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Not A Bad Idea

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

It starts early.  It starts much too early. “Christmas in July” sales morph into “Black Friday Before Black Friday” sales.  Christmas decorations, promotions, and music assault us even before the Halloween candy appears.  What happened to all that preaching about mindfulness and living in the moment?  Ah, anything for a buck!

Some of us are old enough to remember Advent.  The centuries-old tradition of prayerful discipline during the four weeks leading up to Christmas has all but disappeared.  Advent calendars now are little more than an excuse to indulge in fancy chocolates or even beauty products for each day in December.  What stupendous marketing! We’ve learned how to turn self-indulgence into virtue.

The word “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus,” or arrival.  It signifies the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.  The original Advent calendars involved a simple numbered flap which opened to reveal a religious image related to the Christmas story.  But we live in a consumer-driven society.  The Advent practice only goes so far.  Why look at a religious image when you can stuff yourself with candy or try a new beauty product day by day?

Chocolates and beauty products are great, but they are not the reason for Advent or Christmas.  The more important something is, the more preparation and anticipation it deserves.  Spiritual events require spiritual preparation.  And since human beings are not mere blobs of protoplasm, we need to balance body, mind, and spirit.

Every sincere religion in the world promotes some form of physical discipline as a path to spiritual growth.  Periodic fasting can be beneficial for overall health (in medically stable people). There’s even evidence that refraining from eating between dinner and “breakfast” stimulates growth hormone levels and facilitates weight loss.

Fasting or abstaining as a spiritual discipline need not be limited to food. Consider how you feel (or behave) when deprived of your devices, TV, or electricity for an hour.  Advent disciplines can involve “giving up” anything from eating out, to sugar, to alcohol, to shopping.  In years gone by, people would save the money they didn’t spend on personal indulgences and give it to the needy.  Even in a strong economy there are plenty of people in need.

This year, Hanukkah and Christmas occur in the same week.  Family celebrations, festivities, and fun await millions.  Regardless of theology, several weeks of thoughtful spiritual and physical discipline beforehand will make the main event that much more marvelous.  Besides, there are only so many practices that can help you lose weight and save money at the same time.  Advent: It’s not a bad idea.