The Yoga of the Mother Wound
Many times I have listened to yogis & yoginis tell heart-rending stories of disinterest,
inappropriate entanglement, or devastating disapproval from their mothers of such magnitude
that they are still distorting the yogins' lives. "What am I to do?" they ask, "How do I stop getting
caught?" The good news is that any trauma, including the mother wound, can become part of
your mindfulness practice, and the other news is you cannot avoid the suffering this mindfulness
If you choose to follow the path of Vipassana meditation, you are likely to encounter what are
sometimes referred to as your "karmic knots"— those physical and emotional traumas you have
accumulated throughout your lifetime. For instance, when you sit in meditation for a lengthy
period, physical tensions in your body caused by stress or old injuries may manifest as a stabbing
pain between the shoulder blades, an aching neck, or throbbing legs. Similarly, all your
unfinished psychological issues will appear either as physical pain or other body sensations,
intense emotions, voices, or as disturbing images that arise seemingly from nowhere. There is
no way to avoid these experiences, nor should you.
By allowing these sensations and emotions full expression while mindfully paying attention to
them, you become free of them. The release of these knots can be described as an unwinding
that allows the difficult experience to complete itself. There is no rushing this process, nor
knowing when it will be over.
There is one category of karmic knot that may be especially hard for you to deal with, as it is for
many people. This is the emotional—some would say psychological—trauma that may have
occurred within your family of origin. It may involve your mother, father, or both. This trauma
may have been caused by a parent who was absent or overbearing, who committed
inappropriate actions or failed to take positive action, or who took too little or too much
interest in you. Or it may have been the interactions between your parents that was
traumatizing to you. In meditation it is all grist for the mill of mindfulness.
A trauma involving the mother or father is sometimes referred to as a "wound" because it
damages the body-mind, needs proper healing, and often leaves a scar or weakness in your body
or emotional makeup. No wound is more charged for both men and women than the mother
wound. Your relationship with your mother or whoever provided your "mothering" is the primary
relationship in your development, and it inevitably conditions much of your life. It is easy to
assume that if you had some difficulty in this relationship you have outgrown it, but do not be
too sure. In my experience as a Dharma teacher, I have been surprised to discover how often
yogins of both genders and all ages report being overwhelmed by unresolved feelings about their
mothers. If you don't acknowledge and make peace with these feelings, then she is forced to
stay caught forever in your mind and heart as a negative "mother image," preventing the
possibility of an authentic relationship.
The Yoga of the Mother Wound
The dharma teaches us that while you are on the cushion all thoughts and feelings can be
received and worked with mindfully. There is a series of techniques and reflections you can use
to practice what I call the "Yoga of the Mother wound" to transform what has been a hindrance
in your life into a teacher of the heart. "Transform" does not mean to fix or make go away
whatever trauma and scars you may be carrying from childhood; instead, you slowly develop a
new relationship with your difficulty, such that it is no longer a controlling factor in your life.
What may seem like an intractable wound may even become a point of inspiration and deep
understanding for you.
In one sense it is radical to think that what has injured you is an opportunity that contains the
seeds of your liberation. But not so in another, for two of the valuable ingredients you need for
a strong practice are focused attention and intense energy. Any highly charged, unresolved
issue from your past can offer you both of these ingredients.
So, how do you make a deeply emotional wound your Yoga? You begin by staying alert to those
times you find yourself clinging, constricted from aversion, or caught in wanting in some manner
connected to difficulties with your mother. You remind yourself to treat this difficult memory or
emotion as your Yoga practice. Your intention is to become more flexible in your emotions, to
let loose of anger and defensiveness, and to stop suppressing your feelings.
Just as each posture in Hatha Yoga is a physical form to help your body find flexibility, so it is
with how you begin to treat strong emotions around your mother. I mean this quite literally. In
Hatha Yoga, you learn to hold a particular pose in a relaxed manner; after that, it is the form of
the pose that stretches you. As with the Yoga of the Mother wound, it is just the same; it
becomes your emotional Yoga. Each time you encounter the tension, you identify it as being a
particular form that has appeared in the mind: It may be a memory, a current frustration, or a
sense that you lack the ability to achieve something at present because of how the past has
molded you. You stay mindful of the shape of the experience, noticing the pain and any
resistance that arises. Meet these feelings with compassion, equanimity, and loving-kindness—it
does not matter if the thoughts and feelings are dark and unseemly. This is the Yoga of softening
the heart, surrendering to what's true in the moment. Despite the discomfort it may be causing,
you can be with whatever is arising in your mind. It is only a thought that is emotionally loaded,
which in time will pass.
