Healing the Child Within
cry we hear from deep in our hearts, says Thich Nhat Hanh, comes from
the wounded child within. Healing this inner child’s pain is the key to
transforming anger, sadness, and fear.
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. To
protect and defend ourselves against future suffering, we often try to
forget those painful times. Every time we’re in touch with the
experience of suffering, we believe we can’t bear it, and we stuff our
feelings and memories deep down in our unconscious mind. It may be that
we haven’t dared to face this child for many decades.
just because we may have ignored the child doesn’t mean she or he isn’t
there. The wounded child is always there, trying to get our attention.
The child says, “I’m here. I’m here. You can’t avoid me. You can’t run
away from me.” We want to end our suffering by sending the child to a
deep place inside, and staying as far away as possible. But running away
doesn’t end our suffering; it only prolongs it.
wounded child asks for care and love, but we do the opposite. We run
away because we’re afraid of suffering. The block of pain and sorrow in
us feels overwhelming. Even if we have time, we don’t come home to
ourselves. We try to keep ourselves constantly entertained—watching
television or movies, socializing, or using alcohol or drugs—because we
don’t want to experience that suffering all over again.
wounded child is there and we don’t even know she is there. The wounded
child in us is a reality, but we can’t see her. That inability to see
is a kind of ignorance. This child has been severely wounded. She or he
really needs us to return. Instead we turn away.
is in each cell of our body and our consciousness. It’s like a drop of
ink diffused in a glass of water. That ignorance stops us from seeing
reality; it pushes us to do foolish things that make us suffer even more
and wound again the already-wounded child in us.
wounded child is also in each cell of our body. There is no cell of our
body that does not have that wounded child in it. We don’t have to look
far into the past for that child. We only have to look deeply and we
can be in touch with him. The suffering of that wounded child is lying
inside us right now in the present moment.
just as the suffering is present in every cell of our body, so are the
seeds of awakened understanding and happiness handed down to us from our
ancestors. We just have to use them. We have a lamp inside us, the lamp
of mindfulness, which we can light anytime. The oil of that lamp is our
breathing, our steps, and our peaceful smile. We have to light up that
lamp of mindfulness so the light will shine out and the darkness will
dissipate and cease. Our practice is to light up the lamp.
we become aware that we’ve forgotten the wounded child in ourselves, we
feel great compassion for that child and we begin to generate the
energy of mindfulness. The practices of mindful walking, mindful
sitting, and mindful breathing are our foundation. With our mindful
breath and mindful steps, we can produce the energy of mindfulness and
return to the awakened wisdom lying in each cell of our body. That
energy will embrace us and heal us, and will heal the wounded child in
we speak of listening with compassion, we usually think of listening to
someone else. But we must also listen to the wounded child inside us.
Sometimes the wounded child in us needs all our attention. That little
child might emerge from the depths of your consciousness and ask for
your attention. If you are mindful, you will hear his or her voice
calling for help. At that moment, instead of paying attention to
whatever is in front of you, go back and tenderly embrace the wounded
child. 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.” You can say, “Darling, I am here
for you. I will take good care of you. I know you suffer so much. I
have been so busy. I have neglected you, and now I have learned a way to
come back to you.” If necessary, you have to cry together with that
child. Whenever you need to, you can sit and breathe with the child.
“Breathing in, I go back to my wounded child; breathing out, I take good
care of my wounded child.”
have to talk to your child several times a day. Only then can healing
take place. Embracing your child tenderly, you reassure him that you
will never let him down again or leave him unattended. The little child
has been left alone for so long. That is why you need to begin this
practice right away. If you don’t do it now, when will you do it?
you know how to go back to her and listen carefully every day for five
or ten minutes, healing will take place. When you climb a beautiful
mountain, invite your child within to climb with you. When you
contemplate the sunset, invite her to enjoy it with you. If you do that
for a few weeks or a few months, the wounded child in you will
practice, we can see that our wounded child is not only us. Our wounded
child may represent several generations. Our mother may have suffered
throughout her life. Our father may have suffered. Perhaps our parents
weren’t able to look after the wounded child in themselves. So when
we’re embracing the wounded child in us, we’re embracing all the wounded
children of our past generations. This practice is not a practice for
ourselves alone, but for numberless generations of ancestors and
ancestors may not have known how to care for their wounded child
within, so they transmitted their wounded child to us. Our practice is
to end this cycle. If we can heal our wounded child, we will not only
liberate ourselves, but we will also help liberate whoever has hurt or
abused us. The abuser may also have been the victim of abuse. There are
people who have practiced with their inner child for a long time who
have had a lessening of their suffering and have experienced
transformation. Their relationships with their family and friends have
become much easier.
