“It is one thing to be clever and another to be wise.” – George R. R. Martin
Before we get into the nitty gritty about wisdom and parenting the inner child, let’s first define our terms. After looking high and low for a practical definition of wisdom and struggling to find one, my working definition of wisdom is as follows: the ability to determine the best course of action in a given situation, and the wherewithal to follow through with it.
While there are certainly times when the best course of action may be difficult to determine and we may need to do some research, make a list of pros and cons, or take some time for quiet contemplation, most of the time the best course of action is simply a matter of common sense. If we get overweight, the best course of action is to go on a diet; if we get a bill, the best course of action is to pay it right away; if we’re attached to something to the point that it’s having life-damaging consequences (the definition of addiction), the best course of action is to break the addiction.
Since the best course of action is so often obvious, it’s the second part of the definition, the wherewithal to follow through with it, that’s the true test of wisdom. The alternative is to determine the best of course of action and then go and do something else. That’s not wisdom, that’s foolishness, yet we do it all the time. We’re overweight but do nothing about it; we get a bill but don’t pay it until we incur a late fee; we’re addicted to something, but feed the addiction. It’s not only foolish, but depending on what the issue is such as obesity or alcohol or drug addiction, it can be downright life-threatening.
I say all of this not from the mountain of enlightenment, but from the hard knocks that have resulted from bad choices in the face of what I knew ahead of time would have been far better choices. So how do we develop the wherewithal to follow through with what we know is the best course of action?
The answer is parenting the inner child.
Whether or not you believe in the concept of an ‘inner child’ (and no less a Zen Master than Thich Nhat Hanh is a strong proponent of it), we all know that just about every time we set out do something that will require any appreciable effort, our feelings will inevitably scream out, “I don’t want to! I don’t want to! Let’s just do that tomorrow!”
Conversely, any time we are tempted to do something that we know we shouldn’t do, our feelings will cry out, “But I want to! I want to! Do it! Do it! Do it!” Those feelings make up a large part of our inner child.
This is why I believe that parenting our inner child, which is predisposed to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, is one of the greatest skills any human being can develop if they want to successfully do just about anything involving any appreciable effort.
Yet how do we parent the inner child practically?
To answer that question let’s address in turn the two instances where the inner child will do its kicking and screaming as mentioned above.
Getting the inner child to do something it doesn’t want to
This is known in Buddhist circles as aversion. It’s resistance to what we have to do, or what would be the wisest to do.
The first thing to do when parenting our inner child/feelings is to remember our mindfulness and to hold the inner child energy in the field of spacious, non-judgmental, and tenderhearted awareness. We certainly don’t want to criticize our inner child, or shame it into submission. As we saw in the last post, too many of us have gone through that or worse during our upbringing with the result that part of our psyche went underground into the unconscious to hide. Compassion towards our inner child/feelings is a necessary first step in moving forward.
Dialogue with your inner child
While the idea of dialoguing with your own feelings may sound like you’re suffering from a multiple personality disorder, some of the greatest teachers have practiced it, and it’s a known therapy today. Consider the following:
“In each of us, there is a young, suffering child. We have all had times of difficulty as children and many of us have experienced trauma…You can talk directly to the child with the language of love, saying, ‘In the past, I left you alone. I went away from you. Now, I am very sorry. I am going to embrace you.’” – Thich Naht Hahn, Reconciliation: Healing The Inner Child.
Also consider the following: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” – Psalm 43:5
The first instance is from a Zen Buddhism practitioner and is a compassionate expression of love to the wounded/shadow child. The second instance is from the Judeo-Christian tradition where the Psalmist is encouraging himself out of depression.
Dialoguing with the inner child can also be used to induce action. If the best of course of action is to take a walk but your inner child feelings are screaming out to skip it, you can say something along the lines of, “Yeah, I know, I want to skip it too, but think how good it will feel at the end of the walk. So let’s just go.”
The technique of visualizing how good any task will feel when you are done and working towards that can be a powerful incentive for action.
For big tasks use kaizen
Big tasks, like cleaning out a junk room, or even writing a book, can be broken down into tiny increments. There is a Japanese concept called kaizen which is the art of continuous improvement through small steps – essentially, baby steps.
If there’s a big project your inner child is rebelling against, just say, “I know it’s going to take a while, but let’s just work on this for 5 minutes today”. If you do 5 minutes today, 5 or 10 minutes the next day and so on, you’ll make a lot more progress over the course of a month or two, or even a year or two, than if you never started. Plus, more often than not, once the 5 minutes are up, you’ll be on a roll and it turns into much longer anyway.
In many instances it just takes getting past that initial resistance energy that’s the key. Either way, continuous baby steps will certainly get you where you want to go faster than if the baby stayed in the crib.
For small tasks – act before you think
For any small task that pops into your head and can be done right away, act before you think. If you stop and think about it, your inner child will more often than not find an excuse to do it later. So for small tasks, as soon as the task comes into consciousness act before you think! You’ll probably be really glad you did.
Hold the resistance in spacious awareness and do it anyway.
There will be times when no matter how much you work with your inner child energy, it will continue to kick and scream. At times like this, you may just need to hold the resistance in spacious awareness and do the task anyway.
In previous posts I’ve related the story of the raging bull who if left in a small barn will destroy the barn and injure itself, but if taken to an open field will kick and scream but only wear itself out. If my inner child is kicking and screaming and won’t stop, sometimes I just compassionately say to him, “I’m sorry but I need to get this done. You can go out in the field and kick and scream to get it out of your system but I have to do this task.”
