Zen Holiday Survival Tips for the Woke (and everyone else)

Photo by Patrick Hendry

Holiday gatherings can be a difficult time for many of us.

The reason for this is simple:

It brings together people who really push our buttons.

These are the people that were present when the buttons were installed and they remember right where each and everyone of them are.

Tip 1. Leave your ‘ism’ at home.

I am not asking you to pretend to be somebody you are not. I am only suggesting that you recognize this is not an event or retreat of like minded people. Perspectives will come from all over the human development map. Yours is just one perspective and remember all truths are partial.

An often quoted saying is:

‘My mother hates that I am Buddhist, but loves me when I am Buddha’

You can make the substations to the above to fit your situation. The point is, whether they can express it or not, your being there is the point and purpose of going in the first place.

For most of you reading this, the heart of the conflicts is tribal in nature. You have a new tribe now and your life does not revolve around the family tribe of your youth. There are feelings of rejection, pride, self worth, jealousy, grief and on and on at play. Wearing your colors, be it a Bernie button or a Rolex will only make matters worse.

Recently there was a great commercial about the pre-visit drama of a son tucking in his shirt tail only to find his father on the porch with an un-tucked square hemmed shirt. Much of the drama is actually about this deep.

Tip 2. Enjoy the Petri Dish

Whether your ‘thing’ is a social issue, meditation, yoga, better living through chemistry, conscious capitalism or raw capitalism look at this gathering as an opportunity to gain some understanding of your position in the larger community.

The Three Tenets, are the creation of Bernie Glassman Roshi. Like many useful things, they are simple to understand and apply broadly.

Not Knowing — Go into the situation leaving all your pre-conceived ideas behind. If you claim or think of yourself to be ‘woke’ then you have some capacity to do this; but likely less than you think. Faking it until you make it is the best strategy here. If you want to practice, just say in your head ‘I don’t know’ as the reply to the next 10 things people ask you. If your more adventurous say it out loud and see where it takes your conversation.

Bearing Witness — Using all of your senses, observe what is actually going on. Habits form much of our routine, you can also see the group habitual dynamic. Who moves toward the noise, who moves away? Who goes toward the smells of the kitchen? How far apart are people? Where are the tensions? Take in the entire dynamic, without your normal filters and lenses of knowing.

Once you have taken it all in, ask yourself: Does my ‘thing’ have anything to do with what is actually happening right here, right now?

Wise Action — A wise action can only come out of being well grounded in what is actually happening. Not what you wish was happening or want to happen.

The holiday gathering is typically not the place where great transformation will take place. Don’t assert your ‘thing’ into every conversation unless it is highly relevant, set a high bar. If you are ask a direct question consider the place and time and what is the appropriate amount, before replying.

Don’t take the bait of open ended or loaded questions. Which is wiser: get into that same old verbal exchange, just walk away or wait for aunt Sally to interject again? None of these choices make for a Hallmark moment. Which is wiser is your call. As stated earlier, I am not asking you to be someone your not, just be aware of the value of your actions to your goal of getting through the day with minimal upset.

Applying the Three Tenets is about embodying our intellectual ideas; these are two different things. Practice is about bringing these two together, but that is a different post. While it is never easy, there is no reason you shouldn't take the opportunity to practice.

Tip 3. Look at it like a Retreat

I will use the analogy of meditation and leave the corollary to your ‘thing’ to you, but I am sure it exists.

You willingly sign up for day long retreats or workshops. A day of sitting, or Zazenkai as we call it, can be grueling. Four 2-hour blocks of sitting over 12 hours, sometimes in silence, asks a lot of your mind and body.

Your holiday is actually a lot like this, but better.

In a Zazenkai, you endure the schedule, aches and pains, boredom and other people hoping, searching and maybe even desperate for a moment of insight or peace. Any experience of ‘other than my daily grind’ is juicy. It may be huge, it maybe fleeting, it may not happen. But you go and you will go again.

Your holiday is actually a lot like this, but better. You can set the time frame; get there in the nick of time and leave at the first opportunity. Pre-announce your time commitment, the disappointed will survive and the rest don’t care anyway.

Divide your time into sitting blocks; an hour in the kitchen, an hour in the living room for the big game, an hour for a walk around the old neighborhood with your favorite cousin.

Endure the dharma talk, which you cannot relate to, delivered around the table while everyone stuffs their face. In the Zendo you would just listen, never interrupt and even if offered, seldom ask a question and certainly not make any counter arguments. Is 30 minutes of watching your mom talk with her mouth full really any more difficult than enduring your knee pain in that last sitting block?

Just as on the retreat, you will appreciate those moments you can take away. Later your thigh cramp is a distant memory and that moment, when you connected lingers.

Bonus Tip — Stay Away

Healing takes a while. If you are working on issues or trauma related to your family tribe, ask your self if going to the holiday event is going to serve you. Is it a situation where your healing can be inched forward? or will it just re-open a wound?

If you are not actually working on your healing and just hoping something changes, I would argue, that staying away is actually best.

There are people in this world that you would not have a meal with or you would cross the street to avoid. An ex-boss, a psycho-ex or that annoying woman from work would never be invited into your space. Why do you make exceptions when they are related to you?

Time and distance never hurts objectivity. Seeing what you still want or need from your family tribe and what is really only history, key part there being story, can only do you good.

May all your holiday seasons go well …