As a child, the December religious holidays were a mish-mash. I have a tiny family, and a December 14th birthday. The focus on celebration and presents, in my mind, was my birthday because it was all about me.
I grew up as a reform Jew, which meant at Hanukkah we said prayers while lighting the menorah for eight nights. Some years we also had a Christmas tree (I was told it was a decoration) because my father socialized with his clients who were predominantly Christians. The holidays became a blur because we were invited to Christmas parties and even attended midnight mass.The spirit of celebrating more than one faith in December seemed normal and festive.
Going to synagogue left a positive memory because everyone around me was in a good mood. The spirit of rejoicing was in the air. The memorable songs including “I Had a Little Dreidel” were fun and uplifting to sing. I remember my heart feeling full of joy. I knew something was special about holidays and it had little to do with the presents.
As an adult, I've chosen not to go to synagogue. I did not feel a strong connection to Judaism. Instead, I followed the Buddhist philosophy, went on retreats and meditated.
As an American, I felt the pressure and got caught in the holiday consumer web of commercialism for many years. This was what I thought I was supposed to do. I gave presents to a variety of people who were important to me. This way of reacting to the consumerism became further complicated with a second marriage and family. Attachments grew from asking the question: will they like the presents? My mind grew insecure with doubts. You get the picture, as I believe many of us can get caught in this web of similar circumstances and desire to please others. The material aspects are secondary to that inherent desire to please.
It has taken me just about this long to figure out that the basis for the holiday season is to give and receive with a joyful heart. The heart connects to faith. This takes me back to my childhood years feeling and seeing the joy in people’s faces when they came out of synagogue or mass.The connection to unity was strongly felt.
Similar to Thanksgiving and gratitude, growing an open joyful heart during December holidays is a good practice to follow through for the rest of the year. Heaven knows we need it more than ever.
8 Ways to Achieve an Open and Joyful Heart
Below are some of my tried-and-true tools, mixed with a few others I've researched, for nurturing an open heart allowing for more joy, compassion, and peace.
1) Start with Nutrition:
It goes without saying that if we consume a low-quality diet of processed, toxic, or sugar-laden foods, our body will become severely imbalanced — and this includes the energetic heart center. However, the opposite is also true — we can tailor our diet to specifically support our highest well-being.
In the case of the heart chakra (connected to the color green), the focus is on green foods for rejuvenation. Look to kiwis, avocados, leafy greens, sprouts, broccoli, wheat grass, moringa herb (new to me), blue-green algae, pistachio, and honeydew melon.
Similarly, we can immerse ourselves in the green of nature. There is nothing quite like a stroll in the woods to soothe the heart and spirit. An interesting example that I came across is shinrin yoku, the Japanese art of “forest bathing” — a practice that dramatically improves both mental and physical health.
If you feel as though your heart could be a bit lighter or a tad more open and peaceful, spend some time in nature. You may already be doing something similar to shinrin yoku. All you need is a patch of forest, a little time and verbal silence.
3) Forgiveness or Acceptance:
As observed by Mother Theresa, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.” By holding onto unresolved issues concerning life or relationship, our hearts can become burdened and closed down. One of the surest ways to liberate the heart is to forgive and let go. An excellent tool for forgiving ourselves — and those who have hurt us — is Ho’oponopono, an ancient practice used by Hawaiian shamans.
If forgiveness is not possible, I say, allow for acceptance and let it be. Acceptance can neutralize any situation.
Often overlooked because of its simplicity, gratitude is a lovely way to feed our hearts. Not only will relationships and health benefit, but our happiness expands as well.
If you’re drawn to photography, use a camera or phone to document one object of gratitude. Sticky notes are another fun way to express your appreciation at home, work or around town.
5) Essential Oils:
One of my favorite resources – do not underestimate the power of essential oils. In extreme moments, to comfort and open a grieving heart, rose otto is an exceptional beneficial oil. With one whiff, as if I was wrapped in a blanket, a feeling of warmth and softness fills my body. When you feel as though your heart may be in a constricted or in self-protection mode, melissa, neroli, and ylang ylang help to gently nurture and reopen the heart center.
To use, combine three to four drops of each essential oil with 8 ounces of a carrier oil (almond, avocado or apricot kernel are good choices). Rub into the heart area several times each day or use as a full body massage oil.
6) HeartMath Program:
HeartMath® is the only scientifically-validated system of stress intervention where you will learn key techniques that focus on the heart, breath, and joyful and appreciative thoughts/feelings to successfully manage your negative and chaotic emotions in a matter of minutes. It is based upon over 20 years of research.
Anusara (I am sure there are other types of yoga that help) yoga helps with its focus on heart-opening poses. Practice asanas like Honey in the Heart series, Extended Side Angle Pose (slide #4), Low Lunge (slide #5), and Twisting Low Lunge (slide #6).
Loving-kindness (metta) meditation is a powerful tool for unlocking the heart. If you would like to learn how to bring this form of meditation into your life, here is a 5 minute guided meditation to help start out your day.
The way you approach the holiday season is a choice. Your mind may steer you in a direction that is not particularly positive. Try being super observant of your thoughts and feelings.
Holidays are there to uplift your spirit and connect with your faith. From my experience, this connection is felt strongly within the heart. Let your heart lead you into the holiday season.