Holding a negative feeling in the field of spacious awareness while you get on with your task, especially a task in line with your values, is a technique that is championed in various therapeutic circles such as Morita Therapy in Japan, and Action and Commitment Therapy in the West.
As I mentioned above, what’s interesting, and I’m sure we can all relate to this, is that once we actually get started with whatever we’ve been resisting, the resistance drops away, and we get absorbed with what we’re doing. Either way, we’ve followed through with the wisest course of action.
Getting the inner child not to do something it wants to do
This is the flip-side of the aversion coin and is known in Buddhist circles as grasping –when the inner child is desperate to do something we know is not the best course of action.
If, according to the first part of the definition of wisdom, we have figured out that the best course of action is to refrain from doing something, like eating a big piece of chocolate cake while we’re on a diet, then we have to parent the inner child about the pitfalls of grasping and giving in.
The aim here is to be the opposite of Oscar Wilde who said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
The first thing to do is to remind the inner child of the second and third Nobble Truths – suffering comes from attachment to desire, and suffering is alleviated by detachment from desire. Additionally, if we give in to temptation, it will often lead to shame or even worse suffering.
Depending on what it is that you’re being tempted by, giving in can have dire consequences. If you’re trying to avoid a chocolate cake on a diet, you will likely feel upset you gave in, and feel far worse than if you had avoided it. That’s bad enough, but eating a piece of cake won’t be the end of the world. If you’re tempted to cheat on your spouse, however, giving in may very well be the end of your world as you know it.
So when you’ve determined that not doing something is the wisest course of action, remember that while it may feel a little disappointing to say no now, it will be far less painful than the suffering that will result by giving in. Remember, suffering is alleviated by detachment from desire so let go, let go, let go.
There’s a concept in mindfulness called ‘surfing the urge’. This is based on the fact that all feelings are transitory. Frustration is transitory, anger is transitory, sadness is transitory. The desire of temptation is also transitory. So one practice is to sit with the desire and ride it out since desires usually last no longer than 15 to 30 minutes tops.
When sitting or surfing, we can quiet ourselves and say, “Ah, so that is what desire feels like” or “Ah, so this is what temptation feels like.” This would also be a great time for meditation by following the breath or we can simply continue observing the desire. What does it feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? What thoughts are associated with it?
You can also imagine that the desire is an actual ocean wave and just follow it as it peaks like a wave, then dissipates like a wave. You can do this for as long as it takes until the wave reaches the shore and is spent.
If you’re doing inner child work, you can visualize your inner child wracked with whatever desire it has at the moment and just sit with him or her, which for me at least, gives rise to a sense of compassion as I see him struggling to say no.
Let the child rant
Sometimes, as with the case of anger, or a particularly strong temptation, I will sit at the computer and just give the desire/emotion an unfettered voice. It’s as if someone asked you, “How are you feeling, and be honest. Don’t hold anything back.” This is what you’re asking your inner child/feelings.
I have to tell you, I’ve written some real doozies when I’m angry or am struggling with some kind of strong desire because I don’t hold back anything. I just write and write and write, but rather than a stream of consciousness coming from the mind, I just let the inner child pour absolutely everything out of the deepest and darkest part of my heart with no holds barred. Nobody is going to see it anyway (as long as you remember to get rid of it at the end!) so just go for it. It doesn’t matter how bad or dark it is – just unleash it. Usually after one of these rages-on-paper the bull will have worn itself out in the field of awareness and I can get on with my business.
Hold the desire in spacious awareness and do something else
Just like with aversion, if you’re really struggling to let a desire go, and nothing else is working, give that desire room by holding it in spacious awareness and focus on something else, ideally something in line with your values, but anything that isn’t life-damaging will do. Take a walk, phone a friend, go to a movie. Here again time will pass and more than likely the desire will have passed as well because you’ve focused on something else.
When we fall short
If after all is said and done we have not followed through with the wisest course of action because we either didn’t do what we should have, or did do what we shouldn’t have, the number one priority is to be compassionate with ourselves. This may sound contrary to what our parents or society have said or taught us, or what our own personal practice has been where we try to shame and berate ourselves to improve, but studies having indicated that we do far far better in the long run by showing ourselves compassion when we fall short of a goal than if we berate ourselves.
Self-compassion is without a doubt a key factor for long-term success. We are all mere mortals and we will all at some point inevitably fall short (and probably repeatedly!). So let’s be kind to ourselves in the same way we would be kind to a friend or loved one.
Remember, even if we are taking three steps forward and two steps back, guess what? We’re still moving forward and making far more progress than if we throw in the towel and quit.
Getting the inner child to do something it doesn’t want to
- Mindfulness: hold the child in spacious, non-judgmental, and tender-hearted awareness.
- Dialogue with your inner child: remind him or her of how good it will feel when the task is done and work towards that.
- For big tasks use kaizen (baby steps).
- For small tasks – act before you think!
- Hold the resistance in spacious awareness and do the task anyway.
Getting the inner child not to do something it wants to do
- Remind your inner child that giving in to temptation will be worse than refraining, and that suffering is alleviated by detachment from desires so let go, let go, let go.
- Surf the urge: sit with the urge and/or meditate through it visualizing it as an ocean wave as it peaks and falls keeping in mind that urges usually just last 15 to 30 minutes max.
- Let the child rant: give it an unfettered voice on paper and let it say all the things you would never want anyone else to hear (just remember to destroy the page .afterwards!).
- Hold the desire in spacious awareness and do something else, ideally something in line with your values, but anything that isn’t life-damaging and takes your mind off your desire will do.
When we fall short
Self-compassion! Self-compassion! Self-compassion!
That’s all for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.