Looking at Our Parents with Compassionate Eyes

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I came across a chapter titled “Parents” in one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, Peace is Every Step, that resonated with me as well as with the work I’ve done with many clients. I thought I’d start by sharing one of the quotes that I found most poignant in this chapter:

“We usually think that parents have to nourish their children, but sometimes the children can bring enlightenment to the parents and help transform them.”

In this chapter, Thich Nhat Hanh does a great job explaining how to look at our parents with compassion. To start, we increase our awareness by simply understanding our parent’s roots. Let’s say you had an argument with your parents about your career path. Rather than getting angry with your parents, it may be helpful to look at the situation in a different light. Your parents may have had their own career aspirations that didn’t pan out, or they may have chosen a stable career over a more desirable one, even if they are successful in their current work. If true, that may be an example of what Nhat Hanh calls a “bad seed” that has taken root in your parents. Because your parents are unaware of it and not mindful of it, they are unintentionally passing these seeds down to you.

Nhat Hanh calls this concept the “transmission of seeds.” Essentially, seeds are the personality traits, temperament, regrets, and habits that are passed down from generation to generation that teach us how to act, react, behave, and cope with life. There are many kinds of seeds within us, both good and bad. Nhat Hanh describes good seeds as antibodies that help keep us whole, peaceful, and healthy. On the flip-side, anger, hate, and sorrow are examples of bad seeds. The analogy given is that we water the good seeds (the ones we want more of in our life) through the practice of mindful living.

Perhaps, for some of our parents, ancestors, or others in society, unhealthy seeds have grown pretty thick roots because people did not have the knowledge or opportunity to practice mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness, there is an increased capability to understand our emotions and essentially who we are with distance and without judgment, and in turn, take a more understanding role of others around us. When we are able to add this awareness of seeing another person’s behavior through their eyes, i.e., their perspective, we are practicing compassion. It’s a way to accept our parents’ behavior in a non-judgmental way, and consequently, stop the growth of unhealthy or bad seeds.

Here are some suggestions to help prevent these bad seeds from taking root in you and possibly being passed down to your children.

Notice the bad seed arising within you (or your parents)
When you get in a situation where emotions are running high, take a moment to look inside. Simply notice what you are feeling and acknowledge it. In the example with your parents, you may try labeling your feeling when it arises, like with words, frustration, anger, sadness. Internally, you may think “I am feeling angry because my father continues to berate me about my career choices.”

Practice mindful living
Instead of getting angry with your parents, we can transform this bad seed into a healthy one through example. For instance, you could perform a breathing exercise that you practice before getting angry (and you could share it with your parents, to practice together). Meditating on a daily basis to help clear the mind and teach flexible thinking and distance from emotions can also be helpful. Use whatever mindful practices work best for you.

Do not take it personally
Remove yourself from the blame game and realize your parents are not intentionally trying to upset you. Try to understand where your parents’ emotional reaction is coming from, and just acknowledge their perspective. The quicker you are able to look at your parents with compassionate eyes, the easier it will be to offer them peace and forgiveness.

Share your knowledge
Help transform your parents through teaching them what you have learned and what has helped you. This can be done through sharing articles, websites, workshops, or even a dialogue about your own transformations. This step is important because you can channel the negative thoughts that may arise within you into something more rewarding.

While this helping role may feel better than being upset at your parents, just be sure not to get wrapped up in the expectation that you are going to change them. This reminds me of a saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” It wouldn’t help anything to replace your anger towards your parents about who they are, with anger that they won’t accept your advice.

These tips are simple reminders that may help pave the way to a more compassionate relationship with your parents. I hope this helps you find relief the next time you are frustrated with your parents. If you’re interested in learning more about Thich Nhat Hanh’s perspective, check out any of his many books.

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