As spiritual teacher Ram Dass famously said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Many full-grown, rational adults find themselves transported back to petulant, self-conscious teens when attending family gatherings.
“All of that unintentional wounding from our childhoods adds up to adult low self-worth, low self-esteem, feeling unlovable or only conditionally lovable,” says Ira Israel, an L.A.-based psychotherapist and meditation expert. He considers Ram Dass’ quote particularly poignant during the holidays, “because that is when all of our childhood wounds and core issues are reopened.”
Does it have to be this way? No. Practicing meditation can help lessen reactivity so that you can survive–and maybe even enjoy–holiday get-togethers without behaving in a way you’ll regret.
Santa Monica–based marriage and family therapist Lisa Lichtenstein notes that a cognitive behavioral approach can also work. “Depending on what the stress is about, I tell my clients to respond to the stress so it has an ‘exit strategy.’ For example, if a client is stressed about the commercial aspect of the holidays, I would have them describe the type of holiday they value and create it. A realistic response to the stress prevents it from ruminating in the mind, allowing it to release and resolve.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Sounds simple. But staying in the present moment with family members can make people yearn for distraction, whether that’s a drink, their phone, a football game, or just about anything. And refraining from judging family members for their politics, lifestyle, or attitudes may seem like an insurmountable challenge for many holiday party-goers.
“Mindfulness is by far the greatest tool for these situations because it teaches us to cultivate non-reactivity,” Israel says. “Not reacting to a dynamic that was established 20 or 30 or 40 years ago is definitely the best way to change it.”
Israel often gets emergency phone calls from patients over Thanksgiving and Christmas from the ground zero of holiday homes. “I always tell them, ‘That conversation or fight you’re having with your mother/father/sister/brother isn’t about what you think it’s about.’ And then we discuss things that happened in childhood—abandonments, betrayals, violations, humiliations, frustrations, not feeling heard, being sick of being told what to do and who to be, etc.” He encourages his patients to watch their thoughts, rather than reacting. “I like to give patients little phrases like ‘Wow… isn’t that interesting! All of my mommy/abandonment/trust (whatever the core issue is) buttons are being pushed right now!’ And then they can decide to take a walk or do something healthy instead of exacerbating the situation.”
So how can one remain calm and communicate with family members who may have opposing points of view, especially during this time of year? “Listening is key in communication, regardless of the content,” Lichtenstein says. “Allow one another to listen, without interruption, and then share your point of view. Try and make room for an opposing view by saying, ‘I see your point. Here’s how I look at the topic….’ And the phrase, ‘we can agree to see things differently,’ works as well,” she suggests.
ParamahansaYogananda’s Meditation Techniques
When Mukunda Lal Ghosh was born in Gorakhpur, India, in 1893, his parents’ guru predicted he would rise to spiritual greatness. Sure enough, he grew up to be Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi and the founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship. His 1946 book has been translated into at least 43 languages and more than 500 SRF temples and centers operate around the world, including several in the L.A. area.
Sister Draupadi, senior monastic, entered the SRF ashram in 1973. “When one uses scientific methods of meditation, such as the Kriya Yoga technique taught by Paramahansa Yogananda, it is possible to withdraw the energy and attention from the restlessness of thoughts, emotions, and sensory perceptions, and go within,” she says. “In that inner stillness, the meditator begins to experience a deepening inner peace. This state naturally makes it easier to get along with others and to deal with the uncertainties and stresses of one’s environment.”
Paramahansa’s system takes commitment. Beginners learn a series of energization exercises and concentration techniques before they’re ready for the advanced Kriya learnings. But you can learn from Yogananda without mastering Kriya.
“Yogananda often spoke on the subject of how to get along with others,” Sister Draupadi says. He advised getting away from people who are losing their temper. Go for a walk. If you come back and the person still wants to fight, take a longer walk.
Yogananda wrote in Journey to Self-Realization, “Refuse to fight. No one can quarrel with you if you noncooperate. Never supply more fuel to anyone’s anger.” Priceless words to remember when a relative picks a fight at a holiday dinner.
Pam Siegel, a marriage and family therapist in West L.A., specializes in mindful eating. Many of her clients are working hard to overcome eating disorders and body image issues. Holiday gatherings can be their undoing. “There are more and more parties,” she says, “and people’s schedules are very, very busy. We end up being on automatic pilot and not really paying attention to being present with people and our food. It just becomes kind of crazy. This is a hard time.”
So how do we bring mindfulness into stressful holiday parties and dinners? By slowing down, Siegel says. “Look at where you are, notice your surroundings, look at what you’re eating, notice your hunger/fullness level,” she advised. She suggests scheduling regular PAMs—shorthand for Pause a Moment—throughout the day.
“Set an intention about how you want to proceed with food at a specific party,” Siegel advises. She teaches her clients about the hunger and fullness scale, which helps people rate their hunger from one to ten. “Pay attention to your hunger fullness and what you’re really hungry for. Because sometimes when you’re not paying attention, you’re eating and you’re not really enjoying what you’re eating. And it becomes very mindless.”
Siegel says if you get overwhelmed by your family and find yourself overeating, temporarily remove yourself from the situation. “Realize food is not the answer to dealing with the relatives who are bugging you.”
Meditation/Mindfulness Resources in the L.A. Area
Lisa Lichtenstein is a licensed marriage and family therapist, NLP practitioner, and hypnotherapist. http://www.lisalichtenstein.com/
Ira Israel, psychotherapist, has produced several DVDs on mindfulness meditation. He also offers a free meditation app. http://iraisrael.com/
The Self-Realization Fellowship offers events and in-person and online meditation courses at its L.A. locations and many more centers around the world. https://www.yogananda-srf.org/
Mentors Channel offers online meditation resources. http://mentorschannel.com/
Pam Siegel is a licensed marriage and family therapist and mindful eating specialist. http://www.pamsiegel.com/mindful-eating/
Try an adult coloring book. Artist Emma Farrarons has a series of coloring books to promote mindfulness and reduce stress. http://theexperimentpublishing.com/tag/emma-farrarons
This article is a part of the 2016 Holiday - Radical Generosity issue of Whole Life Times.