For many holiday seasons over the past 15 years I’ve published variations on this essay. This year, in honor of the wonderful Buddhist sangha I joined at the East Bay Meditation Center, I’ve crafted this variation.
Ah, family. We can’t live without them, yet sometimes we can’t really live with them, either. Especially at the holidays, when we are all just a little extra keyed up.
For every ounce of deep, family-bonded joy we feel on the holidays, there’s sure to be at least one moment when we want climb into Aunt Nanny’s coat closet and have a silent scream.
Trouble is, children are watching. Elderly people you see once a year are watching. You really do want to keep it together.
Ah, grasshopper … this is actually a teachable moment. It goes back to the original Buddhist belief that there will be suffering. Not only will there be suffering, you are entirely at choice in how you engage in it. Author and teacher Robert Thurman refers to this phenomenon as ‘changing the channel.”
Changing that channel, of course, can be damn near impossible. So this is when help must be evoked. A prayer can be handy.
Like this one, the Buddhist ‘Extended Compassion Practice’ from the Divine Abodes. It goes like this:
If I cannot be loving in this moment, may I be kind
If I cannot be kind, may I simply notice
If I cannot just notice, may I not cause harm
If I cannot not cause harm, may I cause the least amount of harm possible
May I strive to not exile anyone from my heart
I particularly love that last point. Because I really hate it when I exile someone from my heart. It feels just awful … and like all of us, I do exactly that from time to time.
When my mother was still alive, there was always one moment every holiday when she’d be a complete outcast as far as my heart is concerned. I’d be filled with my hurt feelings, or my righteous indignation, or my screaming anxiety that at any moment she might blow up.
It really didn’t matter what happened, or what kind of story I told myself, the pattern was always the same. Show up at home, be genuinely delighted, and fairly delightful as well. But by Day 3, things had shifted. You just knew the fur was going to fly once the drinks got flowing.
Back then the last thing on my mind was whether or not I exiled anyone from my heart. Instead, I was full of my hurt and angry inner monologue, my carefully written story of injustice.
And yet, here – exactly here – is where I needed to be careful. This is exactly where I actually could have asked for help, and so been able to keep my cool.
I could have taken myself away at the appropriate moment, closed the door and meditated for a while.
I could have pulled out a piece of paper and done a little remedial journaling.
I could have asked God for help as I repeated a prayer like the one above again and again.
And most of all, I would have known that exiling anyone from my heart hurts me most of all.
But, of course, I didn’t have access to such good wisdom back in those days. What I had was a pattern of dysfunctional family drama in which I played a key role. Today, however, it’s a different story.
Now I know what to do when I feel myself getting anxious. I take myself away, and figure out what’s causing me upset. I allow myself to have whatever dark feelings I’m having away alone, in a nice safe place. And I give myself some space to have those feelings.
Then I remember that we’re all full of awkwardness, upsets, and the swirl of emotions. And most of the time, we truly do regret our hasty, unskilled remarks. The fact is, we’re all in this leaky lifeboat together, and so we must learn to row it together.
If we can live in a place of self-compassion, and general compassion to all around us, that rowing is going to happen a whole lot more easily. But, of course, that’s what this holiday season is really all about, isn’t it?
When I keep mulling over my feelings, and basting in the juices of righteous indignation, I do nothing more than dull my heart. That helps no one, least of all me.
A companion prayer to the one above puts it this way:
May I strive to not cause myself suffering
May I strive to keep my heart open to the suffering of the world
May I learn to decrease suffering in my own life
May I learn to decrease the suffering of others
This holiday season, if you are fortunate enough to be with family, may you honor yourself and them as the profound teachers that they are. And may you give them — and yourself — a great big break and a whole lot of love.
Most of all, here’s to your own fragile heart, my friend. May you tend it well.