Family Life: Giving it up, or making it a success
A classic inquiry that I sometimes receive, which may run through many married devotees minds at times, revolves around how to deal with the difficulties of practicing spiritual life with the hectic demands of a family. Some fantasize that if they lived in the spiritual atmosphere of an ashram, their lives would be much happier, simpler, and spiritual. If you feel overwhelmed in your occupation/job/situation and family, I can empathize with your frustration, since I also had a hectic, stressful work life, with the uncertainties of being a parent. In my experience, there are always difficulties even in the best occupation or family, but an active spiritual life will give you added strength to deal with them and to see your circumstances in a spiritual light. Whether you are a student, unemployed, looking for a marriage partner, or in any type difficulty or even happiness/success, you will gain clarity by taking time regularly for prayer, the holy name, and in general, making a connection to Krishna.
It is natural to sometimes think that your life would be better if you just walked away from it all and lived in an ashram. You may even find verses to justify it. However, for perspective, study Arjuna’s dilemma in the Bhagavad Gita, and how he thought of renouncing his duty of fighting to live as a mendicant. His choice to renounce his duty was not approved by Krishna, since his actual nature was to be a warrior, not a renunciate. Of course, every situation is different, yet everyone has to be thoughtful, not reactionary, and to think long term about what is actually sustainable. As I have mentioned elsewhere, it is better to be a steady planet, than a shooting star, very bright for short time, while on its way to burning out!
On first glance, living in an ashram appears more directly involved in spiritual life without the hassles and distractions of having a family to take care of. Realistically though, every situation has its challenges, and such difficulties, if handle properly by spiritual awareness, strengthen our dependence on Krishna. An easy life doesn’t test our resolve, but remaining steady and remembering Krishna builds our spiritual muscles, so to speak. While we may not pray for calamities as did Queen Kunti in the First Canto of Shrimad Bhagavatam, problems are an unavoidable part of material life. So rather than running away from them, it is better to practice being Krishna conscious in all circumstances, so when problems come, you are mentally and spiritually prepared. And from a spiritual perspective, there are no problems, only service opportunities!
You have to also consider if you are really eligible for renounced life, analyzing your nature and desires. This will help determine what your duty is. Being renounced is a stage of life which comes from deep spiritual maturity and attachment to Krishna, and doesn’t arise only from frustration in family life. We have seen some renounce marriage prematurely and irresponsibly with very unfortunate consequences. The saying, “The way out is through,” applies to marriage. Desires for physical intimacy and relationships with the opposite sex don’t magically disappear on their own, but have to be purified through years of spiritual practice, and for most, practical experience.
It is desirable to want to focus more on our spiritual life, but a family man or women also has a duty to their spouse and family, and to set a good example for others. People tend to compartmentalize their lives, labeling the good and bad parts, or to become overwhelmed at times, yet the challenge of being married is to connect our entire life to Krishna’s service. Spiritual and family life shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive, and if handled properly, your home life can be very conducive for your Krishna consciousness.
To a large extent life is what we make it, and our attitude can turn heaven into hell, or hell into heaven. The Gita teaches us that our mind is our best friend or worst enemy, so we all have to strengthen our resolve through good association of advanced devotees, and our own spiritual practice, ideally in the morning. Seeing our family as allies, not enemies, to our spiritual life can also be very helpful. Our spouse and other family members are like mirrors that reflect back to us areas of conditioned nature that need to be purified, or modified. If someone upsets us, we tend to blame them for our feelings, yet we should realize that we are at least 50% of any difficult we experience in relationships. We can only change ourselves, not others, and the more spiritually advanced we are, the more we will see differently, and have a positive effect on our family.
Having young children is, in my experience, one of the most stressful times in a marriage, so you should know that you will get through this period. Talking to other devotee couples with children can help normalize what you are going through. Additionally, you can speak with those who have adult children. They will have a mature perspective on family life, and know how there are different stages to go through. I am 61 and have a 29 year old son. Looking back on my life as a husband and parent, I can say, “Been there, done that,” and feel peaceful. I went through the joys and sorrows of family life, and today, I am in a much better place spiritually because of the realizations I gained.
Sometimes just making minor changes in your life can be transformative. To do this, it is helpful to step back from your life to gain perspective. Along with your spouse, friends, or roommate, etc., you can make adjustments that take into consideration everyone’s needs, plus serve your spiritual interest. For example, you can go to bed earlier to give yourself more time in the morning for prayer and reading such literature as Bhagavad Gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, or others. Or you can reduce or eliminate such distractions as TV, movies, or sports. You may discover that you have more free time than you thought, and that by using this time for spiritual activities, you will feel more peaceful and satisfied in your marriage and family. Where this is a will (and prayer) there is a way.