Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls family one of the final frontiers of spiritual development. It’s true that even when spiritual leaders come home to be with their family, it’s not always that easy. So often we slowly and habitually take on established roles with other people, especially with our own families. Whether it’s that of a stepchild or child, caregiver or parent, nephew or uncle, these roles are necessary for us to navigate our lives. But so often we start to identify with them and add things. For example, a daughter might all of a sudden become the “responsible daughter” who has to live up to this role of always doing the right thing or being the successful one. Or someone might be inclined to think, I have to achieve, and I have to look good in front of my family.
Not only do we take on these roles, but we also assume they’re true in other people. You might have someone in your family, or someone that you call family, who’s always complaining, and you see them through a certain lens when they are complaining. Or, for example, I have a brother-in-law who could make a rocket out of a meditation bowl; he’s very handy. Often, it’s almost taken for granted that he will be the one we turn to when we need something fixed. More and more, we start to see people in a rigid way within their roles, which can become conditioned over years, or even through generations.
I was recently teaching a mindful families class where children, parents, and caregivers were meditating and doing mindful drawing. At the end, when we were doing our sit, there was one father who was sitting [improperly], but then he would correct his son’s posture. I was probably suggesting something to let the spine be upright, and as I kept giving instructions, I could see the father constantly paying attention to how his son was doing it. So, I thought, maybe I should just ask the whole group: ”What would it be like if you just paid attention to yourself? There’s no need to pay attention to anyone else.”
I could see the father’s body soften a little bit. His shoulders came down, and then after our practice, we reflected. It was beautiful. The father mentioned that he saw a very strong pattern that all of a sudden became much clearer to him. He said, ”I take on this role of needing to correct my son, my children.” But he didn’t just report a sense of release while meditating. He also noticed that his own dad used to do the same thing.
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.
Adapted from Bart van Melik’s Dharma Talk, “Family Awareness: A Relational Path to Freedom in Family Life.”
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