To say holiday family gatherings can be challenging is a gross understatement. Take attendant seasonal stress, combine with deeply-ingrained behavior patterns rearing their ugly heads, mix in a few triggering personalities, a smattering of cultural conditioning, and finally toss in forced togetherness with people you might see (and begrudgingly at that) just once a year, and we’ve plenty to deal with right there.
Add a desire to express your spirituality, or moreover, share your enthusiasm over a spiritual awakening into this mix and it can be like throwing gasoline on a burning yuletide flame.
I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture or lapse into dysfunctional family stereotyping (easy as it would be to go there). Of course, not all families are dysfunctional nor geographically and emotionally disconnected. Yet the fact remains that family members estranged by time or distance often come home to roost at the holidays, making for uncommon interactions between people who don’t see one another on a regular basis. The holidays also involve more socializing than other times of the year do, and much of it happens in contexts that are ripe for confrontation, judgment, and argument.
If you’re newer to spiritual exploration, and especially if you’ve had a sudden and distinct spiritual awakening (as I did) religious holidays like Christmas and Chanukah and their ritual celebrations offer both challenge and opportunity, with more than a cup of nostalgia thrown in.
On the one hand, there’s the “before”: the you you were a year or two ago, going with the flow, talking the talk, walking the walk, singing the songs without question and in contented ignorance of anything beyond what you knew. On the other hand, there’s the “after”: the you you are now, which can range from confusion to “none of this makes sense anymore” to outright rejection of traditional religious or holiday norms.
There you sit, having to explain to your family why maybe you’re not participating in the usual religious practices or don’t believe the same things about God that they still do. Maybe you can no longer comfortably and authentically conform to social rituals you used to easily embrace, like taking the kids to see Santa, sending holiday cards or buying gifts out of a sense of obligation or expectation.
The sometimes bitter irony is that your family members are both the people closest to you (the people most of us have deeply-rooted emotional desires to be unconditionally loved and accepted by) yet also the least likely to board your spiritual wagon train and come along for the ride. To them, you are who you’ve always been (and “God only knows” what it is you think you’ve discovered or what this enlightenment mumbo-jumbo is all about).
Some will be intrigued by you; some confused; some in complete denial that anything is different; and some downright antagonistic. (I’ve heard “we’re all tired of all this spirituality talk” from one close family member already.)
To you, they may as well be on another planet now. It can seem as though never the twain shall meet.
Lest we forget, I harken back to the opportunity aspect of the holidays. Love is infinite. Potential is infinite. Which means, everything is possible, even coming – and staying – out of the spiritual closet in the midst of perhaps the most traditionally religious time of the year and among your closest friends and relatives.
Before I share holiday (or anytime) survival tips for staying spiritually centered that have worked for me, it bears mentioning that people tend to use the holidays to make big announcements. They save up good news like impending engagements, marriages, new homes and babies to share with as many people at once as possible. It’s convenient but also exciting to convey what is typically perceived as universal good news that way.
Be aware however, that the opposite is also true. If you’re planning to make a big pronouncement, perhaps about your newfound spiritual orientation, sexual orientation, (change in any orientation), or something that might NOT be perceived as universally celebratory, you might want to think twice about doing it now. Just because everyone is convened more often and in greater number than usual doesn’t mean you need to make formal announcements about your personal life.
In fact, I encourage you to be the change you’ve grown into versus talk about it. You don’t have to stay in the spiritual closet, but you don’t have to come out both guns blazing either.
Five Tips for Spiritually-Centered Harmonious Holidays
Here are five bits of wisdom I’ve found make for harmonious, honest and authentic holiday gatherings (and relationships in general):
1. No preaching or converting. Put it out of your mind. Don’t try to recruit companions on your journey. It’s your journey and yours alone, and even if you have found conscious company in the form of a group or organization, don’t expect those in your daily life to instantly hop on board simply because you ask. This bears remembering. After all, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of what sounded like preaching or being recruited, did you like it? Probably not. Ick.
You may be enthused about your journey and want more than anything for those closest to you to share the joy. It’s a pitfall almost everyone experiences at first. I’ve been there myself, and like most I had to learn the hard way that each person walks his own path in his own time.
After first discovering the bliss and benefits of meditation, I wanted more than anything to share that practice with my husband. He had zero interest. The more I cajoled and persuaded and pushed, the more he resisted until I finally stopped. Five years later, after actually watching me meditate (but otherwise be silent about it), he’s just starting to be interested.
Everyone walks their own path in their own time. Write that down on a post-it note and stick it in your pocket before your next family gathering. We’ll come back to this. .
2. Connect where and how you can. While you don’t want to preach or convert, that doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully and spiritually connect with those around you. Do find what common ground you have and stand in it. Despite surface appearances, we’re all more alike than we are different. This is a time to focus on what you share with people, not on what divides you.
So your fundamentalist Christian cousin believes Mary conceived Jesus without intercourse and takes the Bible literally. Let her. Focus on the message rather than the minutia. The message of Jesus is love. The details of his life don’t matter (and 2,000 years later we can never know for sure what happened anyway); it’s his teaching that does.
So your mom gets uncomfortable when you start talking about your revised concept of God and wants to bake cookies. Change the topic and bake the cookies (unless you absolutely hate baking).
3. Be honest and authentic. You don’t have to justify, rationalize, or prove why you think or believe as you do. To be perceived as authentic, however, you do have to practice it. This can be uncomfortable at first, and difficult if not impossible in the midst of past conditioning and psychological family triggers.
Simply talking about your journey, or expressing particular teachings and insights can seem strange and daunting at first. It took me about a year of small, cautious conversations to be comfortable and open speaking and writing about spirituality and my journey in particular; and there will always be degrees of comfort and openness for most of us.
If asked, today I can calmly, truthfully and respectfully explain and convey my experiences, practices and beliefs without a) feeling I have to prove anything b) fear of judgment and c) expecting I’ll be perceived as a hippie or freak. I can allow others their experiences and beliefs, realizing it’s a “both/and” not “either/or” world.
You can always arm yourself with simple responses to questions about your spiritual journey, like “I’m exploring my spiritual side”, “I’m interested in asking deeper questions about life,” or “I wasn’t fulfilled by my past religion/tradition so I’m intelligently investigating other options.” Most people understand and respect a genuine quest for fulfillment, introspection and happiness.
There is no right or wrong, no you vs. me (although the ego would have us believe otherwise). Which leads me to the fourth tip:
4. Don’t, under any circumstances, argue about religion or spirituality. Sound too obvious? This can be a tough one for the spiritual seeker who may have experienced a radically expanded or shifted worldview as the result of direct spiritual experience vs. conventional religious teachings.
There you are, knowing from your own direct experience what spirit, God, and love are and wanting all others to experience and feel what you have, yet you’ll encounter many who haven’t even begun to explore direct spiritual experience or practice.
They’re on a religious or group-think train, blindly believing and repeating information they’ve been told vs. sharing first hand knowledge of what they have felt and done (clue: they probably don’t have any first-hand knowledge yet). They are not ready, or interested, in questioning the status quo. And that’s okay.
The reasons are many, but boil down to “everyone walks their own path in their own time”. (Remember the post-it note in your pocket?).
If and when you feel like arguing your point of view, stop. Breathe. Be silent. Listen. Especially if you’re surrounded by the highly intellectual, logical, or scientifically-minded people, forget it. You will lose.
Recognize any desire to win or prove a point as the ego’s need for superiority, and choose to rest in spirit instead. Remember your goals – to practice as you believe, to connect on common ground, to have harmonious happy holidays; not to win intellectual debates. That said, the greatest opportunity of the holidays awaits:
5. Savor kindred spirits. If the conversation does turn toward spirituality or your experiences and journey in particular, you may find a kindred spirit or two is genuinely interested and resonating with you. When that happens naturally, enjoy it! I guarantee you it will happen, and it will usually happen where and when you least expect it (holidays or otherwise). Case in point:
Since I first met my husband, who is from a large, close Mexican family, we’ve often celebrated Christmas (we were both raised Catholic) in Mexico. Talk about tradition. Although I was no stranger to the holiday, Christmas in Mexico was so novel to me that for years I really enjoyed it.
But over time I noticed the same “going through the motions” of the holiday that I would see Catholics practice at Christmas in the US. People showing up for church that day and ignoring their religion the other 364 days of the year. Singing songs with no meaning. Repeating the same traditions each year without knowing or questioning why. Eating the same foods. Not all people, but many.
Then one of my husband’s cousins began reading my blog, and we began discussing spirituality, our desire for deeper questioning, exploration, and a direct experience of source and spirit separate from what we’d been taught growing up. Through her broken English and my broken Spanish I found a kindred spirit in a country and context I least expected.
When you find a kindred spirit or two, be grateful for their company. Savor it.
Coming Out of the Spiritual Closet
I finally came to realize the artificiality of my perceived boundaries around spirituality; that any time, place or person can be a kindred spirit. I’d be at business conference cocktail hours and the conversation would turn to spirituality. I’d have lunch with a client and the conversation would turn to spirituality. I’d meet a stranger and the conversation would turn to spirituality. Until suddenly, it didn’t seem at all strange to talk about spirituality. In fact, even if I didn’t care to discuss it, it would come up.
It took a few additional years to realize what was happening. Like attracts like. The core of your being is love. Your ability to create is limitless. Your spirit is infinitely capable of forgiveness and mercy. Your essence is infinite.
When you are fully out of the spiritual closet, these aspects of self are reflected and resonating all around you. So just be yourself. Everything will be fine.
I’d like to know – what have you found to be trying holiday interactions and effective practices for staying spiritually centered when they come up? What works for you?