The holidays are sometimes as difficult as they are wonderful. There seems to always be at least one incident of tension, discord or just plain aggression between family members. Why does this occur, especially during a time when we are meant to be loving and generous? Are there any tricks to rising above this kind of reactive behavior?
Michael Berg replies:
It is important we understand the kabbalistic view of families and the purpose they have in our lives. Each one of us came to this world to transform and to become a better version of ourselves. And it is this very same transformation that brings more Light, blessings and fulfillment into our lives.
This is why, in order to facilitate our personal evolution, we are each born into the exact situation that will best push those buttons of correction that need pushing.
The people within our family are there for a very important purpose – one that is not always comfortable (change is rarely comfortable). Their purpose is not always to make us feel good, but to push us in ways that enable us to grow and change.
When we see family dynamics through this lens, it gives us a greater appreciation for our family – even those aspects we find difficult and uncomfortable.
Now, for a practical, hands-on approach to those uncomfortable holiday moments, the Kabbalists recommend a special three-step process to make the most out of any incident of tension and aggression that may arise.
1. Resist Reacting
When we are reactive, we disconnect from the Light of the Creator. It’s not just, “Don’t be reactive because it’s the spiritual or right thing to do.” It’s looking out for our own best interest in the purest sense of the word. When we give in to anger, revenge, self doubt, etc. we are cutting ourselves off from the source of our blessings. Is it really worth it? In those moments of conflict, it boils down to a split second choice: disconnect from the source of our blessings, joy and happiness by being reactive – or not.
2. What is My Lesson?
Awaken an understanding of what it is we are meant to learn. Again, relationships are here to help us grow. There is a beneficial reason these souls are in our lives. We always want to be asking ourselves, “What is it about myself that needs to change so I am no longer bothered by this person’s comments or behavior?”
3. Communicate with Love
After you’ve gone through steps 1 and 2, you may find no need for a step 3 because it is likely you will have realized you were over-reactive and it was simply your ego becoming awakened. However, if you feel the need to speak about what’s upsetting you, make sure you come from a place of love and desire to make the relationship better. Even a true, important message will not get through if it comes clothed in reactivity.
During the holidays, may we all gain a greater appreciation for our family members by activating this new understanding of how the people we love the most have helped us grow through the years – and continue to do so.
And remember, no family is perfect.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is Co-Director of the Kabbalah Centre.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes replies:
Every year around the holidays, I brace myself for the onslaught of issues that arise for my patients. The weeks preceding the festivities are filled with anticipation, expectation and hesitation about being among loved ones and relatives. In the weeks after the festivities, my office is filled with stories of disappointment, family squabbles and often sadness that things hadn’t changed at home. What I have learned is that “wishes die hard”! No matter how old we are, and no matter what has gone on in holidays past, we all seem to have high hopes and deep wishes that this time when we go home, things will be different or better! After all, if we didn’t have these great expectations, why would we bother with difficult travel plans, the expense, and year-end stress that it takes to travel home to be with families. It is as if we develop amnesia as to the realities of our families and are surprised that the same old dynamics continue! Why are families so hard to deal with sometimes? Why is it that we fight or resist the very people who know our history, have been with us through thick and thin, and who love us pretty much unconditionally no matter what we do? Families have existed since the beginning of mankind. Families are an enduring and universal reality of being human. We are born into our families and we become part of an intricate web of the past history of our families (both genetically and socially). The family becomes the stage for countless first and second acts. We all have our roles. We all have our story. We take each other for granted but also rely on the familiarity of family in our lives. Perhaps this is why it is sometimes much easier and less conflicting to be generous and loving to those outside of our family. Perhaps this year we can practice trying to change the typical family holiday story. If we are aware that our families are what and who they are, we can try to go with the family flow rather than resist it. Try to change negative patterns wherever you can. It only takes one person to change the dance, for the dance to change. Find humor in the family dynamics where ever possible. Have a good friend on speed dial to vent to if you must. But even if only for one moment – bask in the HEART of your family and find comfort and peace. Happy Holidays and here’s to HOPE and GOOD WILL!
