Are you ready for Christmas?

Imagine being told that one day next month you’ll get together with the people who know you best, and that you must be happy and loving towards them all. What’s more, your feelings can’t be contrived; you must be sincere and honest.

What? You can manage what you say and even—to a certain extent—what you think, but you can’t decide how you’re going to feel on a given day. How are you expected to make that happen?

The first thing you can do is not set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. If you hear yourself saying, “Aunt Betty better behave herself this year,” you’re putting your hopes in something beyond your control. Better let that one go.

Then there’s the selfless and impossible promise, “No matter how Brother Jack criticizes me, I won’t feel hurt.” Good luck with that.

Or, “If I just shut up there’ll be no fighting and no one will get hurt.” Sure, except that your bottled-up frustration will erupt one way or another.

Another thing you can do is prepare to have your buttons pushed. You know you don’t have to react to Jack’s jibes, but he has a knack of delivering them just when your guard’s down. You can’t reinvent yourself at a moment’s notice. You have to practice the art of not reacting so it’ll be ready for you when you need it.

There’s no need to compromise yourself. Not reacting doesn’t mean becoming a doormat. It means taking a deep breath, letting go of your habitual reactions and instead coming up with an intelligent response. If that response is novel or surprising, even better. When it comes to family, everyone expects you to stick to your role so that they can stick to theirs. Stir it up a little. If you act differently, people will react differently too.

How do you do that? Practice. All the willpower in the world won’t enable you to change who you are when it’s inconvenient to be you, but if you think about it in advance, you can become more than you think.  More open, more calm, more relaxed. There are more possible dimensions of you than you can ever imagine. Here’s a great way to open up new ones: each bedtime recall one thing you’re grateful for. See how it makes you feel. Do this every day and watch the momentum build week by week.

Rather than being stuck in old patterns, you’ll have more options. You’ll be prepared for the holidays in the best ways possible, and you won’t have to put on the cheer. It’ll be real.

What Do You Expect?

expectationI’ve heard it said that kids today have an overblown sense of entitlement. I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with today. I grew up in the 1960s and felt very entitled. It comes, I suppose, from being born into a land of plenty, from taking for granted a square meal and a roof over your head. I also anticipated a life of meaningful and profitable prospects. Far from feeling just plain lucky, I considered it my right.

How could anyone in this fabulous country of Canada (there are many others) not grow up like this? Still, it’s not easy to change human nature. We take what we’ve got for granted. In other words, we’re born into expectation: the belief that we will or should achieve something.

Ideas have little power over human nature, but they do have a little. Having an idea doesn’t change a thing, but applying it consistently to the way we approach life does—gradually and profoundly. It’s what sets us apart from other animals. This is meditation—not sitting fashionably crossed-legged but sustaining an idea, massaging it and seeing it from different angles. You don’t need to be weird about it. You might be washing dishes, jogging or staring at passing clouds and still be meditating. Personally, that’s when I do it best.

When our expectations are defeated we feel overwhelmed, oppressed by something beyond our power. It creeps up on us when we’re lost in the gap between what we expect and what actually happens.

The power of meditation lies in exploring the gap between what we expect of life and what it delivers. No one is exempt from the pendulum swings of joy and despair, but we do love to think we are. Wishful thinking is as much in our nature as entitlement.

Entitlement feels good, but when our expectations are defeated we feel overwhelmed, oppressed by something beyond our power. It creeps up on us when we’re lost in the gap between what we expect and what actually happens.

We say life is overwhelming, but there’s no such person as ‘life;’ it’s just a way of speaking. And blaming ‘life’ for feeling overwhelmed is a cop out. Instead, we can see how our expectations set us up for disappointment, and then sustain that thought. That’s how a bit of reflection can seriously change the way we handle things. When the idea is translated into action, things move in new directions.

Caroline and I recently left our home of fourteen years and moved into a rental while our new house is being built. One delay after another has frayed our nerves, especially since the rental’s not at all adapted for Caroline’s MS. We feel overwhelmed every day, and we deal with it every day. On the whole, we balance each other out. When she’s ready to scream, I squeeze a smile out of her. When I’m ready to explode, she reminds me that I can handle it. The fact that we regularly put on our Quiet Mind Workshops helps keep our heads on straight.

