Host Scott Snibbe offers a touching personal talk and meditation on how to best love our parents and our children using powerful Buddhist teachings and techniques on understanding, listening, and compassion.
Today I want to share a powerful, almost magical technique that I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh on skillfully relating to our parents and our children through understanding.
The technique is simple and uses the power of nonjudgmental listening with our full attention to make those close to us feel understood and truly loved and accepted.
I gave this talk on Father’s Day at San Francisco’s Tse Chen Ling meditation center, where I talked about the problems I’ve had as a father, with my father and mother, and some of the moments when techniques of mindful understanding brought us closer and healed some deep wounds.
I really appreciate the invitation to talk here at Tse Chen Ling and I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic of how we can best love our parents and our kids. We all have parents and many of us have kids. So hopefully it’s relevant to you.
This word love is really hard to pin down. I think all of us who follow this Buddhist tradition or are curious about it, the word has a different meaning from the Buddhist perspective. When we think, on the conventional level about love, loving a parent can mean respecting them or feeling safe and protected by them or taking care of them, especially as they get older. And loving a child can mean setting strong boundaries for them, of course. Or letting them make their own mistakes. Or being more of an authority than a playful friend.
So the Buddhist definition of love is much simpler. For those of us who know it, it’s almost a relief to have such a simple definition of love, which is wishing others to be happy. And we often cultivate this in meditation. So in meditation we can feel quite blissful cultivating this loving thought towards our family and our kids and many other people.
But then the challenge is when we come out of the meditation, isn’t it? Because when we come out of the meditation, how do we express that love that we might’ve felt all by ourselves on the cushion when we use our words and our actions, as we interact with them. And so I haven’t found a manual for how to love in a practical way, day to day.
Certainly from the Buddhist perspective, it doesn’t get down to that nitty gritty. I think it’s different for every culture and every time. And so we each have to figure this out for ourselves somehow. And also each individual person that we love may need to be loved in a slightly different way.
So today I wanted to talk about one technique for loving our parents and our kids that’s actually been working for me recently. Maybe surprisingly, sometimes, you know, not everything works. It’s something that I stumbled across in certain types of therapy and also in Nonviolent Communication, which is a system that Marshall Rosenberg invented some time ago. I bet some of you know about it.
But most particularly, and especially in a beautiful and inspiring two paragraph story by Thich Nhat Hanh that I want to tell you about in a little bit where he gives one of the simplest and the most profound teachings on how to love the people that we’re close to in life.
I’ll get to that in a little bit.
So how many of you have had a difficult relationship with your parents at one time or another? My guess is everybody’s hands probably go up. And how many of you, if you have children, how many of you have had a difficult relationship with your child at one time or another? Of course.
So I’ve had plenty of difficult times myself and I wanted to share a couple of stories of this simple way of listening and loving that’s brought me closer to my father and my mother and my daughter. We have one child. I have a daughter.
So I’m going to start out with a painful story. And I actually haven’t ever talked about this publicly, so I’m talking about my mother a little bit. She won’t hear this. She doesn’t really watch much media like this. But my mother has some kind of a mental illness that she’s had on and off for years in which she stops talking to most of the family.
And she chooses only one of her children as a confidant. And I was my mother’s confidant for many years and my brother was locked out. It’s an exclusive agreement somehow. And she locked out my aunt and my uncle, everyone, actually, all our living relatives, except for me for a little while, was the only person she talked to.
And of course, this broke my brother’s heart and my aunt’s and uncle’s too. They all love her. And I tried to convince my mother to open up to my brother and to her brother and sister and so on, but she has some kind of a paranoia that’s convinced her that all of these people were out to get her in some devious ways, like tapping her phone and sending harassing emails. She even thought they were able to beam thoughts into her head.
And of course, none of these things are actually true. Unfortunately for me, my mother’s allegiance flipped about four years ago so that she would only talk to my brother and then she no longer talked to me. So my brother was relieved. He was happy to get to talk to her for a little while.
