Category Archives: holidays

What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

Feeling overwhelmed? Something’s gotta give!

Continuing our look at the Paramita of Resolve, I notice my resolve gets undermined when I get overwhelmed by too many commitments. I get exhausted, upset with myself, upset with others, and irritated when things don’t go smoothly. In that state, it’s not easy to ask really useful questions. Instead, I’m more likely to ask ‘Who’s to blame here?’ Which of course only stirs up more trouble!

A much more skillful question is: ‘How am I in relationship to my current experience?’ That question is so helpful. It helps me become present and be compassionate with myself and others. Being present and compassionate are my two intentions in life, so I feel a deepening of my resolve.

In that moment, that’s enough. But later, when I have time to reflect on how I set myself up for a situation. I can ask:

  • Am I juggling too many things?
    • Sometimes I just take on too much and need to either pace myself, get help or let one or more of those things go, at least for awhile.
  • What could I let go of without the world ending?
  • Are some of those things not even my responsibility?
  • Am I being a perfectionist, not seeing the bigger picture or purpose?

So many students over the years have shared their exasperation with family members who don’t appreciate all the work they put into creating an event, like a holiday meal. They sit around watching football and say ‘Ma, relax, would you?’  Really? Do they think the gravy stirs itself?

We want some appreciation for all we do and some gratitude. But we also need to look at our own attitude. What is our goal here? To have a warm fun family (or friends) gathering? Or to prove we are great cooks, mothers, aunts, hostesses; as good as (or better than) our mother, mother-in-law, or some other woman who seems so exemplary and does everything faultlessly with apparent ease. Do we think our family and friends could only love and value us if we are superwomen? Au contraire! Think of the people you love and value. Is it for their superior talents? Probably not. In fact superwomen tend to be difficult, distracted and much less fun than someone who knows how to relax and enjoy her friends and family.

So a question that might expose some surprising truths is:

  • What am I trying to prove here?

We can ask these questions without judging ourselves harshly or feeling like failures. This is a compassionate exploration that helps us to bring some joy into our lives, not a witch trial!

One student experimented with letting go of some of the things on her annual holiday to do list, and discovered that if a tradition was valued there was always someone willing to step in and make it happen. I remember when I was a teenager and my mother decided not to bother getting a Christmas tree that year. My brothers were gone, Dad was bah humbug, and she was working full time. I was so involved with my friends, I hardly noticed. But then it was Christmas Eve day. And suddenly I did care, but I accepted that the little Mexican tin Christmas tree stand would be our only decoration that year. 74b945961621129527533854016eb072Then my brother surprised us by arriving home from New York. He was shocked, shocked, I tell you, that there was no tree. He put down his duffle bag and said, ‘Stephanie, get in the car.’ And off we went down to buy the last straggly fir at the Christmas tree lot at Tam Junction for one dollar. (I’m not so old that trees cost a dollar, but it was the last one and the man was ready to close and probably felt sorry for us.)

Why do I tell that story? To show that it wasn’t the end of the world that my mother chose not to go all out for Christmas as she had in all the previous years. She was tired! And my brother stepped in to fill the void about a tradition he felt important to uphold. It wasn’t a failure for my mother but an opportunity for my brother to shine in his little sister’s eyes!

If no one steps in to uphold a tradition, perhaps its time has passed. For now. And no doubt new fun traditions will be created, ones with more ease, collaboration and congenial celebration. Can we be open to the possibility that we are not the only weavers at the loom of this life?

Of course, this is not just a holiday challenge. We can easily get overwhelmed by our daily lives. The to do list may seem endless. Recently we looked at Letting Go, and focused mainly on possessions, with the aid of Marie Kondo and her best selling book. But we can look at our involvements in the same way we do our possessions. We can think about each activity and whether it nourishes us or is just something we do to fill time, or is an obligation we have taken on but the heart is not in it.

As women, especially wives and mothers, when we evaluate our activities, we are more likely to toss out the one that is ‘just for me’, seeing it as selfish. We tend to put our needs at the very bottom of every to do list, and then never get that far. This is convoluted thinking. The activity that is central and nourishing, like meditation or yoga or walks in nature or time alone with a journal or a bubble bath or time at the easel or dancing, makes all else possible. Giving up on that nourishment leaves us unable to handle the rest with any sense of joy and generosity.

This happened to me in my early forties when I was just ‘too busy’ with work and trying to be an ideal mom, wife and daughter to find time to meditate. But without it, I got very ill and things (my body, my career) fell apart. I have never gone without meditating since. And everyone around me, from my husband and children to the checker at the grocery store, is better off for my resolution to practice every morning, whether they know it or not.

