One of the common topics that comes up with guests during Transformational Retreats at Zen Jungle is parents. Lots of people who come to us find it really difficult to accept their parents and sustain positive, happy relationships with them. Resentment, anger and feelings of inadequacy are just some of the feelings that tend to arise as soon as we mention family relationships, especially when it comes to parents.
This is totally normal and to be expected. When we decide to embark on a journey of deep, transformational work, lots of feelings come up around our experience of childhood and our relationships to those who birthed and/or raised us. If you’ve started to question your upbringing, dissecting your early years and reflecting on how you were raised and what you were taught by your parents, you’re not alone. Blaming your parents for not knowing or doing better is often part of the process when it comes to finding peace, freedom and fulfilment.
Ideas about childhood trauma, whether that be abandonment, being dismissed or not feeling seen or heard can haunt you. The pain of knowing that you deserved better (and that those who were supposed to give you the world couldn’t manage it) is a hard pill to swallow. How much easier would the healing process be if you didn’t have years of your life to recover from? If you had parents who listened to you unconditionally, loved you no matter what, never lost their temper and always provided for your every need?
Maybe you’ve even considered that it’s their fault you need to go on a healing process. Would there be any need to heal if you’d had the childhood you deserved? If your parents would see you for who you are now, instead of feeling like a constant disappointment? If they didn’t keep questioning your choices, even now you’ve grown up and they don’t need to look after you anymore?
Nobody wants to live in a pressure cooker of unspoken expectations, forever feeling like a failure. Yet, that often seems to be the case when it comes to the very people who we are taught are meant to love us unconditionally.
So the question now is: why does it feel so difficult to accept our parents for who they are? Why can’t we just “get over it” and move on? The answer here is different for everyone, but it all comes down to a long list of ideas that each of us hold about our past and the role our parents played in that.
Perhaps we have very specific views on the way our parents “should” have been when we were children and “should” be now we are adults. “Should” is the key word here because our expectations of our parents are all unique and subjective. No two of us would create exactly the same list about what we wanted as children and want now as adults out of our parents.
The irony here is that one frequent complaint we hear at the retreat is that people feel they can never live up to their parents' expectations. They are forever feeling like a let-down, inadequate and incomplete. Yet, we hold a set of expectations about what our parents should be in order to be better for us. On both sides, there is a long list of ideas about what the other should represent. Of course they’re not going to match up completely because you’re not the same people. Neither of you can ever fulfil all the others expectations while still maintaining your own life and sense of identity.
Secondly, judgement plays a key role. Judgement is the act of creating an opinion about an experience we are having. Whether that experience is eating a kiwi, watching a film, going for a walk, having a conversation or feeling the sensation of water in the shower, we are all professionals at forming an opinion about it.
This kiwi is too sour
I love this film
It’s cold, I should have bought a coat
I’m bored of this conversation
The water is so relaxing
Our mind is forever on an endless stream of chatter, creating judgements about everything we do, see, hear and interact with. This bizarre talent we all have for mind noise was, in part, taught to us by our parents. They raised us by asking questions like “which food do you prefer?” or “did you have fun at the park?”, prompting us to judge our experience.
They interpreted our reactions to things and told us when we were bored, excited, sad or afraid, so we learned to apply those judgments too. We witnessed them interact with each other and those around them, watching them judge people, places and things at the drop of a hat.
Judgement has become so normal it feels like second nature. So, it’s only natural that we would apply those judgments to our parents too. The beauty here is that we’ve known them since we were born, which gives us plenty of years to store up a huge list of opinions about them. From the way they told us off for taking our sisters ice cream when we were three, to the eye roll they pulled when you announced your engagement to your husband. We are never short of ammunition when it comes to stored judgements about the people that created us.
On top of that, we spend our lives chasing and seeking connection. Society has taught us that it’s a really bad thing to be alone. The need to form close relationships and bond with others feels desperate at times, especially to our parents. There often seems to be a desire to have a deeper, more meaningful relationship, even when years of resentment have built up. Despite not always being able to imagine another way, we long for a closeness to our parents that we see in films and on TV. When they are there for you no matter what, always inviting you with open arms and saying the “right thing”.
