shine a light

(using visualization to dissolve familial roles and develop compassion)

ari tapiero,

What is it about family relationships that affect us so much? I think of a friend, a man in his fifties, sitting in front of an image of Mother Mary, crying, wanting to be held because his own mother didn’t hold him; of a young woman I know who is driven in her work to please a distant father; of a mother who feels guilty, afraid she doesn’t have the energy to care properly for her baby.

Whether you are a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a cousin, a grandparent… everyone is part of a family. Family is a fact of life, and experiences in our families impact us deeply, creating the foundations of our identity. The habits we form in our families stay with us throughout our lives.

And, as we all know, no family is perfect – but they can be a perfect place to learn about who we are and how we interact with the world. However, we usually find something wrong with our family. In our ignorance, we look for perfection, for an imaginary ideal of how we want life to be. Faced with the reality of learning to communicate, share, care and survive, we create a lot of pain.

A family is a series of relationships, many of which centre on the abuses of or lack of power and love. Everyone wants some love and power, but these are two very important words that need clarification, as we often have a limited idea of what they are and the responsibility that goes with them. Love has many expectations attached to it, and when they are not fulfilled there is disappointment and pain. If we are confused and unfulfilled in our life, there is a tendency to demand love from others, thinking we have that power. We use people for our own needs instead of caring, respecting and empowering each person in the family.

If you want to come to terms with the reality of your family, you need the wisdom to step back and see a bigger picture. Everyone in the family needs time to see how their own actions can affect others. There is a need for space and a time for communicating what is happening so assumptions and resentments do not build up. How do you resolve these while they are still small? What is each person’s responsibility? Do you blame others? Are you impatient? Can you stop getting lost in habitual responses and old hurts? How do you start?

I came to yoga, as most of us do, at a difficult point in my life – my marriage needed help at the time. The most helpful guidance I received was to start changing the way I identified with myself as a wife and mother. My teacher spoke about my responsibility to cultivate the Light within me. She suggested that I begin seeing the people and myself in my family as more than our designated “roles” of mother, son, daughter and husband.

My practice was to visualize my family and myself filled with Divine Light, surrounded by Divine Light. The Light gave me the clarity and the opportunity to see the best in each person, to detach and help to understand they each have their own path.

When I first began to do this, it seemed very difficult to change my identification and I wondered what would I lose, who would I become? I had a firm commitment to an image of family. Did I have the strength to be on my own? As my children and I became more independent, I felt I was uprooting an established tradition. But, as I continued to practise, a lighter view of my life came into focus. I was able to see the images of myself that I had created and held on to, a mother, a daughter, a wife, and I was able to step more fully into who I truly was, without the excuse of or the dependency on that identity.

We need to realize that our family is not responsible for us being unable to do something in life. Some people use their families as an excuse not to step into the intangible spiritual study of themselves. You may have to change your cherished stories that hold your family in a certain role. You can’t blame your imperfect father for a comment he made when you were young and hold him responsible for why you can’t fulfill your potential. By taking a longer view, you will see that one relationship out of an entire life shouldn’t be able to determine its course. By taking the responsibility to bring in the light of understanding and re-story family situations, you make change possible. This can empower you and help your whole family as you recognize what you have been given – what they have given.

The value of family often becomes more evident as we mature, as we create families of our own. I think of what my own mother did in our family of eight. It is more than I could imagine as a child. It was only after I had my first child that I appreciated what she had gone through – the day after day after day commitment – it is certainly amazing and exhausting. It is important not to leave the idea of family in the realm of white wedding gowns and smiling babies and cozy home nests. It’s real work. Not every person becomes fully formed as a parent and not every child is wanted.

It’s also important to recognize what it takes to build a firm family foundation so that everyone is able to learn how to make their own decisions – based on an inner authority, not a perceived familial authority. It takes work and is sometimes a life’s work, to become self-disciplined, overcome selfishness and desire to control others, and learn to acknowledge the Light in those around us.

When the light of understanding deepens, the young woman struggling to please her father is able to let go of the need for approval and find her own reason and talent in her work. The man crying with Mother Mary will realize that even though his mother couldn’t care for him in the way he wanted, a higher power was taking care of him the entire time. The young mother restores her energy in quiet moments, breathing in time with her baby, knowing she connects on another level and is doing her best.

Your own family can be your place to practise selfless service and develop the qualities you aspire to and that will inspire others. In family, we have the intensity of a close-knit group with all our humanness exposed. We can bring in patience, care and understanding. We can learn to love without attachment or a focus on roles and power. The world needs this. The choice is there. Choose to identify with something higher – don’t keep it a secret – there is so much more we can become.
Swami Radhananda is president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia, Canada.

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