There’s a picture that has been hung up with the decorations in my parents’ home for as long as I can remember. It exudes feelings of love, warmth, light and joy. There’s a closeness and intimacy of the family holding hands together; everyone is connected as they share such a special day. Looking at it conjures up warm, cosy memories of my childhood Christmases, but I know for many, Christmas can be a very different experience. Some people are alone, others feel lonely even though they are surrounded by people. The same is often true living with a chronic illness. You can find yourself spending lengthy stretches of time alone through being housebound, unable to socialise or work. You can also be surrounded by people but still feel lonely, perhaps because you feel nobody understands or can truly share what you are experiencing.
As part of the mindfulness course I took this year, I practised loving kindness meditation. This meditation helps you first cultivate feelings of kindness towards yourself, before reaching out with empathy and compassion towards others. I’d resisted this practice in the past. I’m not sure what the greatest challenge was; leaning towards suffering, being kinder to myself, or the overwhelming idea of embracing all humanity. Loving kindness meditation was, and still is, a challenging part of my practice. It is also rewarding and profoundly moving.
When I started this practice, I began to cultivate a broader, more fluid awareness, which I found soothing and grounding. This brought about gentle feelings of kindness and a larger space to hold all my experiences in awareness. When I began to extend my practice out to others, my heart opened with feelings of warmth and I felt a greater connection to the world I live in. Demanding as it may be, loving kindness meditation is adding a richness and depth to my practice. I feel part of something bigger. I feel more connected, even during the times when I am physically isolated.
As I was writing this post, I came across a piece by Vidyamala Burch, co-founder of Breathworks, on loneliness, its detrimental effect on both physical and mental health, and increased difficulties at Christmas time. She gives a simple meditation to help you sit with feelings of loneliness, easing suffering and increasing well-being. You can read it here.
The Christmas picture is a print of an 1891 painting by the Danish artist Viggo Johansen. It appears to be known by a number of names including ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Silent Night’, and ‘Round the Christmas Tree’.