In the past, the holiday season has been difficult for me. Although I love my family very much, there has been a lot of pressure from them to have “good” holidays. We were always busy, going to the houses of grandparents, traveling to see family, and working on a schedule. The holidays were stressful for me as a quiet kid who needed time for the nervous system to reset.
This carried over into my adult experience with holidays. Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or a birthday, I find myself feeling anxious or stressed without much provocation. I perceive myself as the black sheep of the family, and am sometimes treated as such. It’s often tough for me, and I struggle to hold true to myself and my practice as I begin to act in a way that is in line with how I perceive I am being treated.
This holiday season, I found myself having a completely different experience. I really made an effort to tune into the fixed view I had of myself and my role in the family, and had a delightfully insightful experience.
Noticing the Thoughts
I was getting ready to go to Thanksgiving with my family when I noticed a very clear thought arise in the mind: “Here we go again.” The mind remembers my past experiences with holidays, and was preparing itself before any discomfort had arisen. When I noticed this thought arise, I paused and did a brief body scan meditation. I noticed some anxiety and tension in the body, which is quite normal for me when going into these uncomfortable social situations.
This time, I was able to see that this was just a thought. Rather than letting the thought control my experience, I was able to practice a bit of mindfulness of thinking. Simply by noticing that the thought was present, the relationship to it changed.
We can actually question the thinking mind. Is this thought true necessarily? Where does it come from? Is it coming from aversion, clinging, or delusion? Is this thought fueled by habit energies or mental patterns we experience? In this case, the mind was recognizing that this has been a difficult time in the past for me, and trying to prepare me for the upcoming experience. However, it wasn’t 100% accurate, as I did not know entirely what the future held.
When these thoughts arise, we can be with them with awareness. What causes this thought, and what does this thought cause? This is an intimate look at karma as it relates to the thinking mind. By observing the thought process, we can see how our thoughts are formed and may be perpetuating suffering.
Recognizing the Behaviors
I notice that when I have the expectation of difficulties, the mind looks for difficult situations on which to focus. I am on edge mentally and physically, and often act in less wholesome ways in these moments than I would like. By focusing on the small but difficult moments, I find myself experiencing more and more agitation and dis-ease.
On the other hand, I’ve found that practicing mindfulness has helped me see the thoughts that arise, and how the behavior that follows may perpetuate suffering. When I am able to recall my practice and the Buddhist teachings, I can return to my experience and see how the thinking mind and habit energies are influencing my present-time experience.
This holiday season, I made an effort to behave in a way that I knew to be wholesome. Wise Action is one factor on the Noble Eightfold Path, and the difficult moments offer fertile ground for practice! By tuning into my actual experience from moment-to-moment, I was able to see that most of the unpleasant experiences were in my mind. The family was rather joyful, met me with kindness and respect, and showed immense love for one another. Like any family, there were arguments and snarky comments, but the experience was overall happy.
We had the opportunity to go on a catamaran to Belize with Elizabeth’s family for Christmas, which was a huge change for me. It was relaxing, joyful, and just beautiful. Although I found my own mind tending toward anxiety and stress surrounding the holiday season, there wasn’t anything happening outside the mind and body to cause stress. I continually returned to the experience of joy. In Buddha’s Brain, one of our favorite books about meditation, Rick Hanson talks about the power of recognizing and rejoicing in the moments of happiness.
We can dramatically change our behavior and experience by simply being with the joy rather than resisting it. Although some anxiety was present in the mind and the body, I participated in activities, was present for the happiness, and allowed myself to do so with my present experience. This doesn’t mean we should ignore how we are feeling or pretend we are happy when we’re struggling, but we can continue to act and behave in wholesome ways that cultivate joy and ease.
Being Open to New Experiences
Through this holiday season, I keep noticing how much the mind holds to a fixed view. I think I know how the holiday season “should” be, or what my experience will be. However, my experience was quite different than anything I had anticipated. When the thoughts arise or we find ourselves looking for the difficulties, we can really question this closed view.
There are of course times in which it is useful to recognize a situation is unsafe or harmful. We shouldn’t go walking into super dangerous situations with the hope it will be different this time. However, there are times in which our minds and bodies are trying to tell us something is unsafe and we’re not truly as unsafe as we may think. Through anxiety and stress, we are being told that difficulty is coming, but it doesn’t actually come outside our own mental and physical experience.
One thing that can really help with this is open awareness practice. As we learn to meditate and sit in mindfulness meditation, we can tune into experience with beginner’s mind. Instead of just believing the thoughts and what we think may happen, we rest in a receptive open awareness, allowing ourselves to experience whatever arises.
One of the benefits of meditation practice is that we can become less reactive and more responsive. When we find ourselves thinking, we can leave the thoughts be and rest in openness to a new experience. Before coming to practice, these thoughts were quite pervasive as I allowed them to dictate my experience. With mindfulness practice, I can see that these thoughts are just thoughts, and only one part of my experience. Instead, I notice the thinking mind and return to openness to experience the joy, sorrows, pain, and pleasure that arises.
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