But now I was heartbroken. And for four years I must’ve left my mother and maybe a couple hundred polite voice messages on the phone. Sending some cards and pictures, but nothing worked. And it got to the point that I’d more or less given up and I stopped calling her.
Gradually I started to think about my mother mostly in the past tense, the way you’d even think about someone who died. And I realized that she was in that category of person inside my head. Pretty hopeless. I’m a pretty optimistic person, but this was one of the areas I genuinely felt hopeless about.
So then I was shocked when a couple of days after Christmas last year, my phone rang while I was in line at the grocery store. And I saw it was my mother. And, in some ways I didn’t want to take the call because it was in this busy grocery store, but also I didn’t want to miss it.
So I answered it and she spoke in this completely normal tone of voice to me. It had been four years since we’d spoken. She didn’t say anything about why we hadn’t been talking, but she just said we had a lot to catch up. I was nervous to hang up on her, but I said, listen, I’m going to check out my groceries. I want to call you in an hour from home. And luckily she did answer at that time. So we spoke more at length and I took really great pains not to say anything that might set her off. I didn’t ask why we hadn’t talked. I didn’t quiz her about what she’d been up to. I definitely didn’t get angry at her for what she’d done.
And she mostly talked about French films, actually, she’d been enjoying on Netflix. I was most of our conversation. And I just kept asking her tell me more about that. What are these films? Why do you enjoy them then? Then towards the end, it was really funny because she said that I didn’t call her enough, which was funniest. She told me that she used to call her mother every two weeks and then I should do the same. And so I said, absolutely no problem. I’ll call you every two weeks. I’ll call you every week if you want. And that has sustained; it was a little fragile. I was worried when it might end, but that’s continued.
And this is the part of the story I actually really wanted to tell you about, this is what’s relevant, is that the other day, my mother and I were talking in one of our bi-weekly calls. And all of a sudden she started getting really angry. She veered off into this angry tirade about all the rest of the family. She was, really trashing them, saying awful things about them, obviously out of, mental illness. She told me all about her delusions, how all of these family members were abusing her, making prank calls and letters and emails, and it went on and on until slights made at weddings and funerals for dozens of years: this huge list of wrongs going back for at least half of my life. It didn’t make much sense.
But I could hear her getting really worked up on the phone line. And you probably know that feeling of hearing someone coming to tears on the other side of a phone. I was getting really worried for her and also worried that this might be the end of our renewed relationship.
And so at the end of this long blast, she had this really defiant tone and she said to me, “What do you think of that?” You know that kind of confrontational way of talking, almost like starting a fight. And it was almost as if she was expecting me to contradict her or to reason with her or something.
And I’ll admit that’s actually a habit that I often have is to try to reason with people when they’re upset. And you probably have noticed that doesn’t tend to land all that well with people when they’re upset, trying to convince them that they’re wrong, even if you do it in a nice way, “Oh, things are fine.” It doesn’t tend to land very well.
So anyway, here’s what I did. I paused for a moment. And then I remembered this trick that I’d learned many times over and over, but I was rarely able to apply.
And so in response to my mother saying, “What do you think about that?” What I came up to say was- you know, all of a sudden just came to my mind. I said, “I think that’s completely reasonable.”
And instantly my mother burst out laughing. It was really amazing. It was as if she knew what she’d said was completely unreasonable. And her mood instantly flipped after that. She just let go of everything she had been yelling about. And she was suddenly just warm and affectionate, still laughing. She let go of that whole long tirade and then went back to sharing what was going on with her and asking about me and my family. It was a great call.
I realized what my mother needed at that moment wasn’t a lecture, but was understanding. And it really worked. It really worked in that situation. I was shocked; I was really shocked how well it worked. I wasn’t sure it was going to work.
I’m sure a lot of you watch movies and TV series now. And I’ve noticed, I bet you’ve noticed too, that in many movies, there’s often a big confrontation scene where one of the two main characters basically lectures and humiliates the other person.
The person lectured then gets really angry; it could be a romantic couple or friends or family members. The person being lectured gets really angry. And then they split apart. And then eventually the person being lectured comes back finally after learning their lesson comes back all contrite and says, “You were right.”