When you practice mindfulness of thoughts and emotions, you are practicing what the Buddha
taught as the "third foundation of mindfulness." Mindfulness practice is nonjudgmental;
therefore, you need not feel guilt or shame over any emotions or thoughts that arise. By
repeatedly staying with difficult feelings and body sensations, your perspective of the past
shifts. You become far less reactive and more flexible in your emotional responses. It is not that
your history is rewritten, but rather that the self experiencing that history is transformed.
When a trauma first presents itself, your feelings may not be at all clear. However, all emotions
are felt in the body, so if you stay with your body sensations, they can bring you into direct
contact with feelings and help you identify them. Remember in doing this practice that you are
not claiming that your memories or feelings are the absolute factual and unbiased truth about
the past. Rather it is your actual experience of the moment that is the object of your
mindfulness, not your old stories or your interpretation of how your childhood was supposed to
You may have certain hidden misperceptions, which will hinder you in treating the mother
wound as your Yoga. One error in perception is thinking it possible to have been a child without
having received wounding experiences. Learning to live life hurts all children. Some amount of
wounding is inevitable and in a certain sense necessary. It is the severity of the trauma, the
context of the wound, and how it is handled that determines whether the mother wound leads
to strength and wholeness or ongoing trauma.
You may also secretly believe that your wound is ugly, something to be ashamed of. But ask, do
the wounds of your friends make them any less attractive? Are you not inspired when they
handle them in a courageous manner? Why would it not be the same for you? If there is some
part of you that you find unacceptable, make it the object of your loving-kindness practice.
Above all, watch for the misperception that without realizing it, you are wanting the past to be
other than it was. This is the most insidious form of wanting mind; it is absolute delusion.
The Four Functions of Mothering
You can bring more clarity to your mother wound by reflecting specifically on what mothering
means to you. There are four basic functions of mothering—nurturing, protecting, empowering,
and initiating—and a trauma can occur in any of them. Although they are interconnected, it
helps to examine them separately in order to clarify the trauma. Using inquiry into these four
functions is most helpful in identifying what you are experiencing in the moments of your daily
life as well as during meditation.
Doing inquiry as part of your Yoga of the Mother wound is not the same as psychological or
therapeutic work. When you use reflection in this manner, you have to beware of getting
caught in the story or lost in thinking, or embracing the idea of being a victim and assigning
blame. Through practicing mindfulness, compassion, and loving-kindness, you develop the four
mothering capacities within yourself. The practice of developing these inner capacities is slow,
but the effect is strong and easily felt.
Keep in mind that "fathering" also involves these same four functions, with some differences.
Ideally these functions are shared by both parents, with each compensating for the other's
weaknesses. If you struggle with a trauma around the father, you can reflect on these same
functions, and make your Father wound your Yoga.
Reflecting on these functions will also help you understand that no woman is only a mother and
no man only a father; "mothering" and "fathering" are done by women and men who by their very
humanness are less than perfect in what they can give. For many people, this understanding
alone is liberating.
If you are a mother or father yourself, you may discover that reflecting on these functions allows
you to be more fulfilled as a parent or that your own mother or father wound is healed through
your experience of being a parent.
Mother As Nurturer
The first of the four functions of the mother is nurturing, the giving of care that allows for life
(symbolized by the mother's milk), which encompasses meeting the wide range of physical and
emotional needs a child has in order to grow and develop. You know about a child's needs for
food, shelter, medicine, comfort, and relatedness; a child who is not held enough develops into
an adult with a range of physical and emotional difficulties, just as an inadequate diet manifests
as health problems later in life. But there is a more subtle aspect of nurturing I call "nurturing
with joy:" that which celebrates the existence of the child as a source of delight for the one
who is mothering and which manifests in the child and continues into adulthood as a sense of
innate worth and spontaneous joy.