– Karen Binder-Brynes, Ph.D.
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, DrKarennyc.com, for more information.
Shaikh Kabir Helminski replies:
I had the good fortune of having some wise old friends gathered at our house in anticipation of the celebration of Rumi’s* Wedding Night – that is, December 17th, the night of his Union with God. So I asked them the question Gwyneth posed about the holiday season.
One friend, who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, responded this way: “The holidays are times of such high expectations. We have this ideal of what the holidays are supposed to be – full of love, joy and peace – but then we have to face the fact that perhaps our family did not meet that ideal. In fact we may carry wounds and disappointments that have accumulated over years, and the holidays are the time when some resentment bubbles up because the contradictions are so evident. We have to face the pain of those wounds. I’ve gradually had to learn to accept people as they are without expectations.”
Another friend is Jewish, but married into a Christian family: “I also encountered very high expectations around Christmas and those expectations were often disappointed. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that the greatest gift we can give to each other is the gift of our attention. It is very hurtful not to be seen or heard. Simply being willing to listen to each person, to be fully present, and perhaps to ask questions that will draw certain people out have changed the whole quality of the holidays for me. One relative, who used to feel very uncomfortable around me, completely changed when I simply learned to give him my attention.”
I will add only one thing to my friends’ wisdom. I would like to be as free as possible of all expectations of others and not feel the need to change them, but only myself. What I would like to change in myself are the judgments I make. Love is being free of judgment and expectation, and I would like to be in that state. Attention is a gift freely given, an expression of love. Meanwhile I would leave all final judgments to the Order of the Universe, knowing that It is not only Just, but also Loving.
*Rumi is the 13th Century Sufi Poet (the most widely read poet in the world today) whose work I translate and whose tradition I follow.
– Shaikh Kabir Helminski
Kabir Helminski is Shaikh of the Mevlevi Order, Co-director of The Threshold Society (Sufism.org).
Deepak Chopra replies:
Christmas Time, Back in Your Box!
The reason that family discord arises at Christmas is that we all go home and immediately get put back into a box. I mean a psychological box, which comes trimmed with stale memories and wrapped in resentment. Parents try to put their children back in the box of being ten years old again. Siblings re-enact squabbles they never grew out of. Nobody feels as if they are being treated for who they are now. You know that someone is shoving you back into your box when a sentence begins, "You always do that."
If you empathize with this picture, there are two things that don't work. Don't jump back in the box and pretend that it's okay. If you feel comfortable lapsing back into childhood, do it because you want to. But if you resent being stuffed back in your box, it’s up to you not to cooperate.
Second, don't fight to stay out of the box. It’s tempting to aggressively assert how much you've changed. But in reality, nobody's going to take kindly to being blamed for not noticing. Change speaks for itself. Don't feel that somebody has to validate it.
If you're not going to jump back in your box and you’re not going to fight against it, what’s left? Realize that everyone feels the same way you do. This may not be easy. There’s always one family member who jumps ahead of the pack to make everybody feel stressed. This person is the most insecure about being put into a box, and so they compensate by trying to shove everyone else back in. Try these tactics:
- Compliment everyone else on changing.
- Don't expect anyone else to praise you for how much you’ve grown and/or healed.
- Go along only when you feel comfortable.
- Walk away if the heat gets to be too much, but always come back in a conciliatory mood.
- Realize that you own your own issues. Nobody else does, and you don’t own theirs.
- Don't discuss any sore point when the air is tense. Wait until you and the other person are in a better place.
- Avoid acting ritualistically. If you say this Christmas what you say every Christmas, aren’t you putting yourself in the box?
- Don't remind anyone that they promised to act better this year. It only makes resentment worse.
What it comes down to is "don't placate" and "don't struggle." They are both futile tactics. If you can get beyond these two common pitfalls, the closeness and love that you have for your family – and they for you – will have space to blossom.
Deepak Chopra is the President of the Alliance for A New Humanity
(www.deepakchopra.com) Deepak Chopra's new book, Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment is available at Amazon.com.
