over 43 million foreign-born immigrants live in the US? Some of us who are immigrants have families who live thousands of miles away and we don’t have any family close by to sit around our tables.
  • And then there are people who lost their jobs in the last twelve months who live with fear and anxiety about how they will make ends meet.

I am not trying to be negative here, but real life includes all of those situations that impact many of us and it is really not like the “Martha Stewart” holiday commercials.

And here is the craziest thing about this: Although we all carry our fair share of pain and suffering, more times than not, we prefer to hide it from the rest of the world. We are ashamed to admit what is happening in our life and simply choose to write “blessed” on our Facebook wall.

Did you know that research is showing that shame triggers the stress response in the same way that being chased by a mountain lion would?


Let this be a gentle reminder that regardless of our circumstances, our socio-economic status, or any other of our unique characteristics, we all experience our fair share of sadness and loneliness, which can be increased by the conditioned way we view “the holidays.” Have you considered that if we shared our vulnerabilities, instead of keeping them to ourselves, our hearts might feel lighter?

I know we all have endless lists around the holidays—gifts to buy, things to do, places to be. However, I invite you to add a few additional items to your “to do” list this holiday season:

  1. Choose kindness and compassion.

We sometimes get so busy and lost in the never-ending lists of things we have to do, that we forget how simple it is to share kind words and actions and how much of a difference this choice makes in the world. In fact, a significant amount of science has taught us that kindness and compassion are natural anti-depressants. Forget about Prozac. There are so many more things we can do to beat the blues.

—Smile to people you meet! Did you know that a simple smile registers with others more than any other human expression and gives us a sense of connection?

—Give genuine compliments. Do you notice something that is worth acknowledging in another? What if while we are stuck in a long grocery line we use this time to talk about positive things with the people close to us in line?

—Give someone flowers for no reason and wish them happy holidays!

  1. Make time and space for mindfulness.

A decade ago, a Harvard professor and his team developed an app that tracked peoples’ happiness depending on what they were doing when the team randomly checked in with them. They found that 47% of the time their minds had wandered to things outside of the present moment. Can you imagine that we are not actually present for half of our lives? (You can participate yourself by going to trackyourhppiness.org.)

How can we infuse little reminders into our day to anchor us back to the present moment?

—It could be something as simple as committing to noticing when our mind starts wandering and taking a deep breath inviting our mind to come back to the present moment.

—We can start our day by taking a few breaths to savor the fact that we are able to still breathe, and we can set an intention for the day.

—We can spend a few minutes before retiring to sleep to breathe in a sense of gratitude for all the wonderful things we experienced that day, even if the day included a challenging “crucial” conversation with someone at work.

  1. Choose happiness.

No matter how difficult life may be at times, there are still a million things we can find to be happy about.

—Our resilience—how our heart is still beating regardless of the challenges and adversity we have had to face in our lives!

—The beauty of nature and the abundance of oxygen that the trees produce for us every day.

—The people that we have in our lives to love and be loved by.

—The sunshine on our face every day, no matter how much darkness we have to deal with at times.

There is ample evidence that reflects a myriad of benefits of choosing the positive perspective: We cultivate more hope and optimism; we are more open to connection; we experience bolstered immune function and increased positive emotions, as well as an increase in our nervous systems’ “vagal tone,” which is associated with feeling relaxed, healthy, and well.

The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year, as every day of our life can be.

An important component to making our life the most wonderful it can be is to make the choice to accept and share an undeniable part of our humanness: the pain and suffering that is part of life.

Our suffering can lead to abundant love and happiness if we let it guide us in reaching out and touching the hand of a fellow human being who has experienced a loss similar to one that we have experienced; if we choose to be extra kind and extend more compassion and patience and understanding; if we all just step outside of the costumes we wear and expose our vulnerabilities.

Maybe together we can make a better world for all of us to live in.

Because after all, what will “make the bells ring” is the carol that you sing right within your heart.

The incredible benefits of Meditation

Are you sometimes stressed and overwhelmed by the numerous demands of life? If you are, you are not alone. Almost 70% of us experience moderate to severe symptoms of stress regularly.

