More than all other traditional holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the ones which compel us to forget about the problems in our everyday lives and to remember to be grateful and joyful. Throughout each of our lives, there have been incidents which hurt us, or people who painfully deceived us, ignored us, or abused us in some way. In many cases, these people are family members who we still see regularly and against whom we may still hold a grudge. This can make family holiday gatherings a tense affair, to say the least! But I would encourage you to take an opportunity, in this season of joy and gratitude, to remember some positive, happy memories of these people as well. People are rarely completely bad, and although cousin Jim may annoy you tremendously in the present, you may recall that you spent many happy hours playing in the snow with him as a child.
We have a tendency to remember and to focus our energy on all the negative events in our lives. We may recall with complete clarity the day our Aunt Bethany accused us of being selfish and unreliable. We may remember the exact expression on her face, what she was wearing, and who else was in the room, despite the fact that this happened more then ten years ago. But do we also remember how she took care of us as a child when our mother was sick, playing endless games of Snakes and Ladders with us to keep us from feeling sad? Or that she offered to help babysit our kids, without mention of any payment, when we couldn’t find a daycare provider in time for our first day of work? Why is it that one negative memory can outweigh so many other positive ones?
It may be helpful to know that there is a natural reason for this emphasis on the negative over the positive. The negative experiences in our lives have always been the most instructive. It is because we were bitten by that snake when we were young that we now know how to identify it, and warn others away if we see it again. It is because we skidded on ice and broke our arm that we now know to walk carefully on the sidewalks in winter. These negative experiences helped us to survive, and so we rightly emphasize them when we recall the events of our days and years.
Just as we have retained the memory of physical traumas to help us survive future accidents, our mind also emphasizes negative emotional experiences from the past to help us negotiate potential hurts in the future. This is why we may perversely cling to the memory of the harsh words our parents spoke to us when we were young, yet forget how our father cried with joy and hugged us tightly when we graduated from university. If we cling to these negative emotional memories, they can become scars on our minds, and each time we have a similar experience, we will re-trace those memories and make them stronger. All this is done in an effort to protect us from future pain. But by doing this, we have unwittingly taken a healthy survival mechanism that was meant to protect us, and used it to dwell on past mistakes and traumas, which make us less happy in the present.
In Chinese medicine, the heart is not just a physical organ, but has its own spirit as well, called the “shen”. When you think of hurtful events from the past, and regularly become distressed, anxious, or depressed by them, the shen in your heart is said to be disturbed. It is no longer light and free as it should be, but heavy and closed. This closed feeling occurs because the tissues around your heart have begun to tighten in response to your emotions. Since the beating of your heart ensures that blood pumps regularly throughout your body, naturally, these tightened muscles and tissues in the area of your heart can restrict blood circulation. Not only is this bad for your heart and your overall health, but it is emotionally painful. People who have had enough negative emotional experiences in their lives know that in the depths of their despair, it really does feel like their heart is breaking.
This is why deep breathing and stretching exercises can be so beneficial for both your heart and your emotional health. As you breath deeply and gently move and stretch your limbs, blood that may have become stuck in those strained tissues around your heart will begin to circulate again. This will not only relieve the pressure on your heart but will help you to feel more positively about your life again. In yoga, poses which are known to help depression are those which open up the chest, such as back-bends. But even if you don’t do a back-bend, simply by breathing deeply, and extending your arms widely beside your chest, you can open up your heart and improve circulation there. You’d be amazed at how quickly this can lift your mood.
Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can often be stressful, as we feel forced to socialize with people who may have hurt us emotionally in the past. When we allow these painful memories to close off our hearts, they can cause health problems too. If you find yourself in this situation this Christmas, I would encourage you to use it as an opportunity for healing. When you meet someone who has hurt you in the past, instead of re-tracing the negative emotions associated with them, try to focus on happier memories. There are bound to be some in any relationship. Try to remember small kindnesses shown to you as a child, as a teenager, and even in your life today. As you continue to re-trace these happy memories instead of the negative ones, you will be strengthening positive thoughts, and your spirit will have a chance to grow in joy and love. That is a gift you can give to yourself this Christmas that will reap many positive benefits in the year ahead.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.