What we fail to realise is that we’ve totally lost responsibility along the way. Never short of blame for our parents, whether focused on the past or how they are now, we become completely blinded by our ideas about who they are. In our eyes, they always fall short of the mark and whether we realise it or not, we make ourselves into a victim. There can be no blame without victimhood.
In allowing ourselves to blame and therefore fall into the victim role, we label ourselves dependent on our parents to feel okay. All while they are not being the people we wish they would be, they hold some power over our state of being. “I would be happier if they would just do this, say that, or stop thinking this” is a common thought.
Taking back responsibility is where life starts to feel better and peace, freedom and fulfilment become visible on the horizon. The realisation that nobody owes you anything, not even your parents, is a liberating one.
Of course, it might be reasonable to assume that they should have taken care of your basic needs when you were little. Feeding you, clothing you and tending to you. However, whether this was your reality or not is now irrelevant. You are now an adult, the past is no longer happening, and it’s your turn to take responsibility for your life and how you feel. That job is no longer assigned to your parents and you can’t travel back to a time when it was.
Whatever stories you’ve been holding on to about your parents, they are nothing more than a huge list of ideas and opinions, totally subjective. Chances are, many of them are inaccurate as well, clouded by your inability to remember things impartially and your habit of attaching an emotional charge to your memories. Your parents have their own set of arbitrary ideas and opinions, some the same as yours and some very different, that they use as a framework for everything they do in life just like you do. The two of you are no different, you are simply two different sets of beliefs using stored ideas about the past to try and navigate the future, rarely remembering to enjoy the present without judgement.
You cling to these sets of beliefs as if they are true, using them to fight the internal battle you have created about your parents. When you open your eyes and realise they are nothing more than ghosts of the past, tinted with all the biases you’ve added on top of them, you realise how easy it would be to have created different judgements and ended up living a totally different narrative.
So it should be pretty clear by now that the way out of any turmoil that you feel surrounding your parents is to unlearn the habit of judgement. This means not only preventing yourself from making new judgements about your parents every time you see and speak to them now, but also dissolving the old judgements you’ve stored about them from the past. You don’t need to hold on to them and carry them around, ready to bring back into the present at the drop of a hat.
The process to do this is a simple one however one that requires dedication and commitment. You are not learning to DO anything new, simply learning NOT to do the same habit you’ve been repeating for an entire lifetime. Unlearning is at the heart of everything we teach at Zen Jungle, and the magic comes from stripping back to basics and learning to simply be, present and aware, residing in the beauty of the present moment.
With practice, you can sit thoughtlessly in the company of your parents, trusting your ability to be thoughtless to prevent judgement from festering. If or when thoughts do arise, your lack of interest in their contents will allow you to stay firmly in the present moment, enjoying the experience of being with your parents without the desire to decide whether you find it tedious, boring or uncomfortable.
In this state, a truly spectacular experience occurs: real connection. This is a feeling unlike anything you will have experienced in your life of judgement and idea creation. When judgement is genuinely absent, the barriers of separation break down and you come to see your parents for who they really are for the first time in your life. All stories and feelings fall away and you can appreciate the wonder of the amazing beings who brought you here to experience the life you have.
Regardless of whether they are on the same journey, you are able to feel this sense of letting go and a deep love greater than anything. Your relationship with them is more than likely to improve and become less tense or irritable, but regardless of the outcome, you will no longer be chasing anything or desiring something specific from them. You are no longer dependent on their approval or actions to feel okay. You are totally free and at peace with how things are.
It really is possible to release yourself from all negativity and lack of acceptance around your parents.
You can be happy and at peace in their presence, undisturbed by their words or actions.
You can be independent and take responsibility for your own joy while building a deeper connection with them.
You can free yourself from reacting to the things they say and do, enjoying the time you spend with them for what it is.
You can be happy, free and at peace permenantly.