William Ross, 10, lights the candle representing the Kwanzaa principle Nia (purpose) during the annual holiday celebration at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Catonsville, Md.
It would be easy to think of Kwanzaa as a bother, more things to buy, another ritual to observe, more stress in a season that comes earlier every year and is every more demanding. This year we are living though a holiday season made more somber by the natural devastation of Hurricane Sandy and by the unnatural nightmare of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and the gun violence that has happened since.
This year I propose a meditative Kwanzaa. I say let us use the next week to practice the technique of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). So much of our living and thinking are about rethinking the past and planning the future. This is fruitless because as wisdom teaches: the past is history; the future is mystery; the present is a gift. We fail to value the gift when we fail to pay attention to what is happening in the moment at hand.
MBSR teaches us to live in the moment, to slow down and to observe what is happening around us. It teaches us to pay attention, to watch and to pray. We observe the breath breathing, the mind-thinking, the heartbeat beating. We listen to the world around us—the traffic noise, the nature sounds, the television in the other room, our family laughing together at old sitcoms on TV Land, the sound of pen against paper, the hum of the computer, the click of the keys. We feel the air on our skin. We smell the smells surrounding us. We watch what is happening inside our bodies to know where the tension is and how the body reacts to certain thoughts.
And we when eat mindfully, we savor the experience, chewing slowly, attentively. We take note of the sight, sound, flavor, texture, wet and dry of the food.
It is amazing how much we miss when we are double or triple tasking, when we are not mindful of the moment. When we consider mindfulness together with the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the time becomes a personal inventory as well as a reminder of our communal duties.
A mindful Kwanzaa
Umoja (unity). I observe the unity of body, mind and spirit. How does my thinking affect my body? How do my spiritual connections with myself and with others flow?
Kujichagulia (self-determination). I observe the names I call myself and the ways that I define myself. How are my thinking and acting creating my character?
Ujima (collective work and responsibility). I observe my response to and with others. Responsibility means both response and accountability. I take a personal inventory without self condemnation.
Ujamaa (cooperative economics). I observe my mind thinking about money. How does my body react when I think about money? Have I given any money away without expectation lately?
Nia (purpose). I observe my intentionalities. What commands my attention? To what am I committed?
Kuumba (creativity). I observe the beauty within me and around me, both the beauty of nature and the beauty of the arts. I observe the beauty of music, poetry, dance, drama, sculpture, painting, film, food. . . . What things bring me joy?
Imani (faith). I observe my connection to transcendence. In what or in whom do I trust?
In this season of peace, it is important to know that world peace begins with the inner peace of each individual soul. Saint Isaac of Nineveh said: “Be at peace with your own soul, then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.” Just as we carry around our stress and pass it on as a contagion, it is possible for us to carry around our peace and pass it on.
Valerie Elverton Dixon, founder of JustPeaceTheory.com, is a former teacher of Christian ethics at Andover Newton (Mass.) Theological School and United Theological Seminary in Ohio. She is the author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”