We live in a post-religious society, where in general people have little or no interest in spiritual matters. Most of our families, likewise, have few spiritual inclinations, at most going to church on Christmas or Easter. So when we start to develop interests in spiritual matters, it naturally raises a few suspicions or concerns. Doubly so if we show interest in something non-traditional, like Buddhism. When our family members see us becoming very interested, then their radar goes up and their immediate assumption is we have joined a sect. This dynamic in particular comes out from our parents (who naturally assume we have no idea what we are doing) and from our in-laws (who fear for their loved one that is now linked with us). Once they start becoming concerned, there is really no limit to how far they are sometimes willing to go to create obstacles for us in our practice. They may resort to all sorts of blackmail, ultimatums, threats, insults and general mayhem. I personally have experienced all of the above.
So the question is how should we deal with this? I suggest the following as a multi-layered approach (if the first one fails, try the second; if the second fails, try the third, etc.):
- Appreciate how they are coming from a position of loving. At the end of the day, their main concern is for our happiness. They are not trying to create problems for us, they think they are protecting us. When we assume they are being hostile and we respond defensively, then it feeds their narrative that we have been brainwashed, and then they redouble their determination to deter us from the wrong path we have taken. If instead, we respond with understanding and appreciation for their concern, then we disarm the hostility and conflictual nature of the exchange and there is a chance we can have a healthy, rational discussion about the matter.
- Show them you yourself have already had all of the doubts and questions they raise, and then even show you have gone farther. Explain to them how you too were skeptical at first, and how you too had many doubts and questions. Show them that you are going in with your eyes open with a healthy skepticism. Talk about all of the questions you yourself have asked and explain to them the satisfactory answers you have received as to why this is the real deal and not some sect. When they see that you have already taken their objections into account and come up with reasonable answers to them, then they know that you are not being blinded. It is important to even go further than they did in your doubts and concerns that you have addressed. Show them that you have done even more due diligence than even they call for. When they know that you have checked things out, their concern will be less.
- Completely and totally abandon trying to get them to appreciate Buddha’s teachings themselves. Sometimes we fall into the mistake of thinking they need to appreciate the power of Buddha’s teachings for themselves, and then their resistance will go away. But if we start to try to do that, they will feel us trying to ‘convert’ them and it will only feed their view that we have gone off the deep end. Rather, you should take the approach of saying, “to each their own, you have your food, I have mine.” You need to show total respect for their views, even if their views are completely hostile to you having your views (“it is your right to think like that”). When you show respect for the diversity of beliefs people can adopt, and they show intolerance, then it becomes apparent to all who is being reasonable and who is not.
- Figure out what they want from you, and show with your actions (not your words) how the more you practice Dharma, the more they get what they want from you. For example, imagine your mother-in-law is creating trouble for you. Why? Because she is concerned about her daughter. What does she want from you? She wants you to be a good husband, who treats her daugher with respect and makes her daughter happy. So use your practice to become a better and more loving husband. While it may take time, you will become a better husband, your spouse will become happier, and your mother-in-law will come to see that actually your practice has made you better for her daughter, not worse, so she will come to accept it and even appreciate it. But you should never say what you are doing because that ruins the whole thing. Just let your actions speak for themselves.
- Patiently accept the obstacles that come your way. Why are others creating obstacles to your practice? Because you have created obstacles to others’ practice in the past and now it is coming back to haunt you. You created the karma for this and you have not purified it, so now you must patiently accept it. If you accept it as purification, then you will gradually purify this negative karma until eventually it exhausts itself. If you start to retaliate and create obstacles for or fight with your family members, then the cycle starts all over again. It may take years, even decades, even lifetimes before people come to accept, but if you sincerely accept the obstacles as purification, eventually the obstacles will pacify. Two useful things you can do to help speed the process: first, generate a specific bodhichitta motivation towards whoever is creating the biggest obstacles for you (I need to become a Buddha so I can help this person in the future). If done sincerely in a qualified way free from any attachment, this will very quickly purify the negative karma you have with that person. Second, make sincere requests to the Dharma Protector that he arrange whatever is best with respect to these obstacles – if they are harmful, may he pacify them; but if they are helpful, may he make them worse! Then, whatever happens, accept that this is what has been emanated by the Dharma Protector as being what is best for your practice.
- If all else fails, don’t give into the blackmail, but don’t rub their faces in it either. If your family members blackmail you saying ‘if you don’t quit, then I will … (insert emotional penalty)’, and then you give into that blackmail and do what they say, then you will remain forever trapped in their manipulations, you will lose your practice, and you will allow them to create the karma of successfully creating obstacles to the spiritual practice of another person. This will then be bad for them in the future when they experience similar obstructions. Yes, we are supposed to cherish others and fulfill their wishes, except when their wishes are wrong. Assuming you have done your due diligence and you are on a qualified spiritual path, then their wish for you to abandon it is wrong. To indulge them in that wish does not help them, it does not help you, and it does not help all the countless beings who you would otherwise help if you were to become a Buddha. So you need to let them throw whatever emotional penalties they want at you, but you still keep going – you never abandon your practice. Eventually, they will realize that no matter what they do, you will not give in and they will give up trying. But you should also avoid the extreme of rubbing their face in it – “ha, ha, I am going to practice and you can’t stop me, na ni na ni na ni”. Dhamra practice is, above all, an internal thing. We don’t need ostentatious external displays of our spiritual-ness! Be skilfull so that they are not forced to confront it, but just quietly do your thing. There are no rules with this, just be skilfull.
I have been facing these sorts of obstacles now for 16 years, and they still have not completely gone away. But they have diminished dramatically. It is not a problem for me anymore because I accept that these obstacles are created for me by my spiritual trainer, the Dharma Protector. So I accept them happily when they do arise as a reminder that there is still more work to be done!
Your turn: Describe some obstacles you have had with those close to you and how have you overcome them?