Plans to see relatives can inspire every feeling from exhilaration to dread (often depending on the day). Whether it’s a big reunion or the day-to-day of raising kids, family time can easily trigger old habits, angers, and delusions, but it can also be an incubator for developing strong, unconditional metta. In other words, it’s the perfect testing ground for practice. However, there’s no need to go into it unprepared.
It can be grounding to consider how you’d like to show up and the ways you might handle common problems, from miscommunication to stress, before you’re tossed into the fire of family gatherings. These five teachings offer ways to do just that.
1. Balance Compassion with Equanimity
“When it comes to our family, equanimity is inextricably linked with compassion. We can have equanimity without compassion, like when we feel burned out and cynically dismiss our kids’ concerns as mere manipulation. We can also have compassion without equanimity, responding to their immediate wants over their long-term needs because of our own intolerance of their discomfort. As I heard someone recently put it, compassion with equanimity means, ‘I want you to be happy, but I don’t need you to be happy in order to be OK.’”
–Christopher Willard, “How Parents and Children Can Learn Balance and Equanimity from the Eight Worldly Winds”
2. Question Family Roles
“What roles do you take on in your own family? What roles are expected from you? The Buddha really encourages us to see the suffering element in adopting roles because they become rigid. Most of the time we act out of habit when we’re in these roles or see our loved ones in them. We constantly look for confirmation that our preconceptions are right. This is just my complaining family member again.
Consider the moments when you take on a specific role with your loved ones. Notice that there’s some sense of space in the actual seeing of the role and the experience. The act of seeing the role could be the doorway into a different relationship. We may start to be more kind in that moment and think, ‘Huh, here it is again.’ We may see how the role has an effect on our family members. Then we can start to open to more compassion, and perhaps, step by step, we can forgive both others and ourselves.”
3. Offer Compassion to Yourself
“The Buddha’s injunction that we extend compassion to ourselves requires that after recognizing our suffering, we respond to it with love. This takes courage and commitment. … When practicing compassion as a formal meditation, the traditional phrases are ‘May I be held in compassion. May my pain and sorrow be eased. May I be at peace.’ If freedom from pain and sorrow seems impossible because of physical illness or other circumstances, we may need to experiment to find more resonant phrases. For example, ‘May I care for my body just as it is,’ or ‘May I meet this suffering with tenderness and love.’ …
The ability to offer compassion to oneself is the prerequisite to being able to offer compassion to others. If I run from my own pain, or habitually meet it with denial, aversion, distraction, or even self-pity, I will have little option but to react to the suffering of others with denial, aversion, distraction, or pity. All these reactions are based on fear and separation, whether from oneself or others, whereas compassion is based on love and connection, both to oneself and to others. Pema Chödrön explains that our own painful experiences are our greatest resource for compassion practice. ‘If you can know it in yourself, you can know it in everyone. This practice cuts through culture, economic status, intelligence, race, religion. People everywhere feel pain—jealousy, anger, being left out, feeling lonely. Everybody feels that exactly the way you feel it. The story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all.’”
–Beth Roth, “Family Dharma: Leaning Into Suffering”
4. Be Present with Change
“Over the past several years, I’ve noticed that my practice has slowly stripped me of the delusion—and the wish—that any upcoming holiday will be the same as years gone by. Though painful at first, accepting this feels much more spacious and realistic than any longing that I get pulled into. Here is the truth: My family is changing. Someone who has been sitting across the table from me my whole life may not be there anymore. This is deeply saddening. At the same time, someone new may be sitting across the table from me, or I myself may be sitting at a different table, in another house, in some faraway town.”
–Lauren Krauze, “Confronting Family Dynamics During the Holidays”
5. Change “Me” Time to “We” Time
“Persisting in the pre-parent habit of thinking that you can only feel rejuvenated if you get ‘me time’—and for meditators, ‘me time’ means silent, seated meditation—will only result in frustration and further feelings of depletion. If you find yourself thinking this way, you may need to make a considerable shift in identity such that ‘me’ now includes your family members. This takes time, but it’s worth it. Opening up your sense of self to also consist of relationships reveals how the self is constructed through interconnectedness (or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘interbeing’). Once you let go of the solitary self, spending time with your children becomes meditation itself, as long as you are with them intentionally in this way (again, no distractions, especially in the form of devices). This tectonic shift in identity is probably the single largest transformation a meditating parent undergoes, and it has profound implications for spiritual growth.”
–Sumi Loundon Kim, “How to Meditate While Raising Kids”
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