This may not look like much, but to fine-tune your human nature you absolutely need a support system. We need people we believe in to remind us to believe in ourselves. We also need strategy and the guidance of an appropriate teacher. That might be a religious figure, a martial arts teacher or a coaching mentor. It all depends on who you relate to. The rest is a matter of practice.

Five Things About Relationships

Life is all about relationships. If you don’t believe me, imagine your life without any. Almost everything good and bad that happens to us concerns our relationships at home, at work, and at play.

Who would disagree? But ask how they manage their relationships and most people are at a loss for words. Only when things go wrong do they try to fix it by focusing on a single issue, like money or honesty, and approach it as a logical problem.

Understanding how we relate is one of the most useful things we can learn to make our life more fulfilling. There are five crucial elements.

If you don’t expect much of others, you probably don’t expect much of yourself

1. Self-respect

If you don’t expect much of others, you probably don’t expect much of yourself. It’s seems easy enough to accept bad behaviour or put up with someone you don’t like in order to keep the peace, but there’s a cost. You’re entitled to decent, respectful relationships, and to drop bad ones.

2. Recognize your feelings and how you process them

Are you sometimes unsure what you’re feeling? You’re not alone. People lose touch with their emotions when they stubbornly expect something from life that’s not going to happen. When you don’t admit it, something shuts down. It’s surprisingly easy to lie to ourselves and avoid the unpleasant truth, but it’s unhealthy. Stay in touch by talking frankly about your feelings—but not just to anyone. That’s where ingredient #3 comes in.

Listen to yourself

3. A support system

We are social animals. Our greatest asset is the ability to think, and that depends on our ability to communicate with others. We are who we relate to. We all have some sort of support system, ranging from toxic to nourishing. When we accept the unacceptable, it’s usually because we’re afraid of the alternative: a change of career, a divorce or another huge life change. You need empathy and support to take these drastic steps, to deal with the fallout, and to move forward with confidence.

4. Listen

If you want to be a real friend, you’ll sit and listen without judgement and without reaction.  Most friends try to fix your situation rather than listen and empathize. What really helps is a friend who understands that life is unfair. By feeling with you they help you stop blaming yourself and enable you to move forward. Empathy is the greatest skill of all. If you don’t have it for yourself, practice it on others.

self-help books, for all their popularity, don’t change much

5. Practice

And that’s what it’s all about. Nothing here is new. You could probably have figured it out for yourself, but just figuring makes little difference. That’s why self-help books, for all their popularity, don’t change much. The key to all the above—developing self-respect, understanding your feelings, building a support system and listening to yourself and others—is practice. These are skills you learn, like an instrument or a language. The more you do it, the more your brain develops, and the better you get at it. It becomes second nature.

If you take this approach to relationships: that they’re something to manage, nurture and develop, then the very fabric of your life will change. Everyone thinks they can do it alone, but nobody can.


We Wish You a Merry Solstice

Christmas is an ancient festival. The twelve-day celebration around the winter solstice is not a Christian invention. It used to be the Pagan Yule—also a twelve-day feast—and before that, who knows? It’s a natural holiday for all cultures. There’s the Roman Saturnalia, the Chaomos of the Kalash Kafir people and the Asian Dōngzhì, to mention just three.

The solstice is most significant in lands close to the poles, where the days grow noticeably shorter and growth ceases. It’s easy to imagine our ancestors gathered around the fire, rationing their stored produce and looking to the heavens for signs of the lengthening day. Its arrival is a time to celebrate.

Today’s enlightened cultures are less connected to the cycles of nature. We’ve blotted out the dark with electricity, and have all but lost our intimacy with the circling night sky, the phases of the moon and the mystery of the cosmos.

The commercialization of Christmas pulls us in quite another direction, leaving us as likely to feel stressed and lonely as reflective and loved. It’s a time when family squabbles burst into the open and the joy of giving is overshadowed by the anxiety of whether it’s enough. It takes effort to get into the Christmas spirit.

