Some of us are headed into this holiday season with trepidation. It’s not the long lines, the expenses, or even the hustle-bustle that’s got us down. It’s the worry about uncomfortable conversations we anticipate having with relatives we love, but who don’t see eye to eye with us on issues of great importance. Issues such as, oh, I don’t know, the general political climate, the media, climate change, sexual harassment, kneeling during national anthems, Russia, statues, gun control, walls, and Taxes– to name a few thorny topics.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I prepared for an interview on Sirius 127 Progress Channel’s Trumpsgiving Special (hosted by my brother, Dean Obeidallah, airing tonight at 8pm and again Thxgiving morning, 8am). Here’s what I got. My first suggestion is, call a Truce. It’s Thanksgiving, after all, and the focus is on promoting togetherness and connection. Much like the warring Germans and British soldiers did on Christmas Day 1914 during WWI, a spontaneous truce on killing each other was called, and instead, a jovial game of soccer ensued. I guess they went back to harming each other the next day, but my point is, at least for that special day, a truce was honored. If they could do it, with stakes as high as they were, I’m pretty sure we can pull it off, if we want to.
But, let’s suppose that just doesn’t feel right to you. Maybe you feel we are in this mess because people didn’t talk to each other before, and so you feel the pressure to do so now. Maybe you feel that you can’t tolerate one more offensive comment from anyone, and so if one comes up, you’re going to nip it in the bud. Or maybe you just know that, despite your best efforts to avoid the topics, things will come up, like you’ll be watching the game, and a player will kneel during the anthem–and you’ll feel it necessary to say something in response to someone else’s comment.
Before you give Aunt Bessie a piece of your mind, I have a question for you: What is your intention in talking to her about your perspective? If it is to convince her that her perspective is wrong and your’s is right, pause. It’s unlikely that’ll produce noteworthy results, except perhaps to call it an early night. Rather, as Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) points out, when we are criticized, we move into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Though not always rational, we (and therefore Aunt Bessie, too), may feel that our survival is being threatened. This would likely be because our identity is at stake. We don’t usually say, “I believe in Republican/Democrat Platforms”, we say, “I AM a Democrat or I AM a Republican”. Once our identity is involved, our sense of self is implicated, as noted by the Harvard Negotiation Project. In that situation, how could we not work to preserve what feels like a precious aspect of ourselves? It’s not surprising that it calls up a good deal of fear. You might have noticed that when we are in fear-mode, a few tricky reactions come up. For one, we may attack back. Or we may get the hell out of there. Or we may just glaze over. (Fight, Flight, or Freeze, respectively). It’s just the habitual reactions that show up when we are activated, and we believe that these responses will protect us. But, often they just escalate things and make them worse.
When the feelings of anger or anxiety come up, notice them and then, as Michael Singer would suggest, lean back away from them. Recognize how the feelings want to pull you into your typical habitual response, and instead of going for the ride with the habit, take the emotions as a signal to get more centered. Deep breathing and relaxing the soles of your feet are two ways to help your physiology reset and produce a more even-keel state within you. She may rant and rant about her point of view, but since the conversation is unlikely to result in any material change, what is the point of getting either of you frazzled? As open-minded as perhaps you both are (on a good day), the chances that either of you will switch teams is slim.
However, you may be able to find common ground. Look for those moments where you feel that there is an opening to agree on something that connects you. For instance, you may both want a safer America. The way you want to do it is through increased gun control; the way she wants to do it is through erecting a wall and dissolving DACA. Though you may feel upset that she holds a different opinion, you can focus on the fact that you both want the same goal, though you’re going about it in dramatically different ways.
If you must go head to head in a conversation, and you’re doing your best to stay centered, remember that research has shown that willpower is a finite entity and must be recharged. Baumeister showed that willpower gets depleted the more you use it. If you’re fighting with someone but maintaining your cool, and they keep coming at you, and you keep maintaining your cool, and they keep coming, at some point, you may run out of coolant. So, be exquisitely present with your internal state so that you can recognize when your “internal coolant” is nearing empty. It’s a sign to take a break, maybe for a short while, maybe for the rest of the night, or even longer in some cases.
Finally, as Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, you can love your enemies (not that Aunt Bessie is your enemy, but she might hold enemy lines), and still fight the good fight. Fight it in ways that are politically savvy and effective: Vote. Donate and support your candidates. Volunteer at non-profit organizations that are principally aligned with your perspective. Create your own organization to offer a solution to today’s troubles.
