(CNN) — We all have our stressful holiday stories.
My most recent one doesn’t involve guilt trips, family squabbles or eccentric relatives. It’s about getting stuck at the far end of a restaurant dinner table with an extended family member who spent the entire meal on her smartphone.
For the better part of two hours, I tried to find someplace to look other than the woman’s forehead while she texted, tweeted, took a mind-boggling number of selfies and stepped out for a call “that was really urgent.”
I later found out (from one of her tweets) that she had also been playing dominoes with her online friends throughout the meal. And before you judge “young people” for these indiscretions, the woman was well into her 30s.
I didn’t know this woman well enough to ask her to put away her device nor did I want to cause a scene, so at first I tried to engage her in conversation. Halfway through appetizers, I admitted defeat and did my best to pick up stray bits of chatter from farther down the table. I went home that night with the mother of all tension headaches.
As a lover of most things tech, I’ve always resisted the simple “technology causes us stress” storyline. The big picture is so much more nuanced and interesting than that. But even I can admit that the dizzying pace with which technology has pervaded our lives can sometimes cause social hiccups.
For all the digital detox pieces out there, few provide tips on how to deal with the anxiety associated with someone else’s tech addiction.
Communication is the essence of human relationships, says Susan Gillis Chapman, author of the book “The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.”
She uses the metaphor of changing traffic lights to describe whether communication is closed, open or somewhere in between, with “red light” indicating that at least one person is not listening.
As tough as it may seem in the moment, she says the key is to approach a red-light scenario with sympathy and insight.
“The way to do this,” writes Chapman, “is by practicing mindfulness, returning the fullness of our attention to what is happening in the present moment.”
Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a Zen teacher and author of “How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness,” agrees: “Holidays or not, most of us would be well-served by practicing greater mindfulness.”
This confuses me. If anything, that night at the restaurant I was a bit too much in the present moment — all 7,200 moments of dinner. So I try to clarify this with Bays.
The first thing you should do, she tells me, is:
If you find yourself stressed out in any way, including from staring at the top of a relative’s head for long periods this holiday season, focus on your breathing first.
Deep breathing is key, notes Bays. Studies show that controlled breathing helps to manage and reduce stress by calming the nervous system and dispelling the adrenaline that arises when we get upset.
Assess the situation and, perhaps, engage
There are certain situations when people are using their devices, and you can ask them to stop, observes Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA and author of “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.”
“If it’s your own kid or if you’re in a movie theater, assuming the person’s not a member of Hell’s Angels, you’re probably safe,” he says.
There are social situations, however, where asking people to get off their device might not feel appropriate.
Small recommends assessing the circumstances. “Is it a relationship worth developing? Then you may want to talk about how it makes you feel. Is it someone being rude and obnoxious? It may or may not be worth bothering. First, decide what you’re dealing with.”
Sometimes, says Small, just attempting to engage the person in conversation may do the trick.
And sometimes, I think, reflecting on my dinner, it doesn’t.
In that case, you can:
Accept the circumstances
Bays tells a personal story of a holiday when someone came and sat in the corner with his iPad for the entire day.
“I was able to draw him in for a brief conversation once, and then I realized and accepted that that was about all he could manage,” she says.
Bays likens the exchange to the practice of tai chi, which involves engaging in slow, meditative movements that are sensitive and responsive to a person’s “chi” or vital energy. You go with the person’s own energy, she suggests, but you shift that energy just enough so no one else is disturbed, so that everyone else can have a good time.
What did that shifting of energy mean for the man and his iPad?
“I stuck him over by the fireplace,” she says. “I told him: ‘You will be comfortable over here.’ And he was and so were we.”
Which forms the crux of the next strategy:
If someone is glued to his device and sitting across from you, ask for another seat, suggests Small. Or do what you can to get them out of eyeshot.
Say something along the lines of: “It seems you’ve got something important you are doing here. How about we move you into another room where you can have privacy. That way, we can be comfortable talking and you can be comfortable texting.”
“But you have to say this without a trace of irony … ” says Bays.
How is that even possible? I wonder.
“… which is why the deep breaths are so important,” she finishes.
Let it go, she tells me. “Notice your judgment and turn it into a preference.”
This, I think, is why she’s a Zen teacher and I am not.
Small suggests that as frustrated as you may feel about your tech-obsessed relatives, some empathy might be in order.
Bays echoes this sentiment: “What people really want, what the holidays are really about, is our presence. But being present is not always comfortable.”
It’s possible that the person glued to the device is either nervous or using it as a means of avoiding intimacy.
“Movies, video games, social media, texting can all help divert our minds from anxious spinning,” Bays says. “Technology can serve as a crutch or a distraction, just like eating can. It can temporarily relieve mental and emotional distress.”
Sometimes teens or people who are shy, awkward or socially ill at ease use technology as a way to manage social interactions. And often, they’re actively listening. This is especially true with teens. That’s their way of trying to join in, she says.
“[Comedian] Louis CK does a wonderful bit about school events where all the parents are holding up their phones, filming their kids in concert,” Small tells me, chuckling. “He says, ‘If you just put that camera down for a moment and watch your kids, the definition is really good.’
Here is a person losing out on the real world, which is really high definition. That’s worth some empathy, says Small.
View them with ‘loving eyes’
In her book, Bays offers a slew of exercises to help with mindfulness in a variety of circumstances. One she recommends for stress during the holidays is “loving eyes.”
When you find yourself frustrated by a particular person, endeavor to look at the person with loving eyes.
“When people try looking at the world with loving eyes, they report a shift in how they see objects and other people,” she writes. “… There is a range of different ‘eyes’ that we can use, from angry eyes, to critical eyes, to impersonal eyes, to personal eyes, to kind eyes, to loving eyes. The eyes we choose to use will color our perception of the world, changing it form hostile to welcoming.
“The eyes we choose to use will have an effect upon our own happiness and the happiness of those beings we are looking at.”
A few nights ago, I tried to practice the “loving eyes” meditation. My husband thought my loving eyes were vaguely creepy at first. But eventually I got the hang of it.
The meditation also helped me understand what went wrong that night in the restaurant. Yes, the woman’s behavior was not ideal, but the choice to be annoyed or not, to judge or not, to have my night ruined or not, was mine.
That choice — how we choose to perceive any situation — is often a hallmark of mindfulness (and a happy holiday dinner).
Editor’s note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.