ONE of my favourite stories was written by author and western Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart. Kornfield, from an American Jewish home, had come to realise there was too much pain in his family. He was Ivy League educated, but ignorant when it came to his emotions.
He told Oprah Winfrey recently: “It was only half of an education. I learned science and history and philosophy, but nobody taught me how to deal with my fear or my anger.”
He embarked on a spiritual journey, finding a master in a monastery in Thailand and studying assiduously for years before becoming an ordained lama and a man of peace.
On his return to Manhattan, he was excited to bring his wisdoms to those he loved. But within moments of returning to his family and the pressures of city life, everything he’d learned unravelled and he regressed to the person he was before he left, “acting out the same painful patterns of blame and fear”, feeling the same frustrations that he had as a boy.
“Family” has the power to change us back to the person we once were. Despite our decades of personal growth and transformation, parents, siblings and in-laws have the capacity to wipe out any and all attempts at self-development in the blink of an eye, and change us into our blithering five-year-old selves.
I though of this when I was reading The Guardian newspaper recently; a story on the regression that happens when we go home for family holidays such as Christmas or Passover and how everyone reverts immediately to childhood patterns. Being in one’s old room brings back that little child; old familiar smells trigger such powerful memories as to transport us back in time. Even when our families live close by, just sitting around a table with siblings and parents can trigger familiar behaviours.
Psychologists talk about the dynamics that exists in families. Dysfunctional as many dynamics may be, they hold the family together. So when one is eating with a brother or sister, the roles start asserting themselves: the “wise” older sister, the joker; the critic; mummy’s little helper. The verdict is out on how to behave in the face of this. The consensus is that unless it gets destructive and fights break out, just go with the flow and enjoy being little again. Sadly, fights do break out and Kornfield advises compassion and acceptance, but most of all a sense of humour. He reminds us the greatest spiritual teachers, including the Dalai Lama, laugh a lot.
But it isn’t just monks who see the funny side.
Comedian George Burns once summed it up beautifully: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”