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January 2017

Spiritual reparenting: severed belonging, benefactors, vulnerability & reconnection

Tara Brach's weekly dharma talks and guided meditations have been a consistent source of inspiration and equanimity for me over the past several years. A few weeks ago, she presented a talk on spiritual reparenting to which I've listened four times (thus far), as it resonated on many levels for me. The practice of becoming one's own loving parent is a recurring theme for adult children of alcoholics and other dysfunctional families, and I find Tara's perspective on the topic offers a valuable contribution to my understanding of the hurting and healing processes. I was so moved by the wisdom presented in the talk that I transcribed the entire 52 minute episode. I'll embed the podcast below, and include a link to the unofficial (and unauthorized) transcription, but I also want to share a few highlights here.

One of the themes Tara emphasizes is the wound of severed belonging, which often occurs while we are children, when we get the explicit or implicit message that we are not okay - not good enough - from parents or other authority figures. In the resulting trance of unworthiness, we feel the pain of separation - of being disconnected - from those we love .. and from whom we want to feel love. Separation anxiety can afflict us at any age, in the context of any significant relationship, though we are especially vulnerable when we are young and inexperienced. As I've noted in several of my most recent blog posts - the pain of severed belonging can continue to affect us for many years after the infliction of the wound.

Fortunately, many of us encounter a benefactor, someone who offers us unconditional love and a healing presence at a time when we are in deep pain. A benefactor repairs the severed belonging and helps us feel connected again: loved, and thereby, worthy of love. I am grateful for the appearance of benefactors at different stages of my life, when I was suffering with the pain of disconnection and the trance of unworthiness.

in her talk, Tara asks "What are the qualities in that person that made a difference to you?", and in reflecting on my benefactors, I see that the common qualities were honesty, self-awareness, compassion and vulnerability. Vulnerability is especially relevant to the process of repair and reconnection. Any benefactor who has appeared in my life has been willing and able to relate to my suffering by revealing one or more elements from their own experience that mirrors or closely aligns with my wound and acknowledging that the wound hurts.

I often magnify my suffering through self-inflecting a second wound - what Tara calls a "second arrow" - by judging myself defective and weak, believing that the wound shouldn't hurt so much, that there's something wrong with me. Simply knowing that I have a fellow traveler, especially one that I admire and respect, helps reduce my sense of isolation and restore a feeling of belonging and worthiness.

I count Tara among my benefactors, even though I've never met her. In her books and talks, she regularly shares stories from her own experience that exhibit the kind of vulnerability that creates an opening for connection and reconnection. Her practice of RAIN (Recognizing, Allowing, Investigating and Nurturing) has been an important component in my journey of letting go of emotions. I highly recommend her talks, as the calm, soothing voice through which she expresses her honesty, self-awareness and compassion is an especially welcome departure from the tone of much of the political discourse - and discord - that is arising from the lack of honesty, self-awareness, compassion and vulnerability exhibited by some who have recently come to power in the United States.

I also recommend adopting the practice of financial beneficence (or dana), and joining me in becoming a contributor in supporting Tara's talks and meditations, which she offers for free. I believe dana will be an increasingly important way to support the voices I want to hear, as more voices I don't want to hear are given more prominent platforms, supported at taxpayer expense.

I'll include the abstract for Spiritual Parenting below, since the highlights above only focus on a small portion of the talk. The talk includes references to other inspiriting sources of wisdom - such as a quote by attachment science researcher Louis Cozolino on the survival of the nurtured, Krista Tippett's On Being interview with Ruby Sales ("Where does it hurt?"), Martin Luther King's speech on "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence", and the 1998 movie, The Horse Whisperer.

When we are not sufficiently nurtured in childhood, we are inclined toward anxiety, depression, addiction and other forms of suffering. In a deep way, we do not feel at home with others. We are disconnected from our own body, heart and spirit.

This talk explores how meditation offers “spiritual reparenting” as we learn to bring interest, understanding and love to our own inner vulnerability. This process of healing extends to our relationships with others and our larger society – by reaching out to widening circles with interest and care, we bring increasing harmony and peace to our world.

From a place of caring, ask, “Where does it hurt?”

The podcast is embedded below for easy access. Here's a link to my unofficial transcription of Spiritual Reparenting. Namaste.

