What Makes a Family?

family, family tree, friendship, family values


It’s Thanksgiving in the United States this week, a Thanksgiving following an election.  Americans go all out on Thanksgiving – turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, all manner of pies.  It’s like Christmas really.  Americans have two Christmases a year and I’ve never been left alone on either of them.  They’re  like that, at least the Americansn I know are.  They invite you into their home and make you an honorary member of their family.

Family is important in this country.  Politicians crow on about it endlessly and about something they call ‘family values’.  I haven’t quite worked out yet what family values are in this increasingly polarized nation but they seem to have something to do with marriage, heterosexuality, being gainfully employed, having a home and a car.  Family values also preclude things like abortions and, bizarrely in this year’s election, contraception.  That eliminates a wide swathe of the population.

This year I’ll spend Thanksgiving with a motley collection of people who call themselves a family:  a male friend and his third wife, her stepmother and her second husband, a twenty-two year old single mother, her boyfriend and her son, a good woman friend, long divorced and her adult son…and me, an emigrant.  I’ll spend Christmas with one of my closest friends, a thirty something straight writer and her two gay male housemates who also see themselves as family.  I’m invited into other families too – a huge Irish American one and a tiny one made up of an old friend and his little daughter.

I don’t recognize the families politicians talk about, the ones defined as man and woman, wedding rings and kids who sail through college, find a good job and live happily ever after.  They probably exist, but increasingly in my experience, a family is a strange, oddly shaped collection of people who choose to be together and who define themselves in whatever way they choose.

I like these families where difference is embraced, where being ‘normal’ is not a requirement for membership and where strangers are invited in.  In spirit, they seem to have more in common with the family in Bethlehem that gave rise to Christmas than with the family at the center of the recent bitter and divisive political debates.

Quotation for Living: Family

family, family tree, Gustaf Klimpt


“You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.”
Trenton Lee StewartThe Mysterious Benedict Society

Voluntary Vulnerability


We hide from the pain we know instinctively comes with vulnerability.  Being vulnerable  means being open to life. Being open to life means we take on a degree of risk. You never truly know what’s coming next and there’s a chance it will be painful.  But close up, hide, guard yourself against vulnerability and there is no ‘next’.

Vulnerability means we’re unprotected – the soft spot, the underbelly is exposed. But there is a way to stay open and not be annihilated: Identify that soft spot. Study it, weigh it, measure it, sketch its contours. Get to know it and through awareness transform it.

If the soft spot is, for example, fear of being alone, we will cling to others, often when it’s not good for us. Neediness is not attractive, so we can find ourselves alone anyway.

But if we get to know our fear of aloneness, if we dive into it, either by ourselves or with the help of a friend, group or therapist, we can get to the root of that fear.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being alone.  Periods of solitude can be wonderfully nurturing and enjoyable times of deep connection with self.  When that connection with self is made, trust grows and fear diminishes in proportion to our level of trust in life.

We still face potential rejection.  Nobody is liked by everyone they meet.  And the rejection may still hurt a little.  But it won’t hurt so badly that we are driven into a half-life in order to protect ourselves from it. And the spiritual paradox:  not being needy is attractive. The less we need people, the more we attract them into our lives.






Many years ago, I took a class on team building with a company I worked for.  My then boss was a participant, or so he promised. But he couldn’t pull it off.  He sat outside the circle of his employees – a power position – and when one of them moved his things into the circle during a break, he took over teaching from the hired trainer.

I found it annoying. His voice grated and later I found it annoyed other people too. He couldn’t see himself, this man who preached self-awareness.  He couldn’t see that he wrapped his power around him like a thick winter coat protecting him from vulnerability.

I’m reading a wonderful book, A Student of Weather, partly set in the flesh searing cold of a Saskatchewan winter and it strikes me that vulnerability is like that. Being wide open to life, to this moment, unmasked, unguarded feels like skin exposed to the relentless burning of ice. It is no wonder we wrap ourselves in anything we can find to hide our nakedness.

My boss wrapped himself in the power of his position. For years, I wrapped myself in the power of my intelligence, and worse, in the pretence of not caring. You can wrap yourself in anything: intelligence or stupidity, beauty or ugliness, success or failure, a job, a talent, caring, benevolence, anger… We can hide behind almost anything. The first trick is to become aware that what we’re doing is hiding.

