Teachings of My Mother
Monday, May 20th is the death anniversary of my mom. I usually post the blog I wrote a few days after she “left her body” (as devotees call death of the physical body, since the soul moves on) three years ago. Although, I’ll give some links for a whole series of blogs I wrote around that time, I would like to express some thoughts for your consideration, and perhaps, for thinking of your own mom, or your relationship to your parents in general. One of the questions I am thinking about is: “How has your relationship with your parents affected your life in terms of your relationships with your spouse and children (if you are married), or to friends, people in general, or yourself?”
There are many events in life which are like initiations into stages of growth, the first being birth and the last death—the number and type of “initiations” in between those two periods are as individual as people are. For me, some of my significant growth opportunities were: moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco at four years old, the shock of going to Junior High School from a tightknit grammar school, when my parents divorced and I had to live with my father, when my High School met Haight-Ashbury (so to speak), or how I let hippiedom appear to torpedo my education but also lay the ground work for my spiritual quest, my second girlfriend, spiritual initiation at 20, my guru Shrila Prabhupada’s leaving his body, marriage, the struggle to find an occupation, and to the point of this blog, the “death” of my parents.
I haven’t spoken about my father’s death, though I should, as he died by his own hand with a 38 Special revolver. He was obviously miserable, felt his life unmanageable, and had no spiritual knowledge to help him. Although I later went to the place where he committed suicide in an attempt to release his soul, in case he had a ghost body, his death was not as fortunate as my moms. I was able to surround her with prayers and a spiritual environment as she passed on.
As I have often shared, our parents and family are instruments of our karma, and we have to make peace with our past and upbringing. Studying my grandparents and my parents relationships to them has been quite instructive for me in understanding my parents conditioning, and style (or lack of style) of parenting. Mothers and fathers are often extremely unprepared to be parents, and while they usually do the best they can, their skills are often very poor. Even if you had the best parents on the planet, there are likely some things you didn’t like about them or how they treated you. How much this has affected your life depends on your conditioned nature and resilience.
Understanding that everyone—including our parents—is a soul conditioned by karma, who has adapted to their own upbringing and environment can be helpful in seeing our parents as imperfect and flawed human beings, deserving of our compassion, or at least understanding. On the other hand, we have to see them as perfect teachers for us, though we have to work in extracting the many lessons they teach—either how to act, or not to act. Being a parent myself, I have found how much my child triggered my own issues from growing up—mirroring my relationship with my parents—and I had the choice whether to react as my parents had to me, or to change the pattern. In other words, our children reveal, or bring to the surface, the unhealed, or stuck, parts of our relationship with our parents—perhaps going back many lifetimes. Thus, sometimes the parent’s interaction with their children has little to do with their child, or an event which triggers a strong reaction, and a lot to do with past conditioning.
What has this to do with our spiritual lives? I would say that it depends on our level of spiritual maturity. In bhakti, personal growth, self-help, or counseling have relevance till the stage of nistha, or when one is firmly fixed in their spiritual practices. In general, if you are not happy with your life and have difficulties in relationships, you should explore how your anarthas are rooted in your past—yeah, karma it is, in a general sense, but we are trying to be as specific as possible. Chanting the holy name has been compared by Shrila Prabhupada to skimming off impurities, or milk solids, when making ghee (pure ghee is analogous to our pure chanting), but when we see our “stuff” (psychological baggage) or unfavorable ways of thinking, what should be done then?
In the bhakti tradition, the ultimate solution to life’s problems is to chant the Hare Krishna mantra purely, aided by association of saints (sadhu sanga) and purifying our intelligence through hearing and applying their words and the teachings of the scriptures. In other words, through a change in lifestyle it is helpful to live a thoughtful, introspective, regulated, and pure life, as an aid to our spiritual practices, and the goal of prema, or loving and serving God, or Krishna. At the same time, I have found that uncovering are anarthas or our unfavorable mentalities can help us to give our full attention and heart to the processes of bhakti. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, but only potential power, until we put that knowledge to practical use—in this case to think and act differently, gradually rising to the spiritual platform.
Our “issues” from growing up, or we could say our karmic attachments revolving around relationships, are meant to be brought to the surface through the introspection of the stage of anartha nivritti, and then retired through pure chanting, and engaging in the other eight limbs of bhakti (hearing, chanting, and remembering Krishna, etc.). I have seen that many devotees need help in understanding such anarthas, since they create blind spots that can hold us back from making significant spiritual advancement. This is not about blaming others for our shortcomings or suffering, but about forgiving others (and ourselves), taking responsibility for our lives, and cutting the cords that bind us to persons, places, or things.
For me, being with my mom in her last days was an opportunity for final healing, reconciliation, and letting go of the past. The preparation I made in unraveling and healing my issues from growing up were very helpful for this final time of release. Looking at her childhood and adult photo album as she lay dying, I saw that she seemed a happy, vibrant youth, full of hope and optimism, but spent her final years depressed, and lamenting how her life turned out. Without spiritual life, this may be our fate. What a dramatic example of the teachings of the scriptures! I would like to encourage you to not wait for your parent’s death to sort out your relationship with them; learn what they have to teach you, and cut the karmic cords. Make the goal of your life, spiritual realization, for nothing else in this world is permanent.