Letting Go of Emotions vs. Thoughts

A while back, I wrote about letting go of blame and judgment, following an enlightening "Zen with Len" retreat I attended last January. While the retreat helped me release others from anger I was feeling about perceived betrayals or other wrongs, I was still left with my feelings of pain, sadness and fear in response to those experiences. Letting go of pain has been an evolving process for me, and I wanted to share a few resources and practices that I have found useful on this part of the journey.

LettingGo_DavidHawkins_coverDavid Hawkins literally wrote the book on "Letting Go" (subtitle: "The Pathway of Surrender"), in which he argues for the primacy of emotions over thoughts, and proposes that by letting go of emotions, we can let go of the thoughts that emanate from those emotions.

Thoughts are merely rationalizations of the mind trying to explain the presence of the feeling... The thoughts associated with even one feeling may literally run into the thousands. The understanding of the underlying emotion and its correct handling is, therefore, more rewarding and less time-consuming than dealing with one's thoughts.

I tend to focus most of my time, energy and attention on thinking rather than feeling, and have always believed that thoughts give rise to feelings, but Hawkins suggests it is the other way around:

The mind is .. a survival mechanism, and its method of survival is primarily the use of emotions. Thoughts are engendered by the emotions and, eventually, emotions become shorthand for thoughts .. Reason is the tool the mind uses to achieve its emotional ends.

I initially found this description and the prescription for the "correct handling" of emotions counter-intuitive and unsettling. In my efforts to let go of the lingering pain, I had been devoting some of my meditations to focusing on troubling - and sometimes traumatic - thoughts, and sitting with the thoughts in an effort to let go of the emotions they give rise to. Hawkins suggests switching that around, and focusing directly on the emotion:

Letting go involves being aware of a feeling, letting it come up, staying with it, and letting it run its course without wanting to make it different or do anything about it. It means simply to let the feeling be there and to focus on letting out the energy behind it .. It is resistance that keeps the feeling going .. A feeling that is not resisted will disappear as the energy behind it dissipates... The feeling can .. be worked with by first accepting that it is there, without resisting it or condemning it. And then one begins to empty out the energy of the feeling directly by letting it be what it is until it runs out.

He acknowledges that some emotions are simply too overwhelming, and may require multiple letting go "sessions" of sitting with the emotions to release their power. It may also be helpful to deeply traumatic emotion into subcomponents, and let go of different elements incrementally over time.

Hawkins observes that suppressing emotions can increase stress, and that increased stress can lead to disease, and describes various ways that the mind and body are connected, much of which is consistent with my own experience, and with other teachings I've encountered (e.g., Gabor Mate's book, "When the Body Says 'No'"). He also covers several themes I wrote about in my last post, about attachment, dependency and possessiveness in relationships, so I won't go further down that path here, except to note here that I found one of his predictions about the potential outcomes of attachment especially poignant:

The other person, now feeling pressured by our energy of dependency and possessiveness, has an inner impulse to run for freedom, to withdraw, to detach and do the very thing that we fear the most.

One of the themes in the book I find most difficult to accept is the prescription to let go of desire, which echoes ideas I've encountered in [other] new age teachings:

wanting blocks receiving it [what is wanted] and results in a fear of not getting it. The energy of desire is, in essence, a denial that what we want is ours for the asking.. We surrender the emotion of desire and, instead, merely choose the goal, picture it lovingly, and allow it to happen because we see that is already ours.

Perhaps I'm not yet sufficiently evolved, but I personally don't see how wanting and desire - which are to be let go - are different from asking for something or setting goals - which are to be embraced - so I've decided to let go of this aspect of the teachings, at least for now.

There are a number of other aspects of the book that I find more difficult to accept. Hawkins was a proponent of using applied kinesiology to test muscle strength in the arm while a subject repeats a statement to "objectively" assess a subject's level of consciousness. His enumeration, ordering and descriptions of these levels - shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, desire, anger, pride, courage, neutrality, willingness, acceptance, reason, love, joy and peace - make intuitive sense to me, but associating frequency measurements with them, and estimating what proportion of the population has achieved these levels, do not. An essay on The Emperor's New Clothes: David Hawkins' Absolute Calibration of Truth offers a deeper investigation into some of Hawkins' questionable claims, and some of the ways he and his associates have actively sought to eliminate criticism from Wikipedia and other web sites.

