219 - Ser El/La Único/a Budista en Tu Familia - Parte 1
220 - Ser El/La Único/a Budista en Tu Familia - Parte 2

This is Part 2 of my discussion about being the only Buddhist in your family. I continue discussing ways to create more harmony between your spiritual practice and your family relationships, and then talk about the special case of being in an intimate relationship with someone who doesn’t share your passion for Buddhist practice.

Read or Listen to Part 1



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Six Ways to Harmonize Your Buddhist Practice & Family Relationships (continued):
3. Aiming for the Middle Way Between Indulgence and Asceticism
4. Making Changes Gently
5. Making Sure Your Practice Applies to Your Relationships
6. Giving Up Our Need for Them to Understand or Approve
Intimate Relationships Between a Buddhist Practitioner and a Non-Buddhist
Maintaining an Intimate Partnership through Years of Practice


This is Part 2 of my discussion about being the only Buddhist in your family. If you’re an adult convert to Buddhism this is likely to be your situation. Even if you were raised in a Buddhist family, you might find that you’re the only person in your family actively studying or practicing. In the first episode I talked about the challenges and tensions that often arise when you’re the only Buddhist in your family and started sharing six ways I recommend for creating more harmony between your spiritual practice and your family relationships. I talked about the first two of these ways – Thoughtful Explanation When (Or If!) You Have an Opening, and Normalizing Your Buddhist Community Whenever You Can. In this episode I’ll share four more ways, and finish by discussing the special case of being in an intimate relationship with someone who doesn’t share your passion for Buddhist practice.


3. Aiming for the Middle Way Between Indulgence and Asceticism

As I mentioned in the last episode, English or Spanish-speaking Buddhists – folks listening to this podcast or reading my transcripts – are likely to be adult converts to Buddhism. Convert Buddhist communities have generally been around for a couple generations at the most and have tended to focus on Buddhist teachings and on practices aimed at personal spiritual development, such as meditation.

Throughout history, it has – for the most part – been celibate Buddhist monastics who have focused on study, meditation, and renunciation, whereas lay Buddhists lived very worldly lives with families, businesses, and pleasures. Lay Buddhists manifested their Buddhism through moral behavior, integrity in business, support of their families, devotional practices, and generosity toward Buddhist temples and other causes. There have always been exceptions to this generalization, of course – lay practitioners who were very diligent in study and meditation – but in Buddhist cultures such people would be vastly outnumbered by respectable lay Buddhists who weren’t interested in these typically monastic practices.

Modern convert Buddhists, then, are – in some senses – an entirely new breed of Buddhist. Modern lay practitioners have greater freedom and means than our ancestors did. We embrace study and meditation and hope to achieve some degree of spiritual development by doing so. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi famously said (this quote can be found in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a collection of talks he gave to his American students):

“Here in America we cannot define Zen Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American students are not priests and yet not completely laymen. I understand it this way: that you are not priests is an easy matter, but that you are not exactly laymen is more difficult. I think you are special people and want some special practice that is not exactly priests’ practice and not exactly laymen’s practice. You are on your way to discovering some appropriate way of life.”[i]

Some of us who eagerly embrace Buddhist practice find ourselves following guidance given to monastics – namely, to renounce worldly pleasures and distractions in order to keep our minds clear and devote ourselves wholeheartedly to practice. We may become vegetarian or vegan, forgo or strictly limit alcohol consumption, or minimize watching TV and movies or reading novels. We may try to radically simplify our lives, getting rid of possessions and opting out of various pastimes which now seem like a distraction from our practice. We may use our vacation time to attend meditation retreats instead of participating in whatever leisure activities our family usually does together.

It can be extremely valuable to simplify our lives, prioritize study and meditation, and renounce certain things; there’s a reason such practices are traditionally recommended to monastics. However, doing these things can cause significant alarm to your family members and create a sense of separation and judgment. First, they may wonder, how far are you going to go? Are you going to leave and become a monk? Second, are you going to cast away your family members the same way you have cast away the other things you used to enjoy? Third, if it’s so important to you to be free from the various things you are renouncing, doesn’t that imply a judgment of your family members, who probably still enjoy them?

Assuming you want to take care of your family relationships, it is valuable if you aim for the Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism. One extreme is doing only what your family completely approves of and understands. Given your desire to practice Buddhism, this may feel like a path of indulgence – following the path of least resistance, which in most industrialized cultures tends to be fairly materialistic, pleasure-centered, and devoted to distractions. The other extreme – asceticism – is renouncing whatever you feel called to renounce without any concern about how it will affect your family relationships. (Note that renunciate monastics, by definition, were not married, did not have children, and did not maintain regular contact with their families.) The Middle Way is a dynamic path of avoiding extremes, and it can be tricky.