What sort of effort, however, isn’t obvious. Most of us just want to be happy, but find ourselves gritting our teeth at the thought of Christmas. Why can’t we just count our blessings and be of good cheer?

Maybe Christmas has become crass, but that’s not all there is to it. It’s religious too, but that’s still not all there is to it. We may have lost touch with the natural emotions of the winter solstice, but because tradition brings us together we celebrate nonetheless, and it still resonates.

At this time of year I take the time to turn off the lights, step into the crisp night and look up. I can’t imagine any human being untouched by the sight. It’s a blunt reminder of our smallness and impermanence, that we’re fragile, mortal and united, that our need for love and our fear of death are one and the same thing. The vastness is a reminder to live, breathe and reflect on questions without answers, the way we all do as children. Our routine hardships will still be waiting for us after twelfth night, but there’s freedom in knowing that we’re not alone, and that there’s more to life than can fit inside a mortal brain.

This is a time to return to the simple contemplation of our small place in this big world. It puts all our perennial problems in a different light.

The Stress of Family Holidays

No matter how much we grow up and find our own way through life, there’s nothing like a family reunion to trigger long-buried feelings of rivalry, resentment, prejudice and hurt.

Jenny’s brother refuses to acknowledge her success. Frank’s father is always putting him down. Paula judges her step-sister’s every move. Jack and his brother are both in their sixties but they still bicker like kids. And then there’s the nasty stuff that no one wants to acknowledge — stubborn resentment, deep loathing, physical and sexual abuse. It’s more common than you think.

You’d think our most childish behaviour would be the easiest to let go of, but in fact the very opposite is true. Think about it. Within the undemocratic walls of the family unit we learn our most basic social habits by relentlessly testing each other’s limits. Mom and Dad are supposed to be above the fray, but they lose their cool too, and some people are only quiet when they get their way. Sometimes it’s just easier to give in. By the time we’ve learned to cope with all that, life finds us subconsciously replaying old patterns, over and over.

The toughest habits to break are the ones that have been with us the longest, and the problem is that the various levels of aggression and submission, silence and denial we learned as children resurface in the way we deal with others, no matter how old we are.

The worst part is, they don’t seem like habits at all; they feel quite simply like who we are. Once the family labels us as clever or stupid, kind or selfish, pushy or passive, we identify with or fight with those labels. Either way, it’s baggage.

These deep-seated habits push us through life, into and out of situations, with less free will and more automaticity than we care to admit. Mostly, we suffer the consequences in silence; no one wants to admit their weaknesses. The trouble is, we’ve actually lost more freedom than we realise.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As children we all had a natural curiosity about our own mind and how it works. The innate skill of mindful reflection can be rekindled and cultivated into a source of inner clarity and strength. It enables you to see and change how you feel about your family, and how you deal with them.

Once that process is underway you’ll want them to treat you differently too. Sure enough, alter the family dynamics and change is inevitable. However, you never know quite how it’ll play out.

Mindful reflection helps with that too by putting your expectations on the back burner and enabling you to embrace life’s uncertainty.

Four-week mindful reflection workshop dealing with family stress over the holidays, starts this week Thursday evening November 21st at 7:45 pm. More information here.


Mindful Parenting

Raising children is no joke. Parents often spend more time commiserating with each other than they spend listening to their children. ‘Kids!’ they exclaim; even worse, ‘Teens!’ All the grown-ups nod.

When parents are there for each other more than for their kids, things get tougher all round. We’ve all been brought up ourselves, all vowed we’d never do that to our children, all sure that, having been victims, we’d never be perpetrators.

“You’re not going to like this,” she said.

Unfortunately, human psychology isn’t that simple. How we forget.

Just six months ago our teenager was toying with the idea of dropping out. High school was tremendously stressful, but in the end she did well — almost. Her trusted math teacher Mr. S had a heart attack, and the substitute teachers were no substitute. We learned now, just as she was enjoying her summer job and feeling confident for the first time ever, that she’d have to resit her exam.

