As I drove along I-88 to Light on the Hill retreat center last weekend, I felt a little nervous. It was the weekend our group would focus on the Inner Child, and that kind of work hasn’t been my favorite kind of spiritual work in the past. What would my inner children have to say to me? What kind of emotional state would I find them in?
I’d recently finished sorting through all the family photos my parents had accumulated during their lifetime: 23 boxes of them, to be precise. It was like going through a multigenerational life review. I saw pictures in which I stood apart from the rest of my family, as if I wanted nothing to do with them, and felt bad about how I acted during those adolescent and teen years. Even when I was older, I believed I was more enlightened than the rest of my family and sometimes wondered if I was switched at birth. If I didn’t have the “Meyer eyes,” I seriously would have considered that possibility! Where the heck did I come from, anyway? I didn’t see myself reflected in my family.
In the same boxes, I came across baby pictures of my parents and wondered why I had to push so hard against such sweet beings. I imagined how it might be if my four-year-old self could have played with their four-year-old selves and experience a kind of peer equality we couldn’t experience when we were mired in the roles of Parent and Child.
Basically, my life is quite full and busy, and I didn’t want to put time into reparenting my inner children because it is a bit of a commitment. However, the weekend was profoundly beautiful, and I learned something really important.
In our first guided visualization, my 6-year-old self came out the door of my childhood home, and we had a conversation in the front yard that continued on the branches of the cedar tree I loved to hang out in. That tree was my secret place. It was like a room, dark and hidden from the rest of the world, and during the visualization, it all came back to me: the scent of the foliage, the texture and position of the branches, the way the light filtered in.
My inner 6-year-old was a happy girl and had lots to say. She was a little lonely, but happy. Most of all, she wanted me to lighten up, run around, and be imaginative. I asked her why she’s happy, and she said because she picked a flower and played “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on her piano. She wanted me to play piano because it brought her such joy.
The next day, my 15-year-old self greeted me in another guided visualization. I was surprised at how pleasant and talkative she was but remembered that I saved my surly side for my parents! At 15, I had lots of rich piano opportunities in and outside of high school, including accompanying choral groups and vocalists and playing piano in jazz band. By then, piano had basically become my identity. However, I’d discovered boys and was putting more energy into being accessible and attractive to them than pursuing what I really loved, and my piano teacher could tell when I didn’t practice the assigned pieces between lessons. (But Bach inventions were so boring, complains the 15-year-old!)
At that age, my ego was all tangled up in piano, and there was more pressure and greater expectations around it, as well as competition and a stubborn root of perfectionism. Not to mention, my mom was living vicariously through my piano accomplishments, and I felt the pressure, so it was a facet of the complicated mother-daughter dynamic, as well. The delicate balance had tipped, and playing piano was more about outcomes, identity, and self-worth than being in the flow and immersed in joy.
When I got to college, the competition was too much for me, and I pursued new interests and identities. I gradually stopped playing piano. I’ve lived in some small spaces, including my current home, and what you make space for says a lot about what’s important to you. I’ve always made space for a full piano keyboard, even if it was played only rarely.
My 15-year-old self wanted to know why I stopped playing piano, why I threw out the baby with the bath water. She wanted me to play, and to do it on my own terms. Play from my heart, what I want to play, how I want to play it, not to please anyone but myself. Play the music that comes to me almost constantly, that I find myself humming and singing into the voice recorder app on my phone. Play without worrying about making mistakes or being seen and judged, without making it be about my identity or self-worth. Play for the joy of it, like I did when I was young because when I play in that spirit, it feels soooo good! It’s inherently gratifying.
On my way home from the retreat, I stopped in Ithaca at a state park I hadn’t been to in quite some time, to photograph waterfalls. As I walked back to my car, I understood the deeper message my inner children were offering me: When have I done something just for the joy of it, without trying to monetize it in some way or draw attention to it? To do something without concern for how anyone else would respond to it. Just do it for the pleasure of it, and leave it at that. Let it be a hobby. Basically, I realized the value of hobbies.
There’s a picture of me playing piano when I was eight years old. I was smiling, and it was all about joy. Playing piano hadn’t become a means of impressing anyone or proving my worth. I just loved playing. I found that picture and placed it on my music stand, to keep me in touch with that spirit.
I’m learning many new skills now and pursuing new certifications. My plate is quite full. However, devoting even five minutes a day to playing piano for sheer JOY could be the most important thing I’ve done in quite some time – a means for healing and integrating my inner child because playing for the sake of joy and delight is so different from having the music all tangled up in ego and ultimately abandoned! Cutting yourself off from something you truly love can really weigh on you. It can be like abandoning an actual part of yourself.
What brings joy can begin to feed the ego instead of the True Self if you’re not careful. When the ego gets too big, it can crucify joy and turn what you love into a false identity that serves ego instead of a vehicle that expresses the True Self. That’s what happened to me. But when you stop blaming others or putting conditions or too much weight on the activity you once loved, you begin the empowering retrieval process.
There’s a room in my house that I’ve been working for the past couple weeks. It used to be a bedroom but got converted into a storage room because the house lacks usable storage space and closets. It’s where I store my keyboard. I’ve somewhat facetiously referred to that room as the “graveyard of former passions” because it also houses my collection of children’s picture books from when I taught kindergarten. Those are the two things most visible in that room, and they have survived multiple rounds of clutter clearing. Everything else is hidden away on shelves behind a screen or in a dresser.
This week, I decided to come up with a new name for that room. Something along the lines of the “Inner Child Playground” or “Room for Joy”. I switched the images on the walls to display photography that fills me with delight, including pictures of daffodils and lilacs that I loved to pick when I was a child. I’ve made the keyboard more inviting and comfortable to sit at and have been playing every day since I got home from the retreat. It’s been so much fun that five minutes is rarely enough, and I’ve been giving it the time it deserves.
It feels like I’ve retrieved an abandoned and very important part of myself. The baby (or should I say inner child) has been removed from the bath water, and the good news is that it didn’t drown but is still very much alive. It has been a very happy week holding that child and appreciating its essence during our daily playdates as the cloudy bath water gurgles down the drain. At last!
© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (River-Bliss.com) is a contemplative photographer, writer, educator, and artist who lives on the Hudson River. Her work combines her passion for photography and writing with her deep interest in the nature of mind and perception and her love of the natural world.