By Aparna Jacob
Faith fosters strong families, which raise sound human beings. Here’s to the family- the world’s greatest institution and one of nature’s finest masterpieces.
Every successful family needs a flight plan, says Stephen Covey in his best-selling book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. A successful family’s flight plan would reflect their values and principles that enable them to handle problems and reach the desired ‘destination’. Covey prescribes these seven habits:
Be proactive: This entails being responsible for our choices. It is the freedom to choose based on values rather than moods or circumstances. Covey uses the analogy of the Emotional Bank Account where family members make ‘deposits and withdrawals’ which impact the trust levels in the family. Maintaining a high balance is the goal so that even mistakes will be compensated for against ‘emotional reserves’.
Begin with the end in mind: Covey suggests that families develop a ‘family mission statement’ that describes what kind of family you really want to be and identifies the principles that will help you get there. A mission statement can be a list the family compiles together based on each one’s vision for this unit. For example: ‘To be honest and open with each other, to maintain a spiritual feeling in the home, to love each other unconditionally…’ Does your family have a mission statement? Put first things first: Covey cautions that, ‘Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.’ Prioritise taking everyone into consideration.
Think ‘win-win': Mutual benefit and respect must be kept in mind when making decisions. Thinking as ‘we’ and not ‘me’ will circumvent a lot of disagreements and hurt.
Seek first to understand . . . then to be understood: Listen, says Covey, and understand the other person’s viewpoint, thoughts and feelings before communicating yours. Such feedback helps foster trust and increases love in the family.
Synergise: Work in tandem. Think of the family as a team whose combined efforts will far surpass individual efforts. When based on the dynamics of loving, learning, contributing, and creative cooperation, families can troubleshoot any calamity that befalls them.
Sharpen the saw: Traditions play a key role in nurturing the renewal of family spirit. A family increases its effectiveness through personal and family renewal in four basic areas of life: physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental. Family rituals repeated countless times, are a symbol of acceptance, love, provision, peace, and fellowship.
It’s the close of another day and my mother’s kitchen is silent. My father turns off the TV after his nightly dose of news and coaxes my brother out of his den. I’m eagerly sitting cross-legged on a fading reed mat, old as I am, my toes curling in happiness. It’s that time of the day when my family gathers for prayers, something we’ve been doing for as long as I can recall.
A family that prays together, stays together, my mother is fond of saying. And I do believe her prayers have been the glue that has bound us together as a family and tided us over the roughest times. So each evening, while my parents commune with God, I too send up thanks, glad to see all of us have survived the day, are safe and home together.
Ties that Bind
It took me several long absences from home to appreciate my family, be humbly grateful for them, to realize how important they are to me. All families are important, even those of the worst kind. Because blood, as past life therapist Brian Weiss tirelessly reiterates, is indeed thicker than water. Members of a family are often cast together over lifetimes, reveals Weiss, because we have certain issues to resolve amongst ourselves; because there are lessons to be learnt from each other. Weiss says the soul connections between family members is like those of leaves on a twig; interconnected and interdependent, sharing strengths and shortcomings. Our bonds are not to be taken lightly. If anything, they are to be cherished, nurtured and strengthened.
Strong families often have at the heart, a belief in something higher than themselves. Spiritual families make strong families. They function better from the sense of security, of being provided for, and being taken care of, that being spiritual bestows upon them. It gives the members cause to celebrate life as a gift. Spiritual families carry a gratitude and optimism that encourages them to enjoy even the little things of life as special events.
Spirituality gives meaning and purpose to families. Most important of all, it proffers strength and hope in times of adversity.
In Times of Trouble
Around 10 years ago, the Virmani family found itself in the eye of a storm. ‘My father was diagnosed with a cardiac condition and was required to undergo a bypass surgery. My sister, Abha, was facing problems in her relationship with her husband of 12 years,’ recalls Ashish of that tumultuous phase the family underwent. Ashish himself was faced with a crisis of identity, was plagued by doubts about his career, about his life drifting in no certain direction.