The second is to do something about it.   Continued…

The Spiritual Mind

The spiritual, or in the Christian tradition, the contemplative mind is a way of seeing and processing life.  Mind, in this context, is far greater than the cognitive function of thinking and problem solving.  It’s more like the Hermetic principle that “The All is Mind”.  The contemplative mind is an element of the universal .  So what are the elements of the contemplative mind? 

For me there are five:

  • Awareness
  • Living in the Moment
  • Trust and Openness
  • Embracing everything without judgment, including what is painful
  • Non-Dualism

These elements all work together.  Sometimes we’re more in one than the other – we can be aware, for example, but not trust so easily.  That’s ok because in the spirit of non-dualism, that doesn’t matter.  What is, is.  I’ll be dipping into all of them over the next few months, but although they work together, the fundamental skill is Awareness.

Awareness is spiritual literacy and my favorite proponent of awareness is Anthony de Mello.  De Mello’s book is not for the faint-hearted.  His take on awareness is uncompromising.  It demands a level of honesty that cuts through our most cherished values and beliefs and leaves us standing spiritually naked before ourselves.

Too much to jump into all at once?  Maybe we could start dabbling a little for starters.   

Any thought on awareness, what it means, how it works in your life?

Quote for Living: Mentalism

The Seven Hermetic Principals: 

1. The Principle of Mentalism:

“The All is mind, the Universe is mental.”

Higher Purpose

Today it’s time for a rant about one of my pet peeves.  Why do ‘spiritual’ people and groups talk about ‘Higher’ so much?  Higher as in Higher Power, Higher Consciousness, Higher Purpose.  Higher presupposes lower so when I’m asked about my Higher Purpose, I always want to know what my Lower Purpose is.  

I once attended a seminar in Cork, Ireland given by a man from New Mexico called Emaho.  I don’t remember anything else about the seminar, but I remember him saying when he gets up in the morning his purpose is to brush his teeth.  I liked that very much.  Do we have to have a higher purpose, or would enjoying life in the moment be enough? 

If, like Ken Wilber puts it, spirituality is not just the rungs on the ladder but the material out of which the ladder is made, then there is no higher or lower.  Higher and lower is a duality and spiritual experience is generally accepted as being non-dualistic. 

There are things we like to do, things that fulfill us and put us in the ‘flow’, things that energize us and help us feel connected to life itself.  But that could be brushing our teeth, or digging the garden, or listening to the radio or running for president.  These give life purpose, but it’s just purpose, not higher or lower.  Just what is. 

What would life be like if we stopped thinking we must find a ‘higher’ purpose and just embraced what we’re doing right now?  Any thoughts?

Quotes for Life: Zen Proverb

“If you understand, things are just as they are;

 if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”

What is Breathwork? (Part 4 of more)



We can see what’s happening on the outside of a breathwork session. 

But what’s happening on the inside?

Well, sometimes it’s physical.  The breather may feel tingling in their hands or feet, changes in their body temperature or localized pain.  They may experience waves of energy moving upwards, gathering in intensity until they come cascading back downwards after reaching the head.  The breather may see fabulous swirling colors, hear sounds, experience deep relaxation or feel their whole body vibrate with aliveness and vitality.

Sometimes there are memories from the distant and not-so-distant past, memories that have been forgotten and ones that have never been forgotten.  These memories are more real than anything we normally recall because in breathwork they are multi-dimensional.  In other words, it’s more like reliving than remembering.  Although the memories can be very real, the breather always knows where they are – lying down in their breathwork therapist’s consulting room.

And here is where breathwork takes us to one of the basic spiritual experiences – the reality of paradox.  Linear time disappears.  We can be deep in the past and fully in the present all at once.

There’s a place for emotions –sadness, fear, anger, pain of loss, disgust.  But also joy, exuberance, contentment, peace or satisfaction so intense it’s physical as well as emotional.  The end result is a growing sense of lightness, freedom and well-being.

And there’s a place too for mind.  In the same way as our sense of time dissolves into something more fluid, the usual limitations to thinking also fall away.  We cease to think in the forms and structures of everyday life and the results can be valuable and profound insights into ourselves, others and life itself.  These insights are like little epiphanies, moments of real and lasting change.

In other words, breathwork is a spiritual experience that integrates all the parts of who we are – mind, body, spirit – and connects us with the Life Force in a very real, tactile, experiential way.

Tell us about your spiritual practice?

Everyone has something to teach.   Share your wisdom – make a comment.

Quotes for Life: Alexander Lowen on Breathing