My mother was alcoholic and had a capacity for cruelty that took me a long time to acknowledge. As an only child, I was on the receiving end of a lot of her fear-based behavior and was often rather confused about the atmosphere of perverted sexuality and deteriorated or nonexistent boundaries. After her death, I came to a kind of late-in-life reconciliation with her.
In the last twenty years of her life, I began to consider her my teacher. I could so vividly see my own reactive patterns in relationship to her. She died in her mid-nineties with enormous suffering, subsumed with fear. After she died, I devoted a year to attend to her passing and to sit with my relationship with her. There were certain kinds of things I could only begin to turn toward once she was gone, such as her poverty in the Depression era and her experiences growing up with an alcoholic father who was cruel and sexually abusive. During the Depression she often did not know how she would survive in quite basic ways. She was on the edge, and her pregnancy with me was for her a highly conflicted experience. Consequently, she both loved me intensely and hated me. I did not know how to turn toward her loving/hating while she was still alive except by keeping my distance from her both emotionally and physically.
In working with a forgiveness meditation as part of the reconciliation process, I developed a capacity for increasing curiosity about the kind of parenting she herself had experienced that led her to become a mother so devoid of nurturance. As I pulled together what I knew about the reactive patterning of this alcoholic family system, I saw that it had been cultivated for generations. While sitting with the depth of this conditioning, I would sometimes feel like I was trying to turn the Queen Mary using only a rowboat with one oar. In time, I came to understand that together a number of us, each in a rowboat with one oar, if we knew about the tides and currents, could collectively turn the Queen Mary. I experienced the potency of company as we each do our own dharma work, of seeing more and more clearly what is so about the ground of our conditioning—that is, the experiences from the past that give rise to our reactive patterns. As I understood my mother’s conditioning more fully, my heart began to open to her.
Sometimes I felt like I was too late in coming to some resolution with my mother. In time, however, I came to understand that I could accept my mother as she was and feel gratitude for her giving me life and nourishment and a fine education. I had needed time and patience with my self in order to accept her just as she was.
I see dharma practice as central in doing this kind of work. The articulation in the Buddhist meditation traditions of a clear path leads us to developing our capacity to be present with everything—with whatever arises. It leads us to a gradual process of dismantling conditioned patterning rather than re-creating it over and over again. On this path we learn to be present in the moment to what we have habitually and historically turned away from. As I turn toward the difficult, I see increasingly that there is nothing that cannot be transformed into wholesomeness, into wisdom and compassion.
For many years I have been teaching what I call a “transformation meditation.” It comes out of the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Abhidharma. The ground of this meditation is the practice of being present to the breath in the midst of any reactive emotion, taking the gesture of holding that reaction at the heart chakra with the tenderness of a mother cradling her newborn child. “Breathing in, I know anger within me; breathing out, I know anger within me.” The meditation has a total of five steps, but basically the transformation process happens in that first step with the experience that even this reactive emotion has the mark of impermanence. I hold the naming of the emotion tentatively so that I can remain accurate and current with its changing nature: first it might be anger, then sadness, then fear. My relationship with these reactive mental and emotional patterns is transformed with my direct experience of change: “It arises and it’s gone.”
The other steps of the meditation lead through the recognition that “the causes and conditions for this anger are within me” to a more intellectual analysis and consideration—a contemplation of the causes and conditions. These steps allow transformation relationally with the emotional states. Is this anger in the driver’s seat? How do I keep fueling anger, for example, through storytelling or distraction or engaging in fantasy?
The more we can be present with our reactive emotions in any challenging relational context, the more we can know what is arising in our own mind-stream and contributing to the break or disharmony in that relationship. In healing my relationship with my mother, this particular meditation practice has been critically important to me. I have been able to turn towards what only I can do, which is to train this mind-stream. The process of dismantling one’s patterning is the transformative aspect crucial to reconciliation and what I find unique to the Buddhist meditation path.
In doing this transformative work, a teacher—a “spiritual friend”—can have the key functions both as witness and as coach. A lot gets transmitted body-to-body and mind-to-mind. As a witness, a teacher can hold a certain place relationally that eventually the practitioner cultivates or absorbs—the capacity to be with all beings and things without reaction and without judgment. For me, this deep listening, grounded in the ability to see and hear without reaction or judgment, is the crucial element in reconciliation work. It is what allows deep understanding both of my own suffering and of the suffering of another.
With all of this, as I found with my mother, there is a kind of taproot that one develops in dharma practice that can feed our potential for patience in situations where the whole process of reconciliation is taking a very long time.