Published on August 12, 2007
Children always have difficulties with their parents, and sometimes it gets out of hand. What can begin with angry words and then disassociation in the home can devolve into the youngsters leaving home prematurely. Even in cases where the relationship is preserved, the child might live nearby and yet only visit once in a blue moon. Some offspring go to the extreme of changing their names.
Why do family relationships break down? In the wake of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's visit to Thailand earlier this year, one of his followers, Sister Cheng Khong, led a five-day meditation retreat in Chiang Mai.
She told a story about a young boy whose mother angrily called him "stupid" when he tripped and fell. Later, when his sister had the same mishap, he treated her the same way his mother had treated him.
Inheriting negative habits from one's parents is common, said the senior nun at Plum Village in France and author of "Learning True Love".
The human tree has three roots, Sister Cheng said - the blood family, with its ancestral lines; the land family, meaning homeland and culture; and the spiritual family, referring to those who cultivate our soul, grace and dignity.
"Your entire blood family is in your genes," she said, "everything from your biological characteristics to your artistic talent."
Sister Cheng then conducted an exercise in "non-self" to emphasise our interconnectedness and demonstrate that no one is truly independent. It's an exercise that can be adapted to any situation, any set of circumstances.
With Mother's Day in mind, anyone having difficulties with their mum might try the following.
First, write out a list of your mother's good points and weak points. While standing, close your eyes and envision your mother being alive inside you. Think about how she probably looked and felt when she was your age, and in what kind of physical and emotional environment she lived.
Next, lie face down on the floor. Think of all your mother's negative traits you've written out and let them flow into the earth below you. Take your time - you have to dispatch into the earth everything you don't like about your mother.
Then, imagine your mother and say, "I am part of you."
"Writing down her weaknesses is not about focusing on past mistakes or about you repeating those same mistakes in the future," Sister Cheng said. "When we feel calm, we have quiet time to be mindful and examine ourselves, whether we too have done what we dislike in our mothers."
The non-self exercise should be repeated for 21 consecutive days, the nun recommended, promising that, in the end, "you will become a new person".
Freelance writer Tanistha Dansilp, 34, had long been shouldering a hurt she felt over her belief that her mother treated her younger brother better than her. Her attempts at reconciliation only convinced her that her mother didn't care.
"I told her, 'You're not listening to me', and she countered, 'I don't listen to anyone'."
The Chiang Mai retreat, however, gave Tanistha a new sense of calm - and the awareness that she has many of the very traits that she dislikes in her mother.
"It was like putting on her shoes," she said. "Even I still can't change these habits drastically - it would be far more difficult for her to change at her age."
A 39-year-old office worker who asked that her name not be mentioned said she was relieved to move away from home and, although she has no serious conflicts with her mother, she blames her for not living up to her expectations. She loved her father more, and didn't feel good about it.
"The non-self exercise helped me detach myself from the idea of loving one person less or more than another," she said, noting that she still sees her mother often and they go out to dinner.
"My outward behaviour toward my mum hasn't changed, but there's more peace in my mind."
In "Cultivating the Mind of Love", Thich Nhat Hanh writes: "When we take a step on the green earth, we are aware that we are made of air, sunshine, minerals and water, that we are a child of earth and sky, linked to all other beings, both animate and inanimate."