In retrospect, Ashish claims, this period of strife proved a blessing. ‘It made us realize that there was something bigger in life to be achieved than merely getting married, earning money or having a good time.’
The family was always spiritually inclined but spirituality was not the focus of their life, as it is today. ‘A cousin from Delhi introduced my mother to Soka Gakkai in 1997,’ recalls Ashish. ‘My mother thus became the first connection between our family and the Soka Gakkai. Abha followed her, then I. My father was the last to come into the fold.’
In keeping with the teachings of Gautam Buddha, Soka Gakkai believes that happiness is the birthright of every individual and prescribes a practicable plan to achieve it. This is done through a process called Human Revolution, whereby the individual transforms himself and his environment by spreading the message of peace, culture and education in society.
Almost immediately, things began lifting for the family. Abha’s business began flourishing. Their father successfully underwent surgery and has been in good health since. Ashish is a more peaceable individual today.
The Virmani family had always been close-knit. However, their eight years as Soka Gakkai International members, says Ashish, has further intensified the bonds between them. ‘We are far more united as a family than we ever were in the past. We are more caring, more demonstrative with our affection and are no longer afraid to say Mom, I love you or I love you, Dad.’
Nothing bonds the family like shared spirituality. Life is constantly challenging our faith by hurling the unexpected our way, or careening out of control. At these times, spirituality comes as a stabilizing factor that gives us a sense of perspective and relative control. ‘It moors us when the raging storms of life buffet us,’ says Ashish.
The Virmani family prays together regularly. They come together unfailingly once a week to share a family meal despite Abha living half-hour away. They exchange books like The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and Conversations with God. These days instances of anger and resentment are far fewer among them. ‘Which is not to say that conflicts don’t occur,’ Ashish clarifies. ‘Abha and I may still feel that our parents interfere too much in our lives. But the difference is, we talk about it amicably instead of blowing a fuse. Any sibling rivalry my sister and I may have had earlier has now been transformed to concern. We no longer blame our parents for the things that have happened to us. In fact, we realize how fortunate we have been to be born into this family, to such wonderful, caring parents…’
Spirituality compels one to shifts focus from the negative to the positive. The Virmani family now considers itself less judgmental about their own and other people’s lives and experiences. Spirituality has armed them with a greater sense of purpose and a stronger sense of support from their extended SGI family, whom they regularly meet with to pray, to discuss, to share smiles and tears alike.
Anchor of Love
Central to the notion of the family, like in spirituality, is the struggle to transcend the ‘self’. Once the continual preoccupation with the self dissipates, we allow ourselves and others the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them and grow.
Santosh Sachdeva, a Brahma Vidya practitioner, had always considered herself a spiritual person. But then in 1995, during the course of her daily meditation, she received an important insight that changed her life.
‘In a sudden flash of clarity I realized than nothing was right or wrong. It was the way I perceived it that made all the difference,’ says Santosh of the moment she graduated from being unconsciously spiritual to spiritually conscious.
‘All of us act according to a pre-meditated script,’ says Santosh. ‘When our script does not match the script of the other person, conflict arises.’ Spirituality, in a sense, is about putting aside your script or agenda, suspending all expectations and judgment, Santosh explains. ‘Then you give others a chance, and become more accepting of them because you can see where they are coming from.’
Respond, don’t react. Santosh decided to make this the touchstone for all her relationships and interactions. Though as a young mother with three children to raise, it took large doses of heightened awareness and understanding to curb the temptation to react.
Shibani, the oldest of the Sachdeva children, says this of her mother: ‘A benign presence, that’s what she has always been.’ One of Shibani’s earliest memories is of her mother seated before a lit diya in their temple every morning doing her jaap. ‘Never once,’ says Shibani, ‘in the first 14 years of growing up do I remember Mom imposing herself on us. What she did was stay a comforting constant. An anchor of love.’
