When you’re moving through karmic healing work, or ancestral healing, it’s hard not to find yourself in deep exploration of what the connections might be between you and your parents, you and your children, and all the generations of your family lineage. Why do some people get to have harmonious, secure, and loving relationships with their parents and some not? Surely we can all learn and grow through joy and gratitude, so if you’re inclined towards the belief that we choose our incarnation before birth you might find yourself asking why would one choose a situation of heartache? (And if that isn’t your experience, what does it mean to hold a deep sense of loving karmic connection a generation apart, inevitable to be separated by death?)
In my observation, intense and conflicted relationships are highly dynamic and brimming with transformative potential— for better and for worse. In many years working adjacent to the foster care system, in bereavement with families, working with adults and small children I have seen this play out in both directions. I have seen cycles of abuse come to a close, parents having their own healing initiated by the vibrant and sometimes challenging nature of their children. I have seen parents turn their backs to that opportunity to address their pain, inflicting those same wounds on their children. I have seen grandparents be caregivers to their grandchildren in ways they were unable to with their own, breaking a cycle perhaps while that middle generation is left behind. I have seen parents try to fulfill their own need to be parented through soliciting their children as emotional caregivers and confidants. And I have seen children try desperately to love their parents into health, contorting themselves into endless forms in the hopes that being good enough will grant them access to unconditional love.
One of the great mysteries of human nature is why some people are able to cultivate their pain into fuel for transformation, deep empathy, and a drive towards healing and improving the lives of others; while others become burdened, hardened, and stagnant under the weight of their experience. Many go through phases of both, or cycling through these opposing states. I wonder about this all the time.
I sometimes struggle with the heaviness of my own ancestral burdens, and the pain of completing aspects of that cycle (even as it gives way to expansion). I feel along with the pain of so many people I work with who have experienced deeply unfair circumstances, left with few choices but to collapse beneath them or find a way to accepting them enough to keep moving forward.
Sometimes when I’m watching some light reality TV (a guilty pleasure!) I witness interactions within a family that have me sort of stunned in these moments of thinking “wow, is that what it’s like when a family genuinely likes each other?” I’ve witnessed this in my work too, a brief time being granted access to a different experience of family.
Working directly with those parental relationships on the energetic level is quite challenging, and quite fruitful. When we are able to recalibrate our side of the energetic cycle, we open to the possibility of separating the learning of those experiences from the trauma they may have inflicted. We practice the ability to hold both realities at the same time.
Cutting cords, resolving energetic enmeshment, or clearing discordant energy is not about severing your relationship to a person. It doesn’t impose on their own sovereignty or tell them what to do. Even in those cases where the safest physical course of action is no contact, I find it is sometimes even more effective to energetically work on resolving the flow to a healthy state rather than seeking to sever the energetic connection (I have done this with great results even with those I have been no contact with for decades). Think of it like diverting a river around you rather than blocking it; you create an outlet for that flow which you cannot control, while protecting yourself.
Ancestral healing can benefit from this approach too, because sometimes those ancestors seeking to resolve their own business are invested in the idea that their children or grandchildren will find healing. What healing looks like for us, and what it looks like for our ancestors is not always the same. It poses questions for which we sometimes must make difficult choices and compromises. Relationships with the dead are just as complicated as with the living!
Maybe that’s an intriguing and appealing idea for you, and if you’re holding back an eye roll or annoyed at the notion, I can relate to that too.
There’s a card in the deck Guided by Spirit that I’ve been pulling a lot, Failure. One of the ideas in the message for that card is that there are no failures, only lessons. I have been working with this idea a lot recently, when I find myself in that place of lamenting something that didn’t work out, or a relationship that is unsatisfying, I ask myself “what have I learned, what am I learning, what do I have yet to learn?” This is becoming a sort of spell, inviting deeper exploration of my own side of a situation and my own stubbornness at times. It asks a deeper question of why I see something as being unsuccessful, how I define success. (spoiler: much of how we evaluate these ideas is about how we view ourselves, rather than what actually happened.)
