The thing is, ordinarily you chose who you spend time with. A notable exception is people you work or live in community with – and for the purposes of this article go ahead and lump such folks into the “family” category. Basically, include anyone you have an ongoing relationship with whether you like it or not.
When you choose people to spend time with – unless you’re masochistic – you pick people that more or less make you feel good. People you enjoy. People who like and respect you. People who share interests with you and therefore are naturally interested in you. And then you take these people in just the right doses, calling it an evening when they start to bug you.
Of course, when it comes to family there are fewer choices involved. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a natural rapport with family members, you usually can’t dictate the timing, duration, and nature of your interactions with them.
This is a wonderful opportunity for practice! That is, “spiritual” practice, or whatever you want to call it. Practicing to be a better person, in short. Here are five ways to practice with family relationships and improve them – even if the only thing you improve is your own experience of them.
1) Drop the story. Our Zen way is to try to be as mindful as possible – to notice when we’re getting caught up in ideas, stories, and views, and then drop them as quickly and completely as we can. This isn’t about whether or not a particular story is true, it’s about experiencing our lives directly instead of through a filter of opinions and preconceptions.
In our close, ongoing relationships, we often carry weighty, complicated, and resentful stories. We have an idea about how someone is, what their responses are likely to be, and how they are likely to be in the future.
Imagine someone else relating to you that way! As if you’re some kind of predictable robot, destined to fulfill a particular role and manifest in a particular way forever. Funny thing is, we never see ourselves this way, even when we’re pretty predictable. We know we’re a living, growing, responding being who’s doing the best we can, but we often fail to have faith that others are as well.
Dropping the story, we look with fresh eyes and listen with fresh ears.
2) Be curious. This practice follows from #1. Realistically, we may be extremely skeptical about whether someone can or will change – whether they will actually listen to us, actually see us, let go of their bitterness, stop their self-destructive behaviors, break out of the shell created by their fear, etc… But as much as possible we experience them directly, and respond as authentically and compassionately as we can.
This entails turning toward people with curiosity. What is going on with them? What does their body language say? Recognize that no matter how long you’ve known someone, no matter how stuck in their ways they might be, you can’t see into their mind and heart. They are living their own life, in many ways completely independent of yours.
Sometimes this fresh and curious engagement involves asking questions… testing our assumptions. Not grilling people about their feelings (rarely a popular move), but saying things like, “Do you want me to help? How was such-and-such experience for you? Do you miss so-and-so during the holidays? Would you like to hear about such-and-such experience I had recently?”Interact in ways that invite a spontaneous response. This can be scary, especially with people we’re learned to distrust, or who we suspect may not think highly of us. There’s always a chance their response could be negative or hurtful.
But usually people will simply feel seen and heard. They’ll often relax visibly, and offer a fresh response that immediately increases the sense of intimacy in the relationship.
3) Have no expectations of others. None. This may sound negative, but it’s really about taking responsibility for the only thing we can: ourselves. When you practice in relationship, in a sense your choices can’t have anything to do with the other person. They’re an autonomous human being and will respond the way they respond. Their life is their responsibility. In a relationship you dance with them; the beauty manifests in how and when and if they freely respond in a harmonious way – and when/if they do, there is nothing more rewarding or joyous in the whole world.
If we go into our interactions with people with an agenda, it really won’t matter what we do. They’ll be able to tell. Our words and actions might vary from what we habitually say and do, but if we expect someone to respond in a particular way (and get pissed when they disappoint), this will undermine the intimacy of our relationship, not build it. Even if we need to speak up and say “no” or request something – that’s still OUR practice. The other person can respond however they will, that part is not up to us.
At the same time, don’t expect nothing of others! That is, don’t hold negative expectations, either. This can be tough, especially when someone has hurt you in the past. It really is possible to interact without any expectations at all, although it can take some practice.
4) Look for the love with an open mind. We often want love expressed on our terms. We lament how inadequate so-and-so is at expressing his or her love. Supposedly they love us (they may even say so), but then instead of manifesting love in a way that would make sense to us – by listening to us, being curious about us, or demonstrating respect and acceptance, for example – they criticize or ignore us, or try to communicate love with food or gifts or advice.
If you look at most of your relationships with curiosity and open-heartedness instead of skepticism or wariness, you’ll notice the many – often subtle – ways people demonstrate their love. By some measures a particular demonstration may be inadequate, but once you can see the love, even inadequate gestures become very precious.
Maybe someone shows their love by supporting you financially. Seriously. This may be the sincerest thing they can do. Maybe they show their love by always being available to spend time with you. Maybe they show it just by being quietly present in the same room with you. Maybe they show it by bad-mouthing other people as a strange, indirect way of saying they approve of you. Maybe they take care of your house or car or cook you food even when you don’t really want them to. Maybe the best demonstration of their love is simply that they continue to invite you into their life.
5) Be the first one. Chances are if you’re feeling under-appreciated in a particular relationship, the other person is too. How can you demonstrate your love and appreciation more clearly? Can you make it an act of generosity to find ways to express your love more clearly before the other person does?