The holiday season is popularly portrayed as a time of peace, joy, and giving. Unfortunately, for many, it can be a time of intense stress and unhappiness. Stress can be defined in many ways: unhappiness, sadness, despair, dissatisfaction, and anger. It can be triggered by a variety of circumstances including change in routine, relationships, and responsibilities.
How can the Buddha’s teachings help us deal with this stress? The Buddha’s main contribution was as he stated: “What I teach now as before, O monks, is suffering and the cessation of suffering.”
In one of his very first teachings, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he stated “Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful.” He could have included that the holiday season is stressful! However, the last phrase, “not getting what is wanted is stressful,” particularly pertains to holiday stress. We have expectations of what the holiday season should be like and when these expectations are not met, we feel dissatisfaction, sadness, and perhaps despair.
If you search online for “The Buddha and holiday stress,” you will find many entries with advice on how to avoid stress based on the Buddha’s teachings. Many of the entries are lists of several things to do such as:
- Give a thoughtful gift
- Help a person in need
- Plant seeds of kindness
- Help an animal
- Practice loving kindness meditation
These recommendations are good ones and I prefer to go back to the original teachings. The Buddha provided a structure that contains all the elements necessary to address stress and dissatisfaction.
This structure is called the Eightfold Path.
The eight steps of the Eightfold Part are divided into three sections. The first section is what we need to understand about what causes stress to arise and what goals we might set (wisdom). The second section is what we can do to live a stress-free life (virtue). The third section is what we can do to build and maintain our success with overcoming stress (practice).
Here is a summary:
- Section One Wisdom
- Step 1 Skillful Understanding
- Step 2 Skillful Intention
- Section Two Virtue
- Step 3 Skillful Speech
- Step 4 Skillful Action
- Step 5 Skillful Livelihood
- Section Three Practice
- Step 6 Skillful Effort
- Step 7 Skillful Mindfulness
- Step 8 Skillful Concentration
Understanding and following the Eightfold path is a similar process to keeping your body in good shape. It takes persistence and a commitment to a constant practice. Our website has several talks on the Eightfold path using Bhante Gunaratana’s Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness as guide.
What are some of the teachings from the Eightfold path that can guide us through the holiday season?
First, you decide that you want to overcome stress and that you are willing to work at it. You no longer will be the victim of circumstances (Intention – Eightfold Path Step 2). You want to live life fully as Susan Bauer-Wu has stated:
“Living fully means to live with a sense of ease, contentment, curiosity, and meaning. It means accepting all that life has to offer, both its pleasures and its stings, and being open to the infinite possibilities of experience as each day unfolds. It means saying yes to what is possible despite frailty, disability or even impending death. Feeling overwhelmed is understandable, although it is optional. Nevertheless, living fully is possible.”
Susan Bauer-Wu, Leaves Falling Gently: Living Fully with Serious and Life-Limiting Illness Through Mindfulness, Compassion & Connectedness, 2011
To repeat: “You accept that life has both pleasures and stings”… You are willing to embrace both.
“Feeling overwhelmed (stressed) is optional, not mandatory.” Optional means that you can choose.
You realize that through mindfulness, meditation and practice, you will experience what is rather than what you would like it to be.
Second, you keep in mind that it is your expectations that are causing the stress (Understanding, Eightfold Path, Step 1). You realize that you can’t get rid of your expectations but that you have a choice as to how you react when they arise. This is the optional part.
What are some of the actual things you can do during the holiday season when you realize that you are in stress, you are dissatisfied and/or your expectations are not being met?
You pause and practice concentration and mindfulness (Eightfold Path, Steps 8 & 7)
With concentration, you go to the breath. This calms your body and allow you to observe more clearly. Then you can shift to mindfulness which is paying attention moment to moment to what is. You observe the “what is” without judgment. Getting away to meditate using concentration and insight practices is very beneficial. This will work even if you devote only 5 minutes to meditate.
You stay skillfully connected with others (Eightfold Path, Step 2)
Often when we feel frustrated, we react by either lashing out or withdrawing (fight or flight). You find through experience that either choice makes the situation worse, sometimes permanently ending relationships.
Staying skillfully connected means in communicating with others you choose to listen deeply and before speaking, pause, relax, open, and trust emergence. Then you can skillfully speak the truth. (adapted from Insight Dialogue). It also means that you recognize that the antidotes for the ill-will that is arising in you are loving kindness and compassion.
Staying skillfully connected may mean that you choose to avoid physical contact with another person. Yet you can keep them in your thoughts of loving kindness and compassion.
You focus on others rather than self (Eightfold Path, Step 2)
When stress arises, look to see who is suffering. It is probably you!
Remember two of the aspirations of the Way of the Bodhisattva:
- May all circumstances serve to awaken compassion.
- May my life be of benefit to all beings.
Focusing on others takes your attention from your “self” and brings out your generosity, loving kindness, and compassion.
You say yes to what is possible (Eightfold Path, Step 2)
If you find yourself in a situation that cannot be remedied, you can choose not to suffer. Living fully means saying yes to what is possible. It doesn’t mean saying no to what is not possible. When something is not possible, consider letting go. Letting go is not giving up or pushing away. Letting go is simply realizing that that the situation cannot be remedied now.
As the great Indian Buddhist master Shantideva says in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
“If something can be remedied,
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.”
Is it possible to avoid holiday stress? Yes, and it takes mindfulness, patience and practice.