This is a story of bodhicitta (awakening mind) from my young life, of how I faced my fears and opened my heart. The story took place many years ago at the end of the 1960s when I was coming out of a retreat in India. My father and I were estranged. He was an alcoholic and a very menacing individual. When I was young, he always used to say, “You’re just too sensitive. You’ve got to toughen up.” I don’t know if I ever did. I never made it in his eyes.
When I was on retreat, sitting and going over the stories in my life, I began realizing that I had spent my life trying to run away from my father. I could never trust him because of the alcohol. He would be nice one minute, and then the next he would turn from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. This undermined my trust. Through the practice, I unearthed a sense that I had to learn again to trust myself, and I got a sense of how to go about doing that. So when I was sitting, I began a process of writing letters to my father in my own imagination. I would write them over and over, get about halfway through, decide it was not worth it, and stop. I did this again and again, and in the process this obsession increased like the pain in an abscessed tooth.
Fortunately, at that time in India, I became friends with one of our wonderful spiritual explorers, Baba Ram Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert. I told him my story, and I said, “Here I’ve done all these retreats, but I can’t seem to let go of my dad. I so much want to drop this.” He said, “I don’t think you can do that.” Then he suggested, “Have you thought about going to visit him?” I replied, “Not particularly.” To which he offered, “Well, I’ll give you some advice.” In those days I was sort of a wild man. I had gone native. I wore my skirt, carried my purse and went around barefoot with all these beads and bangles. So Ram Dass added, “Why don’t you imagine what your father would like to see you as, then present yourself to him like that. My other advice is: don’t stay too long.”
So I decided to look the way my dad would want me to look. He was a businessman. He and John Berry, Wendell Berry’s dad, worked in a farmer’s cooperative. In getting ready to leave India and go back to see my dad, I went into a village and found the local tailor. I showed him an old beaten-up and shredded Vogue magazine and asked, “Can you make me a three-piece suit?” He said, “Oh, I can make that,” and told me how many meters of material were needed. I bought some Chinese corduroy and brought it back to him. He took all the measurements and began laboriously sewing the suit for me. It was actually quite lovely, but there was one problem. No one had told him to use a single color of thread, so there were all these different colored threads mixed in. But you had to look closely to see that. I thought, Oh well.
I also decided I had better cut my hair, since it had gotten a little long. A friend (now Lama Tsultrim Allione) gave me a haircut. I got a suitcase, and I looked really together. Wow, I thought. I don’t look like a seedy old hippie anymore. I felt I was ready to go.
When I got back to the States, I went to see my dad. I was really scared. Inside I knew all my projections and the things I had run from. I had so many pieces of anger and hurt over what had happened over the years. But I also sensed I was different now; I was not the same person who had left.
I went and sat with my dad, and I began to see. For the first time, what I saw was no longer about me. It was suddenly really about this man who had suffered over and over again. I actually opened my heart to him. I made it through three days even though he got drunk and called me every name in the book. I remember going up to my room and just crying. I wondered, Is this worth it? The next day I left somewhat deflated. My father had certainly not seen me; he had never seen me in his life. But I had truly seen him; I could see who he was.
And I had begun to recognize in myself a warrior spirit and a capacity to open my heart in the direction of awakening. I saw that I had the courage to face what had always been overwhelming. It gave me such confidence. I never went back to see my dad again, but I knew I had had to do it. I had to face my demon, not just in my mind but in the flesh. I tell you this story because it shows something about how this practice works. We have to be touched by the world and surrender, give ourselves over to our fears and our hopes in some way but not be captured by them. Not be captured anymore.