This is the time of year when many families come together, for extended gatherings or just a get-together or three.

And as wonderful as that may be, it can be a trying time for many, for lots of reasons: old conflicts coming up, painful emotional patterns, people criticizing you, lots of people coming together to make for stressful chaos, loss of control of your daily routine, party planning and preparations adding stress, and more.

How do you deal with this?

Recently a reader asked me to write about “dealing with the emotional difficulties/potential conflict of joining family at the holidays and keeping your energy sustained, positive, without ‘faking it’.”

Here’s what I suggest: use family gatherings for mindfulness training.

It might seem like the best training ground for mindfulness is a peaceful Zen temple … and in many ways, it is. But just like target practice isn’t the same as actual combat, the zazen cushion is not the same as being in the middle of crazy family gatherings. It takes practice to a whole new level.

What and how can you practice? Try one of these practices at a time, when Uncle Rob is telling one of his boring stories:

  • Check in with your body and breath: In the middle of things happening, take a few seconds to turn your attention to your posture, how your body is feeling, whether you’ve been sitting too long, etc. And follow your breath a couple of times. This is a centering practice that brings you back to the present.
  • Notice your self-centeredness. When people frustrate or irritate us, it’s often because we are focused on what we want, how we think we should be treated, how we want everyone else to act, how the world should be. It’s important to notice this, when these feelings arise. Notice that you’re focused on yourself and your wants.
  • Ask: What does this person need? Instead of thinking about what you want, practice asking what the other person needs. See how you can help. Put yourself in their shoes. Feel their pain, without judgment.
  • Just listen. Sometimes what people need is for you to just listen. This is something we don’t often do with 100% attention. Practice listening without judgment, without thinking about what you’re going to say next. Empathize with the person, imagine what it’s like to be them, feel what they’re trying to communicate.
  • Watch your thoughts arise. Be an impartial observer, watching your thoughts come up from some hidden well. Did you really expect that thought? Can you predict the next one? What thoughts are coming up? Are these thoughts you, or just things that come up, like a passing cloud?
  • Let go of control. Stress often comes because we want to control how things go. Of course, we don’t really have control — we just think we do, or want to have control. Practice letting go and letting things happen. Practice not resisting what happens. Practice being happy no matter what happens.
  • Make this task your universe. When you’re pouring your coffee, make this action and this moment everything. The entire universe. There is nothing else but this. Now do it when you are talking with someone. When you’re eating that fruit. When you’re walking up the stairs. When you’re kissing your honey.
  • Practice appreciation. Things are stressful because we wish they were different. But things are pretty amazing just as they are, without being different. We just need to turn our attention to how things are, notice what’s there, see the beauty in that, appreciate it. This takes constant practice.

You can’t do these all at once, but take one of the practices and work with it for a little bit, then try another.

One practice at a time, one moment at a time, you’ll become better at mindfulness in the midst of chaotic family gatherings. And then you’ll see the beauty that was there all the time.

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