The holidays are supposed to be a time of joyous celebration with extended family and friends. Yet many people dread the family gathering, especially these days where the political divide seems harder than ever to bridge. And while the strategy of consuming as much spiked eggnog as you can stomach is employed by many, it has yet to be deemed a no-fail approach—inebriation, for all its temptations, often makes things worse. With a little preparation, we can arrive at the holiday gatherings with a present mind and open heart—and maybe even enjoy ourselves in the process.

You don’t need to have our book, Radically Happy: A User’s Guide to the Mind, to do any of this. However, in some cases you will find further info in the book, so I have included page numbers where appropriate.

The key to thriving during the family gathering is to not react out of habit. We want to slow our habitual way of reacting waaaaaaay dooooooown. But there are some good tools we can use: Create Space, Relax the Judging, Cultivating Patience, and Celebrate.

1. Create Space

A guided practice of Creating Space can be also found here.

The idea is to get used to feeling spacious. When we Create Space, we feel spacious. At the end of the Create Space exercise, spend a few moments imagining being with your family while feeling this same sort of spacious feeling. Ask yourself what will that be like?

Now what happens when you are at the dinner table and Uncle Bob goes off on another of his inane political rants that if it were truly come to pass the whole world as we know it will collapse? What if you can’t recall that feeling of spaciousness and your blood begins to boil? Instead of succumbing to the need to either bite off your own tongue or explain very loudly to Bob what an immoral, ignorant ass he is, go excuse yourself and go to the toilet. Sit down, and do the Creating Space exercise. In the toilet no one will bother you, can you can even use the guided meditation on your phone as a support.

2. Relax the Judging

Part of the reason we react so strongly to our narcissistic sister Sue, who is constantly reminding the entire table that the universe does indeed circle around one person in particular, is because we made a lot of really strong judgments about her. Maybe they are all fact based, or maybe it’s our habitual way of looking at it, I dunno. The problem isn’t the judgement itself, it’s our emotional attachment to the judgement. That’s what gets us going nearly every time.

Chapter 8 of Radically Happy is devoted to Relax the Judging. But it’s a lot to get through and practice just before the holidays are in full swing. So we can do a very essential exercise to gently relax our emotional attachment to our judgments.

At the end the Create Space exercise, make aspirations for everyone to be happy. Here’s how: As you exhale, think “May everyone be happy” and imagine that the universe is touched by the warm light of happiness that radiates from your heart. All beings are bathed in the warm light. As you breathe in, think “May everyone be free from pain and suffering.” Into the spaciousness, the vast expanse of the universe, imagine that the light of our warm-hearted good wishes permeates everyone and everything.  Do this for a few minutes.

People sometimes criticize the practice of sending aspirations as merely a way to feel good without actually doing anything to help people. But everything, every action, starts with a single moment of thought. A single thought of kindness, of wishing for others to be happy, will lead to actions that provide succor. These actions are the result of our aspirations—a single moment of thought. That single thought has the potential to create a tsunami of results.

Now when you sit at the family gathering, just feel your breath go in and out, while making the aspiration may everyone be happy, may everyone be free from pain.

3. Cultivate Patience

Do wanna react habitually? If not, then be a bit more patient, lol. Then the habitual reaction can rise and fall away silently, no one has to know what almost went on in your mind. The enemy of anger is patience. So, on page 163, there is an exercise that goes something like this, but this has been adapted just for your holiday festival.

How to do it:

Start by Creating Space…

Now consider the day of the gathering:  can you imagine anything that might arise (perhaps with that certain someone?) that could be an opportunity to be patient instead of habitually reacting? Or is there an interaction that usually triggers your anger or enmity? Imagine instead not immediately reacting, but rather responding by giving space (and feeling spacious). That is the key to patience.

Just go over and over it. Imagine how your buttons might get pushed and instead of reacting, you feel spacious. Imagine being able to recall the spacious feeling that you are experiencing now, and giving a pause instead of a reaction.

End the session by considering your heartfelt aspiration for everyone to be happy, and to be free from suffering and its causes.

By doing this exercise you might be surprised to find that instead of getting all emotional, you are spacious— no matter how outrageously your brother-in-law’s pontifications go on.

4. Celebrate!

It’s the holidays. Find stuff to appreciate about your loved ones. Don’t dwell on the negatives. Enjoy the fact that you are engaged in an effort to break free of the binds of habitual ways of acting and reacting. Even if you make a mistake, congratulate yourself for the effort. The best way to overcome your habits is to keep giving yourself a lift, not by denigrating and criticizing.

In the meantime, between now and when you see your wonderful, idiosyncratic family, write down one thing each day that you appreciate about one of them. Then in the morning of the family gathering, read over your list.

Happy Holidays!