Sometimes karmic work can feel like failing, or can bring up fears of failing. Illness, fear of death, and unexpected endings can illuminate ideas of “failure” as well. Especially as my work with others has increasingly focused on clearing and release, a common refrain is how discouraging it is when we put so much focus on shifting a pattern or energy that feels harmful but it doesn’t seem to be changing. We can sink into the feeling of “I must be doing something wrong.” Even when we don’t want to admit it, there can be an unconscious question of whether we are being punished somehow.
A challenge of living in these times is that so many people around us are content to push their feelings and inner wisdom aside, to focus on materialism, momentarily relief from discomfort, and quick solutions. Success and abundance can become synonyms for amassing wealth and nice things. Wellness can become a relentless search for comfort and stability, to “feel good” all the time. “Living in your truth” can become an easy way to avoid looking at how your actions are experienced by others.
Just as it would be hard to guard a tiny flame on a gusty day, it can be hard to release and resolve harmful patterns when that energy is still being fed and cycled around us. Shielding your energy is an important skill to cultivate, but equally important (if not moreso!) is to bring in something different and nourishing to balance the cycle.
This can be a tough pill to swallow, the idea of focusing on something like “the frequency of unconditional love” or “cultivating self-compassion” or “acting as if.” If you’re anything like me, this can sound eerily similar to the most grotesque of spiritual bypassing, which is “just raise your vibration and negative people and situations won’t be attracted to you.” Goodness I wish this were true! How much simpler life would be.
What kind of garden would you cultivate if all you did was weed and till the soil? Or if you planted seeds and kept the area around them clear but did not tend to what would make them flourish? What is the purpose of moving through healing and completion of trauma cycles, without cultivating joy and satisfaction in its place?
How can we apply this to working with the energetic connections between generations in our own family? I do believe that like any emotion, love is ultimately an energy. One which can be expressed in a range of healthy and unhealthy ways. We each have individual qualities that inform the ways we best receive love, and the ways that we most easily offer it. Unconditional love is something I believe we are born with, though it is not always nurtured. Sometimes in the absence of it being reflected and reenforced by our caregivers we forget that we have access to this within ourselves.
Processing and validating painful experiences is good training ground, because loving yourself unconditionally even as you are imperfect, make mistakes, don’t always do the right thing, struggle with repeating the same patterns and break promises to yourself, as you have physical problems or lack motivation to pull yourself out of watery depths— is pretty fucking gritty. It can be incredibly painful to turn to your spiritual practice and cultivate this ability to love and accept yourself when you actually don’t believe you deserve it yet.
You deserve it even if there are things you could change to be a better person, or to correct past wrongs. The two can coexist, they must. Punishing yourself is not atonement, it doesn’t benefit anyone else even though it might seem that way.
I have heard it said that while we often think of parents as being the ones who may offer unconditional love, that there are always expectations and dreams that parents project on their children: they can endeavor to love unconditionally but it requires making the choice. The most true expression of unconditional love is actually from children to their parents, and for those with inadequately resourced parents it is a painful position to be in. Even as adults we struggle to let go of this desire to win their love, to be good enough, to receive their care and pride. What could it look like to reclaim this unconditional for yourself too?
Ask me in 30 years and maybe I’ll have more answers to that question. But I do believe it is possible. At least on the scale of hours and minutes, maybe only moments at certain times. Cultivating the willingness is a beginning, and opens the door to receiving that energy when you need it. Being willing to love yourself ruthlessly and without exception, even if there’s no one around in the moment who will do it for you, is a skill that is key to thriving. It makes us resilience to discordant energies, embracing a soft power that benefits everyone else around us as well.
Some questions for further exploration:
What have your relationships with parents, grandparents, extended family and caregivers taught you?
What are the energetic patterns that you observe within your own life between parents and children?
What emerges for you when you contemplate giving and receiving unconditional love?
Do you believe you chose your parents, or they chose you? Why or why not?
What are the elements of those patterns which are within your power to change?
Where might you be focusing on correction or release, while neglecting your needs for nourishment?
Where are you focusing on creating new patterns when old ones are calling for resolution?