Monks, it is by way of elements that beings come together and unite: those of a low disposition come together and unite with those of a low disposition. … Monks, it is by way of elements that beings come together and unite: those of a good disposition come together and unite with those of a good disposition. (from SN 14:16, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Further along in Samyutta Nikaya 14 the Buddha says that those having faith will seek each other out and likewise those lacking faith are drawn together (SN 14:17); those who keep the precepts and those who don’t will each unite with similar people in those two groupings (SN 14:25); and those who follow the eight-fold path and those who don’t will naturally congregate in separate communities (SN 14:28). In all of these cases, we are describing intentional communities, not our families or other “natural” groups we have no choice in joining or leaving.
Who we spend our time with is probably the most important decision we can make, day by day. It’s a truism that our choice of a life partner is the most significant factor in our quality of life. If we have a partner who supports our skilful instincts and serves as a check on our baser motives, we have the most important factor working for us. On the other hand, if we are in an abusive relationship at home, it’s hard for anything else to go right.
We don’t choose our extended families, but we can decide how close to stay to them. We can help family members who need it, but we have to recognize when our actions are actually helping and when they’re not. The boundary between supporting and enabling is often hard to discern, but unreserved kindness is never wrong.
When we have children, we take responsibility for creating the most nourishing environment we can for them. We can’t expect them to fulfil our needs or meet our expectations. When children are grown, they may or may not reciprocate by caring for us, but our intentions can’t be transactional; we need to focus on caring for everyone in the household (including ourselves).
Let’s consider how the communities we are part of reflect our aspirations, including if we are not part of any intentional communities at all. Are we spending time with people who seem to hold us back or keep us down? Could we find others who reflect and support our strengths? Could we make time for a regular, wholesome activity where we could interact with people we respect and admire?
Some folks have limited choices, but few are so trapped that they can’t consider moving, looking for a better job, or seeking professional advice or support for making beneficial changes. If there’s no available company around that lifts us up, we may be better off on our own for a time.