“Dealing with suffering is like handling a poisonous snake. We have to learn about the snake, and we ourselves have to grow stronger and more stable in order to handle it without hurting ourselves. At the end of this process, we will be ready to confront the snake. If we never confront it, one day it will surprise us and we will die of a snake bite. The pain we carry in the deep levels of our consciousness is similar. When it grows big and confronts us, there’s nothing we can do if we haven’t practiced becoming strong and stable in mindfulness. We should only invite our suffering up when we’re ready. Then, when it comes we can handle it. To transform our suffering, we don’t struggle with it or try to get rid of it. We simply bathe it in the light of our mindfulness.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child.
To heal the inner child we first have to develop and nurture our mindfulness so we can wake up to the reality of our suffering, which we would rather avoid. There are clear warning signals of deeper suffering if we choose to pay attention: We get caught up in our dramas and find ourselves telling and retelling our stories to whomever will listen. We engage in competition—my suffering is bigger than yours. And we court our suffering, keeping it alive.
The courtship of suffering is an ugly romance, for we enter into a co-dependent relationship, which has to be called by its true name: addiction. Physiologically and emotionally we become so tightly tied into our suffering that we cannot be without it even though it’s destroying our well-being. We grasp at brief insights—yes, this is suffering—but only when they appear on the surface of our awareness. Yet the hidden suffering has a way of gathering momentum and energy until it finally surfaces in its entirety: the small snake has become a monster. The addiction to suffering is now embedded in our mental state. We respond to any glimpse of suffering with such destructive emotion that we reinforce the causes and conditions that created the suffering in the first place. And so we continue shooting ourselves in the foot—over and over again.
Our suffering, caused by emotional, physical and sexual abuse, becomes an organizing template in our mind. We then create an abusive relationship with that template’s qualities: addiction, fear and codependency. To stop the cycle of harm we first need an OMG moment: Oh my god, this is what I have been doing all my life. How do I stop it? It is awesome to penetrate the darkness and realize that the abuse we suffered as a child has created an abusive relationship with our adult self. Mindfulness practice can bring the abusive relationship to a halt. This OMG moment propels us to get to work, to go below the surface and investigate the causes of our suffering. And so we learn the practices, tools and concentrations that support us on our journey toward understanding our suffering and resolving it. We break the cycle through retraining and mindfulness practice. Our journey to wellness requires us to practice mindfulness daily and take refuge in wise support.
The wounded inner child
Abuse during childhood creates within us a lost, frightened and frozen child. If we are unable to reach this wounded child then we may never heal ourselves. We prefer not to remember the sufferings of childhood, so we bury our memories and hide from them. We run away from seeing deeply into the causes of our suffering. Whenever the memories arise, however fleetingly, we think we cannot handle them and we deflect them into the deepest realms of our unconscious mind. We are terrified of further suffering. As a result, the wounded child may not be seen for a long time. Yet we have to find a way to reach her and make her safe. We have to get past the fear and address the suffering, because that is the way to awakening.
No matter what kind of happy pretend face we present as an adult, there is also a frightened little boy or girl inside us. This suffering child colours everything we do, generating our fears, insecurities and self-loathing, damaging our relationships and our life. That wounded child is you, is me, and we must extend a hand to him so we can understand, defuse and transform the energy of his suffering. Mindfulness is the way through to the inner child. We have to embrace him exactly where he is—caught by the past, fearful, and angry at being neglected for so long. Moreover, we have to be very skilful.
We must touch the seeds of childhood suffering from an adult state of mindfulness and awareness, making it safe for that child to come out from behind closed doors. As adults, we can no longer run away. We must have the courage to bring healing to our hurt inner child and thereby transform ourselves. And the steps we take are not only to heal ourselves—we somehow connect to all wounded children, those of our ancestors and descendants and everyone else in the world. Because once we cultivate the seeds of mindful healing in ourselves, the energy of these seeds extends into all that we connect with, in a quantum leap through time and space from our cellular memories to everyone else’s. With awareness, we take our inner child into our daily life: we go on picnics, take walks, sit at the dining-room table, do the dishes together. We’re patient, realizing that we’re on a splendid adventure to end a cycle of suffering that may have persisted over generations. Thus we are healing and transforming ingrained patterns transmitted to us from our ancestors and through us to our descendants, patterns that built up over time like corrosive rust and amplified the fears and suffering of the wounded inner child.
