Reduce holiday anxiety and survive family gatherings with an unconventional approach.
As we move through the holiday season, we may often find ourselves unconsciously or consciously putting up our defenses in an attempt to protect ourselves from mental-emotional pain. Perhaps we feel stressed by extra holiday obligations or find ourselves in close company with negative-minded relatives. Before steeling yourself and gearing up for Aunt Barbara’s backhanded compliments, however, consider taking a different approach this year.
What if you tried a different strategy this holiday season? And what if your best defense was no defense? What if you showed up with an undefended heart?
I suspect you may be thinking, “How will I feel safe? I can’t go into certain settings unprotected—I need my healthy boundaries.”
I’m not suggesting a passive or a Pollyanna approach. What I am suggesting is using some alternate tools in an attempt to get alternate results. In place of a defended heart, you will have the tools of mindfulness, self-empathy, and empathy for others.
My meditation teacher, Robert Beatty, often talks about living in the space of an “undefended heart”. I thought about that recently while I assisted a Nonviolent Communication training retreat. In this retreat, I had the exquisite experience of being able to be present in that space of an undefended heart. I noticed that several other people who attended were able to rest in that space, as well.
Several times that week, I found myself making eye contact with Roxy, one of the trainers. We would not have to say a word. There were just these two wide-open hearts embracing each other, sometimes from across a large room. Compassion, love, and joy effortlessly flowed back and forth. Incredible.
The main component that helped me reach and remain in an undefended heart was compassion. But, what allowed the compassion to arise and stay present? In two words, empathic presence. The more I mindfully attended with empathy to what was alive in me and in those around me, the more capacity I had for compassion. There was this wonderful experience of being in an inexhaustible pool of compassion, joy, and love.
Now, I do not always bask in such easy access to compassion. Like anyone else, I sometimes require some “excavation work” to find it. Even then, it can be difficult to hold it. That said, what I do know is without mindfulness and skill to know how to open my heart-mind, it is pretty much impossible to experience it.
Here’s how to start:
1) Practice mindfulness by maintaining awareness of whatever arises in the heart and mind without judgment or criticism. Not everything that pops into your head will be loving or compassionate. With mindfulness though, you get to be in choice about how, or even if you want to respond, rather than being in a reactive state all of the time. In essence, you can allow whatever shows up in your life to be there and still choose Love.
2) Apply self-empathy. As you walk through each moment, turn your attention to the felt sense (i.e. feelings) of what is happening, what is alive. Really tune into the feelings that come up in response to Life. This will allow you to listen to what is calling for more attention or to express the joy of having enough attention and to respond with celebration.
3) Apply empathy for others. Rather than focus in the moment on your own feelings and longings, turn your attention to the other person and listen (without judgment) to what is expressing itself in her/him. Bringing your full empathic presence forward, guess what s/he might be feeling and to what the feeling might be pointing. As the person experiences really being heard with no judgment, acceptance, and empathy, the infinite spring of compassion may open again, sparking beautiful connection and transformational creativity.
With either skill (giving empathy or being in self-empathy), you can experience the openness and ease of the undefended heart.
But what if, despite your best efforts, Aunt Barbara is still too much for you to handle this year? If you find yourself stimulated or triggered, return to self-empathy. Find a quiet space. Investigate the feelings without all of the stories upon which your mind likes to dwell.
Scan your body to find out where the energies of the feelings are and be mindful of them. Once you are in touch with them, listen to find out what those energies are telling you about what in you wants attention. Maybe it is a longing for consideration, respect, shared reality, equality, companionship, and/or hope. Whatever it is, hold it with your attention and let your natural capacity for compassion awaken. Once you are in that space, notice how open and how undefended your heart is. And celebrate!
I would invite each of us to set the intention in our hearts and minds to practice mindfulness and make the effort to let go of judgments or criticisms of others and ourselves. We are humans. Judgments and criticisms will pop up in most of our minds. No worries. Just notice them and, as I invited you to do, let them go.
You can, of course, offer this as a gift to those loved ones around you who may find themselves especially challenged during the holidays. Put on your “empathy ears” and use the skill of reflective listening to help the other person experience genuine empathy and compassion. Hopefully, you will both find your ways to the undefended heart in each of you and truly be able to experience the happiest holidays yet.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Doyle Banks
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: via the author