We didn’t tell her right away. First, we’d line things up. Caroline got the school on the line. Our daughter had tried hard and they’d promised to look out for her, but in the end she’d slipped through the cracks. Caroline gave them a good blasting. She’s good at that. You know you’re being blasted, but she gets you onside. ‘Empathy,’ she calls it.

After being empathized, the school counselor was eager to help. She researched the alternatives while I took to the road. Caroline coordinated us from her office, where she was online with the scholastic authorities.

At the summer school I paid the fees, bought the books and drove home. It was forty kilometers each way and cost me an afternoon’s work — expensive when you’re self-employed. Back home Caroline looked exhausted; also guilty.

“You’re not going to like this,” she said.

Desperate to right all wrongs, the blasted counselor had come up with a better plan. Instead of four, our daughter would have to sit only one exam. Instead of her summer being gutted, she’d manage with a weekend tutor. Plus we’d save money and time. The catch: it was a different school.

Grumbling, I retraced my steps, returned the books, got a refund, drove to the other school and registered all over again. Another afternoon. Caroline soothed and patted me and triggered positive thoughts. Back at work, realizing the sky hadn’t fallen in my absence, I grew proud of my selfless parenting. What great news we had for our daughter! She wouldn’t have to quit her summer job, lose income, be embarrassed or miss the start of college. Everything was back on track.

“What?” Her mouth opened in disgust. “I have to do math again?” She stormed off to her room. I followed, explaining how lucky she was, how we’d fixed everything. She burst into tears.

Caroline was horrified. “How could you?” she asked.

Me?” I was shocked. “I was just explaining….”

Ignoring her feelings, I turned
instead to her unreasonableness

When things get emotionally confusing, I rationalize. I lean into escape mode, wishing I were back in the monastery — no responsibilities, no ungrateful children, no overwhelming expenses, fewer challenges. All I had to do back in those days was watch myself and try to be good. Not that it’s easy, but there’s no easier place to do it.

Sure I learned a lot of stuff back then: philosophy, ancient languages, monastic discipline, Asian etiquette, coping with other neurotic monks. What I learn now is about feelings, irrationality, caring, love, empathy, self-observation in unpredictable situations — all stirred constantly by material stress. It’s much more difficult, much richer — much more error-prone.

Reason is about how things should
be; empathy is about how they are

It’s easy to follow deep habits, but hard to notice them. Our teen’s bad reaction triggered my righteousness. No way was I going to let go of the self-satisfaction of selfless parenthood. Ignoring her feelings, I turned instead to her unreasonableness.

Trouble is, you can’t talk anyone out of their feelings — not even yourself. I thought I knew that, and yet I didn’t know it in that moment. Reason is about how things should be; empathy is about how they are. Explaining her good luck to her was irrelevant. It was dumb. Worst of all, it was rational when reason was beside the point.

I did my job as a parent and expected gratitude, or at least good manners. I’m at that nice comfortable age where I can explain things quite clearly, but I also know that explanations count for little when it comes to feelings.

I’d fallen into the double trap. On the one hand we expect kids to do what we say. On the other hand, we judge them as beyond hope. That’s when we throw up our hands. It’s when they look like monsters to us and we look like monsters to them.

But we’re their role models. They’re thinking how they’ll never be like us, but unless someone deliberately breaks the cycle they will. One day, when they’re in their own parenting shoes, they’ll see us in themselves and try not to notice.

Kids often say, “I don’t care,” meaning they care so deeply they have no words to talk about it. This is a fragile window of opportunity. Say, “Of course you care,” and it will slam shut.

Real listening lets go of words. I learned this years ago, but I’m still learning it. Time and again, I have to remind myself to stop being reasonable and pay attention to the whole story, to break down my own shell and become emotionally naked.

Empathy is about perceptions, not feelings. It’s about the other, not the self. And yet it begins by asking, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ Only by acknowledging that can I let go of my defenses and see why she feels that way.

This post was written with the collaboration of Caroline Courey, director of New Way Personal Life Coaching, and also my wife. In fact, most posts are written with her collaboration, but this topic is very close to her heart.