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this chaotic thing called family

Right now I’d rather run. Pack my belongings, dash to the station, and take the next train out of town, away from anyone I’m related to. Phew! that felt good — had to get it out of my body. In retrospect it was no more than a hand gesture, a back-handed brushing movement, that made me feel like a child unfairly scolded. 

Till then, everything was going well: with brother and sister-in-law I had been enjoying fine vegetarian cuisine, sitting in a sunny court-yard amid potted palms and olive trees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, brother closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, turned his head away, and made what felt like a dismissive hand gesture. Before I knew what was happening, before I could sense or control my re-action, anger boiled up and unkind words flew into the air. Geez! What was that about? What raw nerve did this gesture touch? What ancient memories gushed forth to cause such an outburst?

One of the book I’ve been reading on the walk is Gabor Maté’s, When the body says No, wherein he explores body-mind connections that lead from stress to cancer. In a chapter on “The Biology of Loss,” he writes:

“In the parent-child interaction is established the child’s sense of the world whether this is a world of love and acceptance, a world of neglectful indifference in which one must root and scratch to have one’s needs satisfied or, worse, a world of hostility where one must forever maintain an anxious hypervigilance. Future relationships will have as their templates nerve circuits laid down in our relationships with our earliest caregivers” (p. 207).

Here lies a key to my emotional reaction. During long conversations over the past two days, my brother and I have been re-tilling ancient childhood fields. What I thought of were sleeping dogs surprisingly sprang to life, showing teeth of anger (and fear) to defend and attack. Sadly, the receiver was the very person who shares the childhood abuse that’s at the source of all this.

As quickly as it surfaced I was able to recognize the error of my reaction.  Looking directly at my brother, I apologized for my outburst and for any suffering my unskilled words may have caused. He said nothing, but appeared relieved; his wife looked at us both and said, “Well done.”

So there it is, the basic structure of compassionate behavior. If I can’t catch myself prior to an unskilled word, action, or thought, I can (and must) take responsibility for it at the earliest opportunity, make amends as best as possible, and apologize. And renew my pledge — my intention — to be vigilant of reactivity and thus avoid causing suffering in the future. 



6 responses »

  1. how hard it is to catch yourself in the moment and correct with compassion and understanding – well done indeed. i often wonder who does the chosing of our family, we don’t choose them like friends or jobs or apartments… perhaps to practice?

  2. hi nancy, you’re the first reader — I’ve since edited the post. all a bit clumsy from a foreign keyboard at the Mannheim railway station internet cafe.

    who and how indeed. families are the raw material for a life of consious living, the stuff to help us awaken from the slumber of going through life on autopilot.

    thanks be to them all.
    and to you, for writing.

  3. this non-verbal body stuff is so fascinating. it seems to me to be a part of life we don’t talk enough in Zen circles. or perhaps we just aren’t explicit enough about it.

    sounds like you handled things well. glad you had the opportunity to do so with family members who weren’t quick to react or flare up.

    • handled well? the proof tends to be in the aftermath. from the moment we woke this morning, walking around in bathrobes, making coffee, planning the day … there was a lightness in the air, an ease of being in each other’s company.

      well done, indeed.

      thank you, nathan.

      ps: the last time i visited your blog i didn’t see a link to mine. would you …? tx.

  4. you should be on my link list now. i sometimes add blogs to my reading list, and then forget to add them to the links list.

    • thank you, nathan

      i continue to admire the volume of reading and writing you manage each day. good for us! my friend arnie at NutZenBolts is one of your frequent readers.


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