12/13/2012 12:16 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Finding a Peaceful Path Through the Holidays

The holidays are upon us. Peace on earth, and goodwill to all. Right?

Or perhaps it feels more like stress at home and ill will toward family?

You want to enjoy your families over the holidays, but you end up feeling "not quite at home" with the people to whom you are supposed to be closest.

You want to lay the table beautifully, buy the right wine, give your children ethical, sustainable gifts, and do it all with your hair brushed and your lipstick on straight. But you end up giving into pleas for the new Barbie, don't even know which is the right wine, and never seem to leave enough time to brush your hair before the guests arrive.

You want to feel generous, maybe even a little bit indulgent, but you end up feeling financially squeezed, maybe even a little bit scared.

This mix of high expectations, financial pressure and family tension puts even the easiest of our relationships under strain. We start wishing the holidays would be over and done with. And they have barely even begun.

There is another possibility. This year, take the peaceful path through the holidays.

Every year I lead a group of people who have decided to follow "the peaceful path" through the chaos of the holiday season. I share with them practices I learned while living and working in places like Afghanistan and Gaza -- practices for finding inner peace when chaos and conflict are raging around us.

One of those practices is gratitude. This is a very simple practice, but it is powerful -- and easily misunderstood. It is not about forcing yourself to "feel grateful for what you have." Instead, it is the practice of finding one thing you already feel grateful about and staying with that feeling for a few minutes.

The aim of this practice is to bring into your body the physical and mental benefits of gratitude. Research indicates those physical benefits include lower blood pressure, a healthier immune system, better sleep and a tendency to eat healthier and exercise more. The mental benefits include feeling more alert, awake and alive, and experiencing more pleasure, joy, happiness and optimism. Not bad for a few minutes a day, huh?

Here's how it works:

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit -- in a chair or on the floor. You can even lie down on your couch or bed if that feels more comfortable.
  2. Close your eyes, let your hands rest comfortably and for a few moment bring your attention to your breath, to find a steady and smooth rhythm of inhale and exhale.
  3. Let your attention wander through your body, feeling the sensation of clothes against your skin, the contact between your body and the ground or seat beneath you, the air moving in and out of your nose as you breath.
  4. When you feel connected to your breath and your body, bring to mind something or someone for whom you feel grateful. It might be something very small, a kind word or gesture from a stranger this morning. Or it might be something very big. The only rule is that it is something you already feel grateful for. You don't need to force yourself to feel grateful for something because you think you ought to.
  5. As you bring your attention to this situation or person for which you feel grateful, notice the effect that gratitude has in your body. Feel where it brings softness, where it brings aliveness, where it brings more space.
  6. Enjoy! You can stay with these sensations of gratitude for as long as you like. I like to sit with this for at least a few minutes.

"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, 'thank you,' that would suffice." -- Meister Eckhart

For more by Marianne Elliott, click here.

For more on stress, click here.