I 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."
This concept is familiar to meditation and yoga practitioners, since yoga, often translated as "unity," is all about connection. Reconnecting with your family—or at least reexamining it through new eyes—is a challenging but ultimately rewarding opportunity to put your practice into action. In fact, working out family difficulties is as much for your own spiritual and emotional well-being as it is for that of others. "If I'm sitting on all kinds of anger, resentment, judgment, or hatred, it's my heart that's all knotted up and contracted," Chernikoff says. "Part of the spiritual process involves the understanding that forgiveness of ourselves and one another helps everybody."
Intend to Accept
One way to cultivate the right frame of mind for family harmony is to set an intention, as you do before your daily yoga practice. "The Buddha said very clearly that karma is rooted in intention, which I think is key to relating to family," Chernikoff says. "Needless to say, good intention won't cure every complex emotional family drama, but it's a wonderful place to start. Ask yourself whether you just want to prove you're right or whether you want a heart connection with your sister, father, grandson, or ex-husband," he suggests.
Buddhism, Chernikoff explains, teaches about bodhicitta, which some translate as "altruistic intention"; in the state of bodhicitta, you aspire for all beings to be enlightened and free from suffering. "The Dalai Lama calls bodhicitta 'the good heart,'" he says. "So, can you go to your family with a good heart?" Motivation is important, he continues, recalling Thanksgivings when he was a young man. During college, he'd learned yoga and become a vegetarian. "My mom made a nice dinner, and all I would eat was the lettuce," he remembers. "The emotional distress I created in the name of being healthy far outweighed any benefits I or my family could have gotten," he admits. "Rather than break my mother's heart, I might have felt better eating a couple of bites of turkey, but I was so zealous and righteous about teaching my relatives a healthy diet that I created a lot of tension."
Looking back, Chernikoff realizes that his reformist motivations were a problem. "Rather than worry excessively about whether or not to eat the turkey, drink a beer, or violate some precept you operate with at home, pay close attention to your motivation," he advises. "If you act in ways that are consistent with your good intention, then action itself becomes secondary. In my case, I might have tried a nonjudgmental conversation where I said, 'You know, Mom, I haven't been eating meat for several years, and if it's OK with you, I'm going to pass on the turkey, because it feels better in terms of my values. It's fine with me if everybody else eats what they like.'"
Another way to create a healthier family dynamic is to foster acceptance of your family members—and yourself. Your picky uncle is unlikely to stop criticizing, your directionless daughter probably won't surprise you by enrolling in college—in fact, it's unrealistic to think that you will change your relatives. What's left? Try adjusting your own attitudes. "Ironically, it's the willingness to embrace things the way they really are that ends up being the optimal strategy for things moving to a better place," Chernikoff says. "The more acceptance and compassionate awareness you bring to your family situation, the more likely that will create conditions that help people become closer."
Perhaps you struggle with your perception of the expectations others have of you, or maybe your trouble is like mine—the anticipation of a Norman Rockwell-esque family gathering around the Christmas tree followed by disappointment when things don't turn out like that. Recently, Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self joined his siblings in South Carolina to help move their mother out of the family home into assisted living. "Beforehand, I worried about how hard it would be to pack up 200 years of family history," he relates. "In my youth, Mom and I had some pretty big battles, and there are still places where our relationship is tender and guarded. Yet, as I let myself be present sorting through the boxes of letters, there were sweet, poignant memories. Yes, there were challenges with Mom, but the ultimate question was whether I could accept and make room for her magnificence as well as her limitations."
Yoga and meditation help create space within, an accepting mind, and the ability to be present in the moment. They're good tools for helping you relax your grip on how you think you and others ought to be. Acceptance is key, according to Cope. "Ram Dass points out that when you're in the woods, you don't judge the pine, oak, or birch trees for being too tall or irregularly shaped, nor do you expect the oak to be like the birch. Yet around people, we carry huge amounts of judgment," he says. "I try to remind myself that my family is like the forest: The maple tree is like the maple tree; my brother is like my brother."
