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Learning to Love Abusive Parents, part 2

October 21, 2012

See part 1 here

“May I return their harm by helping them”

Geshe Chekawa

– from Universal Compassion by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Previously I talked about the unhappiness my friend felt through the circumstances of her parents’ rejection of her gay brother and the consequent problems that eventually bred in her own relationship with them. If you remember, one very useful conclusion we reached was that her unhappiness was not directly caused by the parents’ attitude, rather we split the situation into two different problems, with the second not being dependent on the first:

  1. The circumstance
  2. The inner inner experience

Knowing we can transform our inner experiences of any situation so that our mind is always peaceful is extremely liberating,  but of course, we naturally experience a big gap between our ability to understand such a concept on the one hand, and actually applying it on the other. So I thought it would be good to share with you how these ideas are actually being lived by my friend.


It’s always difficult to change our outlook, attitude or behaviour. The stronger the feeling associated with a particular habit or view, the more difficult it is to change.  There needs to be a strong motivation to change. But my friend also understood that her attitude over the last few years gave no freedom, happiness or solution. So she was prepared to try and explore what lay behind her feelings and see what she might change about herself in order to solve at least the inner problem.

Nevertheless, anyone who has ever suffered, especially through rejection by someone they trust and love knows how vulnerable we are and that even the slightest challenge to our “rightness” can be very hard to hear. Sometimes, when a friend tries to help us by “seeing the other side” it sounds like, “So it’s my fault” and we can be left feeling even worse than they started.

Its only because my friend is very brave and has built up a trust in Buddhist view gradually over many years of practicing, testing and experiencing it that we were able to have this conversation.

Where we start

“I love my parents, and that is why I am so hurt. And because I am hurt, I am also angry”

According to Buddha, love is a mind which can only ever bring happiness, but instead my friend attributed to it the pain she felt. The definition of love is a mind which feels warm and close to others, sees them as precious and wishes to give them happiness. That means that there is no way we can attribute the cause of her painful feelings to love. Which is not to say she doesn’t love them, just that the love was being stifled by the other mind she mentioned, Anger.

Anger is a mind which arises when our wishes (either for ourself or others) are not fulfilled. It views oneself or those associated with oneself as more important than others and see its object as unpleasant and wishes to harm it.

The Diagnosis of my friend’s problem

According to Buddha the pain my friend experienced was due to anger. And part of the basis for that anger was feeling that she and her brother’s feelings were more important than those of her parents and also the view that her parents were unpleasant and needed to suffer.

I bet some of you agree with the mind of anger! But here is not the place for me to write about the nature of anger in depth, suffice to say that practically speaking that anger had done nothing but exhaust and debilitate my friend for many years. We needed to find a way to overcome it.

The cure for anger is love. Where anger sees someone as unpleasant, love sees them as precious. Where anger wishes to harm, love wishes to benefit.

So how to start? Finding equanimity and balance

A basic buddhist view is that no one wishes to suffer, so anyone who holds views or performs actions which cause them to suffer must hold those views or perform those actions against their real wishes. This is what Buddha means when he says that ordinary beings have no control over their minds. Geshe Kelsang describes us as slaves to our minds in Transform your life he says:

Whatever our mind wishes us to do we do, if our mind says “kill yourself”, we will even kill ourselves.

This is true for both the victim and perpetrator or any wrong action. As we discussed her parents, it was undeniable that they were suffering as a consequence of their views and the separation from their children. The views themselves had made it an agony for the parents to hear and have to know that their son was gay, whilst the separation from people they naturally love and feel close to could only be understood as a cause of loneliness and sadness. Shantideva actually describes wrong views or delusions as being like torturers, elsewhere they are likened to evil spirits harming us.

In this way we began to find an equanimity for how my friend viewed herself, her brother and her parents, all suffering at the hands of deluded mistaken minds.

Then we talked about the kindness her parents had shown, the sacrifices they had made, the regular acts of kindness they had shown to both children as they grew up. Naturally remembering these, my friend’s love for them came to the fore. She saw them as precious, wished them happiness. And then seeing these precious people abused and tortured by cruel, wrong views, she could no longer see them as her enemies, or herself and her brother as their victims, but they were all transformed into objects of compassion.

A thought exercise

Imagine some one very close to you, who you love, is crying (it has to be someone you really love now, today). When you ask them why they are crying they tell you that they have lost every one most dear to them. Naturally you will wish to help and heal them.

