How do I explain Buddhism to my religiously conservative parents?
I remember being in a bar one night and a newer meditator asked me about coming out to their parents as a Buddhist.
“You make it sound like you’re telling them you’re gay,” I said.
“Well, I think they would be more okay with that,” he replied. “Being gay they understand. Buddhism, that’s really weird for them.”
If someone has never been exposed to meditation or Buddhist tenets, it can seem weird and foreign. Whether you are talking with your religiously conservative family or a long-time friend who doesn’t know much about what you’re up to, you can apply basic Buddhist principles to help them understand what it is you do.
We have this training that can be applied to having these conversations. When you sit down to meditate you become inquisitive about your own self. You begin to poke and prod at this image you have of who you are, what your habits look like, whether they are helpful or harmful to you, and more. That is the process of getting to know yourself, and befriending yourself.
When you are attempting to explain your understanding of Buddhism to people who are unfamiliar with it, you can apply this same level of inquisitiveness and curiosity. The more open and inquisitive you can be with another person, the more they want to reciprocate.
Zen master Seung Sahn was once asked about a similar topic by a student who was trying to articulate basic Buddhist teachings.
The Zen master said, “When you teach other people, just teach. Only teach; only help them. Don’t worry whether or not they understand; only try. If you are trying 100 percent, then your teaching is complete and your mind-light will shine to them.”
You can follow the Seung Sahn’s advice by bringing your full self genuinely to this conversation.
Just offer what you experience, as opposed to your cerebral understanding. Don’t fixate on whether you are saying the smartest or most articulate thing; just try and don’t sweat it as to whether they understand every aspect of what you are saying. It is better that they get a hit of how meditation is affecting your presence than that they know exactly what it is you do at your local meditation center.
You don’t have to wait until you are enlightened to talk to your parents about meditation.
You can feel out their questions, really being inquisitive with their understanding of Buddhism. Then you can offer your experience, as opposed to your cerebral understanding, to them. Don’t try to get everything “right” in having this conversation but allow your presence to speak for you.
Drop your set opinions around what they should take away from that conversation, or how you would like it to run.
Just be with whomever you are talking to, and your authentic presence will speak for itself.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman