Let's face it, sometimes the holidays just... suck. Maybe that's not the most Buddhist way of saying it, but it is how it feels. Even more than in past years, friends and students are reporting feeling stress and foreboding right now. To be honest, I'm feeling a sense of burden and anxiety, too, that strange feeling when there's too much to do and not any clear sense of intention behind the doing of it. This holiday season has given me reason to pause and think about what really matters. And guess what, it's neither black Friday nor cyber Monday.
Why are we so stressed? Maybe it's because we've somehow managed to turn a time that is supposed to be about gratitude, rejoicing, and celebrating another year of humanity into a stressful meteor shower of economic obligations, frenetic to-do lists, politicized holiday parties, and empty slogans of spirituality. (Of course, the true spirit of the season remains intact as well, it's just that year by year it feels a little more distant and hollow from our mainstream cultural experience).
On top of all this, there is a little thing called YOUR FAMILY. The founder of the Shambhala tradition, Chogyam Trungpa, commented that it is actually possible that a person could be enlightened everywhere except around their family. Obviously, there are many reasons for this, and multiple psychological traditions explore these family dynamics.
Our family has the ability to provoke us more than anyone else on the planet, because they remind us the most of our own habitual patterns and karmic tendencies. They are the ones who remind us of our own stuckness. Of course, they could also be the ones who reminds us of our own lineage and wisdom, but it's hard to remember this when we feel triggered by the same old family dramas at the table.
All told, the holidays are not easy. Which really doesn't make much sense, when you think about it.
Here are four simple things I try to remember during the holiday season.
1. Be stubborn about your practice: whatever practice you do to stay grounded, balance, and open, whether it is meditation or yoga or running or whatever, you have to protect your practice time with discipline at this time of year. Even 10 minutes in the morning of being with yourself and settle you down. It's crucial. Be stubborn about making the time every day. Seriously, be stubborn
2. Forgive yourself: You are probably not going to handle the season perfectly. Your family might trigger you. Everything may trigger you. If you can practice forgiveness and gentleness towards yourself, whether it's by gentle reminders, mantras, or whatever works for you, do it. It's important to be able to face whatever happens with some sense of knowing that it's okay to make mistakes. Because whenever family is involved, we are probably going to make mistakes.
3. When you lose it on the spot, Breathe: when you notice yourself getting caught in a stressful moment, stop and take three deep breaths before reacting. This really works. Even though I practice so-called advanced Buddhist visualization techniques, in the heat of the moment, nothing works like three deep breaths. It's the most advanced technique I know.
4. Practice gratitude more than you practice consumption: Before you go shopping, take a moment to recall the spirit of gratitude and think about what you are already thankful for. This may quell anxiety with the consumption process. We should all remember the relationship between means and ends when we are shopping. A holiday is not a means to the end of boosting a consumer economy. Instead, an economy is a means to boosting contentment and happiness. If contentment is the point of shopping, then we should remember that we already have what we need. This might quell the inherent anxiety that takes over the human mind when we try to objectify happiness in "things." Don't get me wrong, I am shopping for presents too, I'm no monk. But the point of these holidays is not presents. It's our presence.
May we all enjoy basically good holidays.
May peace on Earth prevail.