suffer because we have not been touched by compassion and
understanding. If we generate the energy of mindfulness, understanding,
and compassion for our wounded child, we will suffer much less. When we
generate mindfulness, compassion and understanding become possible, and
we can allow people to love us. Before, we may have been suspicious of
everything and everyone. Compassion helps us relate to others and
restore communication. The people around us, our family and friends, may
also have a severely wounded child inside. If we’ve managed to help
ourselves, we can also help them. When we’ve healed ourselves, our
relationships with others become much easier. There’s more peace and
more love in us.
back and take care of yourself. Your body needs you, your feelings need
you, your perceptions need you. The wounded child in you needs you.
Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it. Go home and be there for all
these things. Practice mindful walking and mindful breathing. Do
everything in mindfulness so you can really be there, so you can love.
The Energy of Mindfulness
The energy of mindfulness is the salve that will recognize and heal the child within. But how do we cultivate this energy?
psychology divides consciousness into two parts. One part is mind
consciousness and the other is store consciousness. Mind consciousness
is our active awareness. Western psychology calls it “the conscious
mind.” To cultivate the energy of mindfulness, we try to engage our
active awareness in all our activities and be truly present with
whatever we are doing. We want to be mindful as we drink our tea or
drive through the city. When we walk, we want to be aware that we are
walking. When we breathe, we want to be aware that we are breathing.
consciousness, also called root consciousness, is the base of our
consciousness. In Western psychology it’s called “the unconscious mind.”
It’s where all our past experiences are stored. Store consciousness has
the capacity to learn and to process information.
our mind is not there with our body. Sometimes we go through our daily
activities without mind consciousness being involved at all. We can do
many things by means of store consciousness alone, and mind
consciousness can be thinking of a thousand other things. For example,
when we drive our car through the city, mind consciousness may not be
thinking about driving at all, but we can still reach our destination
without getting lost or having an accident. That is store consciousness
operating on its own.
is like a house in which the basement is our store consciousness and
the living room is our mind consciousness. Mental formations like anger,
sorrow, or joy, rest in the store consciousness in the form of seeds (bija).
We have a seed of anger, despair, discrimination, fear, a seed of
mindfulness, compassion, a seed of understanding, and so on. Store
consciousness is made of the totality of the seeds, and it is also the
soil that preserves and maintains all the seeds. The seeds stay there
until we hear, see, read, or think of something that touches a seed and
makes us feel the anger, joy, or sorrow. This is a seed coming up and
manifesting on the level of mind consciousness, in our living room. Now
we no longer call it a seed, but a mental formation.
someone touches the seed of anger by saying something or doing
something that upsets us, that seed of anger will come up and manifest
in mind consciousness as the mental formation (cittasamskara)
of anger. The word “formation” is a Buddhist term for something that’s
created by many conditions coming together. A marker pen is a formation;
my hand, a flower, a table, a house, are all formations. A house is a
physical formation. My hand is a physiological formation. My anger is a
mental formation. In Buddhist psychology we speak about fifty-one
varieties of seeds that can manifest as fifty-one mental formations.
Anger is just one of them. In store consciousness, anger is called a
seed. In mind consciousness, it’s called a mental formation.
a seed, say the seed of anger, comes up into our living room and
manifests as a mental formation, the first thing we can do is to touch
the seed of mindfulness and invite it to come up too. Now we have two
mental formations in the living room. This is mindfulness of anger.
Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. When we breathe
mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing. When we walk mindfully,
that is mindfulness of walking. When we eat mindfully, that’s
mindfulness of eating. So in this case, mindfulness is mindfulness of
anger. Mindfulness recognizes and embraces anger.
practice is based on the insight of nonduality—anger is not an enemy.
Both mindfulness and anger are ourselves. Mindfulness is there not to
suppress or fight against anger, but to recognize and take care of
it—like a big brother helping a younger brother. So the energy of anger
is recognized and embraced tenderly by the energy of mindfulness.
time we need the energy of mindfulness, we just touch that seed with
our mindful breathing, mindful walking, smiling, and then we have the
energy ready to do the work of recognizing, embracing, and later on
looking deeply and transforming. Whatever we’re doing, whether it’s
cooking, sweeping, washing, walking, being aware of our breathing, we
can continue to generate the energy of mindfulness, and the seed of
mindfulness in us will become strong. Within the seed of mindfulness is
the seed of concentration. With these two energies, we can liberate
ourselves from afflictions.
