Over the holidays even the happiest of homes can have some difficult dynamics. Little annoyances such as decades-old bad habits and relatives’ fixed expectations of you as a younger version of yourself can detract from what should otherwise be a joyous and celebratory time. Families tend to have their own stuck energies, which can, thankfully, be shifted.
There is a Buddhist children’s story that can be helpful here. A long time ago in China, a monk climbed up a tree. He sat there meditating, largely undisturbed by the outside world, sometimes imparting thoughtful advice to people passing by. He became known as “Birdsnest” for his high roosting ground.
At one point a local ruler heard of Birdsnest and set out to meet him. After a long and arduous journey, he found the correct tree. He shouted up at the monk, telling him that he had a very important question to ask of him. He waited for Birdsnest to reply but no response came. He continued anyway: “This is my question. Tell me, Birdsnest, what is it that all the wise ones have taught? Can you tell me the most important thing the Buddha ever said?” He waited again.
Finally, Birdsnest called down. He said, “Don’t do bad things. Always do good things. That’s what all the Buddhas taught.” The local ruler, not surprisingly, became annoyed. He yelled at Birdsnest, “That’s your advice? I knew that when I was 3 years old, monk!” Birdsnest looked down at him, his compassion radiating out. “Yes, the 3-year-old knows it,” he said, “But the 80-year-old still finds it very difficult to do!”
It’s worth considering Birdsnest’s advice. We know we shouldn’t respond to irritation with irritation. That would be a bad thing. But we often forget that when mom is standing there telling the same story from our childhood for the millionth time and we’re feeling embarrassed. When you notice irritation start to arise you can revisit your 3-year-old training and try to do something good for that person, something helpful. This shifts the relationship dynamic in unexpected ways. See if the way that person reacts and interacts with you changes over time as a result.
Here is a short meditation for working with irritation around the holidays, that helps us only do good things while among family:
1) Take an upright posture, feeling the ground beneath you. Elongate your spine, but be careful not to stress the muscles in your shoulder or back; let them relax. You want to feel uplifted yet relaxed when you sit down to meditate. Turn your attention to your breathing, both the physical sensation of the out-breath and the in-breath. When thoughts distract you, come back to the breath.
2) Bring to mind a time when you acted in a manner similar to the way the difficult person in your life is acting. It may be a time when you felt put on the spot, jealous, or angry. Just be present with whatever visceral feeling arises, both how it felt to act in that way and how it feels now that your family member is doing the same.
3) Let that potent emotion arise in your body. Don’t run from it. Don’t suppress it. Just let it be. Relax with the emotion itself.
4) After a few minutes, move from exploring some of the seemingly habitual and frustrating things you and your family member have in common to more general assumptions about them. Contemplate the phrase: “He may be confused, but he is a loving person.” When your mind drifts off onto other thoughts bring your attention back to that phrase.
5) See if there is a shift from feelings of frustration to feelings of gratitude. When you are ready, reconnect with your breathing then conclude your meditation session.
Ideally this contemplation will help you find common ground with the difficult family member. You can look past the difficulty and realize that underneath whatever discord may arise is a framework of love.
Developing compassion for your family in this way is not a patronizing activity. It is not “I am so enlightened, and you suffer so much, so I will have pity for you.” It’s the realization that we’re actually all the same. We all act in similar ways at times. We also all want the same thing: joy. I wish you a joyous holiday season, and I hope this contemplation helps you be kind to yourself and others.