Seven ways to use Christmas stress to train your mind and spirit

posted in: Emotion, Mindfulness | 2


“I try to treat all the challenges and stress of Christmas as mirrors, and invitations to self-awareness!”


I’m watching a live performance from musician and creative catalyst Jamie Catto in Notting Hill. At one point he makes the above, intriguing statement. He says a little about how Christmas stress can be viewed as part of a tough but valuable soul curriculum, and used to dissolve our pain body (see below).

But then moves onto another song – it’s a fast-paced evening . . .

My sensei likes to say: Look at what I teach you as just a collection of hints, for you to take away, explore and discover. As a result of this mindset, most of life has started to look like a series of potential hints recently. And this was a particularly intriguing hint. What could it mean . . . ?





The next day I look up the workshops Jamie’s been running on this topic. He writes:

On the run up to Christmas this year, we may feel some pressure. Not only from the impending family time which for many is a hotbed of triggers and old wounds surfacing – but we also have the bizarre American election which has uncovered such a deluge of alarming shadows, and the ongoing refugee crisis which always feels most ironic at this time of year where we celebrate a family finding ‘no room at the inn’.

[…] For millions of people, once they are through the mundane, synthetic, commercialized reality of December in the 21st century, yuletide itself can really suck.

A spiritual minefield of projection, reactivity, toxicity and semi-conscious hysteria, any notions of inner progress built up throughout the year are often quickly forgotten.

Yet amidst the chaos of consumerism that is yuletide in 2016, there lie golden opportunities. Instead of intensely striving just to get through, I’m inviting you to transform this Christmas into the liberating ashram it’s meant to be – and give us all the real Christmas presence on offer: Self-Awareness and Lightening-Up.

This looks great, but the workshops are all over. So the next best path to follow up on this hint seems to be to read Jamie’s brand new book: Insanely Gifted – Turn your demons into creative rocket fuel – and see what answers it might contain.  

It’s actually a book about creativity; but the theme of meeting and harnessing demons is more than enough to hook this Japanese martial arts geek. And sure enough, embedded in the text are seven wonderful principles for martial arts practitioners – or any sincere person – seeking to transform this stressful time of year into something precious for the soul.

Jamie isn’t a martial artist by the way, but has trained in the discipline of Taoist meditation with Bruce Frantzis, which is presumably why he seems to speak “our” language so comfortably.




1. Hunt down and engage with your dark side

Any type of stress can bring our hidden negative emotions and traits to the surface. But for Jamie, this darkness inside us is buried treasure in psychological terms, and should be embraced:

It is when the hero goes into the darkest part of the forest that he discovers the gold or the secret of life. It is when the princess is willing to kiss the frog that she finds her prince.

A tengu and a Buddhist monk, by Kyosai. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

He therefore advises that if we feel up to it, and practise good self-care, we can fruitfully go hunting [for] the unprocessed, reactive areas of your psyche and body.

And once we meet our demons, we can treat them as friends and allies, instead of enemies to fight. Jamie invokes the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “feeding meat to the demons”. This means validating them – giving them space to play and breathe and express – or finding other outlets for them. Jamie gives the example from his own experience of transforming aggression and other “negative” emotions via writing songs.

In the martial arts, we’re fortunate to benefit from centuries of our ancestors’ wisdom in the art of facing up to our aggression and other demons – and hopefully sublimating them into something greater.

The real challenge is of course to mindfully replicate this process in our personal lives, as well as in the training hall. And aspects of Christmas can offer what you might call an extreme training environment for learning to manage our emotions.


2. Upgrade from “Victim 101” to “Warrior 305”

Jamie writes,

Most of us have been uploaded with the basic human software, Victim 101, where we view the unexpected and challenging people and situations that cross our paths as problems, as things we have to suffer, as things that are ‘happening to us’.

But if we can shift our awareness and view these situations as valuable training opportunities instead, there are several benefits to be gained:

– We become powerful warriors instead of victims.

– We have an opportunity to practise kindness and patience towards others.

– We can encounter the truth that what annoys us in other people is all too often the traits we can’t accept in ourselves. (This is what Jamie meant earlier, by using Christmas as a mirror).

As O Sensei, the founder of Aikido said:

Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training in the Art of Peace.


3. Explore and develop your inner hero

Jamie explains that it’s not just our dark side that we deny and hide away. Many of us also repress our true heroic nature too. As Marianne Williamson says:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We’re fortunate in the martial arts to have a practice that can guide us towards our inner hero, through an understanding that true victory is victory over oneself (O Sensei).

The secret lies in the discipline. Renzo Gracie said: It’s not a one time heroic moment but is living each day with bravery.

But it’s a hard journey at times. For a less demanding alternative on occasions, Jamie sees movies and novels as an enjoyable (albeit watered down) way to vicariously enjoy the victories and bravery that we don’t feel ready yet to express in our lives.

And what better time than Christmas to indulge in this light but nourishing pleasure.

On a more serious note, Jamie also encourages us to appreciate and honour the strong part of ourselves that has survived our darkest times. He urges us to see these experiences as a survival training exercise […] reframe our sad stories as the advanced training and skill-gathering missions that they are.


4. Choose your battles carefully

At Christmas time, lots of time with family and in social situations can create challenging encounters.

You might reasonably wonder whether to be “selfish” and walk away – or stick with a situation, as it’s good training? After all, as we’ve seen above, it can be good to go hunting for your demons.

Jamie gives some kind advice to this question:

I feel it’s important to be discerning about which challenges we are going to show up for […] Life is going to evolve me whether I like it or not and often send me challenges I don’t want to face. Why push myself into even more endurance tests that don’t feel good […]

[Bruce Frantzis teaches] the 70% rule, which is that whatever we are doing, whether training physically, mentally or spiritually, we should never use more than seventy per cent effort. This is the best way to ensure steady, sustainable progress without injury or trauma [and] maintain our effort.

