If you think you’re so enlightened, go spend a week with your family.
— Ram Dass
Unlike your religious community, your book club, or your friend group, you don’t get to pick which family you participate in. You’re born into it and it’s yours until the moment you die. Some of us couldn’t imagine not speaking with our family every week, while others are far removed from engaging them. The extent to which we want to interact with our family, and how we define it, is up to each of us, but it’s a group we can’t really avoid participating in, one way or another.
There’s a popular television show called Modern Family. It depicts the antics of one large family that consists of a number of iterations: the grandfather/father who is on his second marriage and has a stepson and a son in that second marriage, in addition to a daughter, who is part of the stereotypical “nuclear family,” as she is married to a man and they have three children together, and a son, who is married to another man and has adopted a child.
The basic premise of the show (and my long-winded explanation of it) shows that these days family is what we make of it; it’s not all who came out of whose vagina but is more fluid than that. The etiquette expert Millicent Fenwick, way back in 1948, defined the word household as “a unit, a group of people joined together, living under the same roof.” I like this way of thinking of a household, because some of us may consider our roommate family, or our close friends, or the dog we adopted. However you personally define your family and household, though, you likely already know the importance of figuring out meaningful ways to show up for it and recognizing the inherent goodness of your family situation.
Falling into Habitual Patterns
For those of us who have been doing some work on ourselves, when we go home to visit family we think we have a new lease on life, a new understanding of the nature of the universe and what makes things tick. We are ready to display the new, evolved version of ourself to our family. What happens then? If you’re like me, the moment you walk through the door you fall into the same patterns you were raised with, and ten minutes in you might be complaining that you don’t want to take out the trash in the same tone you did when you were a surly teenager.
This is the basic rule of karma in the Buddhist tradition: We have strongly ingrained habitual ways of considering ourself, our loved ones, and the world around us, and these ideas propel us to do the same sort of things over and over again, unless we cut through that particular pattern. In the long-term Buddhist view, we have been playing out the same patterns of passion, aggression, and ignorance with various versions of our families for lifetimes. That said, you don’t need to believe in multiple lifetimes to know that when you’re complaining like a teenager to your dad, it’s because you used to complain like a teenager to your dad.
We all have our own deeply ingrained patterns with our families. It’s the default setting for how we relate to each other, who holds what role, and how we express love to each other. There are specific dynamics between parents and children, siblings, cousins, all of it. And if we’re not careful, we will continue to reify these patterns and dynamics out of sheer laziness. Many families carry a “This has worked for us thus far; no one has killed each other” mind-set and don’t really want to budge from business as usual.
However, if you are sick of relating to your (negative, not-so-helpful) family patterns in the same old way, you can remember the advice offered before by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “Everything is predetermined . . . until now.” The next time you are on the phone with a family member or see them in person for the holidays, you have a unique opportunity to change the flow of business as usual.
How to Bring Mindfulness into Your Family Situation
You can show up for your family members, embodying mindfulness by deeply listening and becoming gently inquisitive about their experience, in an attempt to unearth a deeper layer of conversation than what you normally get to experience together. You can hold space for them to talk about what’s ultimately on their mind, without offering advice or judgment, and show your compassionate heart. If you’re stuck, quite frankly, just go somewhere new and try something different with them — eat a new food, go for a walk — anything that you have never done together before. There are a million ways to shift our family dynamics into new territory, but we have to rouse ourselves out of our habitual mind-set to do it.
When we show up for our family members in this way, we are entering uncertain territory and it can sometimes be scary. You have an idea of who this person is based on your many years together. By changing the dynamic of your relationship you are wading into the landscape of “Is that so?” Is this person you consider to be stubborn, or artistic, or successful, actually that way? Are they always just like that? By showing up with mindfulness and compassion for your family member, you are, in essence, dropping your preconceived idea of who you think they have been and opening up to who they truly are.
In this way we are connecting with their basic goodness. We are seeing them for their innate wakefulness, kindness, strength, and wisdom, as opposed to boxing them in with ideas about who they should see romantically or what they should do for work. The more we connect with their basic goodness, the more abundant we both feel. The knotted-up negative patterns we have come to rely on for years slowly begin to unravel and we are left with the opportunity to get to know each other in a completely fresh manner.
Even if we do not get to see our family often, we can reach out to them in ways that feel meaningful and continue to emphasize showing, as opposed to telling about, our experience of mindfulness and basic goodness. By learning to start fresh over and over again in coming back to the breath in our meditation practice, we are in fact training to start fresh and drop our preconceived ideas of our friends, our family, and all of our loved ones, so that we can continue to plumb the depths of our shared humanity and goodness.