When negotiating the Middle Way between indulgence and asceticism with respect to your family, it can help enormously to ask yourself: What can you do, what compromise can you make, that gives you the biggest bang for your buck? What “worldly” pleasures can you indulge in – along with your family members, or where they can witness your humanity – which will reassure them and help them feel connected to you, and not judged by you? Ideally this is something which doesn’t feel like too much of a compromise in terms of your practice, and which will help your family members feel more comfortable with some of the more ascetic choices you make.

For example, when I was recently ordained and into hard-core monastic practice (think shaved head, living in a Zen community on a full-time practice schedule, all my possessions fit in one closet), I was inclined to bring my practice with me when I visited family over the holidays. I wore Zen clothes and meditated every day and read Zen texts instead of novels. It must have been quite a lot for my poor family to take. At one point, though, I decided to compromise my strict interpretation of the precept on not becoming intoxicated (not an interpretation I follow any more) and have a beer with my parents. As I watched the relief and joy on their faces as they watched me settle down and be a little human for a while, I made a mental note that it doesn’t necessarily take much to reassure our loved ones. It can go a long way if you spend some focused time with them, act silly, relax and enjoy yourself once and a while, or make a gesture that proves you’re not overly attached to your own purity.


4. Making Changes Gently

On a related note, the fourth recommendation I have for improving the relationship between your Buddhist practice and your non-practicing family is to make changes gently.

Whether you’re tempted to revamp your life or radically alter your behavior overnight is probably dependent on your personality. You may not want to do this, or be capable of it, in which case this recommendation isn’t for you. Others of us, though, are thrilled with the way practice starts helping us change. We can’t wait to stop participating in a dysfunctional behavioral dance with a family member. We can’t wait to embrace stillness and silence instead of distracting ourselves with music and television. We can’t wait to rely on our own inner strength instead of running to others for reassurance.

The good thing is, many of the ways practice helps us change are positive and will be welcomed by family members (if they even notice). Sometimes, though, the changes in our behavior are disorienting for our family members. Remember, foremost in their minds is most likely the question, “How is this going to affect our relationship?”

Most of us end up in predictable patterns of interaction with our family members, for better or worse. We count on others to behave in a certain way, to respond in a certain way, and to be interested in certain things. They count on us to be fairly predictable, too. Some of our predictable behavioral interactions with our loved ones may be dysfunctional – like arguing with them, trying to please them, asking for their permission for everything, or trying to control them. When we stop playing our part, the other person may wonder whether we still care about them, or whether we’re going to change in ways that will threaten our relationship with them. Or they may find themselves performing their half of the dysfunctional dance by themselves and feel awkward or embarrassed.

As practice changes us, it helps to have patience and compassion for our family members. Ideally our family member’s opinions or negative reactions don’t prevent us from making changes, but there are ways for us to make changes gently, with sensitivity to how our behavior may affect others. Perhaps we implement changes gradually, or, as I described above, find small ways to reassure our family members. We can also try to be subtle about changing – to quietly explore a change instead of making grand pronouncements about how we’ve now “seen the light.” Try to remember that familial resistance to – or judgments about – your changes can sometimes be viewed as a sign that they care about their relationship with you and are simply uncomfortable with changes in it, for better or worse.


5. Making Sure Your Practice Applies to Your Relationships

The fifth way to increase harmony in your relationships with non-Buddhist family members is to make sure your practice applies to your relationships. You know your practice is working when you are becoming a better partner, child, parent, sibling, etc.

Relationships are an incredibly rich area for practice. They give us the opportunity to practice patience, generosity, kindness, compassion, equanimity, and giving up self-attachment – just to name a few things!

Traditional Buddhist teachings and practices tend to focus on an individual’s path of self-development. It was understood that spiritual liberation – giving up self-centered desire, refraining from I, me, and my-making, seeing the emptiness of self – would naturally make someone less of a creep in whatever relationships they had. But explicit teachings on using relationships for practice are rare. Instead, monastics were advised to leave behind their family relationships in order to focus completely on study and meditation. It’s not surprising, then, that modern lay Buddhist practitioners sometimes feel family is an extra burden or a distraction from the “real” practice.

Fortunately, the reason monastics were advised to leave family behind is the exact same reason relationship practice is so valuable: Relationships bring out the worst in you. A Zen teacher told me this once and I never forgot it. She wasn’t recommending I avoid relationships. Quite the opposite, she was pointing out a truth about relationships that means they are a godsend for diligent practitioners. There’s a saying in Zen, “It’s easy to be enlightened off on a mountaintop.” In other words, we can easily delude ourselves into imagining we’ve progressed pretty far along the spiritual path as long as there aren’t any other people around to upset us.

