The Practice of Using December for Retreat, Reflection & Letting Go

By Leo Babauta

December can be a cold and dark month for many people, a time of lowered energy while still being very busy.

For that reason, I find that’s an amazing time for:

Retreat: Take a little time out of my busy year for a little quiet solitude and turning inward, creating space for silence, contemplation and mindfulness.Reflection: This quiet time is a time to reflect on how the year has gone, and how I’d like to move into the new year. We don’t often give ourselves enough time for reflection, as we’re always busy in activity.Letting go: What have we become burdened with over the past year? Over the past decade? This time of turning inward is also a great time to let go of burdens, resentments, etc.

It’s a season for retreat and reflection, for me. Let’s talk about how that can look.

Creating Space for Retreat

Imagine that you were to sign up for a retreat this month … you put aside your daily life, all your busywork, all your projects and errands and emails and messages … and you travel to another place.

In this place, you remove yourself from the busy world and find space for quiet. For reflection. For contemplation, setting intentions, reviewing how things have gone. For gratitude and appreciation for life.

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How Do We Cultivate Contentment?

Contentment is more than transient moments of appreciation—it is a way of being. It is a place where our minds and hearts rest, an embodied understanding that has deep within it a sense of contentment, an ease of being, a sense that all is well.

Noticing and giving time to what is present doesn’t come so easily to most of us, especially when we’re under stress. However, there are steps we can take to train ourselves to bring awareness to the nourishing aspects of our lives and cultivate the conditions for enduring contentment. Raising and broadening our gaze can reveal many moments of appreciative joy in everyday life. Recognizing, seeing, and stepping away from our judging mind creates the conditions for enduring contentment.

Contentment does not deny difficulty or pain, nor the value of the judging mind if it is used judiciously. It is not some kind of Pollyanna positive thinking. In fact, contentment can mean recognizing and resting in a difficulty, letting go of the struggle that can perpetuate suffering. More than this, it can open our eyes to the goodness that often sits alongside any difficulty. Contentment in this sense opens to what is actually present in any given moment: the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the neutral, letting go of the striving for perfection, goals, and stability that simply don’t exist.

A Mindfulness Practice to Cultivate Contentment 

Take a few moments to steady your attention. Take up a posture that communicates a sense of wakefulness and dignity. Steady for a few moments on your breath, anchoring your attention. Take note of any bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts, allowing them to be as they are, with the breath as the anchor for your attention.Bring into the practice the questions “What do I need in this moment to be happy?” and “What is lacking from this moment?” As best you can, stay very close to this moment. If you notice your mind wandering into judging or wider questions about your life, escort it back to this moment, back to “What do I need in this moment to be happy?”; “What is lacking from this moment?” Explore within yourself what it is to rest in this moment with ease, to rest in the small space between the ending of the out‐breath and the beginning of the next breath, to rest in the quietude between sounds, to rest in the body.

The Importance of Gratitude in Cultivating Contentment

Gratitude nourishes and supports contentment. It is an active choice to identify all that we can be grateful for in our lives. We can be grateful for a seemingly trivial thing, like a moment of kindness a stranger shows us, or more seemingly profound things, like a loving relationship or our health. You’re not denying any difficulties you may be experiencing by acknowledging the good that sits alongside them. Gratitude isn’t an antidote to your problems, but a gentle counterpoint to the inclination of the mind to identify everything that is lacking or imperfect in our lives.

There are many ways to develop gratitude, but one is to look at all the good things we often take for granted.

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A Mindful Approach to Depressive Thought Patterns

There are certain thoughts that are common to individuals with depression. These negative thoughts can be considered symptoms of depression. For any one individual, there are a host of thoughts that make up their script of negativity. 

You may notice that certain thoughts are typical for you when you become depressed. These thoughts form your depressive signature. They represent your symptom pattern just as much as early awakening, loss of appetite, or loss of enjoying activities you previously enjoyed can be part of your particular depressive pattern. 

How Mindfulness Helps with Depressive Thoughts

Several components of mindfulness play a particular role in helping to heal depression. First is the mindfulness focus of being in the present moment. When we are focused on the present, we have less bandwidth available to ruminate about past failures or future catastrophes. 

Another feature of mindfulness that allows you to cope with depression is decentering. Decentering allows you to gain distance from depressive thoughts and feelings.  

In order to decenter from depressive thoughts it’s helpful to make a list of the top ten most common thoughts that occur when you are depressed. It may be useful to include on your list thoughts that you tend to believe very strongly when you are depressed, and that you don’t believe as strongly when you’re feeling better. If you can identify these thoughts, you will be able to decenter from them more easily, because you know they are symptoms of your depression rather than immutable facts.

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Three Ways to Spark Joy This Holiday Season

Many of the songs, stories, and messages we hear this time of year are about joy. But accessing joy can be difficult as we navigate the sometimes stressful moments the season also delivers (we’re looking at you, holiday shopping). This is your mindful reminder to take time to pause and connect with the here and now, so you can find moments of joy all season long—even when things don’t go to plan. Here are three ways to embody deep joy: 

1. Soothe your inner critic

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the idea of the picture-perfect holiday that we forget to enjoy the beauty of the season. When we let go of expectations (and ruminations about our shortcomings) and simply appreciate the moments as they unfold (in all their imperfect glory), we open ourselves up to joy.  Explore this simple practice to embrace self-compassion and quiet self-criticism.

2 Don’t just gather, connect

Just getting together during the holidays isn’t enough to nourish authentic connection with your loved ones. Purposeful in the way you spend time with others. Here are four ways to add mindfulness to your next social gathering and strengthen your connection with the people you care about most.

3. Rewire your mind for moments of joy

Just like training your attention, you can deepen your ability to feel joy by cultivating it in an intentional way. The next time you notice something that makes you smile—a piece of music, a blue sky, a warm cup of tea—pause and connect with that feeling. Try this two-step practice to bring your whole heart to the present moment and spark joy.

Here’s hoping you find moments of joy this holiday season.

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Mindful Cities Are Popping Up Around the Country

As the year comes to a close, I’d like to update everyone on our Mindful Cities Initiative.

You haven’t heard much from me for a while, but the Initiative continues to grow and move forward in many ways.

Just last week I returned home from my second trip to Broward County FL, where much great work is underway to support the whole community following the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. This trip included a day long training session led by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Sharon Salzberg (who, by the way, I introduced to the 500 people attending as the “James Brown and Aretha Franklin of the mindfulness world,” to rousing laughter!). 

Our friends at the Holistic Life Foundation also contributed to the day-long training session with lead trainer Ross Robinson working with fifty young students. And, while we were there, we also met with the Superintendent of Schools who enthusiastically backs the mindfulness programs in their schools.

I’ve told many of you who’ve reached out to me to join our Mindful Cities Initiative that we aren’t adding cities because we just don’t have the staff resources, but for obvious reasons I just couldn’t say no to the good folks of Broward County.

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