Family as a spiritual practice

I went to San Jose to visit my family this weekend, staying from Friday till Sunday. It’s a difficult time for everyone. Al is going to college in one week’s time, leaving my parents with an empty nest; Shra’s engagement party is coming up in September and then there will be the wedding to plan; Mommy has developed sciatica and suffers constant pain in her leg. My intention in going to San Jose was to provide moral and emotional support, but I’m not sure I really did a very good job. Not surprisingly, I kept running up against my own emotional baggage, and it made me less able to cope with the situations at hand.

For about a year now, I have been actively trying to cultivate a spiritual practice of compassion and open-heartedness (helped along by yoga, and books by Don Miguel Ruiz and Pema Chödrön). It has been very interesting and enlightening. The point of this practice is to develop an ability to keep my heart generously open to others’ emotions and suffering, even when I want to run away and just think about myself; the goal is to feel my fear, anger, resentment, and frustration, and open my heart anyway. I am definitely getting better at this, but after many draining phone and email conversations in the past few weeks, by the time this weekend rolled around I think I had just run out of reserves. I found myself short of patience and temper, constantly exasperated, and extremely reluctant to remain present in these frustrating situations.

Pema Chödrön says a fundamental part of this practice is to be like a good dog and “stay… just stay,” when things are going badly and you want to just throw up your hands and give up. Another basic element of the practice is to first be compassionate with yourself, and that part at least I can do. It’s called a practice because it can never be perfectly achieved, even though that’s what we strive for always. I’m not beating myself up for not achieving my goal of smoothing everything over between my family members; I went there, I made some efforts to communicate their points of view to each other, and now I’m able to recognize more of the places where my practice runs thin! It’s good to know what’s most challenging for me; this knowledge will prepare me better for the future. I’ll be seeing my parents and Al again this weekend — starting on Thursday actually — so I’ll be able to give it another go. One of the mixed blessings of family is that there will always be more opportunities to practice compassion and understanding!

Here are some things I’ve been working on in this practice that I’ve been trying to impart to my family:

  1. Don’t take everything so personally.
  2. Life is uncertain. Learn to be comfortable with this.
  3. Never make assumptions. This goes for what other people are feeling, as well as your own interpretations of reality. There’s always another interpretation; there’s always a way of seeing things that hasn’t yet occurred to you.
  4. Really listen to others: not just what they say with their words, but what’s underneath their words.
  5. Let go of what you don’t need: emotions, interpretations, the need to be right or to be better than other people. As one of my favorite Chödrön quotations goes: “Things are as bad and as good as they seem. There’s no need to add anything extra.”
  6. Don’t judge yourself, but don’t congratulate yourself either. If you think you’re doing everything right, look again. If you think you’re failing at everything, look again.
  7. When you truly open your heart to others, when you interact with them in an earnest spirit of openness and compassion, things unfold more beautifully than you could have imagined. This is something you have to take on faith, but as far as I’ve tried it, it really works.