And they change their ways. And whatever that broken relationship was- the romantic or family or friend- it’s all fixed through this cycle of getting lectured and humiliated, admitting your failing, and then coming back contrite. But has lecturing ever really worked for any of you as a way to heal a relationship? It hasn’t for me.
And it makes me really sad that movies so often show this way of working through relationships: effectively humiliation, lecturing as a way of getting your point across. Because of course these scenes, they’re dramatic and they’re riveting scenes. And they’re often accompanied by physical gestures like, you know, a guy punching his fist through a wall or a woman throwing the dishes. But in real life, when someone does something like that, it’s actually really scary, isn’t it? It’s scary to see someone lose control of their emotions so much that they lash out in violence, even if it’s just at a wall or a teacup. And it makes you scared for yourself and for the people around you.
I particularly remember a friend in college whose boyfriend smashed a wall one night at a party. And she broke up with him the next day, which is, I think it was a much more reasonable response. She had a quite reasonable fear that the wall might be her the next time he got angry.
And so this comes to the story that I wanted to share from Thich Nhat Hanh. Many of you may have read this book, it’s from quite some time ago, but Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful book called Peace is Every Step. And there’s a tiny story in it called “Blaming Never Helps.” It’s two paragraphs. I’m actually going to share most of it with you over the next few minutes. But here’s what Thich Nhat Hanh recommends instead of blaming or lecturing.
“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love and the situation will change.”– Thich Nhat Hanh
So what’s unique about so many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings is that he doesn’t always use traditional Buddhist language, like even the word compassion. Of course he does sometimes, but he didn’t in this case. But he finds modern, skillful, specific ways of re-imagining the Buddhist teachings. So I’ve never heard “understanding” in any of our numbered lists of Buddhist good qualities, but you can see how understanding could be one of the most powerful, practical vehicles of compassion.
And so I wanted to share a story from the other side. I guess this is the Father’s Day story because it’s about my father. So I remember being on the other side of this kind of exchange- not the angry movie exchange, but the understanding exchange -when I was in my twenties. Although I was acting like the angry movie guy.
I had this intense phone call with my father where I finally burst out with a long list of things I was angry at him for. And I don’t need to go into them. You can likely imagine things you, or people like you have been angry at their dads for. I’d never done this before with my dad. When I was younger, I was scared of my dad. And so I wouldn’t bring up things like that, of course. And then as I grew up into my early twenties, I felt resentful and I just ignored him or acted out sometimes in annoying ways.
But now I had this call where I wanted to list out each of my grievances to my dad. And my father listened. And when I paused, my father would say things like, “I can see you’re really upset about this.” Or I remember him saying, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” That was really interesting that he actually invited me to keep talking.
And I did have more things that I wanted to tell my dad and he kept letting me speak. And he listened without judgment. He didn’t try to explain himself. And he didn’t even apologize, which is interesting. But he did keep this lightly reflecting and empathizing and letting me go on. He just let me say whatever I had to say. And it took a while until I exhausted myself.
And I exhausted myself not in the sense of getting tired, but just that I ran out of things to say. I got through my list, that long list of painful memories. And all the while, my father just simply accepted what I had to say without defending himself.
And it was there in his listening that I saw that my father had so much love for me. And that love that we talk about in Buddhism: just the simple affection and wish for me to be happy. Like I saw that he had that for me. And that, at that moment, listening was his way of giving me love in that moment.
And then even though he didn’t apologize, which is, I think is really important. I saw that it might be possible to accept my father for who he is with his strengths and with his shortcomings, just to accept him for who he is; to realize that he expresses his love in his own way, to appreciate him for that.
And toward the end, when there was more space in our conversation, my father did explain a little, by gently saying, “I’m a different person now.”
And I saw that he was. You know, I was able to hear, finally at that moment, after all that space, letting me talk, letting me feel understood without argument or judgment, I could see that was true, that he was a different person now. And that I was angry at an earlier father from the past who didn’t exist anymore, about events that were in the past. And that we now had a chance to begin a new relationship for the rest of our life.
