There is a story about a monk in ancient times who, through hard work and dedicated practice, became a respected member of his community. He was sought out by students and esteemed by his peers, but when he would go home to visit his family, none of this mattered to them. They would criticize him and remind him of all the ways he was a screw-up.
When I first read this story, the family’s behavior bothered me, and I assumed that the monk probably felt pretty angry and disappointed. My reaction to this story had a lot to show me, not about my family, but about me.
Ram Dass has been crediting with saying something to the effect of, “If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family.”
For me, this has been good advice; my trips home continuously reveal new ways I am not enlightened and have helped me articulate a few questions for making homecomings more meaningful, even if they don’t always feel “successful.”
Question 1: What do I want from this family visit?
I wanted the monk’s family to see him in a certain way. I wanted them to allow him to forget the not-so-flattering aspects of himself. It turns out, at times I have wanted this from my family, too. After acknowledging this, I could see more clearly when this motivation was sneaking into my interactions with family members. This awareness, on its own, was helpful in dismantling some of the stories and expectations I was stuck in.
Cheri Huber, a wonderful Zen teacher, has instructed us that “how you do anything is how you do everything.”
Seeing how I was relating to my family led me to wonder if this pattern had any bearing on how I was relating to myself. Did I need to see myself a certain way, even at the expense of disowning the unflattering things that were there? The truth is, for most of my life I did. Because I didn’t know there was another option.
Question 2: What difficult thoughts and emotions am I likely to meet when I come into contact with my mother? my father? a grandparent? a sibling? a niece or nephew?
Once we are squarely seated at the Thanksgiving dinner table, it can be especially difficult to identify habitual thoughts and emotions, painful as they may be, because they are so familiar they feel like home.
Because of this “feel like home” phenomenon, I’ve found it helpful before going home to be specific in naming some of the difficult thoughts and emotions I am likely to experience when I am there. Without blaming anyone, I can admit that contact with some family members often brings feelings of “unworthiness” to the surface of my awareness, while contact with other members seems to stir up a very strong “need to be right” reaction.
Acknowledging that feelings of unworthiness, jealousy and resentment are part of our changeable mental landscape means becoming familiar with aspects of ourselves that aren’t flattering. This may sound like a punishment, but it isn’t. As difficult as it may sound, becoming sincerely curious about our own experience, flattering or not, it is a gift of attention and care that only we can give ourselves. It is a way of relating to ourselves with kindness, without having to disown or reject what we perceive as imperfections.
Regardless of the motivations we might identify for going home, I think we make the trip hoping to connect, whatever that might look like. Question 3 acknowledges that we will not always feel “successful” in meeting what comes up, and it breaks ground on the possibility that we can take care of ourselves in ways that no one else can.
We can watch over ourselves in a compassionate way, just like we might watch over a friend or a dear family member. When I first read the story about the monk I didn’t know this was possible. I had always looked outside myself for compassion, for cues that I could accept myself, and I assumed the monk was, too.
I still remember when I first understood the possibility of self-compassion. It wasn’t that long ago, so I know that self-compassion can seem abstract and inaccessible, if not strange or dumb. The first time it made sense to me, real sense, was in a moment of great generosity and vulnerability, when a teacher showed me how she would sometimes stroke her own cheek, just as a loving parent might do, and tell herself, “I know this is difficult, my dear. I know you are hurting.”
May we all find such tenderness as we come home to the present moment, again and again. May we all find such tenderness as we seek connection to the people who remind us how far we have traveled on the path of mindfulness and how far we have left to go.
We are all stones polishing each other.