So often, spiritual journeys feel like solo ones. Whether we’re wrestling with our dark night of the soul or finally feeling the liberation of our loving, awakening heart, these are experiences that belong to our own consciousness, our own awareness.
Yet the wisest and most nourishing spiritual practices also encourage us to experience our interconnectedness with others. We are individuals, but we are not islands. We are social beings as well as spiritual ones, inextricably connected in a network of relationships.
That’s why when we grow and change, we also experience uncomfortable growing pains in even our most long-standing relationships. Those on the spiritual path may recognize this all too well.
Marriage and Family Therapists think of the network of relationships in our lives - especially our families - as a system. Psychologist Murry Bowen, who pioneered systems theory, understood families as emotional units in which members interact and influence each other. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to families. We’re engaged in systems with co-workers, friends, romantic partners, and even the larger society and culture.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that our influence on each other is great - even when we’re not consciously intending it to be this way. When we use our spiritual practice to grow and change the way we interact with the world and ourselves, we are also changing the usual role we’ve taken on in our systems. And as many wise seekers know, change is so often met with resistance.
Developing a spiritual practice means that you’ve probably assessed patterns and behaviors in your life to assess what serves you and your higher purpose and what should be left behind. While we all wish that the people in our lives will grant us this space to transform and be there to support us, it’s just as common that we’ll be met with skepticism, resistance, or at the very worst - resentment. This can be confusing, but when we lean on compassion and expand our perspective, we can understand why this happens.
Using systems theory as our guide, we see that systems have a balance to them. This balance is less of the harmony we feel between mind and body when we meditate or practice yoga and more of the dance of desires between our need to belong and our need to be an individual. Most of the time, when presented with change, we want to restore the balance as we knew it before. The familiar feels safe, even when it’s not our highest path.
That’s why people can feel fear in the face of growth - their own or another’s. Your close loved ones may be faltering in their support not because they don’t wish a fulfilling life for you, but because they are afraid of how their role may have to change in response to your newfound growth. You don’t have to be on the spiritual path to know that change is scary, and we humans often try our hardest to resist it.
The good news is, once we’re aware of these phenomena, we can do something about the situation in our lives - whether you’re the seeker feeling unsupported or if you’re the family member unsure of how to navigate this important relationship as dynamics change.
Tips for the spiritual seeker
Take this as an opportunity to widen your compassion practice.
Pema Chodron has said, “Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Rather than thinking about your loved one in terms of what they’re not giving you, practice thinking about them in a way that acknowledges the human in them: the place that fears, that struggles, that wants love and safety.
Find solace in spiritual friends.
Connect with people in your spiritual community and nurture the friendships in your life that are built on shared values. Befriending and supporting others on the path is an essential component of your spiritual life.
Take this story of the Buddha from the Samyutta Nikaya. Ananda said to the Buddha, “Half of this holy life, Lord, is good and noble friends, companionship with the good, association with the good.” The Buddha reacted strongly, saying “Do not say that, Ananda.” Adding, “It is the whole of this holy life, this friendship, companionship, and association with the good.”
Have conversations with your loved ones.
Use I-statements to communicate how you feel and what your needs are. Talk with them about the changes you’re making in your life and why. Ask them questions about how they feel and what these changes mean to them. Listen with an open heart. If boundaries or roles in your relationship are changing, talk about how you see these evolving in the future.
Tips for family members
Start a journaling practice.
Free-writing in a journal is a great outlet for processing how you feel and coming closer to understanding why you feel that way. If you’re experiencing tension in your relationship, writing about it in your journal can be a safe space to organize your thoughts. If you’re not used to free-writing, sit down with a pen and paper, set a timer for 15 minutes, and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off. You might be surprised by what comes out.
Contemplate the role of fear in this situation.
Debbie Ford, the author of The Right Questions, suggests that we routinely ask ourselves, “Is this an act of faith or is it an act of fear?” If you feel yourself bristling in the face of change, especially positive ones, step back and ask yourself if you’re communicating the faith you have in this person and this relationship, or if you’re acting from a place of fear of change.
Express yourself in conversation.
Communicate your desire to be supportive. At the same time, it’s okay to communicate about the tension, blockage, or resistance you feel, too. In fact, talking about these things can often help you move past them. Use I-statements to explain how the change in your loved one’s life is influencing you. By sharing your needs, fears, and goals with each other, you can both decide how to support each other in more meaningful ways.
By remaining flexible and supportive in our relationships while we travel the spiritual path, our spiritual work becomes more meaningful and bountiful. As the Buddha and so many other spiritual teachers have taught, our connection with others and the love we give is the greatest spiritual practice of all.