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A Mother's Kiss

Picture a little girl playing in the park - perhaps running and laughing playing tag with her friends. Suddenly she slips, and falls and scraps her knee. She starts to cry and runs back to the edge of the park where her mother has been watching. The mother scoops her up in her arms and bend down to kiss her knee, saying "I'll kiss it and make it better."

This little story I think encapsulates something about the essence of practice - though perhaps not in the way one might immediately think. We don't think of sophisticated, rigorous disciplines like psychoanalysis or Zen being like a mother's kiss, but let's look deeper into what's happening here. First consider all the ways the little girl's experience could go wrong. Perhaps she hurt and when she looks around for her mother she can't find her, and she becomes frightened and cries and cries, unable to console herself. or perhaps the other children make fun of her and make her feel stupid or clumsy for having fallen. Or perhaps her mother is feeling tired and overwhelmed herself, and when she sees what's happened she gets exasperated and angry, "Now look what you done!" We can all make up many more examples I'm sure. What they have in common is that the child will come to have certain beliefs about pain and difficulty. Maybe it's my fault that I got hurt. Is it a big deal or something at all, Am I being a crybaby? Can I expect help or sympathy, or is the world cruel and uncaring? Each different version of the story gives rise to its own set of beliefs and expectations.

But what about the first version, when the mother is there and is able to comfort her child and kiss her and make it better? What's really happening? Well, the most important thing to see is that she is, of course, not making the pain really go away with her kiss. What is happening is that she is providing a soothing, containing space in which the little girl can have her experience of pain. The pain becomes normalized, nothing terrible or catastrophic, but something that she will feel for a while, and then gradually will begin to fade and she will go back to playing with her friends. Both therapy and Zen provide something like this container for our experience, one in which we can not only quietly have the emotional experience, but one in which we can watch all the old expectations and fears and beliefs about pain come to the surface. However one of the other consequences of not having the reliable experience of an appropriately soothing parent in the first place is that we can form magical ideas about what supposed to make it better. We create fantasies in which someone or something will once and for all make the pain disappear. And we can spend years and years in therapy or in the zendo waiting for that magic to happen, perhaps ending up bitter and disappointed when the magic doesn't appear. But nothing ever makes the pain in our lives disappear. Oh, we can create moments of relief or pleasure, but when we think that's the way it's supposed to feel all the time, we fall into one form or another of addiction, desperately using drugs or religion or love as an anodyne for our pain. What practice can offer is a container for our pain, one in which the moment to moment kiss of attention allows us to experience it for what it is, simply as one  part of our ever changing life.