Healing the Inner Child
The Territory of Suffering
I turn to my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (Reconciliation: 2010: 64) to open this essay on Healing the Inner Child.
“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.”
First we have to develop and nurture our mindfulness, which means waking up to the reality of our suffering that we would rather avoid. There are clear warning signals if we choose to pay attention. We get caught in our dramas and find ourselves telling and retelling our stories to whomever will listen. We also court our suffering and keep it alive. We often engage in a competitive aspect – my suffering is bigger than yours. The courtship of suffering can be 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 is destroying our well being. We grasp at brief insights that “Yes – this is suffering” – but deal only with surface appearances. Yet the surface exposure has a long history of gathering momentum and energy until it actually surfaces. 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, torpedoing our lives – over and over again.
Our suffering is caused by abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – and it becomes an organizing template in our mind. We then create an abusive relationship with that template’s qualities – addiction; fear; co-dependency. To stop the cycle of harm we need an OMG moment. The insight that: OH MY GOD THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN DOING ALL MY LIFE. HOW DO I STOP IT? That insight has to arrive in the mind before we can apply ourselves to developing mindfulness as an antidote to the abusive relationship established with our suffering. It is an awesome realization to penetrate the darkness and realize that the abuse you have suffered has created an abusive relationship with yourself. Mindfulness practice can bring the abusive relationship to a halt. This is the required OMG moment that propels you to get to work. To go backwards from the surface and investigate the causes and conditions that placed you in such suffering. And so we learn the practices, tools and concentrations that support this journey of understanding suffering and taking care of it. We break the cycle through re-training and mindfulness practice. We equip ourselves for a journey to be well that requires our determination to practice mindfulness daily and ensure that we take refuge in wise support.
The Wounded Inner Child
Emotional, physical and sexual abuse during childhood creates a lost, frightened and frozen child within us. If we are unable to reach this lost and wounded child then we may never heal ourselves. We prefer not to remember the sufferings of childhood, so we bury them and hide. 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 deflect them into the deepest realms of our unconsciousness mind. This results in the wounded child not being seen for a long time simply because we are terrified of further suffering. Yet we have to find a way to reach the hurt child and make her safe. This means we have to get past the fear and address the suffering, realizing that it is suffering which provides the way through to awakening.
Although we may now be adult, there is also a little boy in us, a little girl in us, who is so afraid and suffers deeply, no matter what kind of happy pretend face we present to life. This suffering child within our adult frame colors everything we do, generating our fears, insecurities and self loathing, wounding us in our relationships and life. That wounded child is you, is me, and we must extend a different energy to him so that the energy of childhood suffering can be understood, defused and transformed. Mindfulness is the way through to the inner child. We have to embrace him, embrace her exactly where they are caught by the past – in fear and with anger at being neglected for so long. Moreover we have to be very skillful.
This means touching the seeds of childhood suffering from an adult state of being mindful and aware, knowing that we must make it safe for that child to come out from hiding behind the closed doors of suffering and pain. It is we as adults who must no longer run away. We must have the courage and awareness to bring healing to our hurt inner child and thereby produce a transformation for ourselves. The steps we take are not only to heal ourselves, we somehow connect to all wounded children – those in our ancestors and descendants and elsewhere in the world. For once we cultivate the seeds of mindful healing in ourselves, the energy of these seeds continues on into all that we interconnect with. A quantum leap from our cellular memories to everyone else’s throughout time and space. With awareness we take our inner child into our daily life, on picnics, walks, sitting at the dining room table and doing the dishes together. Patiently realizing that we are on a splendid adventure to bring the cycle of suffering to a close, for it may have persisted over generations. Thus we are healing and transforming generations of ingrained patterns transmitted from our ancestors and continued through us to our descendants. Such patterns build up like corrosive rust through time and amplify 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, France on the 17th October 1998. Very gently he spoke about the ignorance and pain of the abuser as well as that of the abused, and stated clearly that understanding was the basis of recovery. Not blaming or feeling guilt and shame, but seeing deeply and understanding. First of all to understand that the person abusing must have lived under ignorant and deprived conditions without support, guidance or a wise teacher. So much so that the power of ignorance was stronger than the person, and thus they were driven to do wrong things. If the person abused can begin to understand just a little bit of that, then their anger, shame and outrage can transform into a droplet of compassion and through mindfulness practice their suffering can diminish. When forgiveness and understanding are there, suffering decreases. The second step he suggested was to recommend that the person abused practice mindfulness, to transform herself into a Bodhisattva and engender the compassion to help and be of service to all children who need protection. By merit of understanding the experience and recovery from abuse, such a person can practice and use their talents to promote measures to protect children. This helps to eradicate the ignorance that generates abuse.
There are many techniques and methodologies of therapy that address issues of the inner wounded child. The first one I am going to describe is simple and anyone can do it. It is a first step and I recommend that it be practiced under the guidance of a therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher. You are going to start a diary or log book for you and the inner child to write to one another. The adult you will write using the hand that you normally write with. You begin by saying “hello” to Little John, to Little Allison. Then go on to 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 do everything to make it safe for Little John, for Little Allison. They will be safe, loved and cherished. Write in your own words along these lines.
