Over the holidays even the happiest of homes can have some difficult dynamics. Little annoyances such as decades-old bad habits and relatives’ fixed expectations of you as a younger version of yourself can detract from what should otherwise be a joyous and celebratory time. Families tend to have their own stuck energies, which can, thankfully, be shifted.
There is a Buddhist children’s story that can be helpful here. A long time ago in China, a monk climbed up a tree. He sat there meditating, largely undisturbed by the outside world, sometimes imparting thoughtful advice to people passing by. He became known as “Birdsnest” for his high roosting ground.
At one point a local ruler heard of Birdsnest and set out to meet him. After a long and arduous journey, he found the correct tree. He shouted up at the monk, telling him that he had a very important question to ask of him. He waited for Birdsnest to reply but no response came. He continued anyway: “This is my question. Tell me, Birdsnest, what is it that all the wise ones have taught? Can you tell me the most important thing the Buddha ever said?” He waited again.
Finally, Birdsnest called down. He said, “Don’t do bad things. Always do good things. That’s what all the Buddhas taught.” The local ruler, not surprisingly, became annoyed. He yelled at Birdsnest, “That’s your advice? I knew that when I was 3 years old, monk!” Birdsnest looked down at him, his compassion radiating out. “Yes, the 3-year-old knows it,” he said, “But the 80-year-old still finds it very difficult to do!”
It’s worth considering Birdsnest’s advice. We know we shouldn’t respond to irritation with irritation. That would be a bad thing. But we often forget that when mom is standing there telling the same story from our childhood for the millionth time and we’re feeling embarrassed. When you notice irritation start to arise you can revisit your 3-year-old training and try to do something good for that person, something helpful. This shifts the relationship dynamic in unexpected ways. See if the way that person reacts and interacts with you changes over time as a result.
Here is a short meditation for working with irritation around the holidays, that helps us only do good things while among family: