Family Estrangement and Spiritual Growth
Updated: Sep 8
Many people who have experienced family trauma are attracted to spiritual growth and community. Trauma can be accompanied by a great sense of awakening than can help us survive. This can draw many of us into practices, communities and experiences where we find, grow or develop our relationship with spirit. For many, spiritual or religious principles can help us better understand and make sense of our suffering. In some cases, spiritual practice can give meaning to personal pain. It can, in time, make it easier to comprehend and can give us the strength to support others. The idea that there can be a chosen 'family' with more supportive values can be a strong and attractive light to those who feel betrayed by family on a biological level. Being in relationship to god (however you many define this) can bring a great sense of comfort and reduce a felt sense of isolation.
Over the years, I have coached many people who have identified that their faith is an important part of their lives. Tensions in growth arise in how we reconcile our beliefs with not having a relationship with a family member. If you have read my story then you will know that have long followed a spiritual path. I don’t attach myself to any particular school, religion or group, but I do believe existence is shaped by a power greater than my individual human consciousness. Broadly speaking, the concepts of embodiment, acceptance, oneness, and meditative self-awareness have been very useful pillars of my own personal healing from trauma and violence.
Peace around family estrangement (whether chosen or not) is what I feel most people I talk to are seeking. The deepest desire I listen to from my clients is to find a mindset that will quiet the waves of turmoil around broken relationships that can so easily rip up a day, a month, a year, or even a life if we let it. Many turmoils have arisen for me in my own practice. If we can accept ourselves with loving awareness, how can we accept others who act violently? If we accept ourselves deeply, how do we live with others that don't accept us?
The following words will inevitably touch on my own beliefs, and talk more broadly and pull from other spiritual sources. I want to preface that it’s not my intention to tell anyone how to have faith. Each person holds a relationship with god differently, if they have one at all. Yet there are some common quandaries in how faith and family estrangement fit together, which I will endeavour to carefully explore here.
The difference between love and relationship
In my years coaching and supporting people who are estranged, I notice that so much of what tears people apart in family estrangement is the notion of love. How can they do this to me if they love me? How can I put boundaries in if I love them? There can be a western societal tendency to conflate love and relationship. If we love someone, then we must always give our physical attention, our time, our closeness and our energy. It doesn't matter how much violence we receive. There is also a belief that love and compassion are soft and fluffy concepts. This belief says to us that to inhabit love and compassion with a person, we must unconditionally give from our heart, and never say no.
"There is a belief that love and compassion are soft and fluffy concepts. This belief says to us that to inhabit love and compassion with a person, we must unconditionally give from our heart, and never say no."
I grappled with this in my spiritual practice for years. I came to sit best with the notion that we can always commit to not abandoning people on a spiritual level, and retain a strong prayer for those who are in so much pain that they become violent and act it out on others. I can keep my heart open, from a distance, with boundaries. In my view of faith, both of these actions are love. Just because there is love in my heart, doesn't mean there can always be a physical relationship.
I feel compassion and love can be stronger and more rigorous forces than how they are generally presented in greetings cards. If we are in a relationship to someone who is acting violently (words or otherwise) then it is appropriate to say no. This is a peaceful act towards ourselves and we matter. We could say that putting in boundaries around closeness is the tougher form of love and the mirror some people need to see that their actions are harming others. This can free them from the pain they act out eventually. Where there is no resistance, there is no change and growth, and we aren’t being honest. Being honest about how you feel, and saying no, isn't violence if it is communicated with compassion.
Giving people the gift of time and space to see themselves (the gift of our no) and the gift of time and space for us to heal from the violence, and process resentment, is love. It can take time for people to let go of resentments. Sometimes we need time to recoup energy to our cup, gain skills and perspective. I felt inspired by an idea that if something is emerging in our consciousness, and being felt, then god must have been a yes to it. It's never wrong to feel how we feel.
It has been spiritual work for me to accept life on life’s terms. I understand that the world contains pain, and it can be an unjust and unfair place. It is most definitely not built in the image of how I desire it. This suffering is implicit in the whole premise of being human. There is an inbuilt pain in human relationships from the moment we are born. The people we love and have attachment to will perish to death eventually.
I did ask myself that common question: If there is a god then why is there suffering? I may sound naïve, but for the longest time I felt the world was perfect and I got a rough card. I felt that the injustice that I went through was a personal message from god that I was so undeserving of love that I was chosen not to receive it. I began to understand, over time, that I was having was a very typical human experience.
With more compassionate, meditative self-enquiry, I realised the pain I experienced was actually less centred in the injustice of what happened in my family home. The more acute pain was in my attachment to beliefs that I was a shameful human and deserved it all. Buddhists call this shaming the 'second arrow'. With loving awareness and kindness, I began to let go of this attachment to the pain body and feeling shame about my experiences.
Over time, initiation began to be the word I associated to suffering. I began to realise the pain dealt to me wasn’t two fingers from god to teach me I was rotten. It was actually a valuable initiation offered to me, as a way to truly learn more about myself. When I finally had the courage to take this initiation, I came to learn that the pain we experience can bring us great gold if we alchemise it in the spiritual heart. If we learn to sit with the situation compassionately, accept it and not shame ourselves for feeling our very human feelings then we can gain great strength and wisdom from these painful experiences.
I feel we eventually drop the attachment to trying to make the world, ourselves, our relationships perfect. We can learn to accept the world as it has been made, as well as having boundaries around violence to our personal being. So many questions come to me about how to handle people who act violently and people ask me how I can change situations. The serene truth, I feel, is that we can’t change other people. But we can change how we sit with ourselves, and the relationship dynamics over time.
"Violence rarely comes from a content place or a peaceful mind. It is driven by fear."
We can’t truly be kind to others before we learn to be kind and compassionate to ourselves, and accept the parts that are the thorn to our rose. The most outwardly critical and violent people are often highly critical to themselves inside. Violence rarely comes from a content place or a peaceful mind.
I feel compassion for people who act violently, as their actions show me their own pain shouting out for healing. But It took me a long time working with anger to get to compassion as a default. I'm talking many years! It's a powerful practice to not disown any energy that emerges. Anger is an energy that needs to be moved in a healthy way, to allow us to feel the sadness that is underneath. I have found it much more spiritually sound to process anger in a healthy way, than to bypass it and go straight to forgiveness and not feel it. It's only when we have truly let go of resentment and sadness that we can come to forgiveness and compassion.
Meditating with God
"I noticed the breakfast of fear that I fed my mind. There were scarcity thoughts, there were abandonment fears and there was a strong survival drive to secure my safety. They all kicked me into immediate and panicked action each morning."
The idea of meditation used to activate me greatly. The idea of sitting still and observing my thoughts was perhaps one of the most difficult propositions of my adult life. I felt resistance. The resistance I speak of was the fear of seeing, feeling and sitting in my pain and conditioning.
I believe a meditation practice is not necessarily sat still and on a cushion. Although sitting in silence can be a very potent practice at the right time, it can be overwhelming at the beginning of the trauma healing journey. We can meditate dynamically to start with. We can do this through walking, dancing, yoga, journaling, or the many other forms of formal dynamic meditation that exist from different schools. We can find space in our minds, observe what's rising and be in the witness perspective. For some meditation may take the form of sitting in a place of faith and praying or writing down our morning thoughts. All humans are different.
Meditation gives me my space and time with god. It is my space to love all of this being that I am, and to lovingly allow all the thoughts from the different parts of me. I notice them, and love them but my god/parent consciousness helps me not attach an action or reaction to these patterns or thoughts. 'Subconscious gossip' is how one of my teachers explained all these thoughts, reactions and feelings and these invitations to drama that arise. I finally got to the stage of being able to sit confidently in any feeling that emerged, which allowed me to accept so much more of me. It helped me to feel whole. I felt myself, I spoke to myself and I trusted myself.
My resistance to meditation was that I understood that feelings and thoughts were wrong in this meditation space. This was a misconception. I now feel meditation is a space to notice exactly what is arising and not stop or shame any of it. Yet, when I notice my subconscious gossip and lovingly accept it, I can smile to it, and not act impulsively on it. I am conscious.
I have found great benefit from the belief that I am not my thoughts. The journey into witness consciousness has helped me find so much more space in my being, and identify with the stress and trauma bodies differently. I do believe that to be self-compassionate, we have to allow a space in ourselves to notice and accept ourselves, in presence. To help us to understand we are not only the pain body, or only the physical body, but to realise we are spirit too.
I began being mindfully meditative in the mornings, as soon as I woke up and a fresh day presented itself. I didn’t grab my phone, and I began to notice my conditioned impulses and thought patterns. I noticed the breakfast of fear that I fed my mind. There were scarcity thoughts, there were abandonment and safety fears and there was a strong survival drive to satisfy these fears.
I made a practice where I walked mindfully on the beach first thing. I was living in Western Mexico when I started this practice, but I have practiced this in rainy, cold, coastal East Sussex just as successfully, or in a park in London. I simply walked and noticed the anxiety. I smiled to it.
I didn't try and change anything, or do anything, or act on any thought. This was hard at first, as my scarcity thoughts often kicked me into action. I loved the thoughts. These thoughts are my protectors in many ways, and they come from parts of me that want me to survive. Many of these thoughts are generational traumas passed down and conditioned into me. But they don’t need to drive me. I don’t need to accept their invitations to react to them.
I visualised the ocean taking these thoughts. I cultivated a belief and mantra that I’ll never be abandoned by god. I will always have what I need if I trust, and I already have so much. I am not separate to all that beauty that I am observing from the huge ocean waves or the never ending beautiful sea. That power and beauty is me. I am not separate to it.
