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No Place Like Alone for the Holidays

Pexels/Magda Ehlers

“The absence of holiday fuss clears the way for all kinds of spiritual opportunities.”

Millions of us are dreading the prospect of a holiday season without the loved ones we’re used to being with that time of year. The darkest days of the calendar will be without the compensating light of their faces in the flesh and the warmth of their hugs, and the precious moments of laughter and memory that rise up like springtime flowers with extended contact. Even the annoyances will be missed when the only alternatives are phone calls and Zooms.

We each have a choice to make, however. We can wallow in the sadness; we can resent the circumstances we’re in; we can rage at the forces we hold responsible. Or we can acknowledge the sadness and shift to a spiritually uplifting perspective. What might normally be a season of conviviality can be a period of productive solitude. Social isolation will help keep our bodies healthy, and it can also cleanse our minds and fortify our souls.

Maybe this is an opportunity to learn new spiritual practices. Maybe it’s a chance to resume and deepen practices you once did but stopped making time for. Maybe you’re being called to treat spiritual practice not as a luxury but as a sound investment of time that returns huge dividends.

But why not take it further, and deeper? In the spirit of sabbath and sabbatical, why not set aside a chunk of the holiday season for turning inward? Why not devote a day, or two, or three, to deep quiet? Unplug. Throw a blanket over the TV. Swear off social media. Put your phone on airplane mode. Turn off the gadgets and tune in to your innermost self. Take refuge in the sanctuary of peace within you.

Consider using the time you’d otherwise spend on travel, logistics, cooking, and cleaning to contemplate the deeper meaning of the holy days. Read sacred texts or histories of the events that gave rise to our celebrations. Dive into metaphysical and theological treatises. Revisit authors and books that once changed your life and see how they affect you now. If you read slowly and contemplatively, you might find new levels of meaning.

The absence of holiday fuss clears the way for all kinds of spiritual opportunities. What could be more sublime than a mindful walk through the wintery woods or a stroll on a beach? Paying close attention to the sights, sounds, and scents will reap spiritual rewards.

Maybe it’s time to turn a spare bedroom into a temple of sorts, for meditation, prayer, and other practices. If you don’t have that luxury, how about converting a corner of a room into sacred space, or simply creating an altar on top of a table, a bureau, or a shelf? The presence of objects and images that evoke the Divine can be a lasting source of spiritual sustenance.

Maybe gaps in time that you typically fill with disturbing news programs or mindless entertainment can instead be devoted to sublime music. When was the last time you listened—really listened, with your eyes closed, instead of merely as background sound—to music that opens your heart and elevates your soul?

Here’s another thought: Why not devote some of your holiday time to the spirit of service? People are in need as never before. Can you help in some small way? Can you volunteer some time? Can you reach out to lonely people and offer the elixir of care and concern? Acts of compassion serve the server as well as the served. Service gets you out of your ego and plugs you in to a higher good. As I once heard an Indian guru say, “If you want to be unhappy, think about yourself all the time.”

While you’re at it, take some time to acknowledge all that you’re grateful for. If you’re reading this, you’re blessed. Much of the world is too hungry, sick, or overworked to take the time to read stuff like this—even if they have the technology to do so. Studies have found that gratitude improves key measures of health and well-being. It’s an easy habit to learn, and you’ll be surprised how many blessings come to mind once you start looking for them.

None of these suggestions, of course, will replace the presence of loved ones at holiday time. But consider this: missing them is also a blessing. The yearning to be with them, the longing for their touch, even the tears you shed and the lump in your throat—they all spring from love, and nothing is more sacred than love. The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil compared the heart’s longing for God to prisoners tapping on the wall between their cells. “The wall is the thing which separates them,” she wrote, “but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.” So it is with those we love. The yearning itself brings them close, and it might also open your heart to the Divine presence.

Read more advice for surviving the holidays here.