Today's Daily Tip
A Family AffairI dread November and December, those crazy-making months that worship family. Each year, I secretly want to flee to some sunny beach and escape the accompanying angst of my own imperfect relatives. Instead, I bustle with false joviality through the holidays, determined that this year will be merry. I trace this feeling back to the Christmas when I was in the fourth grade and gave my mother a ceramic Santa Claus ornament I had painted in school. I was dimly aware that she was unhappy, but I was sure I could imbue my gift with the power to banish her blues. Unfortunately, my optimistic handiwork didn't cure her ongoing depression, and 32 years later, the failure of ribbons, wreaths, and banquets to heal my family's deepest pains still haunts me.
Last Thanksgiving, our family conspiracy to present a sugarcoated holiday facade crumbled once again. My parents, my brother, and I are accomplished at hiding behind happy-face masks, but this year my mom was having an especially bad time; during food preparations, she argued with my brother and stormed off to a neighbor's house, where she was cat-sitting. She refused to come home for dinner, so in a tense atmosphere, the rest of us ate turkey and trimmings without her.
Though that day was difficult for all of us—more stripped of emotional camouflage than usual—the outcome was surprising. Instead of getting stuck in our old pattern of "wound and retreat," we opened up to one another: My mom and brother had a long, honest talk, and my dad tried being more authentic too. And I learned to stop trying to fix everybody and appreciate when people come together in a genuine way—even when it's a sloppy affair.
My family isn't unique. At holiday time, as people reunite with their relatives, difficult issues often arise —even for those who have been cultivating inner peace through a yogic lifestyle. Spiritual teacher Ram Dass has humorously observed that anyone who thinks they're enlightened should spend time with family.
Indeed, even the least worldly yogis may find themselves confronting sibling rivalries or feelings of parental inadequacy. "As soon as you get back into the family context—familiar places and interactions —over the holidays, those deep-seated patterns of behavior that are hardwired into us trigger unresolved issues," explains Stephen Cope, a psychotherapist who studies the relationship between Western psychology and Eastern contemplative traditions. "Our family members are our deepest mirrors. They know us the best; they mirror all of our magnificence and neuroses."
Instead of expecting that going home for the holidays will destroy your peaceful mind-set and send you into a spiritual tailspin, consider your family an extension of your practice, a new way to experience compassion, nonjudgment, nonattachment, and gratefulness. Just don't expect to be perfect.
"Family relationships are best viewed as rich, valuable opportunities for spiritual development and psychological insight," says psychotherapist David Chernikoff, a guiding teacher of Colorado's Insight Meditation community. "Your family karma stays with you throughout this entire incarnation or life cycle," he adds. "No matter how far you go to get away, you'll always be connected to parents, siblings, and grandparents in a deep way that affects you spiritually, psychically, emotionally, and physically."