This is a worthy exploration. We may need to relinquish the idea that we can do it all, and ask for help. We may need to relinquish the need to be seen in a certain way, and accept this human experience as it is. We may need to relinquish the whip we have been beating ourselves with. But we need to be sure we don’t relinquish the very thing that keeps us present and compassionate.

By relinquishing what keeps us from our resolve, we make it possible to sustain that deepest intention.

Are you juggling too much? Please share your thoughts here.

Is your mouth getting you in trouble?

mouth-guardsThis time of year we can get into a lot of trouble with our mouths. What goes into them can so easily be too much, too rich, too sweet or too inebriating. What comes out of them might be thoughtless comments, backhanded compliments or casual remarks that are way off the mark. One way to stay out of trouble is to avoid all social gatherings for the duration. But if we do engage, do we have to stand guard, inspecting all content coming in and going out with a careful eye? Ugh! Where’s the fun in that?

Fortunately there is a way to stay out of trouble with our words and our eating without declaring ‘Bah humbug’. Compassionate noticing is joyous, not a duty call or an inner police state. The Buddha called it Wise Action and Wise Speech.

Wise Action during the holidays means being present in our bodies, finding balance, resting as needed, and gently stepping away from the buffet table when we are not hungry but find we are grazing to pass the time. We can wake up out of autopilot and really enjoy the party!

Wise Speech invites us we use three questions to gauge whether speech is indeed wise.
We ask:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

All three need a ‘yes’ answer for our speech to be wise.

One of my students said, ‘If I had to ask those every time I wanted to say something, I’d never speak!’
‘Is that true?’ I asked her. ‘Is everything you say a mean lie spoken at the most inopportune moment?’
Of course not. In my own experience her words are truthful, kind and timely, and I would bet that is more often the case than not. But hearing this set of questions can sound daunting, so I’m sympathetic to her concern.

We have all been witness to and perhaps participants in situations where unskillful words or the wrong tone of voice have ruined the mood at a gathering, sometimes creating a hostile atmosphere. Words are powerful! They can even put a relationship in jeopardy. A family dinner can be a minefield of potential emotional explosions. Having a few simple questions we can ask ourselves before venturing forth into conversation is actually a comforting gift. If what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we can feel confident in our participation. We won’t be left with that gnawing feeling of guilt, wondering ‘Was it something I said?’

But why are we ever motivated to say things that are untrue or unkind? We may be under stress, worried about something, in a hurry, reacting to a perceived slight, or blaming a loved one for our own grumpy mood. With family there can be a river of long-held gripes running just under the surface, so these gatherings can get out of hand quite easily. We may balk at the idea that we need to be mindful of our words. ‘I just want to be me,’ we say. But is mindlessness who we are? Is unkindness who we are? Is saying untruths who we are? Really?

Of course not. When we speak mindlessly we are most often not speaking from our true selves but repeating some social patter we’ve heard somewhere just to fill the space and pass the time. The ‘filters’ of truth and kindness are ways of finding our own authentic voice, not quashing it.

The question of whether what we are about to say is timely really has to do with being present with what’s going on. We take a moment to notice that the person we want to speak to has their hands full at this moment and would not be able to pay real attention. Or we may realize these are words for a private conversation and think better of blurting out something in the group. Finding the right moment doesn’t have to be a monumental task, but considering timeliness helps to insure a more productive conversation.

If you can remember those three questions, hooray. If that’s just way too easy, consider a few more questions you could use as well:

‘What is my intention here?’ You might notice any sensations in the body — tension, for example — that indicate you are probably motivated by fear. Not much good comes from fear. We tend to make enemies. We feel we need to defend our isolated sense of self so we use our speech as as a sword to ‘protect’ ourselves. It doesn’t work, of course. It just makes us feel more isolated as people pull away or attack in kind.

Another motivation can be exposed with the question ‘Am I trying to prove something?’ Maybe some sibling seems to have it all together, and it feels important to be heard and seen as the accomplished person you are. (Remember not to compare your insides with their outsides. You present a pretty polished surface too.) That’s also a good question to ask yourself when you find you are doing most of the talking. If people’s eyes are glazing over or their looking away, you may be thrusting information that was not requested and pontificating about something just to show how much you know.

‘Is this my story to tell?’ is a useful question that helps to curb gossip. All information we receive is not fodder for conversation. Sometimes people share personal information with us and we are not meant to pass it on! It is not necessarily a secret, but it is just not our story to tell. Much as we may want to ‘fill the void’ by sharing stories about others to mutual friends or family members, it’s really a destructive pattern. But if not everyone is able to attend a family gathering, then what are we supposed to say when Aunt Sarah asks after her absent great nephew? Maybe it would be skillful to anticipate that there will be such a question and tell the one who plans to be absent that if he doesn’t want you to share his contact information with relatives, please provide some (true, kind) brief answer for the question of how he is doing so that you can feel confident you are not speaking out of turn. If none is forthcoming, fall back on, ‘Oh he’s fine.’ and if the probe continues, smile and ask the inquisitor a question.


When being mindful of your words in general, you can also look more deeply at the first question ‘Is it true?’ Your first response may be, ‘Well of course it’s true!’ but if you look a little more deeply you might see that we don’t know for certain if it is true. Investigating the truth of what we hear and read, seeing things in context, considering the source, and trying to see the bigger picture are all useful activities when we are looking at information. If we are going to repeat it, we don’t want to do so mindlessly, just passing on fabrications, urban myths or unfounded rumors. In an election year, it is especially easy to align ourselves rather mindlessly with the candidates who we assume represent us, without questioning what we really believe.

Sometimes we talk just to avoid ‘awkward silences’. You might ask yourself, ‘Can I be at home in silence?’ It is often our discomfort with silence that prompts us to say just about anything to keep the conversation going. We get so myopic we don’t recognize how much else is going on besides conversation. When silence arises try resting in it, deepening into noticing sensation. What is present in this moment besides words? A relationship that only has words to bind it is waiting for a deepening that resting in silence can bring: a smile, a pat on the back, a hug, a look, a sensing into the emotional state of the other person.

All these questions are not to make us uncomfortable with speaking. They help us develop language that has more meaning, resonance and connection; and less misunderstanding, boredom, hurt feelings and confusion.

When we pause in our obsessive need to fill the supposed void or to prove that we exist, we might find that the best form of speech of all is really listening. Less focus on monitoring the mouth, and more on activating the ears!

May all these suggestions help you further enjoy your holidays.

‘Tis the season…

Happy Solstice! In this time of deepest darkness, all about us nature is quieting down, settling in, and going dormant. Meanwhile many of us are busier than ever, adding even more to our social calendar and to do list.

Whether we celebrate Christmas or not, most women can relate to the sense of wanting to create a happy experience for our families and/or friends. There is a frenzied quality in the air that some find harrowing and others find delightful. I remember my mother always saved some shopping to do on Christmas Eve, just to be out in the hustle bustle of it all.

It is definitely busier in the streets around the holidays. People are more distracted and do even less wise actions when driving.

I’ve been very conscious of making sure I drive safely, but the sense of overwhelm comes out in different ways. Yesterday I left my purse behind at a meeting as I was off to another meeting. Forgetting a purse for a woman is rare. Our bodies just don’t feel right walking out a door without it. But — what are the chances? — just the night before a friend left my house without her purse! What are the chances of that? Pretty good during this time of year it seems.

How do we stay mindful this time of year? We center in, reset our intentions to be present and compassionate. We pause, we slow down, we sense in, we breathe.

The theme of my local Toastmasters club meeting yesterday was (what are the chances?) ‘Inhale, Exhale’ — such a great theme. But did I pause to notice my inhalation and notice my exhalation? Did I hear the message? No! My mind was caught up in the task of taking meeting minutes, of being sure the guest next to me understood what was going on, and peripherally sensing the limited number of shopping days before Christmas. Sometimes we are just so caught up in planning and worrying that we forget what it is to really live, to really be here, to really feel that aliveness.

Yesterday morning I received an email from my Ohio friend Marita. We know each other from winters spent in Mexico, but we stay connected throughout the year because she’s a talented photographer who sends out group emails of her adventures wherever she is. This is the first year she has been stuck in Ohio, in the deepest coldest winter they’ve had in quite awhile. She’s no fan of the cold, and has always made a point to be in warmer climes. In fact, until now she didn’t even own a decent pair of winter boots. But yesterday’s email started this way:

“Frequent snowfall this month has opened a window into a new world for me.  A natural world in which the Who – What – When – Where of wildlife is revealed like magic.
“Reading tracks in snow can be intriguing.  Am I the first human on this trail today?  That dog is not on a leash!  Which direction did they go?  These footprints were made last night, then covered by a fine dusting of snow this morning.  How many deer were passing through?  Was that a squirrel?  No a rabbit.“

Her words were such an inspiration to me. When we let go of what we wish things would be like and begin to notice what is happening in this moment, magic happens. In this moment, whatever this moment holds, there is always something of value.