It really impressed me how my father was able to heal our relationship in that simple way. And I think it’s that same way that Thich Nhat Hanh recommends, simply by understanding.
So in the other part of his short story, Thich Nhat Hanh says this:
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it’s not doing well. It may need fertilizer or more water or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well like lettuce.”
Thich Nhat Hanh is really into gardening, as you may know. And this thought has really stuck with me. My father treated me with such kindness and understanding on the day that he listened to all my complaints without judging and just understanding that my feelings had a cause. He was part of that cause, he was one of those causes. And that he needn’t blame me for my feelings or defend himself against them.
And, magically, I was able to apply that same type of understanding to my mother a few weeks ago, with that story I shared in the beginning, in that astonishing phone call.
So I started to think that this technique might also work well with our daughter. And I began to try it out.
So one morning our daughter was upset that she had a very long day at school for a play rehearsal. This was recently, and she said, “I don’t want to stay at school until 5:30.” She had like an eight or nine hour day. And so she was angry. She seemed afraid, a little bit afraid of that long day.
And of course with COVID, everyone’s a little stressed out. She was on the verge of tears. And so all I did was I said back to her, “You don’t want to stay at school until 5:30.” And then she nodded, and it was almost like she was instantly pacified. She just sat down to finish her breakfast. That’s all we said.
Then a few minutes later when she finished her breakfast, she just quietly went off to prepare for school, packed her backpack and went out the door with my wife.
It’s so amazing how sometimes less is more, as you’ve heard that phrase. So similarly, one morning I said back to my daughter. “You don’t want to do the laundry.” After she told me she didn’t want to do the laundry, whining about this chore on a Saturday morning. And she nodded her head. And then I just wrapped my arm around my daughter’s shoulder. And without saying anything else, we just walked together to the washing machine. We just calmly loaded up the laundry without saying anything else.
So I was thinking, Oh, this technique, it seems to be effective sometimes.
And then again, another day that following week, our daughter whined that she didn’t want to make her lunch. “I don’t want to make my lunch.” And I just said back to her, “You don’t want to make your lunch.” After I said that, I handed her bread. I handed her cheese and mayonnaise. And then she quietly put together her sandwich. I was really satisfied, obviously, in these moments, it was nice that they worked.
And hearing parenting- I want to acknowledge for parents out there that hearing parenting advice like this can sometimes be annoying. Because it can sound a little too good to be true. And of course it doesn’t always work and every kid is different. So what works for me may not work for you.
But these moments really delighted me. And they gave me this chance to try that practical application of compassion as understanding that Thich Nhat Hanh writes about. And also, as a side note, I’ve noticed when other people do this for me, how happy it makes me and how understood I feel.
So the last little piece of Thich Nhat Hanh’s story is about an eight-year-old girl that he overheard talking to her mother after this lecture about not blaming the lettuce for growing poorly.
So Thich Nhat Hanh, I guess he was out there. I don’t know how you don’t notice Thich Nhat Hanh, but he is quite stealthy. So he heard this girl saying to her mother, “Mommy, remember to water me. I am your lettuce.” And it brought tears to my eyes, it’s so sweet.
It’s always great when the kids are really articulate like that, and they give you a little wisdom: that beautiful idea that we’re each driven by cause and effect, that we each have reasons for what we do. And that if we can apply skill in not blaming each other for our shortcomings, but instead trying to understand each other, maybe that’s all we need to feel loved and to become our best selves. That’s what Thich Nhat Hanh says.
Thich Nhat Hanh actually overheard the next part too. The mother said something back to her daughter, her daughter’s request to be watered rather than blamed or lectured. And that’s the last part of his tiny story.
So the mother then says back to the daughter, “Yes, my daughter. And I am your lettuce also. So please don’t forget to water me too.”
And that was very sweet, right? To realize that this exchange goes two ways between parent and child. So maybe that’s actually a nice time to end, with that idea of watering each other through our understanding rather than blaming each other.
I had an idea for a simple meditation on compassion based on this method of understanding, of compassion through listening, letting go of any opinion that I want to assert in an exchange.