However, I am happy to report that there is a very tangible, free, simple solution to this problem that has no side effects—it’s called meditation!

Most of us have heard about meditation, but we seem to be resistant to this practice, although it has been scientifically proven to have tremendous benefits in reversing the negative impact of stress in our life.

The reasons we resist meditation seem to revolve around us not knowing how to do it or feeling we cannot do it because we don’t have time, because it seems like a foreign concept and, most of all, because we are not aware of its’ myriad benefits.

Eight years ago, at the lowest point of the most devastating loss of my life, I was fortunate enough to experience the power of meditation during a weekend retreat. I would love to share with you my inside view of why meditation has single-handedly changed my life for the better over the last eight years and, I am sure, for the rest of my life.

The problem that meditation solves.

Stress is the epidemic of the century and it is now linked to more than 90% of today’s disease.

But what is stress?

What we experience as stress is nothing other than the way our body responds to demands from the environment in order to maintain our internal balance and sense of safety.

A critical part of our stress response that we often overlook is that what causes the symptoms of stress we experience actually comes from the way we interpret life situations and not the situations themselves.

For example, if our boss gives us a large task to complete in a short amount of time, it is the thoughts we have about our ability to complete the task and the consequences of not succeeding (our mental activity) that overwhelm us and trigger the mind-blowing cascade of events that elicits our stress response.

Chronic stress has been proven to cause significant damage to organs and functions of our body, as well as structural changes in our brain regions that are associated with resilience, motivation, executive functioning, and mediation of conflicting information.

We have so much power in how our psychological states are expressed in physical states in our body; we just don’t know it yet.

What is meditation?

“Meditation is the experience of the limitless nature of the mind when it ceases to be dominated by its usual mental chatter.” —David Fontana

It is estimated that we have over 60,000 thoughts per day and that 95% of these are worries. Yet only five percent of what we worry about actually happens!

This means that we invest a tremendous amount of energy in engaging our body systems to address imaginary threats or demands from the environment that are not actually happening now!

As foreign a concept as it may seem, meditation is nothing other than the practice of becoming an active participant in shaping our mental activity by being mindful of what we allow our attention to rest upon.

Meditation involves our ability to adjust the volume of thoughts that do not serve us by simply observing them as thoughts and redirecting our attention to something neutral. This process intercepts our body’s tremendous power and effort to adapt to situations that are not happening and thus reinstates the internal balance of our body systems.

Meditation is often misunderstood as the act of organizing or sorting our thoughts. In reality, it’s more about observing our thoughts and redirecting our attention to what is actually happening in the present moment.

We may think that by redirecting our attention from the thoughts we have about the challenging aspects of our life that we are not being realistic. Quite the contrary, meditation helps us maintain our nervous system in a calm state, in which we may be able to acknowledge the complications each challenge brings forth in our life and determine the most effective course of action for its’ resolution.

How does meditation work?

I must admit that a decade ago, while on chapter three of the book A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, that when he posed the question, “Have you ever really looked at a flower?” I caught myself rolling my eyes and saying out loud: “Eckhart, have you seen my to-do list? I don’t have time to look at a flower!”

Today, I admit that I was completely missing the point.

The main point I was missing is how much power our mind has over our body—a riddle that we have been trying to solve for millennia and which we are barely scratching the surface in solving.

Science is just catching up with the old truths of ancient philosophers and traditions, substantiating that by keeping our mental activity on neutral, we maintain access to the parts of our brain involved with our ability to overcome problems faster and easier and find more creative solutions to challenges, which leads to a positive outlook. The more positive we feel, the more confident we feel.

Learning how to change what we think so we can change how we feel is the basis of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been proven to be very effective in alleviating the impact of many illnesses associated with the mind, like depression and panic disorders.

By adopting a meditation practice, we essentially engage with the mental gymnastics that yield a positive outcome similar to CBT.

The inside view of meditation

A tremendous amount of research, done with the help of imaging techniques, has uncovered that a regular meditation practice is linked to significant, measurable changes in the brain in regions that allow us to manage our body systems more effectively and increase our capacity to deal with stress.

