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'Advent' by Jeremy Lander

Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!

We are now well into Advent and, in this weird, topsy-turvy year, Christmas is approaching with its usual express-train like velocity. There is even a palpable sense everywhere that we need to ‘Get Christmas Done’ and start celebrating it earlier than ever—just to make up for all the weirdness, like having to choose your favourite relations to bubble with, or not being able to drink in the pub unless it’s accompanied by a scotch egg.

The definition of Advent, these four or so weeks from Advent Sunday up to Christmas Day, comes from the Latin adventus meaning ‘arrival’, as in ‘the advent of Spring’ or ‘the advent of a new vaccine’. But ad – ‘to’ and venire – ‘come’, also suggests a certain amount of anticipation of something about to arrive. In the Christian calendar it is a veritable celebration of anticipation, of preparation, of looking forward.

But as mindfulness practitioners is it OK to look forward to something? We train our minds with practices that encourage us to be, to live, ‘in the moment’, reminding ourselves that the future, like the past, is a mental event that arises for us only at this precise moment in time, and not getting caught up in the highs and lows of reliving the past or imagining the future. While we know this can be extremely useful in regaining some equanimity in our minds and bodies, we are not monks living in a desert cave and so we can allow the realities of everyday life to impinge on our experience. If we didn’t then Christmas wouldn’t ‘get done’ at all. We can/must still send cards, order presents, buy Christmas trees, stock up with food and drink, and those Advent calendar windows won’t open themselves!

Perhaps this is why I still have an uncomfortable feeling about Advent. It’s not that I don’t ENJOY it as such, but I can so easily get caught up in worrying that it may or may not go well. There is pressure, and when there is pressure there is anxiety. I suppose it’s a bit like the run up to an important exam, only with more holly, a clock running down inexorably. Excitement yes but nervousness too. And what’s more it requires extra energy at a time of year when our bodies are saying, you know what, don’t do anything—it’s too cold, too dark, too wet.. just… sleep…. After all we are not that far removed on the evolutionary tree from hibernating dormice (about 60million years in fact, which is not that much).

And this year - like no other - the preparation is mostly of the mental variety. Who can we invite, where can we go, who will look after elderly parents/neighbours, how will we travel when literally the entire UK will be on the roads at the same time? Even shopping has become a mental activity—I remember becoming so exhausted by Christmas shopping once that I became stuck like a reindeer in the headlights of an approaching ice road trucker in the middle of St Andrews Street in Cambridge and I had to be rescued by a friend who noticed my panic-stricken eyes. Now the only physical shopping action I am planning is the pressing of a button. And I need to get on with that too!

To help us, we need that anchor, to breathe, to return again and again to the present moment, to slow right down when we can. And what better way to do this than to appreciate the changing of the seasons, to still get outside when we can and observe the eerie beauty of fog or the crispness of frost, the amazing way that nature closes down in order to store up energy for its rebirth. We can even be mindful about internet shopping—what a modern MIRACLE that is.

So, let’s try not to get in a situation where we have to give our minds a speeding ticket, we don’t want any more points on that license. Maybe instead we need to put them on a speed awareness course. Or at the very least step into the road with a firm but gentle stopping hand and a cautionary “mind how you go there, sir, it is Christmas after all”.

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