If you did not receive sufficient nurturing in childhood, as an adult you may feel an insatiable
need, an inability to take joy in others, or a lack of self-worth despite your competency and
confidence. These feelings may arise in your relationships as well as when you are alone or on
the cushion. You may agonize over your behavior as a parent or in your romantic relationship
because of these childhood wounds. You may feel it is simply too late, that you are forever
stuck, broken, mired, or imprisoned in your inadequacy. You may believe your fear of being
abandoned or devoured, or your unquenchable neediness will always define you. Never buy such
a story or the feelings of despair or anger that come with it, for it is only a story that is being
created by your mind.
As you develop mindfulness, you find your capacity to be in the moment includes the ability to
nurture yourself and others. The practices of loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and compassion
can feed your nourishing capacity. Finding teachers who nourish without creating the
codependency of excessive mothering can furnish further inspiration and role modeling. Being
mindful of the fear is in itself transforming. Observing the thousands of ways in which you are
nurtured and nurture others in the greater community also break up the solidity and credibility
of your wound's story. Nurturing, as with all the functions, begins with the mindful intention
that this is a value, a particular energetic quality, or manner of relating to yourself and others
that you wish to cultivate. By giving up clinging to your agenda that nurturing should be a
certain way and instead simply staying with your intention, you slowly develop an inner
nurturer. In so doing, you will change both your inadequate feelings and your story.
Mother As Protector
The second of the four functions of mothering is protecting. This is the instinctive and
cultivated impulse to see that no physical or emotional harm comes to one who is vulnerable. It
is symbolized by the warrior or guardian spirit. A child needs to be protected from physical,
sexual, and emotional abuse, and from the threat of all three. Ironically, the first persons a child
has to be protected from are the mother and father and their destructive impulses. These
destructive impulses might take the form of excessive anger or emotional instability, for
There is a subtle aspect of protecting energy that gives the child the incredible gift of feeling
intrinsically safe, a feeling of trust in life. Unfortunately, quite frequently a child must try to
flourish in a home environment that does not feel safe, even though no overt harm is done. As
an adult the individual will often be at a loss to explain the unsafe feelings that plague them.
If you did not receive sufficient protection as a child, as an adult you may feel that there is "no
one in your corner." You may have a memory of some traumatic event or environment that
recurs during meditation. You may have developed an elaborate compensatory behavior pattern
for your anxieties. You may be confused about the discrepancy between your family's "factual
history" of your childhood versus the feelings you remember having as a child. For these reasons,
in making the mother wound your practice, you focus on the feelings arising at present. They
can be worked with, released, and transformed. The past is not so easy to work with. It is
comprised of outer and inner events that are now immutable, hazy in recollection, or maybe
There is no "magic bullet" that will dissipate all your past trauma or create instant feelings of
safety. But if you continually bring attention to feelings of fear, loss, and confusion as they are
arising and receive those feelings with compassion, they will begin to lose their grip. Gradually
you will discover that they come less often, with less intensity, and stay for shorter periods of
Mother As Empoweror
The third of the four functions of the mother is empowering the child, encouraging and teaching
independence and self-confidence. It is symbolized by the queen, who elevates her subjects
and facilitates the beginning of their coming into their own power. The mother uses her royal
power over the child with fairness, patience, generosity, and a commitment to preparing her
child to become her equal or even to surpass her. The ability to perform this function comes
from the mother's own self-confidence and love and from embracing the view that it is her
sacred duty to empower her young. Empowering is achieved by encouraging self-reliance and
providing education, discipline, and learning opportunities for the child. You are empowered to
try, therefore to make mistakes and still be fully accepted. Your interests are met with
enthusiasm; the importance and joy of hard work are recognized and encouraged. Failure is
treated lightly, while curiosity and integrity are held in high regard.
In fairy tales, when the queen neglects or is afraid to allow the young their power, the kingdom
becomes ill and languishes. In real life, this is seen in the mother who neglects or is even afraid
of her child becoming powerful, so that a host of problems develop through neglect, constant
criticism, or creating dependency.
Sometimes because of over-identification, the mother is willing to empower but insists that her
child be like her or succeed in ways that satisfy her own ego. This is a false form of
empowerment, a subtle form of enslavement.