The fact is, there is nothing like a human relationship to challenge our practice – especially a long-term, not-necessarily-by-choice relationship like that with a family member. Despite years of study and meditation, relationships can easily arouse in us feelings of anger, frustration, judgement, stinginess, attachment, competitiveness, self-pity, resentment, longing, hurt, and impatience. None of these feelings are pleasant or beneficial in and of themselves, but it is good that we are aware they are still within us.

If our practice increases the amount of kindness and patience we bring to our family relationships, we can be sure that this is real progress. If we get a little better at listening or letting others be themselves, if we’re capable of a little more trust and intimacy, this is a sign that we’re getting closer to our true nature. And our behavior isn’t just a sign, actively working on improving our relationships teaches us about self-attachment, dukkha, and many other aspects of the Dharma.

When our family realizes our practice includes them and benefits them – that it’s not just a self-improvement project aimed at making you happier – they are likely to be much more accepting – and respectful – of it.


6. Giving Up Our Need for Them to Understand or Approve

Finally, tension between our Buddhist practice and our family may be relieved somewhat if we can manage to give up our need for them to understand and approve. This can be tough.

When I say, “give up your need for them to understand and approve,” I’m not talking about practicing however and whenever you want to without regard to how it impacts your family relationships. This may very well be what you decide to do, but what we’re discussing here is how to create more harmony between your practice and non-Buddhist family members. It’s assumed you care about your family relationships and are willing to engage in some give-and-take and compromise, and to learn to be more skillful about how you present your practice to your family.

Given a foundation of love, respect, and patience, what does it mean to give up your need for your family’s understanding and approval? First, it helps to acknowledge that almost all of us would like the understanding and approval of our families. In a perfect world, we would all understand and respect one another, and celebrate whatever makes our loved ones happy. Our families would be intrigued by our Buddhist practice and impressed by how hard we work at it. They would listen to tales of our spiritual struggles with curiosity and without judgment, trusting us to find our way, and then feel joy when we have a breakthrough. They would understand that we spend time apart from them at retreats or Sangha events only because this practice fills our hearts and brings more meaning to our life.

Alas, this is not a perfect world. We all have limitations when it comes to our ability to trust and open up to intimacy, our ability to communicate honestly and skillfully and to truly listen, our ability to get our minds around how much other people would like our attention, understanding, and approval. No matter how much we may wish for it, no matter how hard we strive for it, our family members may never be able to offer us deep, emotional connection around the importance of Buddhist practice in our lives.

Fortunately, one of the benefits of practice is strengthening our confidence in ourselves. As we study the self and thereby see through many of our illusions about it, we recognize that we can only do our best. As long as we’re doing our best, there is no need for apology for, or insecurity about, who we are. We’ve made the choice to practice Buddhism and it is an important part of our lives. It would be nice to have familial understanding and support, but we don’t need it.

Amazingly, giving up our need for our family’s understanding or approval doesn’t just benefit us, it can also shift the dynamics of your relationships in a positive way. Sometimes the resistance of our family members is exacerbated by our subtle (or not so subtle) pressure on them to approve, or by our obvious disappointment with them. When we’re no longer burdening others with our expectations, they are sometimes able to extend more curiosity and acceptance.


Intimate Relationships Between a Buddhist Practitioner and a Non-Buddhist

The impacts of our Buddhist practice on our intimate partnerships with non-Buddhists (or people who don’t share our passion for practice) are dependent on the same three things that influence other familial relationships: The person’s own spiritual life, how involved we are with Buddhism, and how we negotiate the impacts of our practice on our relationship.

Let’s say, though, that you’ve already negotiated the stuff we’ve already talked about:

  1. When given an opening, you’ve carefully explained your Buddhist practice in terms that make sense to your partner.
  2. You’ve normalized your Sangha community and fellow practitioners as much as possible.
  3. You partake joyfully in certain pleasures of lay life to reassure them you’re not judging them or headed into a life of joyless, uptight asceticism.
  4. You’ve applied practice changes to your life gently so as not to create alarm, but also pushed the envelope of comfort so you can be authentic.
  5. You are careful to extend practice to your relationship, so you become a better partner.
  6. You’ve let go of the need for them to approve or understand.

Even if you’ve done all of these things, issues may still arise within an intimate partnership between someone who’s really serious about Buddhist practice and someone who isn’t. Honestly, deep practice can be challenging for intimate relationships. There’s no research on this subject that I know of, and people split up all the time for other reasons, but it isn’t uncommon for intimate relationships to end a year or two or three after one (or both!!) of the people gets really involved with Buddhist practice.

