“If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family,” teaches Ram Dass.
Our families—including our familiar networks of friends, neighbors and co-workers—ground us, reminding us of the goodness of life. We tend to remember this when we are far away from home or in a really difficult situation, lost in the woods or in a strange city, or imprisoned by an evil witch, and so on. In such a situation, we recall eating an ordinary dinner with friends or family and suddenly see the scene glowing goodness and love. “There’s no place like home,” as Dorothy says.
And yet the beings closest to us also have an extraordinary capacity to drive us—I think the ancient expression is coo-coo (sometimes rendered as cray cray). It’s just amazing how these beings can evoke both experiences—basic goodness and joy-destroying craziness. And this is how they become a means to awaken.
Our loved ones can uncover unconscious wounds. Young children, for example, can ask for things or express a willful freedom that we were never allowed to express as children. Boom, we lash out, sometimes including the phrase “when I was your age….” In such a moment, it’s as if some wounded little creature buried deep in the unconscious rises up from the shadows, demanding that we remember how much being deprived of love and attention still hurts.
If we have a spiritual practice, it just might occur to us to give that wounded creature the non-judgmental attention it has always been seeking. We find that we can simply hold wounded feelings in our awareness the way we would hold an actual wounded child. Without judgment and without taking sides in their story, without making anybody wrong, we can just practice giving attention. We may discover in such a moment that attention really is the greatest gift. We discover how the ancient hurt and anger eases as we became conscious of it, thinning out like dense cloud cover, revealing the sunlight of our natural capacity to see and to love.
Our families show us who we are. I have just finished helping Parabola send off to the printers an especially juicy issue called “Families.” Among other great pieces is an essay by the great primatologist Jane Goodall, who describes how chimpanzees feel and express a range of emotions, dark violent emotions as well as compassion and empathy. But together they express “what I can only describe as a sense of awe at the wonder of nature.” Elephant expert Eleanor O’Hanlon describes the great being of elephants. “In their eyes was knowledge, borne through generations of their ancestors,” she writes, “of how to live and walk in beauty and harmlessness on the Earth.”
Sharing an ancient and universal practice like meditation, we learn acceptance. We learn to accept the wounds in all those characters around and inside us. And slowly we find our way home to our true hearts.