I firmly believe that we all belong here, simply by virtue of being human beings. Each and every one of us has that Divine light within us. Not only do we all belong here, but we actually all belong to each other, and we each have something important to contribute. And though these challenging times can be stressful, they’re important opportunities for us to remember, even if we are on the opposite sides of the political chasm, we each have a beautiful light shining through, and there is a deep love between each of us.
Wishing you a season of gratitude, peace, and restoration.
“Don’t postpone joy until you have learned all your lessons. Joy is your lesson”–Allan Cohen.
I personally have hated folding laundry. It feels like a task made for Sisophys–the Greek God who pushed the boulder up the mountainside, only to have it fall back on him time and again. He never reached the top. For years, I have felt this way about the clean clothes. But, catching myself saying, “can’t wait till these buckets are folded, then I can relax” was a moment of awakening for me.
I realized I was postponing my joy in this small way, which led me to examine where else in my life I was postponing my joy. I saw little bits of postponement all over my life. So, I took the task in front of me–the dreaded laundry–and overrode my default intention (get it done and quick) with the conscious intention to feel joy while I folded laundry. At first, my mind bucked — “I’m no Steppford wife! I’m not going to pretend I like this when I hate the monotony of it!” I heard this mini-rant and then, almost like an experiment, I settled back into my conscious intention: what would it feel like if I sincerely intended to feel joy while I undertook this task of laundry? Keeping it real, I didn’t start clicking my heels in exuberance, or whistling like Snow White with the 7 dwarfs, but something in me shifted.
The task was the same, yet I had changed. I could actually see the clothes in front of me, maybe for the first time in a long time. I held onto a pink-striped shirt that now belonged to my youngest child, which once belonged to my middle child, and before that belonged to my oldest one. The clothes became a reminder not to take this moment for granted, because in a very short time, each of them will have outgrown all these clothes and eventually, each of them will have grown up and out of our family home. There is nothing quite as powerful as the larger perspective of truth that brings home the message that this moment is fleeting too.
There will always be more laundry to fold (unless you’re reading this naked, you’re creating laundry right now). There will always be someone else to email, another post to respond to, something else to buy. For some of us, it feels like there will always be another nose to wipe, another carpool to run, another lunch to make. And for many, it feels like there will always be another goal to attain, another status to achieve, and another milestone to put in our rearview mirror.
The thinking goes, once I complete my to-do list, or once I/they feel better, or we reach that financial goal, or go on vacation, then I can feel the relief, joy, and relaxation I crave. It’s as if we have a formula that says only after XYZ happens, then can we let ourselves chill. I wonder, how often have we unintentionally quashed our enthusiasm and passion because we are hyper-focused on getting-it-done or moving on to the next thing? The secret to lasting enthusiasm, passion and relaxation is to bring these very qualities to the undertaking of whatever is at hand.
In this life, we have choices–especially when it comes to our thoughts. It occurred to me that we actually have two minds. One mind is wise and knowing, the Soul-Mind. The other mind is the immature mind and has a lower vibration. The belief that the “we must wait till it’s completed in order to feel joy” is simply a trick produced by the immature mind. We can’t blame it, after all it was forged during our childhood when we believed that once we grew up, we’d have freedoms; once we completed school, we could relax; once we earned money, we’d feel accomplished; once we fell in love, we’d belong and feel cherished; once we had children, we’d meaningfully contribute, once we have XYZ, we could really start living. The immature mind thrives on keeping us one step away from our joy because that is all it knew. It doesn’t mean to steal your life away, but it just doesn’t know how else to exist.
We can choose to let the immature mind run the show. Or we can allow that to drop into the background and amp up the volume of the Soul-Mind.
The Soul-Mind is your witness, it is imbued with Supreme essence, and is steeped in some serious wisdom. It knows. It is that part of you that says, “Be Still, and Know”. In listening more attentively to the Soul-Mind, we are then positioned to accomplish the simple and not-so-simple work of our lives with greater moments of awareness and awe, as well as passion and relaxed joy. And these moments, when culled together, deepen our purpose, vibrancy and love, not only for ourselves but for our families and for this precious world.
The way to disarm the immature mind is to first, recognize it when it shows up. You can call it the immature mind or the lower-vibe mind or some other name to represent it. Next, use your Soul-Mind, the more powerful part of you, to set an intention. In setting a soul-filled intention, we allow in our own playfulness, and release the internal resistance that keeps us from surrendering to the present moment.