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel replies:
Maybe the first problem is that we have expectations that it is going to be any other way than it is. Expectations lead to suffering and dissatisfaction. As soon as we get back together in a family situation we tend to fall right back into our old family patterns. Each member reverts to behavior that individualized us and allowed us to feel unique and special as we were growing up, even though we are no longer children. These deeply rooted patterns are very difficult to avoid and not get caught up in.
One of the things that we can do to rise above these old patterns is to be aware and remain conscious. A moment of awareness allows us to have a choice to either play out the old pattern or rise to a new level of behavior and conduct. We are then coming from a place of responding and being empowered rather than reacting and being not empowered.
How can we get to this place of responding? Think of your sitting body as outlined by a triangle, with the left corner (knee) representing our old and predictable self, the right corner (knee) representing the one that is free from self (pure being, free from patterns), and the apex as that which includes and transcends both of them. At the apex we have the choice and freedom to react or to respond. To react is to let the old patterns run the show. To respond is to be aware and free to play with our choices and have a joyful and happy time. One is complete freedom, the other is being stuck. At the apex, the bonds of family remain, but we are not tied to merely reactive behaviors and are free to enjoy each other at these special times.
– Dennis Genpo Merzel
Zen Master Dennis Genpo Merzel is the founder of Big Mind Big Heart, A Western Zen Practice, and head of Kanzeon Zen International. His latest book is Big Mind, Big Heart: Finding Your Way. See the goop Thanksgiving Newsletter for more on this process, or Big Mind Big Heart approach to life and consciousness in London on January 24-25, 2009 for an enlightening two day Weekend workshop.
Cynthia Bourgealt replies:
The chief culprit here – and it's SO hard to spot – is actually idolatry. Idolatry???
Please, I'm not talking here about worshipping statues or anything literal like that. I’m also not about to launch the standard rant against the commercialism that inevitably creeps into the holiday season; that’s just the convenient scapegoat. Idolatry in its real sense means trying to project the weight of our deepest spiritual desiring onto a finite object, and that’s the real place where many of us get into trouble.
As human beings, we all hunger for the infinite, and the holiday season is so powerful because it evokes our deepest idealism. We long for love to be real, for generosity, good will and peace to reign on earth. We long for our relationships to be full and whole. And so we inevitably try to make our family holiday celebrations into perfect mirrors of this yearning. We want it all to be perfect – the gifts perfect, the decorations perfect, the festival meal exquisite, the sense of warmth and goodness palpable. But the human objects can’t absorb the immensity of this desiring and they crumble under the weight of our unstated expectations. Attachment and sentimentality, those two telltale fragrances of idolatry, creep into the mix like poison in the punchbowl and instead of the perfection we yearn for, we wind up unleashing its caricature.
There are really only two cures for this vicious circle, and they both require spiritual courage and a willingness to buck the cultural tide.
The first is to take time to be alone and to “own” that hunger for what it really is: my own tiny piece of that vast human yearning for the infinite. It’s not so much a matter of “keep Christ in Christmas” as “Keep SPACE in Christmas” – space to think and feel deeply from inside one’s own skin. A meditation retreat or quiet day are great ways to enter the season if your life circumstances will allow it, but even a walk around the block by yourself, deeply breathing in the fact that YOU exist, down here in a tiny corner of this vast, starry universe, will go a long way toward restoring perspective and balance.
The second is to realize the scale of the thing. The holiday season is, by nature, a COLLECTIVE recognition of those deep-down spiritual hungers that move in the souls of all human beings and bind us together as a single human family. Thus, to try to celebrate the holiday focused exclusively on your own nuclear family is inherently an unstable strategy. It’s like trying to cram a whale into a goldfish bowl; no wonder the bowl shatters. To the extent that you and your loved ones can make a commitment to go beyond your own “tribal” boundaries this season, making a deliberate effort to reach out to others, to “strangers,” your celebration will find greater meaning and stability. As you are able to include within the circle of your holiday celebration the homeless, the hungry, the stranger, the concerns that hang so heavily in our world this year, your idealism will move beyond idolatry and touch the hem of that beauty and Oneness that really IS there, at the root of all the misplaced energy.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.