Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? Most likely, the answer is no. Rather, your iPod's at peak volume as you're racing through aisles, trying to ignore the clanking of shopping carts, the feedback of intercom announcements and the throngs of consumers deliberating over which shades of Ikea table runners their mothers won't turn their noses up at during Christmas dinner. It doesn't matter what's playing; eventually even guided meditation podcasts can't drown out the noise our minds make leading up to the holidays. There's so much anxiety caused by family obligations, end-of-year deadlines, buying gifts (or being unable to do so) and traveling -- not that you needed to be reminded.
What's necessary to remember, however, is that we're only human and there's only so much we can take on ourselves. Sometimes we need help, and that's where Anne Lamott comes in. With grace, humility and her signature sense of self-deprecating humor, the celebrated author keeps our insanity in check with her latest inspirational, if breezy, book, "Help, Thanks, Wow." While it's not a guidebook for how to set intentions and offer gratitude -- Lamott insists there aren't codes for this -- it's a compact companion reader to snap you back to the present moment with each page turn.
For Lamott, "help," "thanks" and "wow" are all expressions of prayer, which she emphasizes can be secular and should be personalized to accommodate your own beliefs. By her definition, prayer is simply "communication from our hearts ... to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in." In other words, it's our needs and desires, articulated. Through self-reflective anecdotes, she breaks down the three prayers and encourages us to start and sustain a practice of peace and mindfulness.
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"Help," says Lamott, "is almost an involuntary reaching out, a sound of desperation." The panic could stem from something as small as a delayed flight or as big as a blizzard exacerbating the wreckage caused by superstorm Sandy. Whatever the reason, calling for help is to surrender, admitting we can't control everything, certainly not air traffic or the weather.
If to ask for help means to let go, then giving "thanks" is the ability to reframe what caused us to panic in order to move on. "[To say] 'thank you' breaks through the thoughts, business, obsession and fixation to this pure moment of gratitude, the amazement that things have worked out," insists Lamott. We may not hear answers to our cries for help immediately, but with patience and without anticipating a perfect outcome, we can try to find some good in even the worst-case scenarios.
"Wow" is the release, like the sound of an exhaled breath. "To say 'wow' means you're agreeing to pay attention," says Lamott, adding that awareness "is the path, the cord, the channel that connects us to joy."
According to Lamott, intentions can take various forms, passive or active. For example, she suggests writing them down on paper and then depositing them into a box, which simulates the process of submission and letting go. Moreover, opening the heart can take place anywhere, even in transit.
"Anywhere you are conscious is sacred space," says Lamott. Your subway car may be crowded, stuffy and loud, but the author adds: "It's all nutritious, if you're truly there for it."
How might you decide to practice awareness, aside from being acutely aware of how ridiculous you look in the sweater your grandmother knitted? Consider this: What if you're wearing it to your dysfunctional family's holiday festivities? (Help!) Think of how happy it makes your Nana to see you in it (reframe the situation: Thanks!). And, finally, remember, baby, it's cold outside. Although you may be the victim of snarky finger-pointing, you're alive and warm, inside and out. (Wow!)