My most recent trip to visit my parents to celebrate their Diamond Wedding Anniversary, had all the usual hallmarks of the familial dynamic. My own inability to interact with my parents in a way that feels meaningful to me, is painful, and can suffuse such visits with an uneasy mixture of sentimental regret, guilt and frustrated tedium. 'Here he is again, the artistic, gay, vegetarian, Buddhist son, who lives in a Buddhist community, who we do love, but don't quite know how to relate to.'
True, my parents are now both into their eighties, and any likelihood of orchestrating a major change in my relationship with them has long since passed. This fossilisation, turns most visits into a practice of patient endurance - of the endless stories about people and events I know nothing about, and the brief token inquiries about how my life is going, that if you sighed too deeply you would miss. But we do live lifestyles almost completely alien to each other, so its no wonder we struggle to find common ground.
In response to a question about how Jnanasalin was doing, I start telling them about his forthcoming buying trip to China. Half way through my opening sentences, my Mother burst in with an exasperated 'Why can't you get a job like that, one with prospects for promotion'. This was followed by implications of having in some way fallen short of an unspoken expectation, by not having a job she can proudly boast about to their friends - and what was so bad about being a Customer Services Manager? - or working in a Crematorium anyway - though the latter was a bit weird, at least it was a secure job. All of these arise from a fundamental incomprehension about why I've chosen to live the life I do, and a really genuine concern for my job security considering the patchwork nature of my current employment.
I have rarely aspired to a conventional lifestyle, though it no doubt hides away somewhere in a corner of my psyche, brooding. Rarely a conscious rebel, more a circumstantial one, I've become used to not conforming to the norm. I've just tried to live a life with some personal integrity and purpose. My parents do undoubtedly desire the best for me, and want to see me happy, though how I chose to live my life bears no conventional form or price tag they can recognise - so from there own life experience and aspirations - how can I really be happy? It must be difficult for them to appreciate that there is a value in what I do.
The seeming insensitivity of my Mother's response, is rare, but not untypical. Neither is this feeling that I fall short, that what I do is never quite good enough. This sort of self-blame-frame without the praise, appreciation or encouragement to counter it, has sort of sealed in an expectation that whatever I do it will never be really appreciated. Partly I suspect this is a 'Northern Culture Thing' where praise or encouragement is rarely forthcoming. In the past this style of communication might have left me despondent. This time, though I could feel it burrowing about in the psychic undergrowth looking for something to latch onto and exploit, I didn't give it space or credence. Which has undoubtedly been a hard won achievement on my part, and is itself worthy of much praise.
I've since been reflecting on this poor self-esteem and confidence thing, that has often been my bete noire, and seen more clearly its origins. Since my involvement with Buddhism, I've come to know myself, my value, qualities and talents much much better. A lot of this the result of years of the positive feedback and affirming I've received from others, which challenged, and over time has weakened the full force of that negative self-view.
I do, however, still wrestle from time to time with not feeling fully appreciated. But who is ever fully appreciated? Praise in England, when it does come, can be faintly muttered almost under the breath, be muted, imprecise, fluffy edged or vague. This expression of praise can sometimes contain unexpressed qualifications, implied via subtle irony, or deprecations hidden in the choice of words. When someone says they find what you said 'interesting' or 'comprehensive', this tells you nothing about how that word should be interpreted, in what way is it 'interesting' or 'comprehensive'. I enjoy the company of folk from further flung parts of the world, because I don't have to read between the lines. They talk and express themselves more straightforwardly. If one is forced to read between the lines, an Englishman invariable does so in search of a veiled criticism, never a hidden accolade.
Looked at objectively, its not even that praise has been a rare thing in my life, there has been plenty of it around. It could be I don't allow it to touch me deeply enough. Rarely reaching the impregnable negative self view, presumably because I wont allow it to. Pondering on this has raised three further areas for reflection. Perhaps the only praise that can reach deep into negative self views will be praise from ones parents. It may be I should pay closer attention to how I receive praise when others give it. They might feel uneasy giving me praise, because I turn my gaze away, not hearing nor welcoming it openly. If I don't accept and take praise fully to heart, this probably does communicate itself subtly to others. Finally, how easily and freely do I myself give praise to others? For what comes around does go around.
From a Buddhist perspective, all this dwelling on Praise and Blame, will just further entangle me in this polarity, and all the other six Worldly Winds, of Loss and Gain, Fame and Infamy,Pleasure and Pain. I can see how in my desire to have or to avoid any one of these, I'm inevitable sucked into dealing with all of them. Praise - can be pleasurable, through it one gains in worth and self-esteem, and a fleeting illusory sense of position, status or importance. Blame - can be painful, one can lose confidence in oneself, cultivating an illusory sense of worthlessness.
What I've been exploring here, has been more about the consequences of praise and blame. Discovering in the process, how difficult it can be to talk about this area without falling into praising and blaming oneself. I have a better grasp now on why I sometimes react in the way I do. The Worldly Winds are still subtly inform my current way of behaving. What would I be like if I could ignore or be free of them? As Quentin Crisp once said - 'If there were no praise, and no blame, who would I be then?'