A few weeks ago I started to feel a heaviness in my lungs that I was sure was pneumonia. I felt run down and my throat got irritated. I will be so sick in a few days, I thought, but then I wasn’t. I felt fine again. My mom called to tell me she had pneumonia.
I don’t believe anything spookier than coincidence happened here, except that it reminded me of what an intimate connection I still have with a person I don’t usually feel much intimacy or connection with. Her body is still the body that I grew inside. I breathed the oxygen she breathed, was nourished by the food she ate, and completely depended on her liver to clean my blood.
Now we are very separate people. We live in different states; I see her once every two years or so. I often dread talking to her on the phone and have trouble feeling sympathy for her because of things she had done and said in the past. I would never willingly depend on her for anything as important as air.
There’s a meditation practice (metta) that involves repeating kind and loving phrases for different categories of people: yourself, a dear friend, a benefactor, a neutral person, and a difficult person. Sometimes when I do this practice I choose my mother as my difficult person. (Sometimes, though, the teacher reminds us, “Don’t choose someone who is too difficult,” so I choose someone who is easier for me to love than my mother.)
I think it is an important practice. It has shown me how powerful my aversions to other people can be. For example, try for a minute or two to summon warm, loving feelings toward the presidential candidate whose views you most disagree with. Picture their face, and try to direct your fuzziest feelings toward them.
It’s really difficult, right?
We love to love people who are like us and who have the same ideas as us, but we often strongly resist accepting the people who are different from us, who seem to misunderstand us or who don’t treat us the way we want to be treated. Doing this practice has shown me that no matter what I like to think about myself as a kind, accepting person, I often keep my circle of love tightly contracted, willing to include only certain people in it, ready to push others out. It isn’t unconditional love, but love with a lot of attachment and aversion.
This isn’t to say that it’s desirable to try to keep people who have hurt you in your life — not at all. The point in doing this practice isn’t to go against your heart, but just to notice how your heart opens and closes naturally, and to notice who or what your heart can’t accept.
Sometimes my heart can’t accept my mother. She’ll call and I can feel myself resisting answering because often she is angry when she calls. But I have been trying something lately: if I do answer and she is angry, instead of fighting back and resisting, I totally give way. I don’t fight with her anger; instead I try to connect with the pain of it, and to tell her I hear that she is hurting. The few times I’ve been able to do this, it’s like magic: her anger vanishes, and she transforms from being my enemy to being a human being who is obviously in a lot of pain.
At first I had the noble goal of doing this for her, but I have found that I am the one who benefits the most. I let myself feel vulnerable and discover that there really wasn’t anything to defend against. I end up feeling so much better in my mind and body, like everything is softer and more spacious. Even though things don’t feel any more harmonious between us, I feel more harmonious with myself. It just feels better to love than to hate.
Something else I’m going to be trying: to remember that when I am feeling bad, there’s a good chance that she, the person I came from, is feeling bad, too.