Meditating over the Holidays — 10 Tips

You’ve developed a nice meditation practice — congratulations! You sit every day, you face the stresses and strains of daily life with calm and equanimity, and you feel that, finally, you’re beginning to get some kind of handle on your patterns.

Then… you go home for Christmas. Or Christmas comes home for you. Either way, now more than ever a budding meditation practice can fall apart. But this is actually the very best time to practice:

  • First, the disruption in your daily routine will challenge your discipline. If you can keep your practice solid through this, it will be stronger than ever.
  • Second, contact with your family will probably bring up a lot of old emotional skeletons: what a great opportunity to work with compassion and awareness!

Here are 10 tips to help you make the most of it:

mediation-snow1. Decide each night when and where you’re going to meditate the next day.
Then do it. Early in the morning is best, as holiday schedules are unpredictable — best to get to it sooner. Bonus: meditating in the morning will probably set you up for a calmer day.

2. During overnight visits, let your hosts/guests know you will take time out to meditate each day.
Be flexible — don’t compel your hosts to build their day around your meditation schedule. But let them know you will need that 30 minutes at some point each day.

bolsterzafuhandle3. If possible, take your meditation cushion with you.
Bringing it along supports your commitment as well as your seat.

4. Adopt a really obvious meditation posture, like sitting on the floor or facing a wall, when you sit in a non-private space while others might come around. That way, if Uncle Ralph wanders in while you’re meditating in the family room at 7am, he’ll (hopefully) know not to start chatting with you.

ear5. Off the cushion (and on!), practice deep listening.
This is especially helpful when visiting people who have a lot to say. Imagine that your whole body is an ear, and feel the vibrations of what they are saying moving into and through you. Listen to more than their words: hear their tone, their body language. Most important: include in your attention your own voice and inner responses.

6. Take a mindful walk every day.
Whether alone or accompanied, open your senses to everything that’s there: sights, sounds, smells, sensations. Give your walk your full attention.

grumpy7. When you get grumpy, use the opportunity to practice sending and taking.
Imagine you can take all the grumpiness in the world into you in one in-breath, leaving everyone else free of it. Then imagine putting all the nice things you enjoy into one out-breath, and give it all away to others.

8. Take one mindful breath.
When you think of it, whatever is happening, jump into the gap created by your awareness and take one mindful breath.

yikes9. When you mess up, let go!
If you forget to meditate, or meditate “wrong”, or behave like a jerk, that’s your cue to just let go. You have no control over the past, and you can’t control the future: it’s what you do right now that counts. So don’t waste time beating yourself up or constructing stories about how bad/good/indifferent you are. Just carry on, take the next step forward.

10. Imagine every encounter will be your last.
The only thing we can really count on is impermanence: death can come to anyone at any time. Bearing this in mind can help you focus on what’s truly important.

Working with Your Inner (and Outer) Critic

One of the best ways to avoid experience is to project material out onto others. Let’s take being critical as an example. Criticism is often a family disease, passed from generation to generation, which is why it can come up pretty sharply at this time of year.

In my case, I learned to be very sharply critical in a number of ways, including nagging, nasty jokes, “straightening people out”, and so on. When I nag my husband or kids, I sometimes have strange moments of clarity wherein I hear my mother’s rhythms and tones in my own voice. A sobering experience!

So I look inside, very carefully, when I experience the impulse to criticize. I find that internally I have a critical voice that is talking almost all the time, telling me things I should be doing to improve myself or the world. Under that, discomfort…an anxiety, a sense of things being out of control, of having the responsibility to sharply put things back into “order”. Under that, there is anger. Anger that the world is not cooperating with my need for things to be “in order”. Under that, there is fear. Fear that if things are not all “in control” I will “lose everything” and “be abandoned”. And under all of that, a sense of being vulnerable and alone.

So it is the energy of this fear that cascades upwards through my mind and finds an outlet in criticism. By allowing it to do so, I’m missing the opportunity to simply experience the fear in its true state: simply as energy. I am cultivating the habit of nagging (when has nagging ever helped?). I’m causing suffering for those around me. I am teaching my sons the habit of nagging as well, just as my own mother taught me. But worst of all I’m falling deeper asleep, even as I feel so clear and “right” about my judgments.

When people are critical, they are generally feeling that internal critical voice. This, ironically, makes them hypersensitive to criticism themselves, because anything anybody says that could be seen as criticism is amplified many times by their internal critic, and the only way to silence it is to fight back, defend ourselves and prove them wrong. None of it works. None of it relieves our suffering, it simply distracts us from the pain of feeling what is really there.

