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Posted on 12-02-2016

Handling Holiday Stress With Zen Meditation

by Tue Giac

 If the holidays are the happiest time of year, why are they so stressful? Many of us feel the pressure:  Will I have enough money for holiday expenses? Which presents should I buy? Did I bake enough cookies for all my friends? What should I bring to the holiday party?  How can I get through another Thanksgiving dinner with my in-laws? etc. The Zen meditation practice that I’ve learned from Zen Master Thich Dieu Thien at Universal Door Meditation Center has totally changed the way I handle stress during the holiday season.  It feels wonderful to have a measure of equanimity amid the shopping crowds, and while cooking or traveling. Here are just a few incredibly helpful reminders for handling the stresses of the holiday season.

1. Bring your mind back to your body
It may sound odd at first to “bring” our mind back to our body, but it is often the case that our body is in one place but our mind is somewhere else, busy with something other than what is happening here and now. The way to bring the two together is straight forward: Close your eyes (if the situation allows). Then, slowly inhale and exhale. When your thoughts start to wander, don’t follow them. Just recognize they are wandering and bring your attention back to your next breath. Again and again, return to the breath when you get distracted by anything. After following a few breathing cycles, you will feel your heart begin to slow, stillness calming it to an easier comfort level. The best part about taking  time to intentionally breathe is that you can do it anywhere -- whether you are standing in line at the store or putting the final touches on a three-course meal before the relatives arrive. It reduces the tension in mind and body down a notch. The longer you can give yourself to apply it, the more things settle down.

 2. Let go of the mental pictures of “how things should be”
Without noticing it, the images generated in our head can ruin the holiday season! Expectations turn up in many forms - from what we expect of ourselves to what others expect of us. You may expect the perfect gift will make someone love you more, or believe you can be in control of time spent with family, or be convinced that the holidays would not be complete without particular components. Expectations  are premeditated disappointments.  Our Zen Master teaches that our mental pictures are like dark clouds that prevent us from seeing and connecting with the sunlight behind them.  They are especially tormenting during the holiday season because we usually carry with us more expectations of how we want things to be than at other times of the year. When the unfolding reality does not match with our the pictures in our head (expectations), it causes us to be irritable, disappointed, and disillusioned. The problem is not the reality happening as it does, but the fact that it is not what we expected, and so we fight with the reality, judge it, and usually blame someone or something for the fact that things are not looking like the video in our minds. Many times the fallout from the disappointments doesn’t end there; they lead us to say unkind words, act unskillfully, or make poor decisions that all create even more consequences to deal with. Left unnoticed, these expectations become all-powerful. Just think of the amount of suffering - yours and the suffering of others - that comes from these unrecognized expectations; it is a call to Wake Up and choose not to let the holidays be defined by  our expectations. 


3. Develop an Attitude of Gratitude

Transform expectations into appreciation!  A couple of years ago while taking a morning walk, I began making a mental list of all the things I needed to do to prepare for the crowd I was expecting for Thanksgiving the next day - clean the house, buy groceries, put up the Christmas tree, set up the tables and prepare the food I’d been assigned. Just then I got a phone call from my daughter, upset because her car wouldn’t start.  She needed a ride downtown to an important appointment.  Suddenly my plans were completely turned upside down, and stress and irritation started to creep in. While waiting downtown for my daughter, I reflected back on the feelings bubbling in myself, and saw how they were just the results of things not going as I planned, not going in a way that fit best with my ideas and my personal comfort.  Things shifted for me, and my mind and heart re-opened. And then I noticed a lot of homeless people on the street that I had not seen just minutes ago when I was caught in my own inner conflicts. Suddenly I realized what a blessing it was to have a messy house to clean and a family to take care of, both an convenient times and non-convenient  times. When we are not trapped in the storms of our reactivity, what is happening in the present moment is full of opportunity and gratitude for what is there.

 When you find yourself with stress during the holidays, by catching that feeling or thought, you have a chance to return to your breath and de-rail the expectations that are moving like a train on a track. That is the pivot point that shifts  the situation from being the beginning of a long and awful day into one that can be happy, complete, and enjoyed to its fullest!

Zen meditation starts with self-discovery by bringing mind and body back together. From there we go further, to begin to transform the habits and reactivity in ourselves, until we finally break that whole system all together and Wake Up. To Wake up is to live every moment with unconditional happiness that is not dependent on our life circumstances, plans working as expected, or the season of the year.


For more information about Zen master Thich Dieu Thien, Universal Door Meditation Center, or Zen meditation, please check out our website at: www.universaldoor.org, see our Facebook page, or call 281-565-9718

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