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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