As unsettling as I find some of these aspects of his teaching and behavior, I often find it useful to apply the slogan "take what you like and leave the rest", and continue to find resonance in his ideas about the primacy of emotions and the practices of letting go of the negative emotions ... although I will admit I initially found these unsettling as well.

One of the initially disturbing - but eventually resonant - aspects of Hawkins' views is that disturbances are beneficial:

Every life crisis carries within it the kernels of a reversal, a renewal, an expansion, a leap in consciousness, and a letting go of the old and a birth of the new .. a hidden lesson... Carl Jung [concluded that] there is an inborn drive in the unconscious toward wholeness, completeness, and realization of the Self, and that the unconscious will devise ways and means of bringing this about even if they are traumatic to the conscious mind...

One benefit of a crisis is that it often brings us into familiarity with our shadow .. Once the shadow has been acknowledged, it loses its power... Passing through a life crisis, then, makes us more human, more compassionate, more accepting and understanding of ourselves and others. We no longer have to indulge in making others wrong or making ourselves wrong.

... One major loss can awaken us to the nature of all attachments, and all relationships.

Indeed, I am hoping this journey through unresolved grief I started over a year ago is serving to awaken me to a higher state of enlightenment. The theme of crises and breakdowns facilitating growth has played a significant role in this awakening, and is a concept into which I plan to delve more deeply in a future post.

For now, I'll conclude with two other sources of inspiration for letting go that I revisit regularly. One is a brief passage by Tilopa shared in a guided meditation by Tara Brach - who regularly encourages attending to feelings in the body and letting go of thoughts in the mind - on Relaxing Open.

Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

DannaFaulds_GoInAndIn_coverThe other is a poem by Danna Faulds, from her book, Go In and In: Poems from the Heart of Yoga, which I read nearly every day.

Let go of the ways you thought life
would unfold; the holding of plans
or dreams or expectations – Let it
all go. Save your strength to swim
with the tide. The choice to fight
what is here before you now will
only result in struggle, fear, and
desperate attempts to flee from the
very energy you long for. Let go.
Let it all go and flow with the grace
that washes through your days whether
you receive it gently or with all your
quills raised to defend against invaders.
Take this on faith; the mind may never
find the explanations that it seeks, but
you will move forward nonetheless.
Let go, and the wave’s crest will carry
you to unknown shores, beyond your
wildest dreams or destinations. Let it
all go and find the place of rest and
peace, and certain transformation.

I continue to find it hard to accept that "the mind may never find the explanations that it seeks", but perhaps I'm moving forward, nonetheless.

Marriage, Romantic Realism and Relationship without Attachment

I've been a hopeless romantic for most of my life, but I am becoming increasingly disillusioned about love. I don't see disillusionment as a negative thing, but as a positive process: letting go of illusions, and thus becoming less romantic - and more realistic - about relationships ... especially long-term committed relationships ... especially the one I am in. I don't love my wife any less, but I'm striving to love her differently, more maturely, with greater acceptance and less expectation or attachment.

This maturation / disillusionment has evolved over many years, often unfolding in fits and starts. I may never complete the process, but I'm making progress. I wanted to share a few notes on the journey here, to collect and synthesize some relevant influences I've encountered along the path, both for my own future reference and in case it may be helpful to others.

GiftfromtheseaOne of the first realistic descriptions of a healthy relationship I encountered was in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's timeless tome, Gift from the Sea. My wife and I included a passage from this inspiring book in the readings at our wedding.

A good relationship has a pattern like a dance and is built on some of the same rules. The partners do not need to hold on tightly, because they move confidently in the same pattern, intricate but gay and swift and free, like a country dance of Mozart's. To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand, only the barest touch in passing. Now arm in arm, now face to face, now back to back -- it does not matter which because they know they are partners moving to the same rhythm, creating a pattern together, and being invisibly nourished by it.

The joy of such a pattern is...the joy of living in the moment. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined. One cannot dance well unless one is completely in time with the music, not leaning back to the last step or pressing forward to the next one, but poised directly on the present step as it comes... But how does one learn this technique of the dance? Why is it so difficult? What makes us hesitate and stumble? It is fear, I think, that makes one cling nostalgically to the last moment or clutch greedily toward the next. [And fear] can only be exorcised by its opposite: love.