"Around family and holidays, people's more sophisticated tactics for coping break down," Cope observes. "Many of my clients talk about how they fall back on addictive strategies such as food, alcohol, drugs, sex, or shopping for dealing with unbearable feelings." He and his twin sister use a buddy system to deal with difficult situations. "Before Christmas, Sandy and I discuss our strategy so we don't have to eat our way through the holiday," he says. "Then we check in with each other daily. Having even one other person to share your feelings with makes a huge difference." Contemplative therapists, he says, call this "loaning the witness"—one person can help the other step back and observe the situation without judgment.
While your intention may be to attend family gatherings with compassion and understanding, remember that your spiritual practice extends to you too, a concept that's hard to remember when you feel overwhelmed by your relatives. As you plan a visit, be sure to create space for yourself, including a quiet place and some time to step out of the fray. If family gatherings are typically tense, keep them short and stay at a motel or a close friend's home, so you have neutral ground as a retreat. And do your practice—what Cope calls a "bath for the mind"—at the same time of day as you normally would. "The yoga mat or meditation cushion acts as a home base that actually cues your witness consciousness," he says. "If you figure out a way to keep your practice going during a family visit, you have an automatic connection with your witness daily."
Chernikoff emphasizes the need to set verbal as well as physical boundaries. "Suppose your father gets verbally abusive after a few drinks," he says. "If he starts criticizing you, tell him firmly in an informational tone of voice, 'Dad, if you're going to speak to me that way, I'm going back to my hotel.' Then, if he persists, you leave—ideally without losing your cool. That's where the equanimity you practice in yoga and meditation come in handy&mdash'you're more able to respond than react."
Yoga can also help when you become enmeshed in old family patterns or lose your sense of individual identity. "One of my clients told me that 24 to 48 hours into her family visits, she disappears—she virtually cannot see herself in the mirror,"Cope says. "This is where yoga really helps cut through. If you can come back to the breath, you'll remain more grounded and stay in your body in the present moment."Cope teaches a five-step technique he calls Riding the Wave that involves breathing, relaxing, feeling, watching, and allowing your emotions to flow.
When all else fails, try to keep your family in perspective, remembering that each of us, including our relatives, has our own life and path within the context of our individual circumstances. Whereas some people believe we're born into a family to learn a particular karmic lesson, you don't need to believe in reincarnation to see your family in historical perspective. "What helped my complex relationship with my mother was listening to my grandmother tell stories about her as a girl and how she was affected by the Depression and Holocaust,"Chernikoff says. "Those stories let me see my mother as someone with her own spiritual path and her own karma unfolding—completely apart from me."
"Too often we think of ourselves as victims of our families,"Cope says. He suggests that we take responsibility for our own part of the family karma instead. "Often, historic patterns of behavior are passed from generation to generation,"he acknowledges, "yet it's best to take ownership and bring them into the light of awareness. The Buddha said every enlightened person changes the family field for generations—forward and backward,"he says. "It's useful, I think, to consider your family, past and present, as a crucible in which you put all of your mantras and yoga techniques. When we do this work—and even if other members aren't changed the way we'd like—in some way, the whole family does change."
One thing we can count on when practicing good family karma: This exploration of acceptance will challenge and hopefully nourish us throughout our lifetime. No matter how far we journey along our path, its origin remains the same—with the family.
Riding the Wave
When waves of feeling seem unmanageable, practice Stephen Cope's five-step technique for centering and remaining present with both the pain and the joy of family relationships. Cope directs this exercise on his CD Yoga for Emotional Flow.
1. Breathe: Breathe deeply into the belly and draw your awareness away from the mind and into the body; this cuts through any obsessive mental loop you might be experiencing. Let the wave of breath wash over you.
2. Relax: Scan your body and progressively let go of muscular tension. Consciously relax the diaphragm, belly, face, and shoulders.
3. Feel: Actively take your awareness toward whatever feeling you have; explore its texture, color, and density. Feel the emotional raw energy and visualize it as a big wave flowing through you. Dive into it, maintaining the breath and relaxation.
4. Watch: Shift to your witness consciousness and observe yourself without any judgment. Let the witness become your friend, coaching you to surf the wave of feeling and telling you it's safe, that nothing bad will happen.
5. Allow: Let feelings wash through you. Surrender to the wave of sensation and risk letting go of all control, knowing the river will take you to the right place.