Karen Maezen Miller on taking a break or sticking with it.
Question: Even though I am an adult, my relationship with my parents still involves a lot of arguing. It feels kind of toxic and I’m considering taking a break from communicating with them. But I also feel guilty about deserting them. What does Buddhism say about my obligation to others vs. my obligation to take care of myself?
Answer: Questions like this can open up a new way of seeing for you. The Buddha said that the only difference between an enlightened being and a sentient being is “upside-down thinking.” To resolve this question, you have to take a look at the mindset that creates the dilemma.
There are many times in life when we don’t like certain people, especially those upon whom we are most emotionally dependent, like our parents, partners, and children. They say and do things that hurt our feelings. We get stuck in the battle of me-versus-you and lose hope of any change.
Forget all the preconceptions you have about yourself and others.
Do we owe it to ourselves to give up? In a way, yes. When we feel locked in an emotional bind with no clear way forward, it’s time to take a backward step.
Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth-century Zen master, summarized Buddhism like this: “To study Buddhism is to study the self, and to study the self is to forget the self.”
That means to forget all the preconceptions you have about yourself and others. As long as you are attached to your judgments, reinforced by your habitual thinking, you are looking at things upside-down.
For instance, if you can stop labeling your parents as “toxic,” you might see them less as a danger and more clearly as people who are afraid, lonely, angry, sick, or depressed. You can bet that they are suffering, because all of us suffer. With this awareness, you can approach the relationship in a way that does not add to anyone’s suffering—yours or theirs. This should be your foremost consideration.
It’s easy to apply labels to people but that rarely resolves situations without lingering guilt. Try opening yourself without obligation or expectation to someone who is simply suffering. You might not feel as threatened. When you realize that caring for others is the same thing as caring for yourself, you will arrive at the heart of Buddhism.