How to stay centered in a family gone awry when all the forces around  join to keep you caught in the same old roles and repeating patterns?After twenty-five years of the self-help movement, we all know a heckuva lot about ourselves as individuals, but not enough about the collective forces impacting us–or how to address them. It crops up at holidays–big time.

Our family-derived issues seem unique and individual, but when you look around, it’s obvious how widespread such problems are.

The psychologist John Welwood (author of Love and Awakening) once told me that a group of Buddhist psychologists met privately with the Dalai Lama to explain the troubled nature of American family life. As His Holiness first realized that so many Americans suffered with isolation and family problems, he began to weep for us. His compassion touched me, but also revealed that the alienation and negative family patterns many experience are in part universal, but also a byproduct of modern life.

What factors cause so many people to suffer from “family problems”? What could relieve them?

The mass immigrations of the last hundred years, along with industrialization, and the globalization of corporate values, have severed our connection to native lands and culture, while also weakening family ties. The end result is that each of us habitually winds up as an isolated consumer of information, ideas, and products. The same solo mentality kicks in even when it comes to healing and spirituality.

The old mantra, think globally, act locally has given way to the view that local and global are intrinsically interactive. But what’s less well known is that in the psycho-spiritual continuum– so are the personal and the collective as I discuss on my website

Seeking healing and spiritual wisdom as individual goals, rather than collective transformation, may not be not as effective as some hope. It’s like when the food supply is contaminated, your individual power to eat healthy food will be lessened, despite your best intentions.

While I’m all in favor of positive intention, it may be over-emphasized because we’ve forgotten or lost the tools used in the past in nearly all societies to access collective transformation. Imagine a gospel choir raising the roof. Something special happens when people are united–making holidays a special opportunity for healing–if only we knew how to make it happen.

Both hurt and healing start in relationships, specifically in ours with our families. Much of the suffering in our families we trace to “poor parenting.” But nobody sets out to be a “poor parent.” Along with genetic makeup, parents transmit what was passed to them. Or they compensate for it sometimes to even worse effect.

Where did it all begin? Usually, with traumatic events in our ancestry that were never addressed. With the breakdown of traditional societal structures, our ancestors lacked support in coping with tragedies when they occurred. In the post-tribal, pre-psychological era, if someone died young, went into exile, murdered someone, or abandoned the family, people stiffened their lips and moved on. But surviving isn’t the same as coming to terms.

As a result, past unresolved suffering creates what I consider a kind of ongoing Family Karma. The attitudes, patterns, inner imperatives, and pain become ingrained. That Family Karma penetrates both the atmosphere and interactions in our family (as well as our psyche) so pervasively that resolving (or even seeing) that Karma isn’t any easier than climbing out of one’s own skin.

But what if at this holiday, instead of toughing it out, going it alone, or bowing out, you take the time to ask about your family history and listen with an open heart to both what is spoken and what remains unspoken? Where did they come from? What did they suffer? What were their lives like before you and this modern world ever existed? Were there tragic losses, heart-breaking separations? Were people left behind in guilt or shame? Were wrongdoings committed or denied?

When you look beyond your individual perspective to the Collective to which you belong, truth is revealed, and healing happens.

Place a friendly hand on the knots of the past, mourn the losses together, honor the forgotten, and atone for wrongdoing by sharing with those in need. Welcome the forgotten, and the outsider to your table. Bow to painful fates. For unknown, deceased, or highly difficult ancestors, don’t forget to feel gratitude for the gift of life they passed along to you. Doing any of these things will repattern your experience of the family collective and begin to transform karma into belonging, compassion and wholeness.

Copyright, 2007, Alison Rose Levy. All rights reserved.

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