I have felt much more spacious and easeful in my being after starting this morning practice, and I have identified more with the part of me that trusts life rather than fears and resents it. It is ultimately a sublimation practice, where I move my morning energy from my lower body to my crown, and cultivate gratitude, self-love and my relationship with the higher consciousness.
By constantly feeding limiting beliefs about my safety, survival and scarcity, and identifying with a very narrow part of my being, I was showing an addiction to my pain body. It’s so common in trauma survivors to be set on survival mode and in constant vigilance. I’d known this way of thinking and existing for so long. I couldn’t let it go. Because if I let it go, then what? I was scared of being without it. Could I really trust that I'd be held by god? It seemed like a crazy proposition at first. It felt unsafe to relax, and assume I'd be OK each morning. It felt safer to wake up every day and see the threats where I had to protect myself. This was true childhood conditioning which made it near impossible to ever get a break from anxiety.
Moving out of the pain body and into a higher, more loving consciousness helped me appreciate my fullest spiritual and human being. I am so much more than this trauma and the patterns it imprinted on me. It gave me freedom. I was ready. The trick for me now is never to avoid a feeling or thought, but not to feed them either – I allow it to exist in neutrality and love.
I want to stress that this journey took me time and a supportive, ethical spiritual community to develop and nurture. I feel age was important, as I had more of an ability to question the teachings from various spiritual centres and come to it less blindly and with discernment. I found a place where I felt the trust to let go of my pain and conditioning.
So many of us recovering from family estrangement have a deep longing for human family, and we are seeking that belonging and acceptance which has been missing from their lives. I feel resistance to writing anything about awakenings and spirituality without recognising that many of you who are reading this may have been deeply hurt by spiritual community.
"We must be sure that a need for family and community isn’t exploited. The power dynamics that are present in the dysfunctional family home can be present in these spiritual places where we put our trust and vulnerability."
We must be sure that a need for family and healing isn’t exploited. The power dynamics that are present in the dysfunctional family home can be present in these spiritual places where we put our trust and vulnerability. We’ve seen this so painfully in the Republic of Ireland, where the state recently apologised for the actions of the Church, where decades of abuse to women and children was revealed.
I used to think that conscious and spiritual community was a haven of people who wanted to simply love and be family, who were so filled with compassion that they were beyond violence. It was all light. I learned over time (and painful experience) that shadow exists everywhere, even in places proclaiming light. I paid a high price for my naivety and seeking of belonging externally. I'm talking financially, physically as well as emotionally.
I am now very wary of anyone who claims to have the power to singlehandedly heal my trauma in an afternoon, or who proclaims themselves to be a higher being than others. All humans have something to teach each other, and, on the whole, I resist spiritual community where there is hierarchy and that labels some humans as lesser beings or further away from god. It is in this power dynamic that exploitation can easily occur.
It can be hard to listen and trust our being at the beginning of trauma healing, as I explored in my last blog on The Living Loss. If something doesn’t feel right, we must listen to it, and not ignore ourselves to placate. This can apply to yoga classes with physical adjustments, attending retreats, through to the more full on action of joining and living in a spiritual community for a period. Involving others who are outside of a spiritual group can be useful to sense check. You are always right about how you feel, and people can gain a lot of power when they separate a person from their intuition. Healing should be just the opposite of this, it should be reuniting someone with their felt sense of intelligence in the world.
"People can gain a lot of power when they separate a person from their intuition. Healing should be the opposite of this, it should be reuniting someone with their felt sense of direction and intelligence in the world."
I have found the best compass for checking out a community, spiritual teacher or offering is the same as a new relationship or friendship. It's a matter of moving slowly and listening to yourself. Is there pressure? Research on cults shows that often they have gripped their members by offering multiple peak experiences in a short period of time. The release of dopamine and feelings of unconditional love and acceptance can be highly seductive and addictive. I am accepted! I am worthy of love! If you're feeling rushy and high, then take time alone and look within at what parts of you are being fed or validated. The best spiritual practitioners will always be working on your level, at your side, at your pace to help you along on the path.
"If you're feeling rushy and high, then take time alone and look within at what parts of you are being fed or validated. The best spiritual practitioners will always be working on your level, at your side, at your pace to help you along on the path."
Spiritual work can be beautiful and it can move us forward in a profound way. It can help us feel so much less alone in the world, expansive in our being, more content with what we have, grateful for life, and accepting of ourselves. It can bring positive community to us. I speak of my own experience here, as this work has been a big part of my life, from a very young age. I felt it when I felt that wonder of god energy in my heart as I walked on the Yorkshire moors as young child. We can feel all this elation and gratitude, and be aware of why we step into this space, how much of our pain we reveal, and to whom we are revealing it.