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Jun 07
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The Family Mandala

a painting by Karuna Rockwell, given to Irini for a birthday. The message reads, "Our Family. The energies meld together, clash against each other, and complement each other. Together they make a beautiful picture."

a painting by Karuna Rockwell, given to Irini for a birthday. The message reads, “Our Family. The energies meld together, clash against each other, and complement each other. Together they make a beautiful picture.”

Living on the Edge

by Irini Rockwell
Director, Five Wisdoms Institute

My husband and I decided to part ways. Actually, we didn’t decide: we knew in an instant that the time had come. It catapulted me into the most challenging time of my life. Sound familiar? For several years after that we worked together as practitioners to bring about the sanity in our decision. Not comfortable with the traditional notion of divorce, so imbued with a sense of rejection, we found other ways to talk about it. We both wrote short sadhanas (practices) for this process. Mine was called “The Sadhana of Dissolving a Relationship.”

During the transition, we also had family vacations sometimes with our two children, Karuna and Julian (my son from a previous marriage), and sometimes just the two of us. Five years into it we did a ritual with our children which we called “Appreciating the Dissolving and Aspirations for the Evolving.” Ten years later we are both with new partners and enjoying a new life.

Sound good? Yes: genuine, caring, respectful. Orderly. Yet there was some incongruence in our brave attempt to align with sanity: we were all hurting. The subtext was much more chaotic. At times I felt so totally distraught I was almost dysfunctional.

What we fail to realize is that dissolving a marriage is a death. Whether it is a good thing to do or not, it has many aspects of acknowledging death: grief, anger and remorse, to name a few. It’s gone. Over. The slap of impermanence. Whatever do we do with all those family photos, those possessions that proclaim “ours?” I wondered, “Why isn’t there a Buddhist practice or ceremony for dissolving a long-standing relationship?” Wouldn’t that make sense? It would really help to bring about more sanity and dignity around this event. It is such a significant marker in so many people’s lives: birth, old age, divorce, sickness and death.

I spent a good deal of time being angry. I blamed him. Got me nowhere, just more anger. Besides, was he more to blame than me? Blaming him was absolving me of any responsibility to look at my own stuff, clean up my own act. At one point, Pema Chodron, on a phone call I made to her from a retreat, said, “You have to get into the nerve of it.” Yes, that was certainly what was happening! Big time! I had to deal with the turmoil of emotions, the intensity of fears and the solidity of my neurotic limitations. It was beyond anything I had ever experienced, yet I stayed open to it.

At that time, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche was an e-mail away. He has been a primary Buddhist teacher for me and I was engaging deeply in his teachings. Quite auspiciously a few times I saw him under totally chance circumstances – like his showing up at a retreat I was leading on the Greek island of Aegina! We had several interviews through the years and he would write verses for me. One went like this:

Whatever it is you are attached to, that is what binds you.
This agent of bondage is also self arisen and self liberated.
If you do not know what binds you is self arisen and self liberated,
You will never be free from bondage’s net.

There was also a helpful intervention from the late Virginia Hilliker, who I consider the grande dame of Contemplative Psychotherapy, my own training (read more about her here). After a few sessions with her and again going on and on about how confused I was, she said, “You’re not confused; you just don’t accept.” This was extremely helpful. I had kept trying to logic it out. What I needed to do was to see things as they are. Accept.

And my life kept going, kept me busy. My first book came out just two weeks after my husband and I decided to split up. As I had written about relationships, I fervently looked through its pages to see if I had gotten it all wrong. “I think I’m good,” I said to myself. The book launched me on a two-year tour from California to Istanbul which then led to developing the personal and professional development training [email protected]. I was traveling and teaching extensively and the teaching was nourishing me. There is nothing like teaching the dharma with a broken heart. So sad. And so joyful! Bittersweet. Real.

The Five Wisdom Energies
As blessed and supportive as I felt with so many wise teachers a phone call away, the day-to-day nitty-gritty work, the moment-to-moment truth of suffering and potential for liberation, was left to me. For decades, I had been practicing, studying and teaching the powerful body of teachings, one of Trungpa Rinpoche’s gifts to the world, called the Five Wisdoms. These teachings became particularly potent at this time. Moreover, they took me to a profound understanding of our family dynamics.

The Five Wisdoms, a system based on energy dynamics, is a language for understanding personalities, emotions and relationships. We have the potentiality of all five, which can make us somewhat predictable, yet have our own mix which makes us unique. Each energy has both its wisdom and its confusion. The energies are easily identified by their colors, which hold the essence of their qualities. Here they are, in brief:

Vajra, whose essence is clarity, reflects a blue energy like a crystal-clear mirror. Vajra sees clearly without bias; this is its wisdom quality. It also has a self-righteousness that can harden into cold or hot anger; that is its confused quality.

Ratna, whose essence is richness, exudes an earthy golden yellow energy that encompasses everything. The wisdom quality is being deeply satisfied, fulfilled. Yet it can be needy, indulgent and prideful, which is its neurotic quality.

Padma, whose essence is passionate connection, glows with the vitality of red energy. At its best, it is finely tuned into people, places and situations and full of compassion. It’s neurosis manifests as grasping; it can cling obsessively to what gives pleasure.

Karma emits a green energy, swift and energetic like the wind. It is all-accomplishing action for the benefit of others; this is its wisdom quality. It can also become power-hungry, manipulative, competitive, and envious; that is its confused quality.

Buddha, white energy, is all-pervasive, spacious and peaceful; this is its wisdom quality. It can also be solidly immobile with the density of ignoring or denying; that is its confused quality.

Our family speaks this language. Over the years we had come to a fairly good idea of the energies at play, where each of us would shine and where we got stuck. Yet, when enmeshed, as any family is, we are often too close to see clearly. By perpetually projecting our version on others, we become blind to them. We ride our assumptions and expectations and live in a bubble of relative harmony. However, relationships can either be complimentary and supportive or toxic and exasperate each others neurosis. When toxic, things can get very, very difficult, as we know. So we had never plummeted to these depths as a family. We never got to the nerve. Too scary. Though a family is an opportune place to see how personalities, emotions and relationships play out, it really needs a facilitator to hold the space for that to happen.

The two most powerful and transformative aspects of the Five Wisdoms perspective, co-emergent wisdom and the mandala principle, will be discussed in Part 2 of this article. Stay tuned…

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4 responses to “ The Family Mandala ”
  1. I like your painting, Karuna.

  2. Mipham Niyma
    Jun 11, 2013

    Thank you for allowing us to see the raw process you are going through with your family. Looking, seeing, looking further, seeing further and further and further…it never ends, nor should it. Genuine warriors keep looking and seeing regardless. Ki Ki, So So, Ashe, Lha Gel Lo, Thak Seng, Kyung Druk, Diyar Key!

  3. Wow! What honest and deep insight into a complex yet common problem.
    May all beings be free from suffering….

  4. Susan Rees Rosquist
    Jun 9, 2013

    Thank you Irini, just what I needed this morning. Especially this, “As blessed and supportive as I felt with so many wise teachers a phone call away, the day-to-day nitty-gritty work, the moment-to-moment truth of suffering and potential for liberation, was left to me.” Apparently, I need to be reminded of this over and over and over. Blessings!

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