In one of the nonviolent communication workshops I took, they suggested that the most powerful way to listen is to listen with your full attention, to listen so deeply that you think of nothing else, but what the person in front of you is saying until they stop talking.
You give up thinking about an answer, a response, a suggestion, a defense, and just give your single pointed focus to that person. The idea, that’s what they say, is that focus alone may be enough to show that you care; you know, with the occasional reflecting and empathizing when they finally do pause.
And it’s hard for people to do that. It’s hard for me to do that. I have a friend who does this very naturally. And it’s so satisfying to be heard so deeply like this. And then it’s fascinating, but also a little disconcerting, what happens when I stopped talking. Because it’s just silence. She’d been listening so closely that she just doesn’t say anything after I stop talking, before she starts thinking about what to say in response. It’s very beautiful.
So why don’t we try to do a meditation. Because, you know, they say that studying something has limited impact on your mind and on your behavior. And contemplating has a little bit more impact, where you keep thinking about it later. But then the most impact comes out of meditating on the topic.
So this is a very short meditation. I doubt it’ll be more than five or 10 minutes, but let’s try it together. It’s specifically this meditation on compassion through understanding.
Wherever you are, get into a meditation posture. It can be cross-legged on the floor or, straight back and straight legs in a chair. And you can put your hands in your lap with the palms up. Or you can put your hands on your knees, if you like. And then your eyes half closed can support the meditation a lot, if that feels comfortable, but you can put your eyes, however you like if that’s not comfortable. And then tilt your neck slightly, it helps remove that little bend in the back of your neck. If you know, any other points to meditation posture, you can do those too.
And then for one minute, we’ll start out just by focusing on the breath. You can focus on the air flowing in and out of your nostrils or with the rise and fall of your abdomen. And even in one minute, distractions will come. So just let them pass by. Don’t fight or argue with your distractions either. Understand them, accept them and just let them pass by without pulling them close or pushing them away.
So just one minute together, quietly on the breath.
And then let’s set a motivation to meditate in order to bring about a practical form of compassion for the people close to us, like our parents and our children through deeply listening and understanding.
If it’s possible, let’s not do this exercise mildly, but try now and think of a big conflict you have with a parent or a child or someone else close to you in life. Of course, if that’s not comfortable, just choose something smaller.
But bring it to mind now, a specific conflict you have, maybe a recurring one.
And now imagine listening deeply. Without judgment to everything that person has to say, even if it’s about you.
Imagine letting go of any opinion, listening without thinking of an answer.
And just let all of their words spool out, as you can likely quite easily remember some of these things that can trigger you.
Do that for a minute. Just listen in your imagination.
And when they’re eventually done, imagine first reflecting back whatever they said back to them.
Like, “You want…”
Or, “You don’t want…”
Or, “You’re feeling…”
Or, even more simply, “What I heard you say was…”
And then they say back, “Yes, that’s right.”
And then imagine agreeing with them, empathizing with them and saying, “That’s completely reasonable.” Or, “That’s completely understandable.”
And imagine how they react, how relieved they are, how understood they feel.
And see how nice it is for you to feel the ease that comes to them through being heard and understood, the tension draining out, the conflict defusing.
And see how nice it is for that person to feel loved and accepted and understood by you.
Maybe it’s worth it sometimes to take this approach of listening, reflecting, empathizing, and even agreeing: “That’s completely reasonable. Or, “That’s totally understandable.”
And then let yourself gradually come out of the meditation with a resolve to try this in real life if you can. Of course, there are situations where it’s not safe to agree in this way, and the best action is to get away; perhaps even get away for good if there’s an abusive situation.
But in many of our lives, in more ordinary conflicts, this technique might work.
So imagine actually doing this with a parent or a child today or in the coming weeks. And picture it working to diffuse the conflict, how reflecting and empathizing and understanding, express your love and compassion better even than asserting, “I love you.” Or judging, “That’s awful.” But instead, understanding and agreeing, “That’s reasonable. That’s understandable.” Validating their feelings, whatever they are.
Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio