I'm currently reading two books by Thich Naht Hahn. One is called, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, and the other is No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. The books are quite similar, with many overlapping themes and guidelines for practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a meditation practice in which we focus the mind in such a way that we become fully present with each and every moment. This typically involves coordinating our breathing with the mental repetition of mantras, or phrases, which quiet and focus the mind, relax the body and sow the seeds of aspiration for a happier life.
The mental repetition of these phrases can calm us down in a stressful moment or at the start of conflict. They can also lead to the discovery of what is at the source of our suffering and ultimately to heal it. In other words, mindfulness practice can lead to less suffering and greater happiness. Who doesn't want that?
One of the most interesting ideas put forth in Thich Naht Hahn's books is that we may carry not only the residue of our own early (or previous life) traumas, but also that of our ancestors - passed to us through their genes. At first that idea seemed a little far-fetched to me. But in thinking about it, I realized that there are times when I feel sad or down for no reason. I've done a lot of work to understand the sources of my own suffering and to work on healing it, so I think I do have a pretty good handle on most of my "triggers" - the things that can set off anxiety, fear and sadness in me. So when everything is otherwise fine and none of those triggers are at play, I have to wonder if there isn't something to this idea.
Well, lo and behold, just the other day, my teachers posted a link on their Facebook page about a genetic study of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. This study seems to definitively show that the genes of the descendants have mutations not found in their peer population, and that these mutations can only be attributed to the trauma of their Holocaust survivor ancestors. So our genes, it seems, actually are carrying the suffering of our ancestors after all.
I know - it's kind of a freaky idea! But then I thought about my mom and her mother, and realized that some of the issues they struggled with have been issues for me too.And I had to wonder, what if if their unhealed wounds are still affecting me?
So as an experiment, I began focusing my mindfulness meditation on healing these wounds for all of us. In my practice, I invited the wounds to arise and I invited my (deceased) mother and grandmother to be with me while I mentally repeated the phrases of comfort and healing. And you know what? Those periods of unexplained sadness, fear and anxiety have diminished significantly.
My grandmother was hard to love. But I did love her, in the way that you love people who can be so difficult, yet who belong to you and to your life. Yes, she could be a cruel, raging narcissist, but she was our cruel, raging narcissist. Knowing something about her young life helps me have compassion for her journey and a little insight into how she became the way she was. Since focusing my practice on all of us, I have felt forgiveness overtaking any lingering anger toward her.
I seldom remember my dreams, but the other night, I dreamed about little yellow chicks. Yes - you know, like Peeps, only alive. Little fuzzy yellow baby chickens like these:
When we were small, Grandma used to bring us a small box with several fuzzy yellow chicks in it on Easter. They were adorable and we loved them - until they grew into chickens and roosters - at which time we gave them to local farmers. I hadn't thought about those chicks in years. I think that dream was Grandma's way of saying hello and thanking me for understanding and for forgiving her and helping her heal what she was never able to heal herself.
Who knows? None of us do, we just choose to believe based on observation and experience. And my experience has taught me that there is tremendous healing power in mindfulness meditation, for myself and for others. I'm a believer.
Here is the link to the study about the holocaust surviors: LINK