Headcase - The Mother’s Gaze

Love, pain and the need to forgive

I last saw my mother a few months before she died June 28. What I most remember about the visit is the way she looked at me when I was preparing to leave. Unable to speak because of a stroke, she gazed at me with such open sadness and love that I could not speak, either. I could only drink in her gaze.

The significance of the mother’s gaze is a given in much psychological theory. Our sense of self and our capacity to communicate, it is theorized, originate in the way the nonverbal child internalizes the mother’s gaze.

My mother’s look that day threw me into the past. The blend of sadness and love — an almost tragic gaze — felt so familiar. I spent most of my life feeling like a huge disappointment to her. We had long periods of estrangement. Even when I was a child, she sometimes refused to speak to me for a week at a time.

But on my last visit, I read her gaze differently. I saw in her sadness, not my failure, but the tragedy of her own existence and, I believe, regret about our estrangement. I kissed her goodbye and left, my head swimming with memories. I realized that I had indeed internalized her tragic view of life, often made bearable only by the dark sense of humor she also passed on to me.

Two months after her death, as I reported last week, I decided to visit Mother Meera, my former spiritual teacher, from whom I’ve felt estranged for five years. Regarded as an incarnation of the divine, Mother Meera, who lives in Germany, was on a rare American tour and was in Raleigh, N.C., for three days.

Because her darshan, the self-revelation of the divine, is done in silence and involves the gaze, I wanted to know how that would feel after the experience with my mother. Would I still feel like I was a disappointment to Mother Meera?

The experience in Raleigh certainly differed from the darshans I attended in Germany. There, they were held nightly in her home, with fewer than a hundred or so people. In Raleigh, darshan was held twice daily in a huge Hindu temple with 500 people packing all six sessions (and people were only allowed to attend once). In less than three hours, she gave individual darshan to each person present.

The experience was also different because Mother Meera sat on a stage, giving the experience a theatrical effect. Her retinue of German aides kept everyone moving at an efficient pace. Because knee surgery made it impossible for me to kneel, which is usual, I was directed to a chair placed before her.

I leaned forward and, as she had often done in Germany, Mother Meera took my head in her hands and began her work, which she describes as preparing the body to receive a particular form of light. As usual, my body tingled from head to toe and a deep sigh came out of me. When she released her hands, I leaned back to meet her eyes.

As I wrote last week, describing this experience is difficult. I was pleased that none of the resentment that ruined my last darshan with her arose. Instead, I was, as in the past, completely absorbed in her gaze, which, I realized later, was entirely different from my mother’s. There was no pain in her gaze, but I wouldn’t call it loving in usual terms, either. It was profoundly intimate but had more of the quality of what Hindus call “shakti,” an energetic, powerful presence.

I had no visionary experiences, as I had occasionally in Germany. But I did come away realizing how, long ago, I idealized my own mother — perhaps the natural condition of the child — and how, in meeting her gaze before her death, I met the condition of my own painful, desire-filled human life. In Mother Meera’s gaze, I encountered the potential of existence: a heart that accepts the human condition.

As usual, a few weeks after my darshan, things in my life that I’d ignored demanded my attention and increased my pain. Even my canary Georges died the day I sat down to write this. His song — a song of yearning for love — is gone, just like my mother’s longing gaze. On the same day, I received a beautiful letter from an old friend expressing his wish to share the pain of my grief.

What is it in the world that weaves love and pain so intimately? I do not know. I only know that I want to be more forgiving.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.