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Surviving Family Christmas – the mindful way

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

Christmas is the space to observe the effect the family can have on our wellbeing

Meditation practice does have some good pointers for surviving family Christmas. And most of them revolve around how potent families can be for showing up our foibles.

Ram Dass, faced by a rather smug bunch of his students, once said: “You think you’re enlightened? Go and spend a week with your parents..”

Ajahn Sumedho, perhaps the most pre-eminent Western teacher in the Thai Forest Sangha tradition, abbot of many monasteries, and often seen as a successor of Luang Por Chah, left the Thai forest to travel back to the USA to look after his ailing father for the holidays. When he opened the door to Sumedho, 6’7″ in his resplendent ochre robes, the father snarled: “I don’t care who you think you are elsewhere. Here, in this house, I am boss. Understood?”

Christmas is the most powerful time to observe that particular human magnetism that we call the Family Gathering and the effect it has on our minds.

It can be a queasy slide back into ancient emotions and compulsive behaviours

No matter what we have achieved, how far we have travelled, what we may have earned, spawned, created, built – the moment we step back into a family home or even a family group we can regress in seconds into being a teenager.

Of course, the regression may well be delightful – a welcome respite from the stresses of being a responsible adult. But more often than not it is a queasy slide into ancient emotions and compulsive behaviours that we prefer to think we have out-grown as ‘grown-ups’.

But staying wide-awake in the trance of a family Christmas can be transformative.

Everyone is feeling the wearisome burden of having to play a role

Mindfulness is a really good tool for navigating this time of year, wide-awake.

For most of us, childhood is a lot of sleepwalking. Doing things because that is ‘the way we do things’ and the collapse back into that state as an adult requires a certain amount of dissociation. Zoning out. And that really doesn’t serve anyone. We imagine that we’re the only ones feeling it – but the chances are that EVERYONE including your parents and your siblings and your children are feeling the wearisome burden of having to play a role.

If one person breathes differently and breaks the magnetism then everyone breathes fresh energy and perks up. We can shakedown and step out of the roles and treat each other like varied humans sharing a space, threaded through with memories and resonances to be sure, but something fresh and new too.

Here’s a few tips for surviving Christmas mindfully:

  1. before you set off for your family gathering, just set an intention to be mindful, to be alert to what’s happening in the here-and-now in 2022, not what happened every other Christmas

  2. be aware of your ‘table tilts’ – those global beliefs that tend to colour every other passing thought or event – are you expecting disaster, boredom, humiliation or “the best Christmas ever”? See if you can just notice that and open up a space for something else to happen.

  3. notice what ‘role’ you immediately assume or are assigned and see if you can do something different, offer to help in a different activity; volunteer to do more if you’re typically passive, or do less if you’re always stressing and overactive.

  4. get some fresh air at regular intervals (admiring the garden or picking rosemary usually facilities this)

  5. stretch your body and use your senses to anchor in the freshness of the here-and-now: really taste that turkey, savour the smell of the sherry. Look at the colour of things more attentively, stroke the material of the sofa and enjoy the feeling on your skin. Listen to the noises around the voices not just what someone is saying but also the sounds of the room, and the street beyond.

Everyone’s a little stressed. Cut them some slack. And yourself.

  1. keep tabs on your anxiety – it feels bad to be anxious at Christmas but it happens, so look after yourself, take yourself out of the room (the loo is a good space) and take 7 deep breaths, emphasising the out-breath each time.

  2. be alert to "dirty (dis)comforts": eating too much, drinking too much, sulking, shouting, and too much telly. These will be shielding you from some anxiety-evoking family dynamic, so feel the anxiety and stay with whatever’s happening.

  3. you might want to name the dynamic – that can be very liberating for everyone. Do it in a humorous way – that usually works best.

  4. be kind to yourself and everyone involved. Everyone’s a little stressed. Cut them and yourself some slack.

However magnetised your family dynamic is, there’s always space for some fresh movement within it. So I wish you and yours a wonderful and freshly constellated Christmas and New Year break. And if you’re alone for the holidays, I similarly send you great happiness and freshness into 2023. May all beings be happy…

I’d love to know your thoughts about surviving family Christmas. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter. Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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