Things have been getting intense. We have concerns about our children, our elderly parents, our country. It’s natural to want to push back against the problems, lead with disbelief and anger, or try to avoid the issues altogether. When I think about it, I’m brought back to my 5-year old self, watching Dad excavate our backyard to create a well. Stubborn large rocks and tree roots often blocked his path, initially getting under his skin. But, a true warrior, it was the largest boulders that transformed his angst into a calmer determination. In fact, the biggest boulders seemed to become steppingstones for him to explore his own inner well of purpose and even-keel resolve.
We all confront the barriers in our lives—and we can choose to see them as stumbling blocks and therefore despair, or see them as steppingstones, and get even determined than before. Like a personal trainer hired to increase physical strength, the boulders in our lives can be a spiritual trainer—here to help us hone and chisel our spiritual and emotional fitness.
When the blocks appear, instead of “oh crap, I can’t believe this happened,” I wonder what it would be like if we acknowledged that we don’t like the situation, but then asked ourselves, “How can we use this barrier to get stronger? Can we use it as a stepping stone to something greater than initially envisioned?” Just like at the gym, our spiritual selves are best developed during the heavy-lifting phases.
Some spiritual trainers will help you get clearer about what matters most to you. For instance, fighting against discrimination and insisting on dignity for everyone may be an American value you hold dear. By bumping into a roadblock on that path, you get in touch with how much that means to you– and getting clearer on what matters is a good thing. It inspires grounded knowledge, and from there focused action can be undertaken with integrity and principle.
A talented spiritual trainer may even compassionately show us the way our fears invite our mind to run wild. Understanding the disruptive power of fear is useful because this is not the first, nor will it be the last time fear will arise. If the anxious mind-chatter has you on the ropes, use it as a signal to pause and draw your attention to that space within you that embodies something eternal, warm, loving. From that connection, you are positioned to cultivate the most valuable mindfulness of all— a mindfulness that you can call upon not just when things are relatively calm, but when things are insanely nuts.
A spiritual trainer worth her salt will also help you identify blind spots in your faith. The one I’ve been struggling with lately is—How much do I trust that Something Bigger and More Powerful Than Any Human is guiding and protecting us? I’ve found myself sleeping with one eye open lately. Recent events have showed me where my faith is more fragile than I realized. It’s also shown me where I’ve taken things in the past for granted, and reminded me of how grateful I am every single day.
Dig deep and embrace the boulders. We have more personal grit and determination that we might’ve given ourselves credit for. And we will emerge from our time with the spiritual trainer with more courage, more focus, more gratitude and more grounding.
As a child in the Middle East, my Dad helped irrigate his family farm with a well in his backyard. So when my little family moved into a suburban New Jersey home in the 1970’s, Dad decided he’d do the same in our new backyard. No permits, no contractors, just Dad and a couple shovels and picks. I’ll never forget that metallic smell of damp soil as he dug and dug with impressive determination. Digging deeper than even he could’ve predicted, moving more boulders than expected, exhaustion began to seep into his bones. As thoughts of giving up took hold, he turned a corner. A loud YES! rang through the summer heat. He couldn’t have been more jubilant that afternoon had he struck gold. He enthusiastically planned a garden of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and other vegetables to feed our family.
Daddy didn’t create that water. Rather, his task was to clear away the dirt and debris to reveal what was there all along. His steadfast and persistent action, coupled with a healthy dose of faith, granted him access to that precious resource. Our efforts to be mindful, to have peace of mind, are similar to Dad’s backyard experience. We aren’t creating mindfulness or any state of mind; we are simply clearing away that which blocks us from reaching it. What covers it up? For many of us, layers of stress, worry, and distraction. That is why systematically cultivating personal tools to remove the gunk is key.
Practicing yoga, sincere prayer, even mini-meditations are some of the instruments that help clear away the fog. Other tools include setting an intention, breathing with attentiveness (especially when feeling irritated), and moving our bodies and minds with purpose and kindness.
Even in this moment, you can catch a glimpse of the peace under the anxieties or stress. Close your eyes, lovingly placing your hands on your abdomen, and inhale deeply. Pause at the top of the inhale. Exhale slowly. Nothing in the external world changed just now, but maybe you felt a little more space, a brief moment of peace. It was there all along. And taking any thoughtful action from a place of peace can be exponentially more effective than doing it from agitation. The beauty of these tools is that the more we practice them, the easier it is for our minds to make that our go-to.