Again my mother comes to mind. She was of the generation that followed her husband’s career without question, and so she made homes in many different places. Once the home was set up and the children situated in school, she set about to establish herself in her new community. She found people with shared interests, did volunteer work for peace, one time became a realtor, one time got her college degree in marine biology and started a Greek restaurant. She was an amazing woman in part because of her ability to make the best of every situation. Now she didn’t pretend it was easy to make the transition, just as Marita’s emails from a week ago were a tad grumpier than this inspiring one. But in both cases, these women accepted what is happening in the moment, and instead of clinging to some alternative reality or criticizing this one, they found a way to discover what is it about this time and place, exactly as it is, that they could enjoy, engage in and maybe even love.

So often in life we think that something outside ourselves needs to happen for us to be happy. But this is simply not the case. For my friend in Ohio, for my mother in her many new homes, for us in this season that sometimes feels like a steamroller, we all have choices in the way we relate to what is going on in our lives.

If we can let go of wishing for things to be other than they are, if we can befriend what is happening in this moment, we are not ‘settling’. We are simply not relying on external circumstances to create our happiness.

So let’s give ourselves the gift of mindfulness this season: When things get scrambled, let’s pause, inhale, exhale, reset our intentions to be present, anchored in physical sensation, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others, especially when we feel overwhelmed, exhausted or sad. Let’s send metta, loving-kindness, as a healing balm for what ails us and what ails the world: May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace. In this way we sense our deep connection with all life as we breathe ease and joy. ‘Tis the season!

Wise Speech – Our Words Matter

You can see from our past two discussions that Wise Speech is not just about talking. It’s also about developing a comfort with a quality of loving silence and developing the skill of really listening to others.

Many Americans among blog followers had the opportunity to test these skills last Thursday on Thanksgiving with family and friends. How did it go? What did you notice? If you found yourself in the hot water of the sea of misunderstanding, don’t despair. Take notes! That was the test run. Chances are you have more social gatherings ahead!

One student reported that her Thanksgiving was so joyful because she spent more time resting in silence and less time thinking she needed to speak.

A friend recently reminded me that I once said that it’s helpful to consider ‘My mouth is an altar.’ The mouth, that place where speech is formed, can be treated as an altar where we lay down words in a thoughtful and sacred way. What words would we put on the altar? What words would be desecration of the honored trusting space between any two people? See if this is a helpful way to think about it for you.

Wise Speech is one of the aspects of the Eightfold Path, and so works with the other aspects. What is the relationship between them?

If we look at our cooking pot analogy, you’ll see I have drawn Wise Speech (and Wise Action and Wise Livelihood) as steam rising up from the pot of Wise View and its contents of Wise Mindfulness stirred by Wise Concentration.

This makes Wise Speech and the others seem rather effortless. If all the others are in place, then these three arise. Is this true? Could be, but how often are all the others in place? When we find that we have spoken unwisely, or have a strong impulse to do so, we can look back to our intentions, our effort, our view, whether we’re being mindful, and these other aspects provide us with insight into how unskillful language came about. This is really practical and useful!

One student noticed a striving quality to her efforts to connect with a friend, and a resulting difficulty with composing an email to her. This is such skillful noticing.

We can apply the same questions we have been working with throughout our investigation: What is my intention here? Do I have an agenda? Or am I truly coming from my intentions to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others? Then we can look at effort and the rest.

But there are a few more traditional questions we can ask about anything we have said, written or want to say or write:
  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it timely?

Let’s go through these three questions in a little more depth.

Is it true?
This question can create a spaciousness and balance of thinking that feels like fresh air. Even if it gets us to alter our wording from statement of fact to an ‘I think that…’ opinion, it helps to make our speech wiser. But the question opens us to re-examining thoughts and beliefs that may never have been looked at before. If we haven’t really looked at it, how can we speak it as if it is truth? Are we simply parroting what we have heard? Where did we hear it? Is this a source we know to be trustworthy? How do we know that?

‘Is it true?’ is the beginning of our exploration. It behooves us to keep the exploration going, to examine assumptions, to question everything. But for most of us the idea of questioning what we believe to be true is threatening in some way. Why? Because we believe we are what we think, what we believe, what we hold to be true.

This brings us back to Wise View and to the Five Aggregates we explored earlier in the year, that led us to understand that there is no separate self we need to defend or shore up. When we can sense our deep connection with all that is, how this human being life we are experiencing is impermanent, a fleeting conjunction of particles, a perceived segment of a much larger system of processes, and that our consciousness enables us to experience life in this moment as this seemingly-separate being with a skin-encased body, a name and other identifiers, then we can explore a simple question like ‘Is this true?’ with great freedom and curiosity. Because nothing in the answer threatens our being.

Is it kind?
What did the Buddha mean by this question? Is he suggesting that we should always be nice, don’t make a fuss, put up and shut up? Loving-kindness not about making nice in order to maintain some status quo. Instead it is rooted in a deep sense of loving kindness and compassion. So we ask whether we are speaking from Wise Intention or is there some murky motivation here?

Are we saying something nice to appease or are we expressing truth with an understanding of the power of words to wound or heal, to cut down or inspire, to create antagonism or collaboration. We cannot understand the power of our words if we perceive ourselves to be powerless.

The most powerful words in the world come from our parents. As children we craved approval and love, and were tuned into even the slightest hint of a tone of disapproval or dismissal.And we were aware when the words we craved remained unsaid. As adults we would do well to see our parents, whether alive or not, as mere humans prone to error like all others, with no instruction manual and little of what we now call emotional intelligence, and probably more than their share of challenges. We can divest the power we have given them without turning our backs on them. We don’t make ourselves impervious to their barbs by creating armor. Instead we recognize their torment and suffering, and feel compassion. May they be well. May they be happy. May they be at ease. May they be at peace.

What does this have to do with our own ability to speak wisely. If we are parents, it reminds us that these words we use which we may not even think about — that may be throw-away words as far as we’re concerned, which come from a person who feels rather powerless perhaps, and certainly not capable of any real harm — are in fact received by our children, even adult children, as more powerful and thus more painful than we can imagine. Perhaps we have raised children who are well-balanced and capable, but we cannot assume that even they are not still in need of our approval and attuned to read more into what we say than we may have intended. So be aware!

Whomever we are talking to, loving-kindness is an absence of the need to prove anything, correct or remake anyone. Kindness is not about satisfying our innate curiosity by asking nosy questions, but about taking an interest, and letting the other person take the lead in the conversation. Loving-kindness is universal, so our words are equally kind to everyone we encounter.

Is it timely?
What we have to say might be true, and it might be kind but maybe it’s an awkward moment to say it. For example, it might be true and kind to say “I love you’ to someone, but not in the middle of a business meeting. Or it might be true and kind to have a real heart to heart with someone, but not while they are in the middle of preparing a big dinner. Knowing when is the right moment comes from being attuned to the silence, being fully in the moment, and allowing the words to be a response to a spell of skillful listening. The right time reveals itself.

Since we are in festive season, a time when we often have so many social gatherings and succumb to unskillful speech so easily, let’s explore a few typical pitfalls we might encounter:

Drinking. Some of us rely on drinking to get us through social awkwardness, but that release of inhibitions is really just a release of good judgment. If you can’t drink in moderation, don’t drink. If you drink to calm nerves, then find more skillful ways to address that concern — self-inquiry, looking at the patterns of thought that keep you in fear; and practice, such as joining Toastmasters to get past the nerves.

Wit. Some of us so much want to entertain that we would prefer to be clever even if it cuts. Focusing on listening helps to remind us this is not a stage, we are not doing a routine.

Gossip. Getting together with people who share common bonds with others often ends up by discussing those not present in a familiar but not always loving way. Wise Speech doesn’t talk about people, period. Their stories are not ours to tell. The answer to questions about absent family or friends is, ‘Oh yes, it’s too bad they couldn’t be here. But maybe you can get in touch with them to catch up.’ Of course that family member might not appreciate you referring people to them, so a vague ‘Oh they’re just fine. Thanks for asking.’ might suffice. This is difficult, especially for women who gather together to solve the problems of the world, or at least their immediate family members, and find relief from worry by hearing the stories of other people’s relatives who are even more dysfunctional. There is also a way in which families weave a valued and supportive mythology that has benefits that the Buddha might question, but that the elders of ‘the clan’ seem to have a biological imperative to weave and share. That aside, gossip usually leaves us feeling a sullied. Try a period of not talking in the third person and see if it doesn’t free you! As for supportive sharing of experience, there’s no harm in using stories, just keep the people involved anonymous.

Generalizations, stereotypes. Without giving our words much thought we may find ourselves repeating things we have heard without question, or we might extrapolate a single incident into a judgment about a whole group of people. This is not skillful, since these statements by their nature are neither true nor kind.

Desire to ‘be ourselves’. We have this idea that being free to say whatever comes into our heads is desirable. That anything else is censorship. Why? Do we feel entitled to move our bodies anywhere in space regardless of whether someone is already there? No. When it comes to action and to speech, we are in community.

We may imagine a person — a friend or lover — with whom we can totally ‘be ourselves’, as in we can mindlessly blurt out whatever pops up. This only works if we have a set of disposable friends, whose feelings don’t matter to us. You might be able to think of a friend or two who you can be thoughtless in your speech and they don’t mind, but this only means that this is the kind of abuse they were raised with, and they interpret that as intimacy. We seek intimacy and sometimes rude cutting words make us feel at home. You might recognize that in someone you know, or in yourself. It isn’t wise or loving to continue that abuse.

Secrets as intimacy. Shared knowledge feels like a bond, but building a separate fortress for two or a few is clinging to fortress mentality, just letting the ‘special’ people in. The only people who want in, however, are those who are trapped in believing themselves to be special and separate, in need of constant reassurance and admiration. Healthy relationships are built on a deeply shared sense of connection with all life and respect.

Did you recognize any of these traps in your experience? Or others I haven’t covered here?

You are not alone! These are challenging and it’s good to remember that this is all a practice. We all just do the best we can. All of these skills we develop are in order to reduce suffering for ourselves and others, and create loving-kindness, compassion and joy.

Holiday Traditions in Transition

When I was fourteen, my brother was living away from home as Christmas approached. My mother decided that the Mexican tin Christmas tree would suffice that year. You can imagine how I felt after a whole lifetime of large and wonderful Christmas trees.

On the day before Christmas my brother arrived home as a surprise. What a surprise he got to discover that without him there was no sense of Christmas in the house. He said, ‘Stephanie, get in the car!’ and off we went down to the Christmas tree lot, found the last scraggly tree and brought it home, filling the house with the aroma and joy of the season. My hero!

My mother was not a Scrooge by any means. She had made our Christmases into fantasy wonderlands throughout our childhood, but she was clearly ready to move on. I wasn’t. My brother wasn’t. My father didn’t care either way as long as there was harmony in the household. The tradition was not allowed to die, even when the hub of that tradition wanted to let it go. Why?

Traditions are a contract between a group of people, in this case a family. For any change to happen we need to come to some agreement about what works best for everyone involved. This is a conversation that needs to happen well in advance, before the wheels of holiday habits begin to roll to their inevitable end.

Feeling the need to change some of your traditions? 

While it may be too late to change traditions this season, here is what we can do right now. Using our developing skills of awareness and compassion, we can notice what works and has meaning for us in our traditions. We can notice what aspects of the holidays we dread. Where is there just too much? Where is there not enough?  We can write down our observations as note to self, and have a discussion with family and/or friends as to how to modify these traditions to suit the needs of all. We can plan the conversation for, say, next September.

In our discussion in class, we shared some of the transitions we had made and some we would like to make. The main transition for women our age is letting go of being the hub of the holidays, letting our children, many of whom are parents now, take on the role of making the holidays as they want them to be. They need to establish traditions that are sustainable for them and their children.

When our children were young, we moved into a house and inherited from the previous owners a toy train set up to go under the Christmas tree. How fun, we thought! But that first Christmas we were constantly dealing with whiny complaints that the train had stopped and numerous times a day we had to carefully sweep the track clean of fallen needles from the tree. The next Christmas the train did not appear under the tree. It was an unsustainable tradition. Our youngest son has little children now, and what to my wondering eyes should appear under their tree but a whole Disney tram set up circling around the tree! Our ten-month old granddaughter is now seen by all as godzilla, crashing and trashing the tram. Hopefully it will survive this season so she can enjoy it the next!

We may think that making a transition is a difficult conversation to have. But what was clear from our discussion was that if one person wants change, others are also ready to change, to step in and take on more of a role. Had my mother had a conversation with us rather than simply absenting herself from the whole scene, we would have been happy to create Christmas! It wouldn’t have made as good a story to tell now, but it would have been more skillful.

The biggest gift we can bring to any gathering during the holiday season is the simple sense of being present and compassionate. We can model being compassionate with ourselves by being honest about our limits. When we do this for ourselves, we are teaching our children to take care of themselves as well.

Staying present in the moment seems impossible when gatherings need to be planned and prepared for. Our whole thinking gets focused on a single point in time somewhere in the future.

What’s the dharma way?
First we can remember that this is not a challenge that Buddhist monks have to face, though there must be some monks and nuns who are in charge of planning celebrations such as Vesak, usually in May, that celebrates the Buddha. Just as we do, they probably get caught up in the desire to make everything right. Perhaps they rotate responsibilities and they want to make sure they do the job at least as well as if not better than their predecessor. Out of generosity, they want everyone to have a positive experience.

And, just like us, when they recognize that driven quality of seeking perfection, they bring themselves back to the moment anchored in physical sensation, and send metta to themselves — May I be well — and to any others who are foremost in their thoughts, especially to those who seem to be working at odds, creating obstructions.

What other skills do they bring to it that we can use as well?
First, they know that they are not solely responsible. They can delegate, share the workload. We can do this too. To do so we need to be sure that the others feel this is something worth doing. If it is just our agenda, something we are trying to promote, but others are just along for the ride, then we can’t expect them to engage fully. For any gathering, there has to be a shared sense of value.

We can’t give other people our sense of values, but we can listen to theirs and see where there is agreement. This is important information for the creation of a celebration that has meaning for all. Perhaps the other parts that have meaning for us can be shared with like-minded friends, or as a personal thing we do for ourselves. As grandparents, for example, if our children don’t like to sing, we can still share it with our grandchildren. Passing along traditions often goes from grandparent to grandchild. Parents have so much on their plates already.

Second, the monks and nuns never put any activity above the importance of meditative practice. In this way they are supported and guided by the dharma. They don’t set it aside as inconvenient. They fit any seasonal activity in their pre-existing practice calendar. Even if we are not able to make it to class, we can have a dedicated practice. Even if we are ill, we can take our rest in the dharma.

Visiting Buddhist monks at Spirit Rock tell the gathered sangha that as householders our path is much more challenging than theirs. We practice meditation, study the dharma, have insights, etc. while living in the world of endless distractions. They admire our ability to do so. While we don’t want to get cocky about it, we also can appreciate the truth of this and give ourselves compassion as we go about our daily duties.

We could go on retreat for the whole holiday season and forget about the whole thing. Or we could go traveling and do likewise, while observing the traditions in other cultures, watching how families come together at this time of year, while we sit in a sidewalk cafe and observe the hubbub.

Those are certainly options. Take a moment to see if the thought of such getaways makes you feel longing or horror at the very idea. This gives you useful information to work with, if not for this season then for next year.

If the idea of giving up the holidays all together is abhorrent, yet you find yourself still dreading them, then spend some time really noticing what aspects you are dreading, and which aspects give you joy.

As a young parent, I also remembered that in my childhood, I was so focused on Christmas morning that I was miserable when it was over. The ‘Is that all?’ wasn’t a sadness over the end of presents as much as exhaustion from switching from future-leaning mode into post-Christmas moment mode. So as a young parent I set up a series of smaller traditions that brought the joy of the season and spread out the fun. We had neighborhood caroling, a day of cookie making, an adventure into the country to cut down the tree at the tree farm. The result was that our children seemed less frantic about Christmas itself. It was a very special day, but it wasn’t the be all end all that it had been in my childhood.

But how do we enjoy THIS holiday, beyond using it as investigative information for next year?
First, we take care of ourselves. In this season of darkness, there is a craving not just for eggnog and social interaction, but for a quiet down time for ourselves. There is something in our nature that wants to hibernate like a bear, wants to burrow in and take more naps. For some this may be seasonal affective disorder, where the lack of sunlight alters their chemical make up and brings on a sense of depression. But the rest of us are also affected by the changing of the seasons in one way or another. All of us can be mindful and find ways to assure that we are balancing our activities for our physical and emotional well being.

Second, we can say no to whatever social event doesn’t excite us. By being present with what arises when we look at our invitations or our calendar, we can gauge what we are doing because we think we should, and what we are doing that nourishes us. Why we think that others benefit when we drag ourselves to events where we don’t want to be, I have no idea. It’s a distorted idea of duty, perhaps? Would you want anyone at your party who didn’t really want to be there? It makes no sense.

If there is a sense of not-enoughness, rather than a sense of being overwhelmed, we might consider adding some personal traditions that have meaning for us individually. We might want to find a way to give to those in need during what can be a very difficult time of year. What local community programs are in place that we could join in order to help make the season bright? 

We might feel the need to spend more time in nature. Rain and snow won’t melt us! Bundle up and get outside!

Whatever we do during this season, we can send a lot of metta as the best gift of all. When we are among friends, family, coworkers or fellow shoppers we can let go of the entanglement, and enjoy the experience of simply being alive to be part of it all. There is something magical about silently being fully present to look, listen and savor this fleeting gift of life in the faces and voices of fellow beings, with all their quirks, and yes even the jerks! It is a pleasure beyond measure.

Whatever your holidays and whatever your traditions, I wish you every joy of the season.

Inner Exploration with Awareness and Compassion

This week in class we did an experiential exercise on compassion. After meditation practice, we sat in the resulting inner peacefulness and each explored our circular thinking around the holidays or anything else that might be causing stress right now. Meditation offers a timelessness, so that we can see in ‘slow-motion’ how the thoughts spiral from statement to associative image representing a past experience perhaps to an associative emotion to an associative sensation, etc. By creating a spacious field of awareness — not pushing anything away but making an effort not to become entangled in them either — we give ourselves truly valuable information — the best gift of the season!

After the exploration reveals something of interest, we focus on holding what has been revealed in compassionate curiosity. Developing compassion and loving-kindness is the most important aspect of any self-exploration. Without it we are like bulls in the proverbial china shop. With spaciousness and compassion we can discover the ways we activate suffering in our lives and are able to hold it gently and see it clearly, from a spacious perspective that understands the universality of whatever we notice. In this way what appears is not threatening, nor is the idea of letting it go. It is simply a natural mental phenomena that arises and falls away. Even the tightest tangles, as uncomfortable as they are and as easily as we get lost in them, are still just natural mental phenomena — in most cases leftover patterns that were created out of perceived need, but that no longer serve us, and in fact now keep tripping us up. This ability to see clearly with compassion is the greatest gift of meditation for self-exploration.

In our class discussion afterwards we explored the patterned reactions to situations, people, etc. in our lives that we noticed arising. This kind of discussion is quite different from sharing the ‘story’ — the details, the ‘he said, she said’ — that we might talk about with friends or family. Here we share the universal experience of our process of exploration and discovery rather than what can amount to gossip and too much distracting personal information. In this way we are all helped to recognize the common patterns we all experience rather than getting caught up in the personal particulars that vary from person to person, that might throw us into the pattern of wanting to offer advice to ‘solve’ a problem. We are practicing the development of a practice that brings about skillful long term insights. Solving a specific problem leads us to believe in the ‘if only’s of any situation. If only I could fix this, then I would be happy. Baloney. We are not about fixing situations. Another situation will arise that seems just as problematic. The skill we are developing is how to be in skillful relationship with all the situations that might arise in life.

No particular situation or person is the cause of our suffering. The cause is the pattern of reacting and the tangled circular thinking that create sticky cobwebs in our minds that are simply universal mental phenomena. It is for the most part fear-based reactivity developed when we were young that is no longer useful, as we now have more skillful compassion-based means to resolve challenging issues and dissolve suffering. It is not who we are, so we can look at it dispassionately, without feeling threatened, accused, or fearful of losing identity.

Here we are approaching the winter holidays that for so many of us add a whole additional layer of stress and expectation to an already busy life. One student noticed that she felt she had to give a ‘command performance.’ This resonated through the group, and perhaps it resonates with some of you as well. It prompted a whole discussion of the ways in which we demand perfection from ourselves. If this does resonate, either around the holidays or simply in life, bring to mind occasions when you have had a really great time at someone else’s home. Was it because the silverware was shiny or the guest soaps and towels perfectly aligned? Of course not. Often the best times are had in homes that feel less formally prepared. Energetically there is less tension, less special effort for us as ‘guests.’ The hosts are genuinely happy to see us, are fully present to enjoy being together, and this makes us feel more welcome than any special preparations.
We can also remember that we are always, even if we are completely unaware of it, modeling behavior for others. If we demand perfection of ourselves, are we not saying that this is the standard by which we will judge them? So letting go of this ‘command performance’ demand on ourselves releases it from others as well. Now that’s a real gift!

How do we become skillful during such periods without losing the joyful social nature of the season? This is something each of us can discover through noticing what aspects bring joy, what aspects bring anxiety, and where do we over-effort to little effect. It’s skillful to make notes about what worked and what didn’t, a message to ourselves ten months into the future. And it’s skillful to keep the conversation open and in flux about what traditions are working for our ever-changing families and other groups we may celebrate with. Tradition is heart-warming but may become oppressive, the way a cozy room can, at another time, seem suffocating. Notice what’s true for you and inquire what’s true for your loved ones!

Our meditation practice creates the space to quiet down and notice what is happening in our minds and in our lives. Once we see clearly, with infinite compassion, we are empowered to shift, enlighten and illuminate every season of our lives.