Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

When Poor Health and the Holidays Collide

Four ways to ease the pain of limited participation in holiday activities.

As people around the world celebrate the holidays, it’s a “happy/sad” time of year for many of us (to use an expression coined by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield). I want so badly to spend time with my loved ones, but I also know that I won’t be able to participate fully in the festivities and that even my limited participation will result in “payback” later on.

When I leave the gathering to go lie down in my bedroom, it's difficult to cope with the isolation. It's already been a stretch for me to sit through dinner, so as soon as it's finished, I know I'm going to have to excuse myself. I retire to the sounds of warm conversation, spiced with peals of laughter. It's hard. At first, I'm overcome with sadness as I listen to the sounds of socializing coming from the front of the house. But over the years, I’ve developed some practices to help alleviate the pain of being isolated from others. Here are three of them.

Self-Compassion. As I settle onto my bed, I don’t try to deny that I’m sad. In other words, the first thing I do is to gently acknowledge how I’m feeling. Then I speak to myself compassionately about those painful emotions.

If you’d like to try this, I suggest you pick phrases that fit your particular circumstance and repeat them silently or softly to yourself: “It’s hurts to leave a gathering before it's over”; “I’m sad to be alone in the bedroom.” If speaking to yourself in this way brings tears to your eyes, that’s okay. They’re tears of compassion. To quote Lord Byron, “The dew of compassion is a tear.”

Feeling Joy for Others. Sometimes I practice what's known in Buddhism as mudita. It means cultivating joy for others who are happy. I think about the good time everyone is having and try to feel joy for them. If I feel envy instead, I don’t blame myself. I just acknowledge with compassion that this is what I’m feeling and then I try mudita again. I imagine their smiling faces and the sound of their laughter. After a time, I can’t help but feel happy for them, even if I’m still sad. And sometimes, I even start to feel joy myself, as if everyone is having a good time for me.

Painting by Isidre Nonell
Tonglen. My most reliable practice for easing emotional pain during the holidays is tonglen. Tonglen is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s counter-intuitive, which is why Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that tonglen reverses ego’s logic. Here’s why it’s counterintuitive. We’re usually told to breathe in peaceful and healing thoughts and images, and to breathe out our pain and suffering. In tonglen practice, however, we do just the opposite. On the in-breath, we breathe in the suffering of others. Then, on the out-breath, we breathe out whatever measure of kindness, compassion, and peace of mind we have to offer them, even if it’s just a little bit.

Here’s how I use tonglen when I’m overcome with the pain of isolation at holiday time. I breathe in the sadness and pain of all those who are unable to be with family and close friends. Then I breathe out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace of mind I have to give them. As I do this, I’m aware that I’m breathing in my own sadness and pain, and that when I breathe out kindness, compassion, and peace of mind for them, I’m also sending those sentiments to myself. I like to call tonglen a two-for-one compassion practice—we’re not only cultivating kindness, compassion, and peace for others who are alone, we’re cultivating them for ourselves.

When I practice tonglen, I feel less alone because I experience a deep connection to others who, like me, can’t fully participate in holiday festivities. Sometimes my eyes fill with tears as I breathe in other people’s pain and sadness surrounding the holidays, but I know these tears are “the dew of compassion”—for both them and for me.

If you find it difficult to breathe in other people’s suffering, then modify the practice. Rather than taking in their suffering on the in-breath, just breathe normally and call to mind others who share your circumstances. Then, in whatever way feels natural to you, send them thoughts of kindness, compassion, and peace. You need not breathe in others’ suffering in order to feel connected to them or in order to enfold both them and yourself in your heartfelt wish to ease the suffering of being isolated during the holidays.

You might also find these helpful: "Educating Loved Ones about Your Health During the Holidays" and  "Surviving the Holidays when You're Chronically Ill."

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

In my two books, I write in more detail about the practices in this article. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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