It appears that our mind takes its’ shape by what it repeatedly rests upon. Specifically, at the cellular level, depending on what we focus on, neurons fire and wire together in different parts of our brain. Much like building our biceps by doing bicep curls, redirecting our attention to positive feelings, like empathy for example (even for someone that cuts us off on the freeway), results in neurons firing and wiring together in the parts of our brain associated with those positive traits.

Neuroscience has lent us much knowledge about the relationship between inner strengths or weaknesses and different regions of our brain.

By consistently being mindful about where we place our attention, we actually have the ability to build gray matter and grow regions of our brain that allow us to be more effective in our life endeavors and to experience more joy and well-being overall.

Here are some research findings on how meditation positively impacts our brain structures and functions even with a practice of only ten minutes, three times a week:

  • Increased cortical tissue and more blood flow to parts of the brain in the frontal regions that help regulate attention and emotion.
  • Increased activity in the left prefrontal regions of our brain, which are involved in our ability to regulate negative emotions. An active left prefrontal lobe means we will be more effective in managing emotions like fear, anger, or shame.
  • Increased gray matter in the temporal lobes of the brain, called the insula, that help us tune into ourselves. We are then able to be more self-aware. As an added benefit, growth in the insula region of our brain allows us to experience more pronounced feelings of empathy for self and others.
  • Increased tissue in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved with memory, learning, and ability to calm down another brain structure, called our amygdala, which is much like our alarm system and critical in eliciting our stress response. A thicker hippocampus means we will be much better in deciphering true threats as opposed to imaginary ones, so that we do not waste our metabolic energy unnecessarily.
  • Improved immune system function. Calming down our stress response means that our body functions are not compromised by the redirection of energy to address non-existent threats.

Research shows that we can use our mind to change the anatomy of our brain and cultivate elements like attention, compassion, motivation, or resilience.

The way meditation works is by allowing us to nurture parts of ourselves that we already have that are good and beautiful and associated with great outcomes.

There are many different ways to start a meditation practice, and there are many free, guided meditations to ease anyone into the regular practice of quieting their mind. In the “Quiet Your Mind” section of this website, I have saved a few of my favorites for you to try out for yourself.

But the most important component to experiencing the incredible impact and benefits of meditation is being open to the magic that happens when we choose, even for a few minutes a day, to leave behind our conditioned way of thinking and open up to the possibility of simply connecting with anything that is here in the present moment, for example, our breath.

Although we often think that a specific life outcome is what will help us reinstate a sense of safety and calm, the truth is, only when we quiet down the limbic mid-brain (the part of our nervous system involved with emotions, instincts, and memories) can we access problem-solving, motivation, compassion, creativity, innovation, joy, and empathy.

Happiness is finding peace in the natural flow of all the natural changes in life and learning how to be calm and relaxed with all the uncertainty that every day brings.

Meditation is the most impactful way to stay centered in the midst of change. But the only way to truly know the incredible benefits of meditation is to incorporate a meditation practice into your own life.

By shifting our attention away from the endless thoughts our mind usually rests upon, to come into our bodies and the true sensations we experience, we actually awaken to seeing things for what they truly are. Connecting with the infinite light within us allows us to change for the better, which in turn gives us the opportunity to bring positive change in the community and the world we live in.

And not many practices have benefits that can top that!

The great big fall

Fall is my favorite season!

There is something special about the smell of the earth after the first raindrops of the season. I am enamored by the way the foliage gets washed away by the rain to make space for new beginnings. The temperature drops, inviting us to make a fire and snuggle up to our favorite person while eating slow-cooker delicacies.

But I also love fall because it reminds me of an undeniable part of our human experience: the regular and never-ending points in our journey when things “fall” apart in our life, and we experience a significant amount of discomfort and suffering. Our automatic response is to think that “when such and such a thing happens, when we arrive to a certain outcome, when we realize a specific goal, then we will no longer suffer.”

However, the truth is: we cannot go through life unless we experience a significant amount of suffering. After all, there are many things in life that we cannot control that impact the fiber of our life and experience.

