Put Your Own Mask On First

Ram Dass is reported to have said, “If you (mistakenly) think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family”. Those of us fortunate enough to still have family around, and visit them occasionally, get to be reminded of this great truth. Family dynamics are among the most soul challenging experiences any of us can have. This is especially true if we don’t see our family frequently. All of us change constantly; they still remember us as they knew us, or as they wish to remember us. Neuroscience tells us that what people experience of us is 10-20% what they perceive from the actual interaction, and 80-90% what they remember, or what they imagine. This is also true for each of us.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about expectations and disappointment and the scenarios we build in our minds about how things ‘should’ be. Especially around major holidays. And that thing Buddhists call attachment. Typically, we think of attachment to ‘stuff’, but it applies more to stories that people will behave a certain way, or respond to us like we want them to, or that things will be as they have always been, or that we can stop time, or that we can precisely control exact outcomes, or ….

All this backstory brings me to the statement made by flight attendants before every flight, and by self care gurus everywhere, reminding us that if we don’t “put our own (oxygen) masks on first…”, and take conscious note of our own needs, desires, intentions, stories, expectations, beliefs, boundaries, etc., we have stripped ourselves of our ability to respond to our life experiences, whatever they may be, in a supportive, affirming way. Any time we link our sense of wellbeing to our expectation that any other person will act a certain way, we have limited our ability to be present with what is actually happening and reduced our ability to decide how we choose to perceive and remember the events of our lives.

Then there are the predictably unexpected monkey wrenches. My sister had a serious medical emergency the weekend before I traveled to see family. During those last few pre-holiday days, she had planned to finish her last minute Christmas shopping and tie up loose ends. Instead she spent five days in a very good hospital, ultimately receiving three stents providing blood to her unhappy heart. The surgery was successful; she was home the afternoon of Christmas Eve. She was saddened that she wasn’t able to participate in the pre-holiday prep, buy presents for about half the family, or get any of her gifts wrapped. After she had handed out the few presents that she had acquired, she apologized to the rest of the family and said, “Well, I’m still here.” We all applauded and celebrated her presence.

Then there are the blended (and blended and blended) family issues, and the (control) games people do play. Without making anyone wrong, a challenge all by itself, there were opportunities to create some new and completely different rituals and practices over the holidaze. We decided not to let the grandstanding of a few individuals during the week spoil the quality of our appreciation of each other during the few days we had to spend together. That is not to say it was easy, but it was possible, since we kept our wits about us, mostly.

The practice of remembering that only we are in charge of our own experience, while unsettling or annoying at times, may be among our most powerful methods of sharpening our mental and spiritual tools in our toolkit of awakening. Putting our own oxygen masks on first, remembering what has actual importance for us and is in our control, remembering that everyone is doing the best they can all the time, given what they know and believe, including us, we can more easily remember that “We are just walking each other home.”

Blessings in this New Year.

–Rev Janis Farmer

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