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The essence of the Buddhist way helps in family challenges

Most families present a united front. No matter what is going on within the family we don’t let on. All is well. But for most of us, family is a pretty mixed bag. Family life is often so intense.

Most families present a united front. No matter what is going on within the family we don’t let on. All is well. But for most of us, family is a pretty mixed bag. Family life is often so intense. We have good times together but also storms of anger, disappointment, hurt, and contradictory needs that are often experienced behind closed doors. We don’t like to admit to friends that we have family fights or that we have serious problems with each other.

When my family experiences stormy weather, the last thing I want to do is talk to anyone about it.

If I can’t talk about it, how on earth can I blog about it? How can I talk about my spiritual life when I feel so low? Isn’t a spiritual life about being calm, having faith, becoming a better person?

Quite recently after a long period of relative calm, I was hit by another family storm. It actually feels like a thunderstorm. Intense language, lots of drama, confusing hurt, and mixed up emotions – it feels dangerous. I try to stay as straight forward, honest, and loving as I can. It seems important to stay open.  Even though it is extremely painful, the messages hitting me are not life threatening. I have an agreement with this person not to use physical violence, and there is a Buddhist priest present, witnessing but not participating. I can hold steady and try to understand in my heart what the important issues are here.

Through tears I try to address the issues being raised. I love this person and want to honour their uniqueness, their deep sense of justice and their understanding of who they are. I want to rise to the occasion and respond from a place of deep love and understanding.

However, I’m human. My mind turns to flight. This person’s body language is negative, frowning, assertive, ungentle.  I’m trapped in old thought patterns of inadequacy and shame, and frozen by shock. My love for this person keeps me in the room long beyond the point at which I would have bailed on anyone else.

Hours later, I’m still so sad, and feeling physical pain in my heart chakra. This interaction has triggered a return to an old mindset of depression, sadness and self-loathing. This is a place where I used to live, but now, thankfully, only visit.

Why am I here, trapped? Where has my practice gone? Is practice a sham? Where is my joy?

As emotions begin to settle, I remember the old feeling of being at the edge of a dark vortex, knowing that I was going to be swept over the edge into debilitating depression which could last for days or weeks. I recognize this pattern and know that I have been able to struggle out of the vortex before.

Today, I have the knowledge of another way. Somehow this time, by seeing the pattern, I am able to visualize the thoughts that are toxic and just allow them to be. I can allow them to be there without reacting to them.  Wonder of wonders, as if by magic, they lose their power over me and they disappear.

This time my recovery is much shorter than in previous years, and I am grateful for that!

I know deep in my bones that I am intrinsically OK just as I am with nothing added or taken away.

I am told this elemental completeness is the essence of the Buddhist way. When Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and awakened, he understood that we are all fundamentally whole, we just don’t realize it yet. He spent the rest of his long life teaching others to see the clouds that obscure this fundamental wholeness.

I’ve also been told that the best triggers for these unplanned journeys into the murky world of old habitual patterns of thought are indeed family members.

I am deeply grateful to my family for their sometimes chaotic and tumultuous influence on me as I learn to give up the status quo of serving my self, and learn instead to fulfill my monk’s vow to be of benefit to all beings.

Soshin McMurchyis a novice priest with Zenwest Buddhist Society (, and serves as the Buddhist chaplain with the University of Victoria Multifaith Services. She lives with her life-partner Doshu who is a junior priest with Zenwest.