Ah, Christmas. A time of peace on Earth and goodwill to all… which is easy to feel at some times during the festive season, and definitely not at others! Family gatherings are notorious for bringing out the worst in people, and it’s times like these, when we get triggered and slip into old behaviours we thought were long gone, that the real yoga practice begins. How present can we stay with what’s actually going on, rather than disappearing down the rabbit hole of past resentments and the habitual dances and old roles we’ve always played? To what extent can we accept that we can’t change the behaviours of others, but we do have the power to change our reactions to them? How effectively can we avoid getting hooked by our own stories, and feeding the drama? How much of what is going on belongs to us? We have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, and recognise the part we play. We can’t be committed to our own growth and our own bullshit. It’s one or the other.
So what to do?
This Boxing Day, here’s my interpretation of some ancient wisdom which is both very relevant and very useful when those ‘challenging’ situations make their seasonal appearances in our lives! The Brahmaviharas are a collection of four attitudes which we can cultivate in order to let others be themselves and maintain our own equilibrium. We meet them both in Buddhist and in Yogic texts, because the two schools of philosophy have a great deal of solid practical wisdom in common. Whether your dramas take the form of silent seething and long grudges, or slammed doors and raised voices, I hope you find them helpful!
1 – Unconditional friendliness to all.
This is called ‘maitri’ or ‘metta’, and it’s a sense of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, treating all beings with an attitude of open friendliness to whatever they bring to the table. Approaching everyone with a smile and a conscious intention of loving-kindness can shift how you feel, softening any sense of stiffness or hostility and alleviating social awkwardness.
2 – Compassion for those who are suffering.
This is called ‘karuna’, and it’s about empathy; recognising that everyone is fighting their own battles and that most people don’t actually intend to be hurtful or objectionable, however good an impression they might do! It’s worth remembering when people behave poorly that it’s almost always because they’re afraid of something. Empathising with the fact that another human is feeling fearful often shifts us from outrage to a gentler, more compassionate response.
3 – Celebrating the joy of others
This is the ability to be happy when we see others being happy (‘mudita’). We share in their happiness and celebrate their joys and successes, rather than grumping that they have something we want. The beautiful thing about cultivating this attitude is that when we celebrate the joy of others, suddenly we have a limitless supply of sources of joy!
4 – Remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others.
‘Upeksa’ is about residing in a balanced state of mind, and it’s probably the trickiest one to train in! It’s not about saying ‘mustn’t judge’ and then silently doing exactly that; it begins with with self-knowledge and self-observation. It’s noticing when our inner Judgey Judge McJudgepants (it’s ok, we all have one) starts getting out of his or her pram and pointing fingers and acting superior. It’s observing how that feels. It’s questioning what need that criticism of another is fulfilling within ourselves. And crucially, it’s not beating ourselves up over what we find, but simply being aware of it.
These four attitudes begin with our attitudes towards ourselves. We experiment with being unconditionally friendly to ourselves at all times; compassionate to ourselves when we’re suffering; celebrating our joys; and observing our own faults and imperfections without prejudice. Of course these things don’t become second nature overnight! These attitudes are a practice – we continually train in recognising our attitudes and behaviours and feelings, and experiment with taking a different view. Simply knowing that the guidance of a framework like the Brahmaviharas exists as inspiration is a great place to start, because just the realisation that there is an alternative can make a significant difference to how we experience our inner and outer worlds, and how we respond to the people around us. And at this time of year especially, that might be just what we need.
After all, as the Dalai Lama once said: ‘if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family!’