A Mindful Christmas – Part 1: Difficult Relationships

Christmas is a time of joy and celebration but is also not without its difficulties and challenges. In this three-part series, we ask senior Plum Village Dharma teachers about how to mindfully navigate some of those challenges.

(Part 2 on consumption is here and part 3 on loneliness is here)

Lots of people who do spend time with their families spend time with people with different views and opinions about a range of things like lifestyle choices, politics, Covid responses, the climate crises, and many more things. Also, family members can get annoyed and triggered by each others’ habits. What are the best ways to navigate these challenges?

Sister Thuan Nghiem

Spending time with family can be both enjoyable and tiresome. We need a certain amount of mindfulness in order not to trigger each others’ inconveniences and irritations.

[Sister Thuan Nghiem offers us ten practices we can try during the festivities]

  1. Learn to water the positive qualities of our family members
  2. Talk about common interests instead of personal points of views.
  3. Choose a good educational, uplifting film or documentary to watch together.
  4. Share responsibilities among family members so that everyone can enjoy their time together.
  5. Discuss the family issues with care and concern and do not blame or criticize.
  6. Try not to impose our practice of mindfulness on family members who do not know or wish to practice mindfulness.
  7. Respect their choices and differences
  8. Listen with care
  9. Be concerned about their difficulties and loss.
  10. Be sensitive when you talk about what you want from them, don’t demand their understanding and acceptance.

Siter Jina

Letting our opinions sleep and really listening

When I’m interacting with somebody, I notice whether they’re open to me or not. When I feel the openness in the others and it means feeling seen, it doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing, but just openness. Can I offer the same to those whom I encounter from my side?

My experience is if I can allow the other to have their opinion, it’s actually quite easy. But the minute I have a judgment about the other person’s opinion, somehow they pick it up and they will want to defend it. Then we start to defend our point of view, the other person can become quite enthusiastic, determined to convince us of their view.

We can only do something in this situation about our contribution, not about the other’s contribution. So make it a practice to really listen. While listening we allow our own opinion to sleep for a moment. That’s a practice in itself because I’ve noticed that when the other person’s opinion comes up and I have a different opinion, my opinion immediately comes up in me and starts speaking. My opinion is correct and the other opinion is not correct. But if I can say, wait a minute, there are as many opinions as there are people, and and from the point of view where we are looking at it with our life experience, our opinion appears to us as the correct opinion. When I became aware of this, I became a lot more humble about my opinion.

Creating space for the opinions of others

We make choices in life because of our background, our family, where we grew up, our education, our environment and all the views that have been handed down to us, have been offered to us that we have accepted. It’s a view that came to be because of causes and conditions. I have this view because of these causes and conditions. They have that view because of their causes and conditions. When I remember this, I can be much more open to their view. I see if I can listen to their view without the filter of my view. It’s a real practice because when I’m listening to their view, my view comes up anyway, but at least it creates some space for the other person’s view within myself.

Enriching our lives with others

I like to see in what way does a relationship enrich my life? It’s not only a very harmonious relationship that enriches my life because in the harmony there are many things that are already part of my life. But now I have somebody across me who is very different, the difference, although I may resist their point of view, their point of view may help me to broaden my view. In my heart, I need to open new doors to enrich my life. So I like to look at relationships – the easy ones as well as the difficult ones in the light of, “How do they enrich my life?” I have encountered difficult relationships that have enriched my life more than the easy ones. In the easy ones, we were so in harmony it didn’t bring new things into my life. At the same time, I’m not expecting the other person to ask that same question about me.

Practicing with habits of others and ourselves

With the people we know best, we have the most issues with their habits. Then again, I have my habits. If I get annoyed by somebody, I’m sure they get annoyed by some of my behavior. Something becomes a habit when we do it over and over again. So if I become aware of how I am mentally responding to a situation, once and then twice and third and fourth time, it becomes a habit to respond to a particular situation in a particular way.

So can I let go of my preconceived ideas, when some kind of evaluating thought comes up, whether it’s positive or negative, can I let it be and just listen? If I can be compassionate towards them, maybe that energy of compassion will change something in our relationships without ever a word being said about it.

Sister Eleni

Getting together with family members, whom we may not have seen for a while, or be in contact with regularly, can be challenging, especially during the Holiday Season. There is the expectation and the deep wish that we experience happiness, joy and harmony during our time together.

The reality is that sometimes we are ”triggered” unexpectedly by what we see, or hear them say. We can feel uncomfortable, irritated, angry, or even sad when we are triggered by others’ words and actions. These gatherings are sometimes a “forum” for expressing opinions and ideas on current topics that are often controversial and may be radically different from my own.

We have found that there are several ways to navigate these challenges. First, if I can just listen to the ideas being spoken, and keep my mind calm with mindful breathing, this will help me and the other person who is speaking. Being listened to without judgment or reaction from others supports my inner harmony and peace. I feel I am accepted (even if my view is not accepted).

If I understand that ideas and opinions are just thoughts, and ways of thinking that the other person is sharing by speaking, then my perception is more clear. I do not have to agree or disagree. Just by listening to their views, I do not take sides, and thus, I am not “triggered”. These are only words, and opinions, and do not have to be the absolute truth for me. Based on my experience and understanding, I can have other views and opinions. But I do not have to engage in changing anyone else’s ideas or opinions. I listen to understand more about the person speaking, and also what is being said. Then I am free to smile.

If a heated discussion begins, and there is a strong energy of disagreement in the waters of relationships, then another thing I could do would be to “drop my sails”. That means, I let go and am no longer resistant to their views and opinions. I refrain from sharing my views and opinions that just add to the winds of conflict. Then I would redirect the conversation, change the CD, as Thay called it, and ask open-ended questions: such as “tell me how you… (learned to be a farmer, bake bread, fix cars, to speak Spanish so well….etc)” 

By practicing the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, I know that my actions and speech will contribute to happiness and peace in the world, and to others, I have contact with. When others do not know of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings to guide their actions and speech, I am aware of this. I am not triggered by what they do or say, because they do not know other ways of living. I have understanding, forgiveness, and compassion for them.


Look out for Part 2 on consumption and Part 3 on loneliness, coming soon.


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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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