My wife has always been the more pragmatic and realistic partner in our relationship, probably due both to her general temperament as well as her greater experience with prior relationships before the two of us got together. I have tended to operate more toward the idealistic end of the spectrum, and have at times practiced more of a possessive clutch than a bare touch in passing. Fortunately - although it hasn't always seemed that way - the wisdom embodied in these two paragraphs has been re-presented through many lessons in many contexts over the years.

PassionatemarriagepbkA related source of wisdom is David Schnarch's book, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, which I first encountered - and found very unsettling - several years after we were married. Schnarch describes marriage as a crucible in which the role of our partner is not so much to be affectionate, appreciative and approving - though some partners may exhibit any or all of these characteristics at times - but to support us in our growth as differentiated and resilient individuals.

In my last post, I wrote about the pitfalls of depending on external validation. Schnarch contrasts external validation - or what he calls other-validated intimacy - with self-validated intimacy, in which "you don't expect your partner to validate or accept what you disclose. You validate yourself by showing your partner who you really are." I'll include a few other resonant passages from the book below.

We're driven by something that makes us look like we crave intimacy, but in fact we're after something else: we want someone else to make us feel acceptable and worthwhile. We've assigned the label "intimacy" to what we want (validation and reciprocal disclosure) and developed pop psychologies that give it to us - while keeping true intimacy away. We've distorted what intimacy is, how it feels, how much we really want it, and how best to get it. Once we realize that intimacy is not always soothing and often makes us feel insecure, it is clear why we back away from it.


Our self-made crises are custom-tailored, painstakingly crafted, and always fit perfectly. We construct emotional knots until, eventually, we are willing to go through them.


Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of a group.

Lack of differentiation alienates us from those we love. Emotional fusion deceives us into thinking that we're not connected and we move away in defense. But the deeper truth is that we have to move away to counterbalance the tremendous impact we feel our spouse has on us.

Thebookoflife_logoA more recent source of wisdom describing a healthy, illusion-free, non-attached way of relating to one's partner that I encountered is from Alain de Botton's evolving online compendium, The Book of Life. One chapter presents Romantic Realism: a term used to describe "a correct awareness of what can legitimately be expected of love". A reformulation and refinement of some of the wisdom in that chapter (and some of his other writings) appeared in another chapter, On Marrying the Wrong Person, a version of which became the most read article of 2016 in the New York Times. To my way of thinking, despite its title, this chapter/essay is not so much about marrying the wrong person as it is about marrying any person based on the wrong goals or expectations. Here are a few of the passages I find most resonant:

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.


The problem is that knowledge of our own neuroses is not at all easy to come by. It can take years and situations we have had no experience of. Prior to marriage, we’re rarely involved in dynamics that properly hold up a mirror to our disturbances. Whenever more casual relationships threaten to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tend to blame the partner – and call it a day. As for our friends, they predictably don’t care enough about us to have any motive to probe our real selves. They only want a nice evening out. Therefore, we end up blind to the awkward sides of our natures. On our own, when we’re furious, we don’t shout, as there’s no one there to listen – and therefore we overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for fury. Or we work all the time without grasping, because there’s no one calling us to come for dinner, how we manically use work to gain a sense of control over life – and how we might cause hell if anyone tried to stop us. At night, all we’re aware of is how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us cold and strange if ever it felt we were too deeply committed to someone. One of the greatest privileges of being on one’s own is the flattering illusion that one is, in truth, really quite an easy person to live with.


We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering.

One of the best definitions of suffering I've encountered is from Tara Brach, who has shared the following formula from the Four Noble Truths in a few of her dharma talks:

suffering = pain X resistance

I think the risk of pain always accompanies the prospect of intimacy in a relationship: anyone we care enough about can say or do things - or not say or do things - that hurt us. One may not be able to eliminate pain in a relationship, but one can reduce resistance by acceptance of what is ... and letting go of attachment to what is not.

And the themes of abandonment, suffering, acceptance and letting go of attachment bring me full circle to yet another gem of wisdom I gleaned from a recent re-reading of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From The Sea, with which I'll close:

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity - in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.

The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now. Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits - islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.