Harvard Health Publishing reports that with meditation, “The density of gray matter increased in regions governing such distinctly different activities as memory, self-awareness, and compassion, and decreased in the amygdala—the part of the brain associated with fear and stress.”
Self-awareness and compassion are two much-needed ingredients for a successful Thanksgiving dinner. We can’t prevent Auntie from overdrinking and bringing up old grievances, or our siblings from bossing or teasing, but we can pause, breathe and then chose not to react. This awareness and ability to pause before reacting automatically are really possible, and a skill anyone can learn from meditation and practicing stillness.
While sitting still, while concentrating on breathing without moving for, say, 30 minutes may seem like an impossible task right now, the practice of meditation and mindfulness can start with a few minutes and then increase toward a longer relaxing, calm, practice.
Though you will inevitably get a tickle on your left ear, or an itchy neck, or lose your concentration, that’s all expected, normal and OK. Instead of jumping up and giving in to the distractions, the practice helps you observe the itch, acknowledge the tickle, breathe through it if possible, or scratch, cough or adjust your posture and then refocus on breathing.
This small thing of pausing, breathing and learning to quiet your mind can be a revelation. It may be the first time in your whole life that you have not reacted reflexively to those tiny everyday irritations. With practice, this ability not to be reactive starts to spread into daily life. You may find yourself pausing before speaking, or reacting to someone who might be as irritating as an itch, to just breathe and consider whether you want to respond and if so, what’s the best response.
When pausing, breathing and becoming more aware, you can acknowledge what you’re seeing and not judge the other person as good or bad; perhaps your brother-in-law is trying his best to pick a fight while passing the potatoes. You may decide to pause and redirect the conversation, and not to take the bait, choosing a peaceful dinner over needing to respond.
I like what Zig Zigler said, “Every obnoxious act is a cry for help.”
Try to remember that when people are happy and content inside themselves, they don’t create drama or discord.
Just in case you can’t get your full Zen on before Thanksgiving, here are some strategies for holiday gatherings:
Expectations: People probably won’t have changed. To paraphrase the Zen masters – “Suffering is the difference between the way things are and the way we want them to be.” You are only in control of yourself, not everyone else, so surrender your expectations or your fantasy of the picture-perfect family gathering.
Acceptance – It is what it is. One of my favorite phrases when describing every family and all the complicated relationships, experiences and situations, is that “It’s a lovely mess.” Which is a non-judgmental way of acknowledging that we all have challenges, and it’s OK.
It’s Thanksgiving: Gratitude is the thing. Bring a loving-kindness meditation, printed out and say it together at the table. Its purpose is to send out good wishes and benevolence to oneself and then to others. The idea is to wish the good things we all naturally desire; first for oneself, then to family and friends, then out into the world to all sentient beings everywhere. It’s also nice to go around the table and ask each person to talk about what they’re grateful for and why.
Diversions: Help plan outdoor games or walking if possible. Indoor games like dining table soft ping-pong, jig saw puzzles, cards, can emphasize fun and make it easier to avoid touchy subjects. Looking through photos albums with elders is usually an excellent go-to and helps people remember family stories.
Not Taking the Bait: It’s hard not to be the kid in your old house, old patterns emerge. And hard not to be the Mom even when your job description has definitely changed. Pay attention to your body. Getting tense and about to react? Breathe slowly and fully a few times, and be open to not taking things personally. Start by observing, watching and deciding how to interact. Telling a joke that doesn’t make fun of others and laughing at yourself are all good ways to diffuse tension.
Harry up! I’m ready for Thanksgiving dinner!
Changing the Subject: Talk about food and pets. Share a recipe and ask to see everyone’s dog and cat photos. Laugh. Save up a funny story to tell. One of my favorite Thanksgiving rituals is to ask everyone around the table to answer this question:
Pretend that you’re stranded on a dessert island. We all want to know which of the following you would bring and why:
1 book or series
1 TV show or series
1 Movie or series of the same name
This really gets the conversation going as people relate to others’ choices and find common ground or new things to enjoy.
I hope that you have a Healthy and Happy Thanksgiving