You may not realize that there is a difference between the functions of nurturing and
protecting and that of empowering, but the difference is crucial. With nurturing and protecting
the mother is doing for you, whereas the empowering function allows you to find your own
power through doing for yourself. With your mother's blessing, you become independent and
If you struggle with empowerment, then you may lament your anxiety and ineptitude, your
perfectionism, or your unwillingness to try new things. Struggles with self-confidence will be
visible in your meditation. It is as though a blessing was withheld, and it is debilitating. Slowly,
through your Yoga of being fully mindful of the wound, you learn how to give yourself the
blessing of unconditional acceptance. By practicing being with things as they are, you may
discover that all your life you have secretly been demanding that things be other than they are,
and it has stopped your growth. You may discover that the empowering mother you have
internalized is always critical, fearful, filled with aversion. Meditation teaches you that this
voice is mere thinking, characterized in Buddhism as Mara, the one who erodes one's power
through doubt, fear, and greed.
As your self-acceptance grows, you will discover that what needs to and can change about you
will do so. This happens both because you have acquired the power to initiate change and
because you have the capacity to respond to life in a manner that allows the ensuing
experiences to reshape you. Those things that cannot change then become your Yoga. In time
you realize that when consciously worked with, the limitations in your life can become the
gateways to freedom. You start to discover that dis-identifying with the drama of your own
story leads to a state of happiness and peace that is not dependent on the conditions of your
life being a certain way.
Mother As Initiator
The fourth function of the mother is initiating, and it is the most difficult to understand. It is
through acts of initiation that you come to feel as though you are a valuable and welcome
member of your family. As you develop, it is this function that provides the inner feeling that
your life has meaning, and by the teenage years you understand that you have the right to
become the full expression of your own unique life. It is also the initiation function that
permits, accepts, and celebrates your leaving home to start your own life.
A girl achieves the inner experience of womanhood by way of initiation by the mother, who
does this through how she treats her own womanhood and that of her daughter. The father
plays a key role in initiation as well by recognizing the girl's power and her natural right to
become a woman. For a boy, it is the father who is the primary initiator into manhood, but it is
the mother who recognizes that the boy is leaving her side to enter the company of men. She
signals that this is appropriate, not a reason for guilt, and she supports his bringing "mother
replacements" in the way of female friends and girlfriends into her house. In welcoming them
she acknowledges his independence.
When initiation occurs in a timely and clear manner, it is a beautiful process, though often
painful for the parent. Most initiation takes place through symbols, rituals, and unspoken
behavior. When it does not occur, there is a sense of guilt, of staying a youth, of not knowing or
not feeling entitled to one's place in life. For a mother to be effective in providing initiation,
she must have somehow received or found her own. It is the most selfless of all the aspects, for
she is encouraging a separation that leaves her without. This initiating power is associated with
the shaman, the goddess, the magus, and the medicine woman.
In seeking initiation you may be attracted to teachers who claim superior understanding, who
create an impression of having vast authority, thus signaling what is often a false claim that they
can initiate. You may frantically want answers in your life, not understanding that initiatory
power will come to you if you treat your questions as sacred. It is tempting to surrender your
power to a teacher rather than seek a teacher who will initiate you so that you gain self-
You may be caught in wanting to have energetic experiences on the cushion as a form of
initiation. You may simply want something to happen in your life that signals your aliveness,
meaning, and place. It is a call for initiation. It is much the same with teenagers who get
tattoos, pierce their bodies, form cliques, posses, or gangs, and carelessly risk their lives and use
drugs or fundamentalism of one sort or another to initiate themselves.
It is not realistic to expect a parent to provide all the initiation functions for a child. A parent
only begins the process of initiation, which can be viewed as a series of lifelong developmental
processes that are actualized through the use of rituals and sacred space by various spiritual and
societal leaders. If you were fortunate, what you did not receive from a mother or father, you
might have received from grandparents, a caring relative, a teacher, or youth leader. Your
experience of the first three functions may have been less than "good enough," therefore you
may never have had the momentum to seek initiation.
Likewise, your mother and your father may have suffered from their own lack of initiation such
that providing initiation was simply far beyond them, even though they were good parents in
Initiation begins with finding an identity within the family and community, then switches to
initiation into wholeness within your inner being, and culminates in a sense of unity with life
itself. Each stage of initiation is more subtle than the previous one, and the unhealed emotional
wounds become more treacherous to deal with at each level. It is never too late for you to
experience any of the stages of initiation in your life. Both through your own explorations and
by working with those who act as elders, you can achieve a deeper symbolic relationship with
yourself and life.
Mindfulness & the Mother Wound
There are a series of reflections that may help you develop your Yoga of the Mother wound. For
instance, throughout human history, the tasks of mothering were shared by members of the
extended family, tribal elders, and family friends. The community had rituals that helped in the
process, including those that taught you to take comfort in the earth or nature as the Great
Mother. Unfortunately, nowadays there is often only a mother and father to do all that needs to
be done. Nor is there much use of nature as mother or of group ritual. Is it any wonder that your
mother may have struggled with some of these aspects of mothering?
No matter how difficult your relationship with your mother, there is still the singular fact that
she carried you to birth. The gift of birth forms its own strong bond. Likewise, there is within
your mother experience a level of sufficiency that brought you to this moment. Your having this
awareness and capacity means that the mothering you received was good enough for you to go
on from there to find your own wholeness in life.
Maybe the most useful reflection is to realize the gift of the negative. This points to the
understanding that what was not given or was poorly given is also valuable because of what it
elicits from you. Much of your wisdom comes from having to cope with the pain and uncertainty
you experienced as a child. The negative mothering experiences helped form your priorities,
taught you what was important, and gave you the motivation to be different as a parent
yourself. They are a critical part of your inheritance; they forced you to know yourself and to
develop a sense of right and wrong.
If you do not receive the negative as a gift, if you see it only as suffering, you reduce your
relationship to life and distort the richness of your life experiences. Moreover, you are far less
likely to make your life all it can be. It is this failure to manifest your own values that would be
the true tragedy. This understanding is a key to your own empowerment. It allows the yoga to
transform your mother wound into an enhanced sense of aliveness and freedom. Can you feel
this potential in your heart? Can you cultivate this understanding with your own intuition?
As the Yoga of the Mother wound begins to stretch both your heart and mind, more insights
become available to you. One is that much of what you took so personally is in fact quite
impersonal. What was done and not done to you or for you arose out of a set of conditions in
your mother's life. You need not carry the actions caused by those conditions as a personal
burden. Therefore, the wounds you once thought to be intransigent are accessible and subject
to change. The wounds do not disappear, but they lose much of their charge. They fail to hook
your mind and imprison your heart. Keep in mind that meditation is not psychotherapy. These
words are the offering of a meditation teacher, not a therapist. In mindfulness practice, unlike
therapy, the specific content of afflictive emotions are not the focus of your attention.
Instead, the focus is on the mind state that is arising. The teachings are concerned with finding
freedom from your wanting mind. They guide you to discover for yourself that happiness is not
dependent on the external conditions of your present, past, or future life. You may well greatly
benefit from working with a therapist as a supplement to your practice, reflecting the principle
that "you must first have a self in order to give up attachment to it."
If you make the Mother wound your Yoga, you may encounter a trauma that is not resolvable in
the context of daily life goals. Such extreme experiences are often viewed as the "sacred
wound." A sacred wound is that trauma which occurred so early in your life or was so deep that
it forces you into the spiritual life because it is not possible for you to find the peace you seek
in any other way. Because of the motivation it provides, it is viewed as a gift, though a costly
one that renders many of life's ordinary rewards unsatisfactory and can lead you to perform
When you decide to embrace the mother wound as your Yoga and make it your teacher, a
miraculous and unexpected event occurs. As you find your freedom from being captured by the
wound, you also give your mother back her own life. Rather than simply being a label, a set of
responsibilities called "mother," she is allowed to be a woman, a human being with her own
story, her own gains and losses, and a life trajectory separate from yours.
It is not that she ceases to be your mother, but that she becomes everything else she
always was, except in the minds of her children.
|Phillip is the author of Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning
and Joy in the Face of Suffering and has written numerous magazine articles
about Buddhism and Yoga. He teaches vipassana meditation at Turtle Island
Yoga Center in San Rafael, California. From 1979 till 1986, Phillip was the
editor-in-chief and chief executive officer of Esquire magazine. His background
includes a black belt in Aikido, certification as a somatic educator, and 30 years
of practicing and teaching hatha yoga. He has served on the boards of the C.G.
Jung Foundation in New York and the C.G. Jung Institute in San Francisco.
|"By embracing your mother wound as your Yoga,
you transform what has been a hindrance in your life into a teacher."