Yesterday’s post was the last of the Dalai Lama’s teachings that can be found specifically in The Art of Happiness. But I really wanted this to be a 30 day project, partly because then it would be a month-long project, but also because as I mentioned in Song 20, scientists tend to say that 30 days is the amount of time it takes to form a new, ingrained habit. So hopefully after 30 days of this project we’ll have made happiness a habit!
These final three posts will be on more general Buddhist teachings that can help us cultivate happier mental states. Today’s is based on a practice that has been popularised by the late world-famous Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
‘Healing the inner child’ is centred around the idea that some of our most impactful beliefs and fears are established in us when we are children. For example, if someone has a frightening experience with a dog as a child, they often grow up to have a deep-rooted fear of dogs.
There’s two main aspects of this teaching, and the first is ‘healing the inner child’ within ourselves. This involves visualising yourself as a child, usually during meditation, and imagining that you’re hugging the child, or just sending feelings of love and kindness towards them.
It can sound a bit weird to imagine yourself as a child, and to then hug yourself (pretty vain, right?). But even if you don’t fancy doing the visualisation, I feel like it can still help to just acknowledge that, in a sense, we do all have an inner child.
A lot of people talk about how when they get older, they don’t feel their age. Equally, usually after making my eighth immature joke in the space of a few minutes, I get people telling me how it seems like I haven’t ever grown up…
While, of course, we all eventually want to be mature, so that we can become wiser, and then grow big Plato-style beards (ok, just me?), it’s also helpful to remember how we were as children. Part of what the ‘inner child’ teaching means to me is how it’s great to retain a sense of childish wonder and curiosity about the world, and it’s easy to lose this as we get older.
When was the last time you did something just because it was fun? Speaking from personal experience, because it’s exam season, whenever I take breaks and do something relaxing, like listening to music or going for a walk, it can feel like I’m not really doing it because they’re just fun things to do. I’m partly doing them in order to rest, in order to do more work later. So in a sense, even though it seems like I’m simply relaxing for the sake of relaxing, these activities are still tied to this ubiquitous aim of ‘being productive’.
Charlie Hoehn wrote a really inspiring article (and book) on how doing things purely for fun again massively alleviated his anxiety. So I think giving attention to the child we all have within us can bring a brighter, fresher perspective to life.
That’s the first aspect of the teaching. The second is related to seeing the inner child in other people.
This involves imagining your parents, for example, as children, and again either hugging them, or just sending feelings of love and kindness to them.
Now, if you found the idea of visualising yourself as a child weird, then this is going to feel even weirder. Remember, you don’t have to do the actual visualisation - I think the main purpose of it is to remember that we were all children once. And when we see children, we associate with them ideas of innocence, and a simple need for love and affection. If we remember that we all still have this within us, then seeing the child in people immediately changes our attitude towards them. We’re much more likely to be forgiving and understanding of the mistakes people make, because we see the part of people that just wants love and affection.
An extension of this aspect of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is to then visualise one of your enemies as a child, and to see the ‘inner child’ within them. This links to Song 19, and as we’ve just seen in the previous paragraph, adopting this new attitude towards our enemies should hopefully help to soften any hostility towards them. Because it’s pretty hard to stay mad at a child, right?
“Hey, buddies that I grew up with
All straight-laced and married up now
You ain't foolin' me, wasn't long ago
We tore the roof off that one red light town”
Today’s song is Thomas Rhett’s ‘Remember You Young’, and this perfectly encapsulates the message of today’s teaching. It emphasises how we do always retain that youthful sense of fun and wonder within us, even if it seems to disappear as we get older.
“And no matter how much time goes by
And no matter how much we grow up
For worse or for better, from now 'til forever
I'll always remember you young”
Rhett sings about how the image he’ll always have in his minds of his friends and loved ones is of them when they were younger. I think for me this underlines how when we’re children or teenagers, we don’t have the ‘serious’ worries and stresses that adulthood seems to bring with it, and we can just be silly and have fun.
But the main message of this teaching that really resonates with me is the idea that even when life seems serious and work-y and full of ‘responsibilities’ (ugh) - even then, it doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun and be immature from time to time. We never lose this ‘inner child’, and I think that instead of trying to overcome it, our inner child is definitely something to be embraced.
“Yeah, I hope when we get to Heaven
He looks at us all like we're kids
Shameless and painless and perfect and ageless
Forgives all the wrong that we did”
While this is of course a Christocentric view of the afterlife, it drives home the universal point that when we remember that we were all children once, and perhaps even visualise this, it cultivates a much more forgiving and loving mentality.
I want to end on this quote from Walt Disney, which I think epitomises today’s teaching:
“That’s the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up. They forget. They don’t remember what it’s like to be 12 years old.”
For a more spiritual and in-depth look at the ‘healing the inner child’ teaching, here’s a really good article written by the late Thich Nhat Hanh himself