Home for the Holidays: Finding a Right View at the Dining Table

Practice mindfulness during the holidays.

Home for the Holidays: Finding a Right View at the Dining Table

The Buddha said that he taught two things: suffering and the end of suffering. The end of suffering is laid out in the Eightfold Path. One practice of the Path is Right View, which involves understanding the wisdom of the Four Noble Truths: that stress exists, it’s an inevitable aspect of the human condition; stress comes from aversion to what is perceived as negative, attachment to what is perceived as positive, and indifference to what is perceived as neutral; the cessation of stress is a possibility; and there is a route out, that practitioners before us have traveled. So, in practicing Right View, we are able to distinguish wholesome thoughts, words, and actions from unwholesome thoughts, words, and actions. We are able to distinguish reality from our perceptions about reality.

Going home can involve warmth, welcoming, and acceptance, or it can reawaken old family dynamics, divisions, or wounds, or our own individual unwholesome patterns; sometimes we visit both the wholesome and the unwholesome aspects of our past. Invoking Right View means remembering that liberation is possible, that others have indeed found it, and that there is a basic goodness, a fundamental worth and benevolence, to every human being. Buddhist teacher Eric Kolvig talks about his sacred task of befriending everyone —  that there is common ground in every human interaction, and we each have the capacity to find that common ground rather than get caught in the differences, and in the process our best qualities are developed.

There is a story about an old Cherokee grandfather talking to his grandson, telling him, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self — pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same is going on inside of you — and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a while, and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

So where we put our attention really matters; what we practice grows stronger — this is called neuroplasticity. So we may go home and get into triggering conversations or situations — we can hold as a goal using our practice to find a way to respond with kindness, patience, or truthfulness. The first Noble Truth invites us to not wish the pain or discomfort away, but to recognize it, even anticipate it, not just over the holidays, but on any given day. The second Truth invites us to examine: Am I clinging? Is there resistance present? Am I apathetic to this conversation? And to know that clinging, resistance, and apathy create suffering. The Third Noble Truth invites us to remember, we need not suffer.

The Fourth Noble Truth tells us how — the Eightfold Path. Right View, the very first practice of the Eightfold Path, invites us to consider our judgments about family members — “Am I sure?” Am I sure that my mom is overlooking my vegan diet and putting cow’s milk in the mashed potatoes? Am I sure that my grandmother is demeaning my line of work?

So when we go home to our families and greet our Uncle’s disgust and disdain about Black Lives Matter, we remember that there is goodness inside of him. When we feel, just like decades ago, that our younger sister receives all the attention and affirmation, we try to remember that there is goodness inside of us, goodness inside of our sister, and goodness inside of those giving lopsided love. When we see our cousin get drunk, just like every other Thanksgiving, we remember that he is also the Buddha. When two sides of the family fight about the results of the election, we look for the truth and wisdom of everyone involved.

A yogini was meditating in a cave when the demon Mara came to throw her off balance, first creating whirlwinds and throwing dust around, the beginnings of a storm. The yogini got up, went to the forest, and collected some wood. She returned, put the wood down, and sat to meditate again. Mara thought, “Ah, I’ve got to do more to agitate her,” and started throwing rain and hail and snow, branches of trees snapping. The yogini got up, grabbed her kettle, and went to fetch water. She returned and again came back into meditation. Mara then got more intense, vibrating the stone of the cave with earthquake, entire trees crashed to the ground. Again, the yogini got up, and made a fire with the wood she had previously collected. She again sat.

Mara at this point was dumbfounded, having tried everything to create upset, and screamed at the yogini, “What are you doing?!” She said, “You have been here before, you will be here again. For now, let’s have tea.” Consider having tea with your anger, your jealousy, your comparison, or your judgment of family members, to know it deeply, to ask it, “What do you need?” This is the practice of Right View.

We are invited to examine the suffering of others, to know that hurt people hurt people, and that only love heals hatred, big and small. And so, as Buddhist teacher Larry Yang offers, “Out of an awareness of the preciousness of all of life, can we commit to not add a single further drop of suffering to a world that already hurts so much?” Or to a cousin that already hurts so much, an aunt who has already been hurt so much. We ourselves benefit from treating others with kindness, for our own blood pressure goes down, immunity increases, we sleep better, and wake with more ease. In further articles in this series, we will explore what to do or what to say, when something harmful is said or done over the holiday, the practices of Right Speech and Right Action. Right View simply invites us to know the moment as it is, to be with it without attachment, aversion, or indifference, to simply acknowledge, “This is what is happening.”

Jacoby Ballard
Jacoby Ballard

Jacoby Ballard has been meditating since he was 17 and teaching yoga and meditation for 16 years. In 2008, he founded Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, and in 2016 was part of the member-owned cooperative Bending Towards Justice, teaching yoga teachers about oppression, privilege, solidarity, and alliance. He is on the Advisory Board of the Yoga Service Council, and part of the team writing the Best Practice White Book in prisons this fall on behalf of the Council. He works at the intersection of social justice and spiritual practice, and he had the immense honor to teach Buddhism in a prison this past year to students committed to awakening.