Focus on that feeling of wishing to free your friend from their pain, notice how you feel you would do anything, endure anything to help them.

Then imagine that later you discover that their loss was caused because they got angry and pushed the everyone one away. In your previous contemplation, your wish to help knew no limits. Does the fact of their anger being the cause make your first wish suddenly invalidate those earlier feelings? Isn’t it their anger which the you in the first contemplation would seek out and overcome? Isn’t anger the object of blame?

Now ask yourself why this shouldn’t be true with respect to all mistaken minds.

Breaking the cycle

As a final incentive, she also knows that in the future, if she fails to control her mind, then she herself could come to hold such wrong views and perform the same actions as her parents. Delusions and wrong views have a nasty way of repeating themselves over and over, leaving whole families over generations the victims of the same abuse. I believe this phenomenon is now well understood in western psychology.

Understanding that mother, father, daughter, brother, each suffer at the hands of prejudice and other deluded minds unites them. As I quoted previously in Peaches and Dharma, Geshe Kelsang says,

We are like parts of one body united in our wish to be free from suffering.

Universal Compassion

The other problem – not accepting abuse

By changing her mind and allowing her love to assert itself, my friend is in no way saying its ok to hold views such as homophobia or to accept and either remain or re-engage in an abusive relationship.

The Indian Buddhist teacher Atisha, who introduced Kadampa buddhism into Tibet said:

Avoid friends who cause your delusions to increase

from Advice from Atisha’s Heart

To be extreme, I don’t see any contradiction between loving someone and reporting them to the police if they commit a crime. If we are attacked we should defend ourselves, not least because we should try to stop the attacker creating more harm and suffering for themselves through their wrong action. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says something similar in Eight Steps to Happiness.

The point is that whatever my friend chooses to do to solve the problem of her parent’s rejection of their children, she will do it with as much love, clarity and balance in her mind as possible.

The Future

Of course, these experiences we discussed were fleeting, and again and again the old view will naturally re-assert itself, but in lines of thinking such as these the way forward became clear. Meditation is one of the tools that my friend must now  use to bring these insights into her heart so that they naturally become her innate spontaneous view. In this way, love will become her protector.

There are many many aspects to this story and of course I’ve only touched very lightly on a few points. But I hope they are useful to others (as does my friend).

I’d love to hear more from you about your experiences.

From → Relationships

  1. Thank you for writing this article. I read it in a time that required me to find compassion for a parent that has often acted with cruelty (or at least the convoluted intent to harm those around them). This helped me remember that even those who commit abuse feel great suffering and sadness from their own actions. Despite what they did and now do, this helped me remember that there is still a place I can find within myself to feel love for them.

    I also appreciated your last section on “not accepting abuse.” I’ve struggled with the idea of distancing myself from my parent, and this helps me remember that sometimes one must distance themselves to reduce suffering, and one can do this out of a place of love, compassion and balance.

    • Hi 8innovate – its been a while since I checked my blog and I’ve only just seen this. I hope you are OK. Thankyou very much for sharing your experience. With love

  2. mike permalink

    Thank you so much for this. I am a teen who has never before touched drugs, nor do I want to. But my stepdad has framed me for smoking cigarettes and I am now grounded until 18, which is in two years. This will help me deal with this.

  3. Karma Pat permalink

    Thank you so much for having shared your friend’s story. The “none communication” she encountered with her parents made a very meaningful echo with my own relationship with my mother and finding out that spliting a problem into two parts really helps me.

    Today, I feel able to deal with my part or the problem according to the Dharma and it is already hudge. I know that anything I do is motivated by love instead of fear and I already feel happy with that… But, then, I still do not know how to put limits to my abusive mother. (Is distance a limit ?).

    I understand she cannot stop wanting to live with carefreeness but I still need to understand how not to carry the problem or feel guilty not to give everything I have (time, etc…) but only bits and, moreover, meaningful bits of time. I am choosing “quality” instead of “quantity”.

    However, whatever I give, she wants more like if she stucked in a never ending hole. In fact, she wants all and for that, she is ready to use seduction, victim attitude, etc… which makes healthy relationship not possible. For the moment, I see her the least I can in order not to fall into this sterile and never ending unhealthy relationship and I wait to have a true opportunity to share something with her.

    I am also working and meditating on my feeling of “guilt”, like if by restraining the relationship makes me do something horrible to her.

    Is there any helpful text to help me to deal with a situation like this from a Buddhist perspective ?

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