It’s worth mentioning the gender-related aspects of Christmas stress here. Studies have shown that women generally find Christmas more stressful than men; and that for some women it’s the most stressful time of the year, due to the extreme workload associated with a family Christmas, and an uneven distribution of the workload between opposite-sex partners.

Partly this is due to pressure on women from society, the media and so on. But a thoughtful article by Brigid Schulte asks the provocative question: how much of this stress is really needed?

“Fred has no expectation that I do this stuff, nor does Charlie,” Liz said. “I would say that 50 percent of the work I do around Christmas is self-imposed.”

“We call it ‘hunting the buffalo,’ ” Lisa said. “Am I just doing something that’s making me miserable because I think I’m supposed to? . . . Do I really want to decorate the whole outside of the house? Or are we just hunting the buffalo?”

This reinforces Jamie’s point. Life can be challenging enough already – let’s be mindful about (a) how much extra we take on at Christmas time but also (b) how we support loved ones who are taking on a disproportionate share of the work that we’ll all benefit from.


5. Be sophisticated in your relationship to your own ego

As martial arts practitioners, we know the importance of avoiding excessive ego, and striving to keep it in check.

This can ironically become more difficult as we grow in spiritual understanding – the more we learn to manage our ego, the more it may swell with pride at this accomplishment!

Jamie rightly warns us against this – and the tempting practice of looking down on others as we become more comfortable with our own demons. Christmas can be a particularly easy time to judge others, as their own demons rise to the surface under pressure.

It seems so obvious, but remember that all this stuff is habitual and unconscious, so don’t judge others too harshly.

But the book also contains some really interesting ideas about the necessity of being comfortable with, and even loving your ego. Jamie explains that many “spiritual” people vainly try to “amputate” their ego, and expect others to do the same. But it can’t actually be done (we need it to function as human beings!); and we’ll only end up failing and/or hurting ourselves.

Just because the ego needs to be brought back into balance does not mean that it is bad, shallow or unenlightened to have one. In fact, once you have the ability to enjoy the ego within its context, you can really start enjoying this planet and lead a guilt-free life of touches, tastes, sounds, sights and feelings. 


6. “Don’t think – feel” (Bruce Lee)

Jamie heavily promotes the yin practice of turning our attention inward, to get to know how the insides of our bodies feel […] the subtler sensations within us. In principle, this is what we do in martial arts training. But unless you practise an “internal” art, or have reached a high level in other arts, martial training can often heavily favour the “yang” side in its dynamic.movements.

This year I’ve discovered yin yoga, which complements Karate wonderfully, and gives that precious opportunity to slow down and literally travel inside, as Jamie puts it. In a way, it’s essentially an expanding and deepening of the stretching practice at the beginning of class. At Christmas, taking some time out for this type of practice could be a powerful way to counteract all the busyness and fast pace around you.

Building on this practice, Jamie advocates moving into unpleasant emotions in the same way; i.e feel where they are in our body, rather than just stick a quick verbal label on the feeling. He talks of the black-belt way to respond to bad feelings – taking some space to breathe through and dissolve or discharge the sensation.  

And if we deal skilfully with enough bad experiences, we may start to discharge the years of accumulated negative emotion often held in our bodies – what Eckhart Tolle calls our pain body.

Jamie explains that if we resist or suppress these feelings, or do no more than think about them, the blockages stay put. But if we are willing to truly feel them, they can start to dissolve. And again, Christmas stress may offer rich material for this process:

It is almost as if each annoying experience is tailor-made to awaken a lump of that pain body […] From this perspective, the challenging people and trigger situations of our lives are really walking laxatives sent to help us discharge all that emotional constipation.


7. Explore the role of “vigilante consumer”

Jamie takes this phrase from Anita Rodrick, who once said to him, that

The only way to turn this around is through the “vigilante consumer”, that unless we choose more carefully what we’re spending our money on, nearly every penny we downs is unconsciously funding the brutality.

Of course it’s hard to do this sincerely and genuinely As Jamie says,

It is easier for us all to live in a culture of blame while we turn a blind eye to actions that are taken so we can all stay in our comfort zones of smartphones, exotic foods and cheap consumer products.

But we are not altogether powerless – the Dalai Lama is supposed to have said

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.

At this most excessively consumerist time of year, here are a few thoughtful and informative articles as a starting point:



This is a wonderful book – far richer than this summary of a few points can do justice to – and highly recommended. There’s a ton of great material on all the above topics, plus substantial sections (including games and other exercises) on balancing your yin and yang sides; applying the principle of wu wei (non-doing); and Taoist meditation.

It’s a deceptively light read, which (in my view at any rate!) contains a lot of depth, and gives fresh and interesting perspectives on some familiar concepts.

The final section offers direct, practical advice on getting your creative project off the ground. Indeed, the book is mainly aimed at people who want to kickstart their creativity.

However, like so many books, it’s equally possible to read it as a warrior, and directly apply the guidance to our training journey – both on and off the mat. Deliberately reading it in this way, with a specific question in mind, has been an interesting and revealing practice . . .


Wishing you and yours all the best for Christmas, and thank you so much for all your support for this blog in its first year – it’s been a ball 




Jamie Catto  is Creator, Producer / Director of the multi-award winning global 1 Giant Leap films and albums and founder member of Faithless. He is now leading uniquely transformative workshops and one-on-one sessions.

Drawing from the richly diverse wisdom, techniques and processes he has encountered during his ground-breaking filming, recording and philosophy voyages across all five continents, he is weaving these creative techniques and exercises to spark both Professional and Personal breakthroughs.


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