From the monthly archives: "December 2012"


Christmas tree (Copy)Twas the night before Christmas, and all through my mind, a question began stirring, of what the function the Christmas holiday might hold to the human psyche and development. Now why, I wondered, have we continued to practice this ritual for all of two millennia. No doubt that, for some, a real significance lies in the religious traditions that Christmas is said to represent today. But for anybody who takes the time to look into the history of the practice will find that what we currently celebrate is very different from what has been practiced throughout the ages. This, however, does not mean that in and of itself the ritual of Christmas celebration isn’t important to the human mind and soul. On the contrary, this holiday is one of the most important rituals we have for keeping us attached to our humanity—a necessary undertaking in an era when intellectual and technological advances pose a real threat to human social unity.

Winter_solsticeThe Christmas holiday has its roots in Pagan traditions. Early Europeans celebrated the winter solstice—the point of lowest solar altitude above the horizon—as this time meant that the days would gradually grow shorter and the nights longer. The Yule log was burned in Pagan Scandinavia as a way to celebrate the return of the sun, while some of the foods we consider traditional Christmas fare, as well as the Christmas tree (15th century), came from the early traditions of Germany. The Roman celebration of Saturnalia is where the gift-giving tradition of Christmas began.

Christmas, like all rituals, was an important way to unify people. Many would starve to death during the rough days of winter, when food was scarce, so that groups ultimately learned to cultivate their food and drink, including spirits, and fresh meats from slaughtered cattle, so that the winter celebrations were true feasts to honor a successful harvest. The yearly rhythm of the winter rituals kept people connected to the perpetual cycles of nature—the annual seasons, the changing length of daylight, and the life cycle itself. In this way, the internal clock or biorhythms were set both in the psyche and the physiology, and eventually in the culture as a whole.

pagan ritual (Copy)

The evolution of the Christian version of Christmas didn’t fully take hold until the 19th century, although it had transformed slowly over the previous two hundred years. But even in this version, which became a little less festive than the earlier celebrations, as they brought the tradition from outdoors in nature to inside the home, it was still a way to celebrate new beginnings—the coming of the Sun—although this Son was now the symbol of divinity, and not merely a cycle of nature.

Nativity-Wallpaper-05 (Copy)Whichever form of winter celebration we consider, each has held a function of bringing individuals together to strengthen the group. While every person is unique and important as an individual, by virtue of being the planet’s most social species, we derive our greatest powers by working together in groups; and thus a tradition like Christmas, a ritual in its most fundamental sense, strengthens societies and cultures, creating cohesion of beliefs, understanding and gratitude for nature, life and divinity—all aspects of humanity that we can easily overlook in our day-to-day lives.

As civilization advances intellectually and technologically, we become vulnerable to the paradox of being both better connected, yet also more isolated. Man and machine will evolve together as an inevitable consequence of expanding intelligence, but that is where the risk of losing touch with our humanity will be the greatest. It will be so easy to become enamored with our expanding capabilities, to the degree that we may think that the symbiosis of man and machine transcends our natural and divine heritage. But this will be a mistake, because as far as we can surmise, machine intelligence will have the capacity to far exceed our own, rapidly, and we will never know what that might ultimately bring.

Confucius (Copy)Only by keeping in touch with our humanity will we preserve the wits and caution to remain the dominant species on the planet, and thus assure our continued existence. It is in our daily, monthly, and yearly rituals that we best keep connected to our humanity, and unity of species. The great sage Confucius understood the importance of ritual, and he taught it fervently; for through ritual we become and remain virtuous in character. It was his version of maintaining humanity, although I cannot imagine he would have predicted his ideas being pondered in terms of machine dominance. But timeless wisdom is pertinent in any circumstance, and thus the Confucian idea of maintaining and honoring ritual is universal in its applicability.

So Christmas has a function that goes well beyond what we tend to think of it as—it is more than just a celebration, and more than an honoring of a fruitful harvest, or the birth of savior. Like every ritual in which humans engage, it is a way of connecting on a deeper level of unity to one another, to nature, and to our divine essence—to the great organizing intelligence of the universe, and our place within it. This is why our winter ritual of honoring the cycles of life should not—and will not—ever die, because it is a celebration of being a part of the divine nature of the universe.

