Family is the master teacher for relating with openness and compassion. For this, we must be grateful.
I love my family. I love Thanksgiving. But the two together aren’t exactly the world’s best combination. In fact, it’s the recipe for nuttiness. There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs when my family gathers where we seem to exaggerate each other’s idiosyncrasies. This experience can range from hilarity in times of lightheartedness, to painful altercations—even (maybe especially?!) on holidays. A friend of mine said to me recently, “The person that aggravates you most in life is most likely sitting next to you at the dinner table at Thanksgiving.” This statement rang true to my experience and I began to meditate on the application of the yogic principles to family pain. As we approach the holiday season—a season often filled with both family and stress—it’s important to address a type of pain that ails many of us; I have yet to meet a person whose family has not had a dispute that led to different parties cutting off contact for some amount of time, be it days or decades. The pain that transpires within families and has a lot to teach us, and it’s the biggest lesson that we must be most grateful for.
In class, I often remind my students that at its core, yoga is the “ninja training” of consciousness. The practice of yoga teaches us about the nature of pain and the way out of it. It provides us with tangible techniques such as breath work (pranayama), posture (asana) and concentration/meditation (dharana/dhyana) to name a few, that are the instruments we sharpen for the battle against confrontational situations. All of these tools work with a similar aim: creating space between a situation and our experience; they teach us to take a witnessing seat and observe what arises. In this space we find gems of insight that open the path to healing.
The teachings of yoga suggest that the key to our experience lies in how we relate to the moment at hand—our focus is our experience. When we pay attention, we notice that in moments of altercation that our experience expands (our heart, blood pressure and thoughts race) and we are flooded with emotion and ego. In these moments our identity shifts and the “I” takes the front seat—my pain, my hurt, my point of view, my agitation is magnified and takes control. There is no room for anything else. We might find ourselves saying things like, “how dare they say/do that?!” The answer is, of course, that the opposite party could say/do that hurtful thing because their experience is also flooded with much of the same, and in a space of two expanded I’s, there is no room for anyone else.
Healing requires space, and the practice of yoga is as much about space-making as it is about taking responsibility for our experience. The principle of tapas, or austerity, suggests that conscious growth transpires when we learn to create enough space in ourselves to withstand pain without continuing its cycle. For isn’t it much easier to engage in a barrage of name-calling than it is to simply stop it? When we learn to consciously create space, our experience of ourselves shifts; the ego doesn’t take over, and there is room for the other’s experience. When we become a witness to what lies within us, we are no longer enmeshed in the muck, and can regain clarity. Creating space is as simple (though not necessarily easy) as sitting in stillness and becoming aware of the sensations that arise—tightness in the chest, hurried breath—and the thought patterns that accompany it—maybe I’m cursing someone out in my head, or asking a loop of unanswerable questions, or simply blaming the person who I believe aroused these feelings in me. The task is to notice whatever comes, much like an anthropologist studying the behavior of the body and mind as if it were something foreign. This is the crux of change.
When I started to create space in my own experience, namely to sit with what was there after a family argument, I noticed that if I have an interaction with an acquaintance or a friend I am more able to let it go than if I have a similar interaction with a family member. In a family quarrel, I found myself stuck in a heated cycle of reactivity. It’s painful. Families exhibit and create an interesting dynamic. For many of us, our family has witnessed our development into maturation (not a pretty process) and hence, has access to parts of our identity that we may no longer associate with and may even want to forget. But family often has a way of holding on, reminding, and even stirring up the patterns and wounds of our youth. In fact, it can almost feel as though, in the midst of altercation, it’s not even the present version of us who is reacting. In meditation, I began to notice that I felt like a fourteen-year-old version of me was the one upset and fighting back; a version of me that did not have the tools I have today. I found that the hurt was not necessarily about the issue at hand, but rather, about something unfinished. Family drama is unique in the way in which it can, in a matter of seconds, bring up parts of ourselves that are perhaps not fully integrated or healed. Jackpot!
The truth is that we all have old wounds, that healing necessitates space, and that more often than not, the present version of us has more tools at our disposal than a young, wounded version does. The wounded self is less able to relate from a place of openness (the abode of compassion), because it needs to take care of itself. It is injured and can’t care for anyone else. On the other hand, the self that feels whole and safe in all aspects of its being is more able to access space, compassion, and kindness. Yoga then teaches us that in order to relate fully, we must do the work of wholeness. The old pain within us, the places where we shut down, are guides into where we need to work. We can’t possibly approach a loved one, who upsets us, with compassion for their experience when we are shut down. Until we can create that space for our own experience and utilize the triggers as maps into the construction areas in our internal landscape, and do the landscaping work, we may only continue the cycle of hurt.
As always, the work is internal and begins with us. The process of this type of transformation can be, at least, confrontational in itself. It requires us to examine some of the darker places in ourselves and be willing to sit, observe, and allow. This takes time. This takes patience.
The path of yoga is work towards the continual growth into the most authentic and actualized version of ourselves. Yoga teaches that our experience is mediated by our perceptions and that the effect that situations have on us is deeply intertwined with how we relate to them. The ability to detangle our reactivity by recognizing how we are choosing to relate and become aware of our own wound, is the kindle that ignites the fire of transforming our experience and our relationships altogether. This happens when we make it a practice to take the seat of the witness—in and out of altercation. Witnessing is a muscle that requires daily exercise. Doing so affords us a paradigm shift form consumption by anger/sadness/frustration at a family member, to a recognition that this person has struck a deep chord of uncharted emotional territory within us. The particularly uncomfortable suffering that can only be caused by family is in many ways a blessing. Family then often has a special role: to light not a lamp, but a spotlight into the goldmine of potential growth for our inner journey into wholeness. Family is the master teacher for relating with openness and compassion. For this, we must be grateful. And when we think we have mastered it, there’s always next Thanksgiving.
Tatiana Forero Puerta is a writer, yogi, and teacher. Tatiana has studied Religion and Philosophy at University of the Pacific, Stanford University, and New York University. Tatiana works with yoga teachers and private clients teaching yoga, philosophy, wellness, and nutrition. Her writing has appeared in Assisi Literary Journal, Religion and Psychology Research, and JOY: The Journal of Yoga. She can be contacted through her website:www.tatianayoga.com