It was Santosh’s steadfastness that the children clung to when the family endured the cancer and then demise of their father. Today the children are grateful for all the freedom she allowed them, for her faith that they would make the right choices. Shibani cites an instance: ‘As kids Gautam and I were always at each other’s throats. Mom always let us be. On the day my father passed away, Gautam, who was 11, came to me and said: ‘Let’s not fight any more. We need to be strong for Mom now.’ I am very proud of my siblings, the way all of us have turned out as sensitive, caring, committed and ardent seekers. And we have our mother to thank for this.’
‘I believe the Source has a way of finding you and giving everything you need in life,’ Santosh explains about having faith. ‘You simply need to trust, let go and believe that the right things will happen to you.’ For this reason she never pushed the children down her spiritual path. They took to Brahma Vidya of their own accord after watching Santosh at her daily practice. Gradually they branched off into other spiritual streams that best suited their personalities. Shibani turned her back on the corporate world and is now an ardent Art of Living devotee, engaged in seva. Nikki, a follower of Eckhart Tolle, has been instrumental in spreading his message in India while Gautam gravitated towards Advaita teacher Ramesh Balsekar. Each has found their path and their mother couldn’t be more content with their choices.
The fact that the four of them follow different streams of spirituality has never occasioned discord in the house. As Gautam puts it: ‘Shibani and I still don’t see eye to eye on a whole lot of issues. But the important thing is, deep down there’s no conflict.’ Spirituality teaches us to ask for forgiveness when we have wronged another, and to accept forgiveness when we have been wronged. It’s imperative to see each other’s viewpoints and always hear each other out. ‘If there’s an argument, we resolve it and in five minutes we are talking about other things with no vestigial resentment or feelings of animosity,’ says Santosh.
Like the parable of the bundle of sticks, families that bunch, bound by the cord of spirituality, stand strong and don’t break when confronted with the adverse. Families unified in spirituality become invincible, their strengths increase manifold. For the Sachdeva family, every trying situation, be it business or on a personal front, is now viewed as a challenge to be surmounted. ‘We say: ‘What can I learn from this?” says Santosh. ‘The minute the focus shifts from the problem, there’s no problem! And when you leave your channels open you invite the positive things coming your way.’
The Sachdevas have remained unified, quite like that bundle of sticks and the ties between them grow stronger with every passing day. Shibani, Nikki and Gautam join their mother for an hour of meditation every Tuesday at her guruji’s. And since the children live in the same city, the four of them stay in touch by calling up each other several times a day, or dropping in for dinner at their mother’s each night.
Ajit Parekh was a very angry man. A furrow of worry had come to live between his brows.
‘I was an extremely dissatisfied individual. I had a beautiful wife and two lovely daughters, a thriving business…yet nothing was ever enough for me. I was an ambitious man, I was always in a hurry, I wanted everything and I wanted it now,’ Ajit remembers. ‘I was convinced that everyone else was out to frustrate me and it made me very impatient with the whole world.’
Ajit’s short temper and irritable disposition, he soon realized, was wrecking his beautiful home. His wife, Amita, recalls: ‘The girls, Anuja and Janvi, were 10 and six then and were petrified of their father; so much that they’d beg me to play mediator between them and Ajit! The constant tiptoeing around his temper, the mounting stress levels used to make the very air in the house bristle.’
Ajit soon began to sense that something was very wrong. ‘It dawned on me that I was being a terrible boss, a terrible husband and a terrible father. I realized that if I continued this way, everything wonderful I had been blessed with would always amount to zilch.’
He sought to right the situation. So when a fellow-businessman who was a friend and a Vipassana teacher recommended the 10-day meditation course at Igatpuri, Ajit was eager to give it a try.
