Oh, to meet the Joy and Pain of Christmas with Compassion

by Bill Paterson

Suddenly Christmas is on the horizon again! Is it really a year since the last one? Interestingly, I’ve noticed a pattern of contrasting thoughts and emotions wrapped in this winter celebration. Yes, the darkness of winter will be punctured with light, love and celebration. But I am also more aware of just how hard Christmas can be with unachievable expectations and spending time with difficult people. I’ve noticed how the latter often generates slow-burning repetitive story-lines that can grow into full emotional hijackings.

However last week as I was teaching Week 7 of the Mindfulness Association’s Compassion Based Living Course (CBLC), I felt a wee shift in awareness and attitude. I wanted to share my experience with you because I thought Week 7 was a perfect preparation for my Christmas. Perhaps it will resonate with you. Let me explain.

On the one hand, Christmas for me is about taking joy in watching the excitement and exultation of my children. I love cooking and socialising, so I take a great pleasure in preparing tasty food for family and friends. There is also a lot of cuddling, playing and sharing with the people I love. The Christmas lights also brighten up a Scottish winter. So yeah, there is a lot of joy, love, light and connection to be experienced.

On the other hand, I feel Christmas brings expectations, and the inescapable meeting of difficulty. Advertising depicts a successful and complete family in a beautiful, big home with perfect decorations, scrumptious food, sending and receiving the ideal gifts, and sitting in harmony. Sometimes I can feel a great expectation to deliver all of this.  When I do I can feel that there is something wrong with me if I cannot provide or be all of these things.

For example, Christmas is about working within a budget. Thankfully I don’t judge my worth by material wealth. What I want to speak about is how Christmas confronts me with spending time with family and people that I find difficult or I even dislike. How to meet these difficult human relationships is really important. Not least because I have noticed how these relationships are immersed in repetitive stories about these people, which can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Thankfully, teaching week 7 of the CBLC reminded me of the very real tools I have to work with the difficulties I’ve just described. Learning to develop and direct compassion to myself are central to the CBLC, but so too is relating this compassion to all sentient beings – even the ones I don’t like. Week 7 introduces working with the Four Immeasurable qualities. I find them humbling, heart-warming and connective. They enable me to see the possibility of choice about how I respond to difficulty. They empower me to acknowledge that how I reacted in the past is not set in stone and does not define me! Rather with practice the patterns and habits underlying my unhelpful reactiveness can be interrupted with a pause. In that pause that they do not seem so solid and defining. In that pause, I can choose to apply these new attitudes that have been cultivated around the Four Immeasurable qualities. This is not just for my benefit. Ultimately it can be of much wider benefit. This is a wonderful aspiration and motivation.

Therefore, it felt so apt to be practising ‘Widening the Circle of Loving Kindness’, and then the practice of ‘Aspiring Dissolving and Equalising’ in Week 7. These remind me that all human beings are “just like me”. They don’t want to feel pain, guilt, shame, loneliness or separation. “Just like me” they would rather experience happiness, acceptance, appreciation, kindness and the support of being connected to others through compassion. I also become more heightened to the way a person’s behaviour is very often a reflection of their own suffering. Such that a person’s anxiety or dislike of themselves is spat out at the people they come into contact. In this way, a difficult person’s behaviour is really not about me – and very often they are ignorant of this suffering and the related behaviour. Just like me, if I am truthful.

The “Dissolving” section of the meditation really enables me to lose the one-dimensional illusion I have created for the people I dislike. There is a wider perspective. I cannot help but acknowledge they are loved, needed and admired by others. I also get to witness how my suffering can be projected at people I appear to dislike. I don’t need to condone their actions. I don’t have to get rid of my likes and dislikes. Rather by working with these practices I can feel that there is more that connects us than separates us. Why, well because we all feel pain and wish we did not. Nobody escapes the experience of the human condition. Even after seven year of mindfulness practice, I will still get hijacked and old patterns will display themselves. Thus I must warmly acknowledge that I am a ‘compassionate mess’.

“Just like me” will be my mantra for this Christmas. I’m really curious about applying an attitude based on the Four Immeasurables might do to my relationship with myself and  difficulties. I like this not knowing. It is exciting to start again. Perhaps a different kind of Christmas is possible. Why not try it too?

Finally, for many of us Christmas is a time of celebrating the joy of a common humanity. I think the CBLC also encourages us to celebrate both the individual and collective joy of being human. It ignites my innate warmth, kindness and compassion. It reminds me that there is a choice about how I meet the blocks to my contentment and happiness. I’m invigorated by the energy from connecting with everyone through simple acts of kindness. The difference, I think, is that the CBLC celebrates the joy of a common humanity all year round, not just at Christmas. Compassion is not just for Christmas.


Bill Paterson