What does “really involved” mean in this context? It usually means lots of time spent in formal practice, and that your practice is quite visible to your partner and to others. It also – perhaps more importantly – means there is an intensity to your aspiration to uncover the truth, to wake up to reality, to liberate yourself from your karma.

Fundamentally, the issues that arise within intimate partnerships due to Buddhist practice boil down to change. Practice changes you. Generally speaking, this change is for the better! But it’s still change, and a relationship established with certain parameters and expectations may not be able to grow or adapt to meet new ones (or you or your partner may decide it’s not worth making it do so). Here are some of the ways practice may change you, leading to tension within an intimate partnership:

Changing desires – Changing interests and priorities in terms of the way you want to spend your time, energy, and resources. For example, maybe previously your preoccupation was planning your next vacation or designing your house remodel, but now you’re thinking you’d like to go a weeklong silent retreat in order to see if you can awaken to emptiness!

Changing habit patterns – Partners get used to one another, adapt to one another, rely on one another to be predictable, for better or worse. For example, some partners share addictions or less-than-healthy habits like indulging anger, criticizing others, passive aggressiveness or quarreling, spending lots of time on distractions, or breaking precepts. Ironically, greater equanimity or self-discipline can be read by a partner as emotional withdrawal. At the very least, a couple may find they have less in common as one person is significantly changed by practice.

Less dependence – Often, before we turn the light of practice toward our lives, we have ended up in relationships that serve our emotional and psychological needs for acceptance, reassurance, safety, protection from loneliness, etc. For many of us, the love of an intimate partner was our first experience of feeling like we’re okay, lovable, acceptable, or connected, and we’ve continued to turn toward intimate relationships to fill those needs. But, over time in practice, we may learn to meet those needs through our relationship to the universe itself. We don’t need our intimate partner in the same way anymore. This is a very tricky change to navigate – it may alarm our partner (maybe they still need us that way!), or, as we become less dependent, we may find the relationship is no longer worth what is required to maintain it.

Negotiating periods of doubt, despair, not-knowing – The path of deep practice involves questioning everything in our lives. It’s not always easy or pleasant to challenge our assumptions, examine our negative karma, or let go of the narrative about ourselves and our lives. At certain points, we may feel called to let go completely, not knowing who or what we are going to be in the end. This is disorienting to the practitioner, but also to their partner. A partner may become concerned about us, or they may conclude that our practice is actually a harmful thing. In addition, we may feel the need to hold it together for the sake of our partner, adding stress to our process.

Changing sense of self – In deep, transformative Buddhist practice, we allow ourselves to be changed down to our core. It’s possible to see the whole world in a new way, and who knows where our particular relationships are going to fit into that?


Maintaining an Intimate Partnership through Years of Practice

Negotiating all of this practice-related change within an intimate partnership can be difficult, which is why it can be easier to get into an intimate relationship after the transformative years of practice. Buddhist practice is perfectly compatible with intimate relationships, but the period of change and growth can be rough on existing ones.

However, finding a way to practice and maintain our intimate partnership is a matter of commitment. You can transform within an existing relationship if both people are deeply committed to it no matter what. I left my first marriage to practice. I’m not proud of it. It was selfish, I was impatient. If we had stayed together, it would have required much more compromise, but I think in the end I could have walked the path of practice wholeheartedly and experienced the same transformation within the relationship.

In trying to stay true to an existing relationship, it can help simply to be aware of all the potential issues that can arise when one (or both) partners are opening up to being transformed by Buddhist practice. It also helps to cultivate patience with your partner when they get unnerved, alarmed, worried, or resentful. If you follow some of the recommendations I’ve discussed, you may find your partner getting used to things over time. Try to reassure them that you love and accept them. When you can, pay extra attention to them, and be sure to spend enough time with them.

Even as practice is changing you and your relationship to the world, try to view your commitment to your intimate relationship as non-negotiable – like your relationship to your kids, or parents, or other aspects of your life which aren’t going to change fundamentally regardless of what happens in your practice.

Depending on the nature of your intimate relationship, you may end up feeling like the intimacy in your relationship is compromised because you now have an important aspect of your life your partner doesn’t understand or care about. When this is case, it can be helpful to remember that in Buddhism we view all beings as having buddha-nature and as being on their own spiritual journey. You may be in a different place on your journey than your partner, or their path may look different, but respect for their buddha-nature can help your relationship and your practice.

Trust that awakening, liberation, enlightenment, etc. is perfectly compatible with a loving, intimate relationship – just one that is based on choice, not need (on your part).

Read or Listen to Part 1



[i] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 125). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.


Picture Credit

Image by Amrullah Ab from Pixabay


219 - Ser El/La Único/a Budista en Tu Familia - Parte 1
220 - Ser El/La Único/a Budista en Tu Familia - Parte 2