I’ve been working with a concept this year that has real potential to get us through the upcoming holiday season with skill and grace. It’s a Buddhist concept that I kept running into over and over. It grabbed hold of me because it gave me a very concrete way to work with my mindfulness practice.

If you put a handful of salt into a bowl of water, the water becomes salty, taking on the characteristics of the salt. If, however, you put a handful of salt into a lake, you will probably not even notice it. There is enough space in the lake to let the salt disperse. The water, as a whole, does not take on the characteristics of the salt.

Clearly the idea is that mindfulness helps to create this space. When certain people, interactions or events trigger something in us, we take on the characteristics of that something. In other words, if someone makes me angry, or fearful or hurt, I have a physical reaction to that. The corresponding body chemistry causes me to embody that feeling and it triggers a cascade of thoughts that match the physical response.

If I recognize that this has happened. I can breathe. I can create a pause. I can create a sense of spaciousness that makes me more like the lake than the bowl. This deactivates the sympathetic nervous system; calms down the cascade of physical reactions and thoughts. This, in turn, can drastically alter my response. I find I often don’t need to respond at all.

And this just may be the key to happy holidays.

For some reason, we feel the need to cram as many scheduled events as possible between the first of October and the end of December. I’ve never quite understood the reason for every festival, contest, party and event to be squeezed into these three months. Rather than enjoying the cooler weather and having meaningful, relaxed time with family or close friends, or spending some intentionally contemplative time alone, we run ourselves ragged. Running on our depleted resources, we become sad, irritable, depressed, angry, frustrated. That’s no way to spend the holidays.

And let’s face it, no many how many or few Norman Rockwell-esque family memories you have, families can be tough. For some people, seeing the family over the holidays is a loving, warm time; for others, not so much.

Most people develop some degree of unhealthy relational patterns in our families of origin. Many people make efforts to change these patterns when they leave home. They are often able to create meaningful relationships devoid of the unhealthy patterns they grew up with. However, when reunited with our families, most people will eventually fall into their habitual relational patterns that force us into habitual roles and identities.

But what if, over the holidays, we were to remember the bowl and lake metaphor. What if we remembered to take a few breaths, to create spaciousness. Using this technique, this noticing when we’ve been hooked into something, taking a few deep breaths to deactivate us, we are better able to create the spaciousness of the lake. It helps us not take the words and actions of others so personally. We are better able to see the behaviors of others as habit or as just part of the other person. We can breathe and allow: allow ourselves to acknowledge what we feel. Allow the other person to have space to see what they are doing. Allow for the possibility of responding in a non-habitual way, which may simply look like not responding.

What if this skill, this lake and bowl metaphor, is the best gift we can offer ourselves and others this holiday season?