Thich Nhat Hanh addressed the issue of child abuse in a question and answer session held in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village in France on Oct. 17, 1998. Very gently, he spoke about the ignorance and pain of the abuser as well as the pain of the abused, explaining that the basis of recovery is understanding, not blame, guilt or shame. First, he said, we need to understand that the abuser must have lived in ignorance and deprivation, without support, guidance or a wise teacher; the overwhelming power of ignorance drove him or her to do wrong. If the abused person can begin to understand just a little bit, then anger, shame and outrage can transform into droplets of compassion, and through mindfulness practice, suffering can diminish. When forgiveness and understanding are present, suffering decreases.
Thich Nhat Hanh then recommended that the abused person practice mindfulness, to transform himself or herself into a Bodhisattva and engender the compassion to help all children who need protection. Those who have experienced abuse and recovered from it can use their understanding to promote measures that protect children and help eradicate the ignorance that generates abuse.
Write to your inner child
There are many techniques and methodologies of therapy that address issues of the wounded inner child. The first one I am going to describe is simple, and anyone can do it. It’s a first step, and I recommend practicing it under the guidance of a therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher. You’re going to start a diary or logbook for you and the inner child to write to each other. The “adult you” will write using the hand that you normally write with. Begin by saying “hello” to Little John, to Little Allison. Then say how sorry you are for having been away and neglectful, that you are grown-up, now, and strong, and that you are going to make it safe for Little John, for Little Allison, who will now be safe, loved and cherished. Write in your own words in this way.
Then, with your other hand, the one you do not usually write with, allow the inner child to express himself. Do not edit. Just write down whatever comes out. Angry, blaming and abusive words may come out, and it’s your job as the “adult you” not to be shocked or defensive but to provide constant reassurance, love and guidance. Bring to this communication all the love, compassion and wisdom you can muster. These are the seeds of mindfulness that you consciously bring to support the wounded child inside you. The energy of these seeds works on the energy of the traumatized inner child to reduce his pain and suffering. Talk to him through this writing, with total love and acute mindfulness. Then read your diary entries out loud, placing yourself first in your adult shoes and then in your inner child’s shoes; this is a way for both of you to be heard. On a daily basis, register how deeply your understanding and love is getting through to the child, for he is listening carefully to every word and knows that you are now listening to him. As the adult brings awareness, love and healing to the child, the adult and the child will draw closer to each other.
Details of trauma may be revealed that you had forgotten about, which is why you need the help and guidance of a trusted therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher who will support you in being a wise and loving parent to your wounded child. In time, you will notice changes in the way your child expresses herself, as she becomes trusting and starts to grow, eventually merging fully with you as an adult (You will also learn to write very well with your other hand!).
In your letters, tell your inner child about yourself and your life, take her on outings, give her treats and lavish on that child all the care, attention and love you feel you did not receive when you were a child. The suffering will diminish and you will experience a transformation; your relationships with co-workers, friends and family will start to change, and your fears of the past and anxieties about the future will not have the same force. When you notice improvements tell your inner child, “Thank you for being with me. It makes me so happy,” as being with her on the healing journey brings happiness.
At times you may cry, you may feel joy and also despair—which is why you need guidance and support as you begin the journey of reclaiming yourself. You need that wise, spiritual friend and teacher to keep you steady and mindful. I know, because I went through it. I am happy to say the process worked for me; I experienced the painfully slow establishment of trust, then the exhilarating joy of safety and integration, until finally my inner child and the adult me were the same person, and I felt a freshness and vitality that I treasure. Ultimately there is only one pair of shoes!
Our journey is a deep and beautiful process because we are no longer running away from afflictions that have rendered us dysfunctional. We bring mindfulness, concentration and insight to our inner child and envelop him in the refreshing energy of transformation. We work diligently to nurture seeds of happiness, joy and safety in the consciousness of the inner child—the same seeds that are in us, our ancestors and our descendants. When despair and fear arise from the child we have the presence of mind to listen deeply and surround the fear with the stronger energy field of mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Reconciliation, tells us: “The capacity to be aware—that is, to be a human being who is mindful—is what will save us.
Buddhist teachings contain a multitude of tools, concentrations and practices that can nurture this process: The Five Remembrances, Five Year Old Child Meditation, Sutra on Mindful Breathing, Deep Relaxation, Touching The Earth, and Removing The Object are just a few. Meditation gives us a way to stop the fears of the past and anxieties about the future from crowding and overwhelming the mind. At his practice centre in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh has provided a much loved practice gatha for the meditation community that begins “I have arrived, I am home.” The gatha is used with walking meditation, connected to in-breath and out-breath, and provides an essential tool to deal with the many mental formations that flood our waking consciousness with fear, pain and suffering. With daily, diligent practice we can examine these same mental formations, but from a place centred in mindfulness. This simple gatha has become the dharma seal of Plum Village.
I. Inner child has arrived meditation
The original Vietnamese gatha translates not as “I have arrived, I am home” but “Your child has arrived, your child is home.” This is so beautiful to say to yourself as you breathe in and out whenever you do walking meditation, for each step encourages your wounded child to be well and to come home to you. When you walk to your car or to your office, by a river or in a park, you can recite to yourself:
In-breath: “My inner child has arrived.”
Out-breath: “My inner child is home.”
Through the practice of being present, you will use your conscious breath and concentration to heal, simply by welcoming your wounded inner child home. You are capable of arriving in every moment, whether it’s in sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, taking a shower or doing laundry. It’s necessary to cultivate the internal energy of mindfulness before stopping and looking deeply into what caused the trauma. The practice of being in the moment nurtures that strength, and it provides the clarity and lucidity needed to put to rest the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of future anxiety.
In-breath: “My inner child has arrived.”
Out-breath: “My inner child is home.”
II Love meditation for the inner child
Another tool adapts the Four Brahmaviharas meditation to focus on the injured inner child and is based on the Buddha’s teachings on love. This meditation nurtures the inner child wonderfully and at the same time nurtures the adult you. Prepare for meditation by sitting comfortably with the spine erect. Bring your concentration to the in-breath and the out-breath. After ten or twenty breaths, whenever you feel calm and stable, bring each of the components—love, compassion, joy, equanimity—into yourself, the adult you. The next sequence provides a concentration to water the seeds of Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity within your inner child.
In-breath: “I bring Love”
Out-breath: “to my inner child.”
You can say a loving name for your inner child if you wish. Say silently, “Dear Mary” or “Darling Joseph.” Feel the energy of love fill you from top to toe and register with the energy for several breaths. Then continue in the same way with:
In-breath: “I bring compassion”
Out-breath: “to my inner child.”
In-breath: “I bring joy”
Out-breath: “to my inner child.”
In-breath: “I bring equanimity”
Out-breath: “to my inner child”
Conclude the meditation by once more bringing love, compassion, joy and equanimity to the adult you. The concentration on these four qualities is an incredibly powerful instrument for healing. I don’t have words to adequately describe the impact but Thich Nhat Hanh does:
The Buddha says if we gather together all the virtuous actions we have realized in this world, they are not equal to practicing love meditations… If we collect together all the light from the stars, it will not be as bright as the light of the moon. In the same way, practicing love meditation is greater than all other virtuous actions combined.
There are many other methods of meditation and practice that could be documented here. I have included some that I used to good effect in my process of healing. These practices accompanied the shamanic healing conducted in an altered state of consciousness (see “Healing Journeys” in Portals and Passages—forthcoming). One important factor was that once understanding dawned in my consciousness I became determined to heal. I took specific steps and relied on wise teachers, medicine women and steady friends to help me along the path of healing and transformation. I must emphasize that this is not a journey that can be taken alone, so do ensure that you have support from your sangha and good guidance from a therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher.
Ian Prattis is the author of Failsafe: Saving The Earth From Ourselves. A Zen teacher at Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa since 1997, he has given talks and conducted retreats all over the world. He now stays local with Friends for Peace Canada to help turn the tide just a little in his home city so that good things begin to happen spontaneously.