The question then becomes, what do we do when things fall apart?

  1. What if we temporarily make friends with pain and let it tell us its’ secrets?

One of the human choices that often leads to things falling apart in life is betrayal. In its simplest form, as our dear Brene Brown says, betrayal is “to choose to not connect with someone when the opportunity is there.” The secret the pain of betrayal opens us up to is that betrayal is the mutual choice between two people to feed a lie. We humans can only behave based on our level of consciousness at a given time. It’s nothing personal. But we too, play an active role in any betrayal in our lives. If we focus on what is within our control, we can use a betrayal as an opportunity to address and question what it is deep down that we were afraid of. We can look at what it is that we wanted that compelled us to play a part in this story. Although betrayal leads us to doubt ourselves and our choices, it is a great opportunity to identify illusions. When we use painful experiences of betrayal to uncover what it is that we were truly afraid of, we slowly but surely learn to neutralize our fear, harvest its pearls of wisdom, and open up to the possibility of learning to trust in ourselves again.

2. Challenge yourself to identify the little things that give you comfort during difficult times.

When things fall apart, we tend to hide our pain in ways that are not conducive to our wellbeing. We tend to withdraw, get down on ourselves, maybe drink an extra glass of wine, or lose sleep by mulling over the specifics of the disaster we encountered. It is important to keep an ongoing list of things, situations, and people that provide us with a sense of goodness for when difficult times show up in our lives.

This could be a walk in nature; listening to a positive Ted Talk; cooking your favorite, wholesome meal; creating a little piece of art; or committing to a daily, loving kindness meditation.

But most importantly, during difficult times, we need to resist the urge to stay isolated, and instead connect with people that make us feel cared for. Social connection is one of the most compelling antidotes to the toxicity of discomfort and one that is abundantly available to us, as long as we are willing to nurture it.

  1. Focus on taking just the very next step.

When things fall apart, our automatic response is to feel helpless and let our internal resources be used toward imagining a catastrophe! We don’t consciously realize the power of our mind to hi-jack our nervous system and shut down our ability to access the executive part of our brain. For example, studies show that rejection and toothache both activate the exact same region of our brain (anterior cingulate). If we focus on simply determining what is the very next step we can take to turn a situation around, we can slowly but surely disengage from operating from a threatened, defensive state and turn on our executive part of our brain, activating the reward centers through action (pre-frontal cortex). Mastery is the result of consistent small steps daily. Don’t worry about the imaginary disasters that could come, but focus on the very one thing you can do now to move you toward the direction that will bring you back to balance.

  1. Remember the impermanence of everything, and practice being comfortable in discomfort.

Whether you pay attention to the changes of colors in the trees around you, the challenges you have already overcome, or a memory from childhood, everything in life is a temporary perspective.

Nothing lasts forever. Regardless of how challenging an experience may be, simply remembering that nothing lasts forever can be just the ticket to calm our nervous system down and feel comfort at times of discomfort. A realistic outcome to shoot for to ensure that the trajectory of our life remains positive is looking for growth in discomfort. Breakdowns in life can be profound moments of breakthroughs, much like the seed that has to break through the earth to bring forth beautiful blossoms in spring.

  1. Accept that some days will be dreadful no matter what we do.

We can do all the right things, take all the right steps, incorporate powerful daily practices, and yet we will never be able to avoid experiencing moments of ultimate disappointment and dread. We could get laid off, lose someone we love, or experience an ultimate betrayal from someone who we thought was our number one confidant. Life is an incredible adventure of never-ending highs and lows. Embrace the fact that some days will be a complete disaster no matter what we do.

I can’t say that the series of victories and unfortunate events don’t leave a lasting mark on our life experience. Yet the miracle always happens.

Tomorrow morning, the sun will rise again, the school bus will show up in time to pick up the kids for school, and you will encounter your neighbor’s good morning wish as you take your dog for a walk.

Despite how bad a great fall may seem, every new day gives us the opportunity to start over and change our life—one decision, one choice, and one step at a time—bringing along fresh perspectives and ingredients: new leaves on the trees, new loves, new joys, new sensations.