Family Foundations

Family. It can be a heart-warming word or it can be a sore subject. Whether you’re close with your family, avoid them, or have no living relatives, it’s still a loaded topic; it still affects you one way or another.

I had a friend who had one of the most dysfunctional families I’d ever seen, and they couldn’t get enough of each other. My family has always been pretty loving, but not all that tight-knit. My husband and I are starting our own “family” in a sense by blending his and mine. This includes family members, differing expectations and different experiences that have shaped who we are today. So we’re not just mixing people; we’re bringing all of our family experiences from the past to the table.

If you want to get to know someone better, ask about their family. If you want to let others know you more intimately, tell them about yours. While our family experiences don’t have to define us in entirety, none of us are immune to our family dynamics. “You’ll find out more about a person by asking about their family than asking about their spiritual insights,” Lama Jinpa says. “By asking about one’s family, you’re showing that you care, but you can also glean a great deal from someone’s interactions with or thoughts on their family,” he adds. “It’s natural. Even the Buddha had family issues.”

Sometimes people don’t want to talk about their family because they’re embarrassed, deeply wounded, or are afraid of revealing weaknesses in their own character. It shouldn’t really be about blaming, although we all fear hearing this sort of criticism, don’t we? We may be blaming ourselves or blaming anyone but ourselves, but it’s more about gaining insight into why the challenges exist and how we react to them. Are we aware of the role we play in our” family dynamics?

Whether we instigated something, reacted in a way that fueled the flame or feel innocent regarding an ordeal, can we see the big picture and can we put it in perspective? Or are we holding grudges or living in denial about some aspect of our relationships? “Generally the family is still alive inside us, even if they’re gone,” Lama la says. “The family stories don’t go away.” Our past or present family experiences affect us more than we realize.

“So often we think of our spirituality just in terms of special moments, but it can be difficult to really immerse in a good spiritual practice when someone is still pissed off or wounded by one’s family.” At times we all want to imagine that we’re separate from our family, but we have to admit that we’re never entirely separate from them.

Have you ever been gathered around the family dinner table, engaged and aware of the big picture? Kind of like meditation, you’re in it and observing it at the same time. This is how you exert some control and separateness (even if just for your own sanity). This is how you say to yourself, ‘Ok, here I am as part of the family, and here I am separate from it.’ You can choose to leave the family dinner table, but you can’t ever fully take the family out of the individual. “You’re always an individual and you’re always part of the context at the same time,” Lama la says. Seeing this helps us find the balance that enables us to manage sometimes-difficult relations. And then the bigger question becomes, ‘Where are we really coming from and how are we living now?’

Blended families are extremely common these days, and they can help us see things from a different perspective. One family unit breaks apart, another is created, and we are one of the common denominators. So these experiences can create character if we learn from them. We can forge new connections and interactions, and learn to more clearly see the big picture (which isn’t all about us).

Family should provide a sort of support for all its members. So is the safety net beneath you supporting you? Or are you enmeshed in it, feeling trapped? Sometimes, we get a little of both. But if we relate to one feeling much more than the other, this insight can shed much needed light on the state of our current lives.