The Mind Needs Good Circulation
know there are toxins in our body. If our blood doesn’t circulate well,
these toxins accumulate. In order to remain healthy, our body works to
expel the toxins. When the blood circulates well, the kidneys and the
liver can do their job to dispel toxins. We can use massage to help the
blood circulate better.
consciousness, too, may be in a state of bad circulation. We may have a
block of suffering, pain, sorrow, or despair in us; it’s like a toxin
in our consciousness. We call this an internal formation or internal
knot. Embracing our pain and sorrow with the energy of mindfulness is
the practice of massaging our consciousness. When the blood doesn’t
circulate well, our organs can’t function properly, and we get sick.
When our psyche doesn’t circulate well, our mind will become sick.
Mindfulness stimulates and accelerates circulation throughout blocks of
Occupying the Living Room
blocks of pain, sorrow, anger, and despair always want to come up into
our mind consciousness, into our living room, because they’ve grown big
and need our attention. They want to emerge, but we don’t want these
uninvited guests to come up because they’re painful to look at. So we
try to block their way. We want them to stay asleep down in the
basement. We don’t want to face them, so our habit is to fill the living
room with other guests. Whenever we have ten or fifteen minutes of free
time, we do anything we can to keep our living room occupied. We call a
friend. We pick up a book. We turn on the television. We go for a
drive. We hope that if the living room is occupied, these unpleasant
mental formations will not come up.
all mental formations need to circulate. If we don’t let them come up,
it creates bad circulation in our psyche, and symptoms of mental illness
and depression begin to manifest in our mind and body.
when we have a headache, we take aspirin, but our headache doesn’t go
away. Sometimes this kind of headache can be a symptom of mental
illness. Perhaps we have allergies. We think it’s a physical problem,
but allergies can also be a symptom of mental illness. We are advised by
doctors to take drugs, but sometimes these will continue to suppress
our internal formations, making our sickness worse.
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 to avoid it.
is why the practice of mindfulness is so important. If mindfulness is
not there, it is very unpleasant to have these seeds come up. But if we
know how to generate the energy of mindfulness, it’s very healing to
invite them up every day and embrace them. Mindfulness is a strong
source of energy that can recognize, embrace, and take care of these
negative energies. Perhaps these seeds don’t want to come up at first,
perhaps there’s too much fear and distrust, so we may have to coax them a
bit. After being embraced for some time, a strong emotion will return
to the basement and become a seed again, weaker than before.
time you give your internal formations a bath of mindfulness, the
blocks of pain in you become lighter. So give your anger, your despair,
your fear, a bath of mindfulness every day. After several days or weeks
of bringing them up daily and helping them go back down again, you
create good circulation in your psyche.
The Function of Mindfulness
first function of mindfulness is to recognize and not to fight. We can
stop at any time and become aware of the child within us. When we
recognize the wounded child for the first time, all we need to do is be
aware of him or her and say hello. That’s all. Perhaps this child is
sad. If we notice this we can just breathe in and say to ourselves,
“Breathing in, I know that sorrow has manifested in me. Hello, my
sorrow. Breathing out, I will take good care of you.”
we have recognized our inner child, the second function of mindfulness
is to embrace him or her. This is a very pleasant practice. Instead of
fighting our emotions, we are taking good care of ourselves. Mindfulness
brings with her an ally—concentration. The first few minutes of
recognizing and embracing our inner child with tenderness will bring
some relief. The difficult emotions will still be there, but we won’t
suffer as much anymore.
recognizing and embracing our inner child, the third function of
mindfulness is to soothe and relieve our difficult emotions. Just by
holding this child gently, we are soothing our difficult emotions and we
can begin to feel at ease. When we embrace our strong emotions with
mindfulness and concentration, we’ll be able to see the roots of these
mental formations. We’ll know where our suffering has come from. When we
see the roots of things, our suffering will lessen. So mindfulness
recognizes, embraces, and relieves.
energy of mindfulness contains the energy of concentration as well as
the energy of insight. Concentration helps us focus on just one thing.
With concentration, the energy of looking becomes more powerful and
insight is possible. Insight always has the power of liberating us. If
mindfulness is there, and we know how to keep mindfulness alive,
concentration will be there, too. And if we know how to keep
concentration alive, insight will also come. The energy of mindfulness
enables us to look deeply and gain the insight we need so that
transformation is possible.
Adapted from Reconciliation: Healing The Inner Child (2010) by Thich Nhat Hanh, with permission from Parallax Press, Berkeley, California. www.parallax.org
RELATED SHAMBHALASUN.COM SPOTLIGHT:
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen teacher, poet, the founder
of the Engaged Buddhist movement, and the author of more than forty books.
The Shambhala Sun offers the best selection of his
teachings and commentaries available on the web.