Sunday, October 23, 2011

Measuring my Meditation

An Unexpected Gift from my Family

This summer was my first time visiting home since developing my meditation practice. Through meditation, I work on observing my thoughts and emotions, creating space between my emotions and reactions, and forming new positive patterns in my life. By practicing a little everyday, I hoped to get better at this process. However, the subtle day-to-day improvements can be difficult to appreciate. Returning home for extended visits with my family this summer provided an invaluable measuring stick for my inner growth.

Since moving 3,000 miles from home, I have gained a profound appreciation of family. Family is forged together rather than selected. While there may be many differences, we share a story. We felt the excitement of childhood Christmas mornings. We all had to make ends meet when dad lost his job. We loved and lost many of the same pivotal people. My family has known me my entire life. They have seen my path unfold, my successes, my failures, my strengths, my weaknesses. They have helped (and hindered) in the process. And having survived it all, they still provide tremendous love and support.

This intimate, long-term relationship is fertile ground for both joy and conflict. Family members know each other’s vulnerabilities, and probably even helped to create some of them. For whatever reason, in defense or offense, consciously or unconsciously, we sometimes poke and prod these weak spots. In our youth, these insecurities may have been body image concerns or academic prowess. Growing up under one roof, we could not escape the friction. They were across the dinner table, at the other end of the couch, and wedged into the same station wagon. As we grow older, our vulnerabilities evolve and we gain time and distance from one another. But, when we reunite with family, it is easy to regress into old behaviors or feel the fragility of old wounds.
For these reasons, interaction with family is an invaluable opportunity to practice the mindfulness skills I have been honing, and assess my progress. It is an obstacle course for the mind. Could I observe and not react blindly? Could I provide love when I feel hurt and vulnerable? Could I practice my new emotional patterns and not revert to old habits? I was nervous.

This summer, my family celebrated an engagement, a wedding, and a birth, emotionally significant events providing ample opportunities for fun and friction. I find it just as important to observe my emotions during the happy times as it is during stressful ones. It is easy to get carried away with excitement and ignore others’ needs, even if it is their wedding or baby. In my daily practice with meditation, I had been observing my own feelings regarding these upcoming events. I was able to think through how my loved ones and myself might respond, and brainstorm what might be helpful. In this way I had time to prepare rather than get swept away with my own emotions and the swirling energy around these big milestones. I think that I was able to provide some stability to events and help foresee needs that others would have. At very least, I navigated a significant time without losing myself to the high of elation or the low of unmet expectations that have plagued me in the past.

During my visits, conflicts arose over simple things like driving, more emotionally hefty things like expected roles within the family, or the sneaky conflicts over the seemingly simple (dinner) but really about the significant (one's value as a person). Before I started meditating, I didn't have the practice in observing my own emotions, which made navigating conflicts extraordinarily dangerous. I would do what I could to avoid or appease tense situations. When avoiding or appeasement failed, I would react out of frustration, anger, or fear and say things I did not mean.

Having practiced meditation for 6 months, things were a bit different. I had a better understanding of my own emotions around contentious issues before even entering interactions. When conflicts did occur, I could see my own emotions and not react negatively. I had this feeling of observing situations from above and time seemed to slow down. I was not stifling my emotions like I might have done before. I still felt negative emotions, but rather than let those emotions ignite a fuse, I watched them and added them to the emotional equation of interaction in my head. During tense situations, rather than strike back, bring up past traumas, or press on vulnerabilities, I just observed without letting them lead to negative action.

Having the ability to sit with these volatile emotions and not explode or shut down, I could really listen to others. I could try to understand all of the pieces that I was observing. Then I could think about a way to resolve the conflict. And lastly, I could attempt to communicate my understanding and reach a peaceful solution.

This was the first time that I attempted this to some effect in the face of strong emotions. While it was not easy and I had many slip ups, I felt so empowered. I felt like I had an alternative to my old habits. I didn't need to explode or suffer in silence Even in smaller situations, when I started feeling overwhelmed by an emotion, I would just draw my attention to my breath and quickly deescalate, giving me space to think through the situation.

I have never felt this way during family interactions. I always felt that I was at the mercy of my circumstances. This was a testament to the power of my meditation practice in changing my mind. It is difficult to see the subtle change of a daily practice, but these interactions helped me see the change I was creating. There is no better incentive in establishing a healthy habit than seeing it make life better for yourself and those around you.

I found that now having space during emotional highs and lows, I could observe and listen, but I would like to improve my ability to communicate peacefully. I want to learn about and work on nonviolent communication in order to take my observations and move them more efficiently into mutual understanding and creative resolution of conflicts.

Thank you to my family for still helping me grow through the unexpected gifts of celebration and conflict. Our path together continues.


  1. Thoughtful approach to dealing with the blessings and difficulties of family relations. You are inspiring me to try meditation to help me with my care-taking responsibilities. I will have more to talk with you about the next time I see you. : ) Lisa



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