December 7, 2017

A Buddhist way to Cope with Family Pain over the Holidays.

“Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are.” ~ Maya Angelou


“Your brother doesn’t want to see you again for the rest of his life,” my mom said the last time we spoke.

Though she was in California, and I was clear across the country in New York City, her words struck at my heart like a swipe from a feral cat. She knew I loved my brother and was suffering after years of intractable silence from him, my only sibling. Mine never was the Norman Rockwell family, or anything closely resembling one. My mother’s all-too-frequent outrage more closely resembled those of Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Ours was not the house on the block where all the neighborhood kids hung out.

Like others who suffered from childhood trauma, I learned to retreat any way I could, whether it was through reading, eating, sleeping, or later on, drinking—anything to dull the pain of rejection.

What I later learned, however, is that the pain of rejection, especially from a parent, isn’t something that one can just wish away. It leaves wounds wide, deep, and not easily healed. According to Dr. Mark Leary, one the the preeminent scholars in social rejection, “Interpersonal rejections constitute some of the most distressing and consequential events in people’s lives.” It forms our outlook on life, our future relationships, and even how we perceive our very being.

In a study reported by the American Association of Pediatrics, lesbian, gay and bisexual adults whose families rejected them in their adolescence were eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who didn’t face family rejection. Clinical depression and drug use were also markedly higher for those rejected by their families.

What is the answer to this deep suffering? Many would say that to heal the person, heal the family. I don’t. After years of trying to win my family’s love and approval, my answer was to find family elsewhere.

When the Buddha created the sangha 2,500 years ago, he created a system whereby nuns and monks could leave the confines of the household and pursue a path of liberation.  Today, our sanghas are just as important as they were during the time of the Buddha, if not more so. Families that are intact are fragmented and distracted, spending a mere 36 minutes a day together. Divorce is common, and human interaction is more virtual than personal these days. Even those who haven’t faced familial rejection are in need of connection.

“Suffering,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “is one of the biggest problems of our times.” He adds that loneliness, feeling cut off, alienation, division, and the disintegration of the family are a major factor in this growing societal dukkha. If alienation is a chief cause of suffering, affiliation can certainly be part of the cure.

We—collectively, as the sangha—are the cure to suffering in our midst. But how often do we actively strive to reach out to other sangha members, to understand them and their unique challenges?

It’s important to realize that, for many, the feelings of loss and sadness due to family rejection are amplified during the holiday season. It is precisely for this reason that now is the perfect time for sanghas to take stock of how well they’re serving their communities. “Our transformation and healing depend on the quality of the sangha,” enjoins Thich Nhat Hanh. We should all ask ourselves, is our sangha a place where we can truly find refuge? Does it nurture spiritual growth by offering the fertile soil of acceptance? If not, why not? And what can we do to help create a more welcoming, nurturing sangha?

In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha mentions four ways of embracing others, thereby growing and strengthening sangha. These are: (1) giving, (2) endearing speech, (3) beneficent conduct, and (4) impartiality under diverse worldly conditions. Looking at each of these practices, we can find multiple paths for establishing truly supportive sanghas.

1. Giving: We can all support our sanghas through giving financial support to their well-being. Gifts of dana (giving freely and generously what we can to show appreciation for the dharma) in addition to regular membership dues ensure that our sangha’s doors will be open to other seekers for years to come. Other forms of giving are also important, including giving of our time to volunteer efforts. We can also give of ourselves by befriending new members of our sangha.

2. Endearing Speech: In addition to the words we use, the tone we use when speaking them will also have an impact.  We’ve all experienced the sense of uplift that can come from a compliment. When speaking to a sangha member, it’s important to focus on their positive attributes and point them out graciously. Letting others know we value them can help them sustain a healthy sense of self. However, we should be sure not to engage in idiot compassion and enable others to make decisions that harm themselves or others.

3. Beneficent Conduct: This one’s easy: follow the precepts. Don’t hurt anyone, steal, spread false or unkind rumors, or sexually misbehave. On the flip side, one could invite someone to coffee after a dharma talk, make plans to see a movie together, or just exchange emails to say hi once in awhile.

4. Impartiality: This refers to, specifically, impartiality in terms of one’s circumstances in relation to the eight worldly winds: pleasure/pain, gain/loss, praise/blame, fame/ill-repute. Are we partial to those sangha members who are of high-status? Do we seek out those with wealth and influence, and avoid those with more modest circumstances? To create and maintain a strong sangha, we should practice reaching out to and embracing all within it.

Psychologist C. Nathan DeWall says, “Humans have a fundamental need to belong,” and that just as we need food and water, we also need positive and lasting relationships. For many, these relationships are found in the family unit. Others, however, do not have the comfort of family. For them, a center of spiritual growth that offers companionship and positive regard can serve as a lifeline. It is up to each individual sangha member to foster a sense of warmth and community by being kind, impartial and giving.

This year, when we are all counting our blessings for what we have, maybe we can also count our blessings for what we’ve been able to give. Whether it’s money, a kind word, perhaps an invitation for Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, we all have something we can, and should, give. 



Author: Regina Valdez
Image: Matthew Kenwrick/Flickr 
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Regina Valdez