Then with your other hand, the one you do not write with, allow the inner child to express herself. Do not edit. Just write down whatever comes out. It may well be angry, blaming and abusive words that come out, and it is your job not to be shocked or defensive but to provide constant re-assurance, love and guidance. You bring to this communication with the wounded inner child all the qualities of love, compassion and wisdom you can muster. These are the seeds of mindfulness 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 writing in this way – with total love and acute mindfulness. Then read your diary entries out loud – placing yourself in your adult shoes and then in your inner child’s shoes. This simple act of reading out loud is a way for both of you to be heard. On a daily basis register with how deeply your understanding and love is getting through to the wounded child, for she is listening carefully to every word and knows that you are now listening to her. You draw closer – the adult and the inner child – as you bring awareness, love and healing to the suffering and pain of the child.
Details of trauma may be revealed that you did not know about, which is why you need the help and guidance of a trusted therapist, shaman or spiritual teacher. This is to support you being a wise and loving parent to your wounded child. And with time you will notice shifts and changes in patterns of expression as the child becomes trusting and starts to grow, eventually merging fully with you as an adult. (You also learn to write very well with your other hand!) In your letters tell your inner child about yourself and your life, take him on outings, treats and give to that child all the care, attention and love you feel you did not receive when you were a little boy, a little girl. The suffering will diminish and you will experience such a transformation, for you discover that your relationships with co-workers, friends and family start to change, and your fears of the past and anxieties about the future do not have the same driving force. When you notice things like this tell your inner child: “Thank you for being with me. That makes me so happy.” The experience of being with the inner child in the healing journey is a stimulus for this kind of happiness. There are times you may cry, or feel total joy and also suffer despair, which is why guidance and support is necessary on this beginning journey of reclaiming yourself. You need that wise spiritual friend and teacher to keep you steady and mindful. I know, for I went through it. I am happy to say that it worked for me, as I experienced the painfully slow establishment of trust, then the exhilarating joy of safety and integration, until finally my inner child was the adult me, integrated with a freshness and vitality that I continually treasure. Ultimately there is only one pair of shoes!
To support this journey there are other practices and meditations that are valuable for the steady process of healing. We have brought mindfulness, concentration and insight to our inner child and constantly enveloped him in the refreshing energy of transformation. We have worked diligently to nurture seeds of happiness, joy and safety in the consciousness of the inner child – the same seeds that are also in us, our ancestors and 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. This is a deep and beautiful process because we are no longer running away or hiding from afflictions that have rendered us dysfunctional. 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” (2010: 114).
Buddhist teachings contain a multitude of tools, concentrations and practices that can nurture this process. Such as The Five Remembrances, Five Year Old Child Meditation, Sutra on Mindful Breathing, Deep Relaxation, Touching The Earth and Removing The Object to mention only a few. In Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice center in France, he has provided a much loved practice gatha for the meditation community, which begins with “I have arrived, I am home.” This is used in walking and other meditations as an instrument to concentrate on breath and be present. In this way the fears and traumas of the past and anxieties about the future do not crowd in and overwhelm the mind. The gatha with walking meditation, connected to in-breath and out-breath, provides an essential tool to take care of 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 centered in mindfulness. This simple gatha has become the dharma seal of Plum Village.
I: Inner Child Has Arrived Meditation
The Vietnamese origin of the gatha provides a penetrating tool to touch our inner child who suffers from trauma and abuse experienced in childhood. It does not translate as: “I have arrived, I am home.” It translates as: “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 welcomes your wounded child to be well and to come home to you. When you walk to your car or your office, by a river or in a park, you can be more specific and recite to yourself:
In-breath “My inner child has arrived”
Out-breath “My inner child is home.”
This is good practice, for with intelligence you use your conscious breath and concentration to heal, simply by welcoming your wounded inner child home through the practice of being present. We are capable of arriving in every moment of practice, whether it is sitting meditation, walking meditation, having a mindful meal, taking a shower or doing laundry. Being present in each moment is a way of practice that welcomes home the injured, frightened inner child harmed by abuse.
In order to heal it is necessary to cultivate the internal energy of mindfulness before stopping and looking deeply into what caused the fears and traumas of abuse. The practice of arriving in each moment nurtures that strength. From the space of clarity provided by locating yourself in the present moment, not only is your inner child welcomed home, there is also the lucidity of mindfulness practice to deal with the ghosts of the past and at the same time put the ghosts of future anxiety to rest.
In-Breath: My inner child has arrived
Out Breath: My inner child is home
II: Love Meditation for the Inner Child
Another tool is to adapt the Four Brahmaviharas meditation to focus on the injured inner child and is based on the Buddha’s teachings on Love. Prepare for meditation by sitting comfortably with the spine erect. Bring your concentration and focus to breath on the In-breath and breath on the Out-breath. After ten or twenty breaths, whenever you feel calm and stable, begin by bringing each of the components – Love, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity – into yourself, the adult you. The next sequence now provides a focus and 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
Then conclude the meditation by once more bringing Love, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity to the adult you. This meditation nurtures the wounded inner child wonderfully and at the same time nurtures the adult you. The Buddha’s teachings on Love provide the foundation for this Love meditation to the wounded inner child. The concentration on these four qualities is an incredibly powerful instrument for healing. I do not have the 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 felt it appropriate to indicate some of the ones I used to good effect in my process of healing. These were practices that accompanied the shamanic healing conducted in an Altered State of Consciousness (See Healing Journeys in Portals and Passages: Book 2). One factor that was very important is that I was determined to heal once understanding dawned in my consciousness. From that awareness 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 is the author of Eighteen Books (www.ianprattis.com ) He has given talks and retreats all over the world. He now stays local in Ottawa to help turn the tide just a little in his home city so that good things begin to happen spontaneously.