In the United States, this week is our Thanksgiving celebration. Millions of people will travel somewhere to be with members of their ‘family.’ As someone who is awake to their deepest nature, I sat in the car with family members this morning (my spouse and father-in-law) and thought about how we define family.
It used to be that family meant: biological family, my biological parents, my biological siblings, and perhaps grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Given the explosion in the rich variety of blended families in the last 50 years in the U.S. (and other places, I’m guessing), we already may need to expand the definition of family, to include my stepparents (still have one alive), my stepsister and stepbrother, my half-brother, and all of their children. Although, being with my in-laws, I need to include all of the in-laws and their families too, don’t I?
If we take a look at the ‘glue’ that binds any ‘family’ together, it generally comes down to love, right? I know it does but, I’m asking the question so that readers might consider the truth of this. What causes most issues at the holidays? We create expectations that we should be the center of attention, we should have our needs met, our ‘family’ should pay attention to us, our family should talk about what we want to talk about, our family should make us feel special. If they don’t then they’re AWFUL or BORING or DISAPPOINTING.
So, one problem with family is we expect them (whoever ‘they’ are) to love us. We don’t necessarily think about whether we are loving them. On the three-dimensional level of physical life, in our personal relationships, ‘the love we make’ or create is ‘equal to the love we take’ to quote a Beatles song. So, if we’re disappointed in our families over the holidays, we’re probably not loving THEM. Loving them will actually feel good, if we allow ourselves to feel the love. Loving them will feel better, if we reduce our expectations of what they ‘should’ give us too. The great spiritual wisdom traditions teach us to lose our attachments (desires) and aversions (anti-desires, things we hate).
To do this, however, we have to take a look at the heart of spirituality which is well summarized in the Buddha’s teachings on the three essential factors of life: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. All experience is impermanent, including pleasure. Since that is the case, all experience, and the possession of every object, and ‘getting what I want’ is inherently unsatisfactory because it disappears quickly! Feeling my desire to be ‘paid attention to’ being fulfilled is a prime example of that: as soon as I’m not being paid attention to, I revert immediately to feeling unsatisfied. “Someone else is getting the attention. No Fair!”
Of course, to really track all the way to the most basic problem in family relationships, one has to go all the way to the lack of reality of a so-called self. The ‘self’ that most people think of as ‘me’ is a series of thoughts that say ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’ or ‘mine’ somewhere in the thought. In other words, the ‘self’ is composed of a series of impermanent thoughts that come and go extremely quickly. What makes a ‘self’ feel more real is that the thoughts often produce a special subset of physical sensations that we have called ‘emotions’ which register in our bodies and make us feel more like there is some sort of permanent ‘self’ or ‘identity’ or ‘person’ here. This is especially true when the feelings include anger, sadness, grief, or some other feeling that causes us to tense up and make the muscles hard. The harder and tenser the muscles, the more ‘real’ the ‘self’ actually seems to us.
If we stop thinking, even briefly, what happens to this so-called ‘self’? It disappears. And, anyway, if the self is the chattering ‘voice in my head’ that also creates ‘feelings’ then Who or What is watching the chattering voice and feelings arise?
Therefore, if we take our idea of family, and holidays down to our idea that there is a ‘self’ to begin with, we find a whole series of problems that first create a false ‘self’ when it doesn’t exist. Then, our thoughts create a whole set of categories and relationships that exist as thought constructs. For example, we think we’re having ‘relationships’ with people who aren’t in the room or with whom we’re currently not in communication. Where is this so-called relationship though? It’s in our heads….in our thoughts. Is there any reality to it, ultimately? No, it’s ephemeral, temporary, or as the Buddha says, impermanent. The ‘relationships’ only exist when communication is occurring between the people.
So, when ‘you’ are getting together with ‘your’ ‘family,’ you might want to consider something different. Since ‘you’ aren’t really a self, and the ‘family’ is more an agreed upon idea than a permanent reality, you might want to just go in with no expectations and see what happens. If love spontaneously arises in your heart, let it flow. Then the next question for you, “Does the flow have to stop at just your mind’s definition of ‘family?’”
Grandmother (long gone in 1989), showed me that love wasn’t confined to the biological family because she loved my father’s step-children too. Gay friends taught me that sometimes the biological family is going to reject you because they think you’re bad for being yourself, so love can make a family of choice. Traumatized clients, whose parents abused them and never apologized, also taught me about this family of choice: they create new ‘families’ based on people who love them and whom they love. They create new kinds of family ‘traditions’ and ‘celebrations.’
Jesus teaches us to ‘love God above all else and to love your neighbor as yourself.’ Really, I understand now through the insight of meditation, that my neighbor IS myself. The Buddha teaches us that there is no ‘I’ to demand anything and no good definition of ‘family’ at all that excludes anything. His teaching was to love everyone and everything, since it is all Emptiness. Said another way, the Absolute is manifest in, as, and through everything visible and invisible. How can we deny love to anyone or anything when it is all the same Essence that we are?
So, when ‘we’ gather with ‘family’ this week, we can go deeper than to ask for ego-validation for a non-existent self. We can experience a spontaneous unfolding of love. If that doesn’t happen, we can at least begin to ask ourselves how we can be so far from who the great masters teach us we really are.