Amita still remembers Ajit’s changed countenance when she received him at the door on his return. ‘The angry furrow between his brow had vanished!’ she laughs, ‘I exclaimed: this is not the Ajit who left, this is a new Ajit!’
Ajit was indeed a changed man. ‘During meditation, I realized that the root cause of my anger was the non-acceptance of reality. Due to this I became uncomfortable with the situation and lost my temper and thereby all my happiness,’ he can rationalize today. ‘Acceptance was the way. Vipassana taught me to change the habit-pattern of my mind so that acceptance becomes its habit. It made me realize that I can only control myself, not people and situations around me.’
Eager to share his incredible experience of self-discovery, he insisted on his wife and then the girls attending the course. Today, the family is richer for it. Vipassana has extended its positive vibrations to every facet of their lives. The Parekh household is now an oasis of peace and affection – the easy comfort between the four members is palpable to any visitor.
‘When I first attended the course,’ Amita observes, ‘I remember thinking that Guruji’s teachings were a reiteration of the basic values I’d been taught as a child in my parents’ home. When the five samskaras of kaam, moh, bhay, krodh and lobh diminish in a person, he or she becomes a more sentient being. Simply eek to be a good human being was the only lesson at both places.’
Vipassana has, Ajit and Amita believe, made more confident parents of them: ‘Once your acceptance levels increase, your ego starts to recede,’ says Amita. ‘Today I’m more tolerant of boys, skimpy clothes, late nights and everything else being a parent to growing girls entails. We trust more, we are not authoritative parents any more, but more like friends.’ Yes, there are disagreements now and again. But today, Ajit points out, they make a greater effort at understanding one another, have better communication, so talk it out and find a solution agreeable to everyone.
Growing in Love
Anuja and Janvi credit Vipassana with helping them hone their perspective on life. ‘I believe I am much more focussed than my peers,’ says Janvi, 20, explaining how meditation has made her more adept at handling life situations. Janvi recently survived her final degree exams, the pinnacle of stress for most students: ‘Of course I freaked out. But meditating, doing aanapaan, and especially my mother’s constant attention during this nerve-racking period saw me through.’
Meditation, Janvi insists, has reinforced their bonds as a family. ‘In the past five years in particular, Anuja and I have seen Ma and Pa loosen up. They are less stressed and angry now. They are more understanding and give us our space.’ And it’s many other seemingly small things they do for each other that multiplies the affection in this house. Ajit and Amita meditate together each morning. No one sets off in the morning without seeing everyone else in the house. They ensure everyone’s home for supper together each night. And if their busy schedules permit, holidays are always done as a family.
For the girls, family will always be top priority. While her doting mother fusses over her, Janvi says: ‘If I’m doing something with my family, making plans with friends and canceling out on the family is out of the question.’
Strength to Strength
Families are seldom perfect, but over time we learn to perfect ourselves through them. Families ask of us long hours of patient forbearance and sacrificial self-giving. They test the limits of each one of our human emotions. They demand every once in a while that we strip down only to our basic selves for scrutiny, have our weaknesses, fears, and sins exposed. But in such nakedness and vulnerability, there’s no shame, no pride, for this is the renouncing of all our pretenses, peeling the layers of our ego.
If spirituality is a victory over ourselves, a triumph over our weaknesses, an assertion of all that is the best in us, no better school we can learn to do this in than in one’s family. How reassuring it is to return, worn from our daily battles and tests of strength and fortitude, to the bosom of one’s family! To this cocoon of affection where one can put down one’s guard, and lay down, only so we can replenish our supplies of courage and resilience, to face the world stronger in soul, stronger in heart.
There’s no other institution capable of inflicting such pain and kissing to heal in the same instant as the family. It is here that we learn to believe and learn to love. Our love is never more authentic than when it has passed through the purifying fires of hardship and trial that we endure as a family. Families muscle us as humans, they make our hearts and souls wealthy, and when we look back on our lives, the greatest happinesses that will remain with us are family happinesses.
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