Friday, December 7, 2012

The Spirit of Christmas

A Christmas mindset is one that, ever so gently, shifts the center of attention from habitual shallow, purely verbal guidelines and repetitive secondhand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute engagement with sensing phenomena.

And this phenomena is at its highest during the season when attention is focused on the joy of giving, receiving, eating, drinking, laughing, or otherwise enjoying oneself – when we’re “feeling good.”

Yet what exactly does this mean - that is, to feel good?

Millions of people around the world who celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah or some other winter solstice celebration whereby the sentiment gratitude is expressed, partake in a global celebration of leisure, the euphoric affects of which lead to a shift in shared understanding, at least momentarily, of what it means to feel good. 

Whether or not your familiar with the phenomenon of Christmas, I would suggest that there is something rather mysterious about the culture of joyfully expressing gratitude - something that neither the experience itself nor a parallel caricature of the experience can capture. 

When I think about the experience of "feeling good" I think about the lightheartedness Christmas induces, its euphoric daze, the laughter it incites, or the sentimentality that affects most people “this time of year”.

In order to fully grasp the meaning that stands behind the experience and associate its corresponding global importance, we need to first juxtapose it with our ordinary experience. 

Some people are fond of the saying that we have no concept of hot without the corollary concept of cold, than an awareness of the color black requires a familiarity with whiteness, and that we wouldn't recognize love if we didn't at one time experience hate, such that in order to understand a phenomenon one needs to think about the binary opposites that help in defining a particular experience. 

Consciously allowing oneself to “feel good”, in this respect, is a particular type of cultural and even subconscious resistance to ways of thinking that are indicative of the mainstream status quo. While the world is a serious place, on Christmas, we disassociate from our troubles and focus on our gratitude, indicating to me that everyday sobriety is not as innocuous and without its equally profound opposite as some might lead us to believe. 

First of all, consider what the phrase "feeling good" literally means: to lighten-up, to express exemplary behavior and gratitude, to delight in the nice, amusing or jolly, and so on; such that the very "lingo" of Christmas culture implies the possibility of an experience that is in some remote fashion transcendental. 

(As a philosopher, whenever I see the word "transcendental" I raise an eyebrow - for to speak of the transcendental is to enter into metaphysical terrain.)

Transcendental in the sense that in order to understand any concept we have to enter into a space whereby we reject obscure and opaque ideas for understanding the world, and bring what is obscure and opaque into the fresh light of inquiry. So, what gets transcended in the experience of Christmas? 

When under the spell of Christmas, the world seems more real; truth is more readily perceived; intuition is at an all time high, and the negative aspects of modern culture seem to invisibly recede into a background of normalcy. For at least a day or so, we bask in cheerful, sentimental Christmas elevator music that accompanies most of our social experiences during December and the beginning of January.  

Of course, winter celebrations are as old as Old Saint Nicolas and the lineage of inspiring patrons who came before him.  For a millennia, people have been feeling good and marking the experience as such on their calendars.

The winter solstice is again upon the Northern Hemisphere, and though the year's shortest day heralds the onset of winter it also promises the gradual return of the sun after a prolonged period of darkness. That there are holidays at the time of this astronomical event is no coincidence. 

In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice always occurs on or about December 21 and marks the beginning of winter. It's the shortest day of the year. In the Southern Hemisphere, this is the time of summer solstice and the longest day of the year. Sunglasses, bathing suits, and flip-flops are the environment of energetically happy summer thoughts while on the other half of the world many are thinking about Santa, baking cookies, and attending family gatherings. In whichever hemisphere you find yourself this time of year no doubt you’re enjoying yourself a little more than usual.

The term solstice means "sun stands still." On this year's two solstices (winter and summer) the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and change little in position during this time. No wonder good feelings (in both hemispheres) are often described as that of "time standing still." 

Intriguingly, given that celebrations have figured in so many spiritual and religious practices throughout history, we can begin to formulate a sense of the transcendental dimension to which "feeling good" must refer. That is, "feeling good" must in some sense refer to the ability to step outside or beyond one's normal state of consciousness and familiarity with the world.

Such shifts in "consciousness" need not be alone linked with feeling good alone. For thousands of years, Buddhists and even Hindus have been training successive generations in meditative techniques that alter the normal flow of consciousness. Of course, biologist might think of feeling good as a "feel good chemical"(Serotonin) release rather than an expedient for manifesting shifts in spiritual and meditative consciousness. 

However you see it, Christmas consciousness can be distinguished from ordinary consciousness insofar as it enables one to rise above shallow, ideological, and routinely habitual forms of thinking.

Christmas ruptures the ordinary; it pulls one into the immediacy of experience where the world becomes a thing that is present to consciousness. While we may not be apt to admit it, the lives of most people on most days are rather routine, organized, and unreflective. What Christmas ruptures, albeit temporarily, is the ordinary unreflective attitude in which people accept the world for how it is instead of how they feel it should be (i.e., harmonious for all creatures). 

The question of Christmas consciousness is the concern over what and how the world is combined with our knowledge and awareness of it. Thus, in stating that Christmas somehow alters our consciousness, we can begin to see that what gets altered is the manner of our togetherness with the world such that an experience under the colorful euphoria of the Christmas tree, for instance, is a modification in both how the world comes together for us in experience - but also how we come together with the world. 

The extraordinarily insightful Erich Fromm postulated that there are two essential psychological modes of living in the world. There is the mode of having in which the value, direction, and choices of one's life are defined and determined according to what one has rather than who one is. The mode of being, by contrast, is a paradigm of consciousness in which the value of life is guided by what type of person one wishes (and consequently chooses) to become. A person's identity and subsequent consciousness is either determined by what they have in the first case or who they are in the second. 

At Christmas, we experience both modes of existence in the acts of giving and receiving. Giving is the act of giving the gift of one's self to another person, either by acts of kindness, generosity (such as those displayed in affection and gift giving); whereas receiving is the experience of having one's self honored by others; both experience relax us and allow us to be more comfortable with the notion of being ourselves. This is why so many people naturally unwind once the hustle and bustle of gift shopping is behind them.

Sadly, some people state that Christmas no longer exists. That the massive commercialism of Christmas detracts from its true meaning. 

Fromm further described consumption as something that "relieves anxiety, becomes what one has [and] cannot be taken away; but also requires one to consume ever more, because previous consumption soon loses its satisfactory character).

While Fromm might be right in some aspects of behavior endemic to Western culture, Christmas cannot be limited by an event that alienates our sense of hope. Christmas can only be defined by the spirit of its existence, which is our shared experience of universal hope.

Take into consideration our society's form of economy; that is, the capitalist system of production, which flourishes from productivity, from the fruits of our own labor. Just as when a beaver builds a dam, we say that the dam is the beaver's, or when a bird builds a nest, we say that the nest is the bird's, we are naturally saying that we think of the work as being part of or owned by that being. 

Throughout time, before massive commercialism, millions of people have thought of this time of year as a time for celebrating gratitude. Despite rushing out to buy last minute gifts, most people still do so with the mindset that the "good will toward men sentiment" defines Christmas behavior.

No wonder giving to others has long since been described as simultaneously giving to oneself. 

Christmas may mean something different to everyone celebrating this year, but one thing is for certain: the nice feelings that flourish collectively contribute to the spirit of Christmas, to the spirit of gratitude, and to our collective appreciation for the gift of life.  

Photo Credit goes to Me 

Other posts on Christmas you may like: 

(If only Christmas lasted as long as this post!) 

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