Looking Back in Anger
It’s easy to read and agree with theories. The crunchtime comes when we have to put them into practice. It’s like the difference between agreeing with the theory of how to throw a discus, and actually standing in the net. (I tried it and couldn’t throw the frigging thing further than my foot.) If you like the sound of something, hold it in mind and put it into practice as soon as possible. Turning theory into reality anchors it in your memory, and increases the chances that it’ll be there when you really need it.
A young man wrote to ask about how to handle his resentful relationship with his mom, after she left the family. He kindly gave his permission to share the following.
“I’ve been trying out Buddhism but I always run into some sort of a conflict. Long story short, my mom just left my dad after 16 years of marriage. I can’t help but to be mad at her; to hate her for all the hurtful things she’s done for my family, yet I feel that this is not the way a buddha would regard the problem. How would the Buddha handle the difficulty of wanting to hold a grudge? What do you think?” Mike, 19, Linguistics student
I’m so sorry. That sounds tough. Conflict is part of the human condition – there’ll always be something – but I can say that it won’t always be this hard. When you deal with things as best you can, and keep learning and practising, it does get easier.
You’ve already come a long way because you’ve reflected on the situation, rather than reacting blindly. It’s also helpful that you’re staying open to new ways of dealing with it. In answer to your question, the Buddha would have handled it the way you are: by doing his best.
I don’t know all the ins and outs of your situation, but the following came to mind when I read your letter.
1. It’s ok to feel really angry at your mom. Don’t judge whether your feelings are right or not – you have them, so accept them completely. Try sitting in meditation and feeling what you’re feeling completely, but without acting on it, and without generating back-stories about why. I can’t get enough of quoting Pema Chödrön on this: “feel the feeling, drop the story”.
‘Hate’ is one of the strongest emotions we have. Explore it more fully, in meditation. How does it feel? Where does it come from, physically? What is its nature? Is it completely true – like a black-and-white picture – or does it have nuances of grey? Can it exist without its opposite, love?
2. Don’t communicate your anger to your mom while you’re feeling it. Until we have more emotional distance – a bigger picture – even with good intentions we tend to make situations worse. You can still vent to people who are less personally involved in the situation.
3. Try walking in her shoes… from the beginning of her life. There are reasons that she acted like this, and to her they were good reasons. What are they? Even if she was wrong in your opinion, why did she believe that acting like this was the right thing to do?
Empathy helps alleviate your anger. Even justified anger hurts you (the Buddhist saying goes “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”) It would be understandable to resent putting yourself in her shoes; but it’s a favour to both of you to do it.
4. Byron Katie teaches a method that I’ve found startlingly helpful: “turn it around”. As an experiment in writing meditation, find a quiet space and try answering the following questions. They sound harsh, because they’re designed to question all your assumptions.
What has your mom done not to hurt you? What emotions do you feel towards her, that are the opposite of anger? Are you mad at yourself and your dad too? Why might it be the right thing to do for your mom to leave your family? How might it even be good for you and your dad that she left? What is your mom moving towards, rather than leaving?
Look inside and notice how your emotional landscape changes, as you consider these different perspectives. A lot of the work will feel counter-intuitive but it’s bringing fresh air to the situation, and helps towards resolving the pain.
A truth where one person is right and another wrong is never the whole truth. Bumping up against conflict is an indication that there’s something that needs to be explored there, that we can learn from. And that’s the thing that, ultimately, makes life easier.
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any questions, and let us know how it goes.