Maintaining humanity (Copy)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Oh the holidays—a time for joy, and a time for stress. From office parties to last minute shopping, the holidays can be taxing to some. But the stress I observe the most in people passing through my health practice revolves around their discipline, or lack thereof, for moderation when it comes to indulging in the temptations waiting at the banquet table (or bar) during the holiday season.

I fully understand this stress, as I’ve been there plenty of times myself. Abstinence is not always an easy option, though; especially if you wish to keep your friends. I mean how do you refuse food and drink during these merriest of times? Frankly, your holiday diet will have little meaning to most party hosts, let alone other guests who can’t understand why you won’t try even one of those little powdered cookies. And what merit will it have for you, anyway, when the eggnog comes a-calling? No matter how you slice it, the pressure will be on.

But for you, the body you’ve worked on so hard over the summer does matter, and as we all know, a moment on the lips…

I am, therefore, going to share with you a couple possible solutions to this common holiday problem, which should help ease the stresses involved in choosing between your palate and your physique.

Solution #1: Utmost Discipline

The first is practicing the utmost moderation and discipline. It is simply saying, “No”—no to the cookies, no to the second cocktail, no to the extra plate of food—which will require a Herculean stoutness, as temptations have a way of preoccupying one’s mind. But if you are firm in your convictions, of what you are striving for, then you can focus on that, and it should help you overcome most persuasions.

To master the mind in this capacity, I suggest writing down fifty to one hundred ways in which practicing restraint can help you achieve your goals. Whether that goal is to maintain your figure or to preserve vitality, whatever we want badly enough (our values) has a way of keeping us on purpose, despite temptations. And by putting pen to paper, not only will you establish it firmly in your mind, but the process of writing has a profound ability to make things happen. Some have said that nothing exists until it is written down.

Although this first option of practicing discipline is by far the more boring of the two, in some regards it may be the best for your health. And in the big picture, practicing discipline is the best approach toward mastering your life. But it is also the more immediately difficult of the two options, and if you can’t seem to hold yourself to it, then you’ll want to try option number two.

Solution #2: Moderation & Exercise

The second potential solution is for you to sustain your exercise regimen throughout the holiday season. Although continuing to exercise will not counter the effects of eating too much sugar or drinking too much alcohol, it will most certainly help you preserve two important factors: your figure and the habit of exercising.

I find that the single most detrimental behavior during the holidays is allowing oneself to get too busy to exercise. Put simply: You can’t have your Christmas cake and eat it too. In other words, you cannot both drop your discipline at the banquet table, and the gym, and not expect to suffer the consequences. The reason so many people resort to the New Year’s “weight-loss resolution” is that they feel guilty over giving in to all their indulgences over the holidays. Why waste time with another unresolved New Year’s fantasy? If you must give in, then simply stick to your workout regimen. I assure you that, at the very least, it will subdue some of the guilt that has people stressing the most over the holidays—that they are undoing what they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Listen, I have lived a life of excess, as well as an undisciplined life. I remember the self-defeating thoughts that followed the few weeks of giving in to my indulgences. It becomes a vicious cycle—feel like dirt, beat yourself up, indulge in defeat, feel more like dirt, and so on. I personally do not advocate complete abstinence, because I believe that this frame of mind has the highest probability of leading to binge and purge behavior—not the best habit for one’s health.

I am much more supportive of the moderation-is-best mentality, as well as maintaining health habits whenever possible, particularly when one area may get challenged, like during the holidays.

3 Choices…

So, ultimately, you have three choices: Practice the utmost discipline, and put not one cookie crumb to mouth, practice moderation and continue to exercise diligently throughout the holidays, or do neither and stress out. For my money, I’d enjoy the holidays in full-but-modest-fashion, and simply work out regularly the way I always do (but not more), so that when the festivities are over, I am still in my groove, and I don’t have to fantasize about all the weight I am going to lose in the New Year. Happy Holidays.

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