Family Bliss on Thanksgiving: Myth or Miracle?

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of family togetherness, nourishing food, and abundant gratitude.  Sometimes we lose sight of these goals when we find ourselves in the midst of challenging family dynamics.

Even for the most accomplished adult, a cutting comment from your mother can cause you to feel like an awkward, insecure teen.    How can you enjoy yourself when your mom is critical, your dad is drinking too much, your kids are rambunctious, your grandfather is heatedly discussing politics and Aunt Martha is forcing more turkey on you?

A Buddhist monk summed all this up perfectly when he said to his student, “Think you’re enlightened?  Go home for the holidays.”  However, this year can be different.  Try these six simple exercises and bring the “thanks” back into your Thanksgiving.

  • Take 5 – If you feel your buttons getting pushed and your blood pressure rising, excuse yourself and go into another room.  Then do the following breathing exercise:  inhale for the count of five, hold for the count of five, and exhale for the count of five.  This calms your body, stops the spiral of stressful thoughts, and makes it easier to go back out and face the gathering.
  • Child’s Play – If a relative’s behavior starts to bother you, shrink them in your mind’s eye to a version of themselves at age five.  Imagine them as a small child who is vulnerable and dependent.  This exercise develops compassion for them and makes it easier to tolerate their annoying habits.
  • To Life – Initiate a toast at the table acknowledging that this year is unique and never to be repeated.  Life is always changing.  Maybe next year one of these people will no longer be alive, or you’ll be at someone else’s house for dinner.  At the very least, none of you will ever be this age again.  Recognize the impermanent nature of life and honor this unique moment in time.
  • Watch your Mouth – Don’t say anything negative!  Some families make it a sport of complaining about the weather, the nation, the economy, the neighbors, each other.  Resist the temptation to join in.  When you put your focus on negative thoughts, you create a negative mood.  Instead, respond with a positive comment.  And if you cannot say anything positive, then don’t say anything at all.
  • Jack n’ Chill – If the situation really gets tense, go to the bathroom.  Run cold water over your wrists for a minute.  If possible, put a wet washcloth behind your neck.  Imagine your emotional fires being doused.
  • Count your blessings – Before the family gathering begins, spend a few moments mentally listing (or actually writing down) at least 10 things that you love in your life.  Think of big obvious things like your health, your relationships, aspects of your work, your home.  Think of smaller pleasures too, like hot coffee in the morning, sunshine in your kitchen, the smell of lilac.  And don’t forget subtle appreciations, such as for your vision, for the ability to walk, for living in a country of freedoms and abundance, etc.  If you feel overcome by jealousy or frustration, remember your list of blessings.

Using these techniques will help you open your heart and keep your cool.  May your only concern be whether to have second helpings of pumpkin pie.

Originally Published in US Daily Review – November 21, 2011

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