Last month I had a big gift. I realized that as a child under massively abusive and insane circumstances, I often "mistook the assignment." Did you ever get the homework wrong, do the wrong page in grade school? Well, I realized the same thing happened. For years I agonized over my own "cowardice and powerlessness" when at eight years old, I stood by watching my three-year-old brother be beaten almost to death and did nothing but walk away quietly into this 40-acre mango grove. I could hear his screams-but just sat at the center of the grove on a tree stump. So all these 30 some years, I tried to forget it, because to look at myself as a coward was just too terrifying. In meditation I was able to see that my "assignment" as an eight-year-old was not to be heroic, but probably to allow some force of the universe to lead me away from the scene-so that I could survive physically and emotionally intact enough to someday be able to "be the light at the tip of the candle," as Th~y has so kindly expressed it. So the real work of that event-protecting an eight-year-old-did take place. And my brother was not killed, which was very lucky.
I really identified with the story in Teachings on Love by Thay about the Vietnam vet who couldn't let go of the hammock. As I read it, I thought, he may have misunderstood his assignment, he may have done exactly what was required of him by the universe. Maybe his assignment was to just be with her when she died.
I was a perfectionist in school. I always got the assignment right. But, my realization through the practice is that in reality, in life, I often was blinded by fear and misperception. I was almost killed innumerable times before the age of 17. Many of these experiences can also be viewed as times my life had been saved. Seeing this perspective is a big change for me, very much thanks to the safety of mindfulness and the Buddha's protection. Without mindfulness practice and the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I would have no sense of what to cultivate in the safe container of my consciousness.
In terms of reconciliation with my mother, I'm very lucky to have remembered the wall in my Grandma's apartment in Brooklyn. There was a photo of my mother at about age 5 or 6. She looks pretty disgruntled! But in my meditation, I can place myself in the safety of my grandmother's house and focus on that photo on the wall. I try to send loving-kindness to that little girl in the picture. In "real time," my Grandma's apartment, the wall, the photo are long gone-but I'm glad to be able to retrieve them. This practice allows compassion for me too.