When we have a meditation practice, it’s typical to start to see all kinds of futile and hypocritical qualities in the behaviour of our friends and family. But observing the foibles of others without recognizing their resonance within ourselves can turn us cruel. So if you experience criticism, or notice the impulse in yourself to criticize, hooray! Here’s an opportunity to practice. Try to look at the pain beneath the interaction: their pain, and your own. You don’t need to fix it, or transform it, or figure it out, or do anything at all. Just acknowledge that it is there, and observe it. Feel it resonate in mind. Let it come, and then let it go, because it will. Things always come and go, that’s their nature.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen

How to See Things We Can’t See

One of the toughest challenges in any kind of learning is that we have to go from not seeing something to seeing it. We generally don’t relate to “the world” itself, but to our mental model of it (“This is a chair, a chair is for sitting in, it’s upholstered in leather, that will feel nice if I sit in it, etc.). It saves a lot of time, but also tends to exclude new possibilities.

When we encounter a situation in which our mental models don’t seem to be working — on in which our intentions aren’t matching up with results — we need to look with new eyes. That can be really hard. How can you see something that is, effectively, not even there (at least according to our current mental model). Here are some ideas to help you do this.

Do a body scan: While considering your current view of the situation, scan your body for the sensations that are present while you’re thinking about it. What tightens up? What goes numb? What do you notice, what are you ignoring? It helps to treat it as a real scan, moving your attention from the top of your head, through your body, to your feet.

Use don’t-know mind: Remind yourself that no matter how much you do know, there is a lot you don’t know about the situation. See if you can connect with a feeling of not-knowing, a kind of curious wonder — I call it “don’t-know mind” — and regard the situation with that feeling in mind.

Cut: Hold in your awareness two things: the situation as you see it, and your own emotional reaction to it. Imagine these two things as though they are linked. Then mentally take a sharp sword and cut the link. Then look again.

Do an inventory: Search parties use a grid to ensure that they search all areas, including those areas nobody thinks are important. Your “grid” can be any conceptual model of the world that is intended to describe it entirely: for example the Six Realms, 10 Non-Virtuous Actions, 7 Deadly Sins, etc. Look at the situation and ask yourself how each of the items is present in it.

Pretend you’re someone else: Simply taking a different point of view is helpful. If you’re in a dispute, try arguing the other side. Or just imagine how other people, real or imagined, might view the situation. What would Donald Duck do? If the Queen were looking at this situation, what would she see?

Ask someone else: When imagination fails, you can always just go and get someone else’s point of view by asking them.

Our patterns are not sentient, they have no real awareness, but they are a bit like mad androids in a sci-fi story. While we see things through the filter of our patterns, there is no possibility of growth. Fortunately, life has a way of surprising us into dropping our guard. These above ideas are ways you can drop your guard voluntarily, rather than waiting for surprises.

“I want to learn to meditate. Where do I start?”

Start with a teacher. A good teacher can communicate skills, clarify background information, answer questions, and help you test your understanding.

Prepare to do some shopping around for someone that “clicks”. There is no one “right” teacher, just a lot of options, some of which will work better for you than others. Most teachers teach or work with groups on some level, so the simplest thing to do is to google around for meditation classes in your area and ask if you can sit in on a class. That way you get to watch the teacher in action with different people. How does he or she treat the students? How do the students treat each other? Is there a hierarchy? Are you comfortable with what you see?

Be clear about what you are looking for, and don’t be afraid to ask how a teacher or group will fit in with your goals. Observe the teacher carefully: look at their website, their literature, their demeanor, listen to the words they use. What is being served? For example, some religiously-oriented teachers may at least in part be serving the perpetuation of their cultural traditions. This doesn’t mean they can’t help you, but in a teacher-student relationship, the progress of the student should take priority. Will it? Watch the interactions, and judge for yourself.

Many people that you meet in a particular class or center — even the teachers! — are committed to a given philosophy or school and know little or nothing about other schools and ways of doing things. Don’t fall into that trap yourself; be broad-minded, sample a lot of things, and understand at least some of the differences before making up your mind. Talk to a number of teachers and/or visit a number of groups. How are they different? How are they alike? Where do you feel comfortable, and why? If you want to grow, you need to challenge yourself, so a certain amount of discomfort is a good sign. But examine it closely. Is it just the discomfort of trying something new, or is your gut trying to tell you something’s out of balance? Follow up your hunches with careful observation, and ask a lot of questions.

Finally, it is reasonable to pay for teaching, generally at about the rate you would pay for a group class in some other discipline or for consultation with a psychotherapist (if one-on-one teaching is what you want). Although some teachers still follow the Buddhist custom of offering teaching on a donation basis, remember that “donation” does not mean “free”. If a given teacher or group IS offering teaching for free, is something else expected in return? What? Why?

Once you find a teacher that seems a good fit, commit yourself to follow his or her instructions carefully for at least a few months. It will take this long to really assess at least some of the possible long-term impacts of the practice. An on-again, off-again meditation practice doesn’t get you very far at all.

Further reading: Here is a link to an article by Ken McLeod about selecting a teacher, and here is another, longer one, that goes deeper.