Jonathan Delavan shares Buddhist-inspired wisdom and guidance on healing emotional wounds.
A few weeks ago, I published an article titled “Feel Your Wounds Through: A Guide to Emotional Healing.” Reflecting on what I wrote in that article, I realized that although I shared on the awareness of emotional healing, I did not give any specific structure or guidelines by which one could undergo such a process.
While I believe the process of emotional healing is ultimately unique to each individual, I want to share with you one particular concept that I have found to be effective in my journey — that of parenting your inner child.
The psychological concept of one’s “inner child” has been given a bad rap by many “no-nonsense” kind of people who are inherently skeptical of such psycho-mumbo-jumbo. I used to be one of those rational skeptics until I encountered this concept and practice during a week-long intensive a couple of years ago. At that point, while still skeptical about the whole thing, I was also quite desperate to try anything that could help me heal my emotional traumas. So I was at least willing to give it all a try.
By the end of that week, I found the inner child process to be extraordinarily successful, opening emotional currents within me that had been dead for years. I won’t get into the nitty gritty about that specific experience here. However, I will share with you the general process of what it looks like to parent your inner child as structured by Thich Nhat Hanh in one of his more recent books, Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child.
One of the first concepts Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates in this book is that of one’s “living room” and “basement” as metaphors for one’s consciousness and emotional unconsciousness. Essentially, the Buddhist monk explains to his readers that we tend to suppress or deny the strong emotions connected with our past wounds and traumas in our “basements.” There they fester and grow until they storm up into our “living rooms” — like when triggered by a particular event or unpleasant encounter — demanding our attention and making a mess of the place.
The purpose of this emotional healing process is to develop a level of mindfulness where we can actively and compassionately call up such strong emotional hurts from their “basement” dwelling into our “living rooms” so we can address them as the adults we are now rather than as the deeply hurt children we were when they happened. As Thich Nhat Hanh clarifies,
If we can learn not to fear our knots of suffering, we slowly begin to let them circulate up into our living room. We begin to learn how to embrace them and transform them with the energy of mindfulness. When we dismantle the barrier between the basement and the living room, blocks of pain will come up and we will have to suffer a bit. Our inner child may have a lot of fear and anger stored up from being down in the basement for so long. There is no way around it.
Of course, arriving at such a place in your life is far easier said than done. My own initial experiences with my inner child were excruciating and intense to the point of being utterly exhausting — emotionally, cognitively, and even physically. Nevertheless, as Thich Nhat Hanh compassionately admits, it is a suffering we must endure to experience true healing and transformation of our past traumas.
On January 1, 2015, I was in a car accident (what a way to begin the New Year!) Fortunately, neither I nor the other driver were at all physically hurt, but the same could not be said of our cars. After the police showed up to document the accident, they decided that I was the responsible driver liable for the damages. That was the worst news I could possibly receive from the officer that day; not because I got a ticket, or that my insurance rates could skyrocket because of this, but because being held solely liable for something as significant as a car accident (even with no medical injuries) said to me, emotionally, that I was once more being blamed for something by an authority figure.
I unconsciously flashed back to my six year-old self, the one who easily and deeply felt the shame and alienation that came from being condemned by my parents or a teacher for my actions, the one who was blamed when a fight broke out between me and my siblings or peers, the one who was blamed when my sensitive reactions got the better of me regardless of why I had them, the one who felt blamed when my dad would vent his rage towards me verbally and physically. To my inner child, upon hearing this from the police officer (who was just doing his job, nothing more or less), I was once more being blamed in a shameful way.
Over the next few weeks, I fell into a deep depression over this accident. I and my inner child just could not handle the immense shame that it aroused in me to be officially responsible for the accident. I was reliving the shame and hurt I experienced in the past when I was perceivably scapegoated by others, especially by authority figures.
Fast forward several days and I’m still in that deep depression. One late afternoon I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic alone in my rental car with only my depression to keep me company. I was listening through a recently purchased album by Sara Bareilles titled The Blessed Unrest. I typically skipped over one particular song because of its weird name, but I didn’t this time because I was too depressed to care. Thank God I didn’t! That song was Satellite Call, and it was exactly what I needed to hear!
After hearing it through for the first time, I became emotional and teary-eyed over the song. In a stroke of luck, I was able to remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice from his book to invite your inner child to experience moments of sadness and joy with you when they arise. So, utilizing the emotional imaging I developed at the intensive where I’d learned this technique, I invited my six year-old self to sit in the passenger seat and listen to this potent song with me. Before the first verse was over, we were both crying — and I’m talking full-blown sobbing, tears and everything. We must have bawled our eyes out for a solid twenty minutes at least, playing that song over and over the whole time.
After our emotional crying session eventually subsided, my six year old-self finally felt at peace over this, so much so that he ended up “leaving” me without a fuss. I felt that he was even content. And surprisingly enough, I, too, found myself with a new, deep sense of peace. I noticed that my depression was slowly but surely evaporating away like a cold, damp towel finally exposed to warming sunlight. To put it simply: I felt healed!
Fast forward again a couple of weeks and I’m driving my new used car paid for by my insurance replacement check. I felt joy about how all of this finally turned out. What started out as an emotional nightmare ended as an emotional triumph for me. But I wasn’t done. I again remembered the Buddhist’s advice and once again invited my six year-old self to join me in the car. This time, however, I invited him to experience the joy I was feeling driving my new car. I told him in my own way how I was able to do this for the both of us; that he didn’t have to keep living in the past because I am here for him now. I can be the parent he needed back then, now, in the present.
It’s very important to realize that the inner child is still there, caught in the past. We have to rescue him[/her]. Sitting stably, establishing ourselves in the present moment, we have to talk to the child within: “My dear younger brother, my dear younger sister, you should know that we have grown up. We can protect and defend ourselves now.”
Thich Nhat Hanh offers three basic steps that can transform our deep-rooted seeds of suffering –an emotional healing process:
Focus on sowing and watering seeds of happiness. We do not work directly with the seeds of suffering [yet], but instead we allow seeds of happiness to transform them.
Practice mindfulness continuously, so that when seeds of suffering arise, we are able to recognize them. When the seeds are in contact with mindfulness, they will weaken; mindfulness transforms them.
Deliberately invite them up into our mind consciousness. We invite the sadness, despair, regrets, longings that in the past have been difficult for us to touch, and we sit down and talk with them like old friends. But before we invite them up, we must be sure that the lamp of our mindfulness is lit and that its light is steady and strong.
If you would like to learn more about this process, I highly recommend you get a copy of his book. And if you do decide to practice this yourself, I suggest you find a person or support group who you deeply trust that can help you before, during, and after this process.
There you have it, a simple yet powerful guide that you can use for yourself or for someone you love, if you so wish. Let me leave you today with some compassionate words of Thich Nhat Hanh about your inner child:
We can go home to ourselves and talk to our little child, listen to our child, and respond directly to him[/her]. I [Thich Nhat Hanh] myself have done this, even though I received love and care from my parents. This practice has helped me tremendously. The child is still there and may be deeply wounded. We have neglected the child in us for a long time. We have to come back and comfort, love, and care for the child within us.