Letter from a reader

Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

It is still smoggy outside. My throat is less sore though. I have no idea if that is a good sign or a bad sign. I have understood from people who have been living here a long time that the body gets used to the smog. They don’t get irritated eyes and clogged sinuses anymore. Not something I look forward to.

When I was in China I received a question from a reader. I just decided I will take a shot at it. It is a tough and complicated one but I will do my best.

Before I start I want to say how much it keeps amazing me how these things work. I would have never expected such a letter to come in. But I see something or live through something and write about it and then it opens up a thought, pattern or issue on the other side of the world. Sometimes a post causes resistance and judgment in one place and is received as healing and insightful at another place. I even have a post that is an ‘all time classic’ on Elephant Journal (with more than 41000 views and 3.7k likes) that was booed away on The Good Men Project (14 likes). Exactly the same post, same words, same writer, completely different impact. It is such a mystery to me. I mean, I understand that words and actions can be received completely differently depending on the receiver but to see it happen simultaneously is quite something.

Thinking about the subconscious mind and it’s mysterious way, I wonder if the paragraphs above will be somehow relevant to the question I will now copy/paste below. Let’s take a look:

Hey Atalwin,

I was wondering if you could lend me a piece of advice? I enjoyed your article, ‘Little Victories‘ and could relate to the feeling of never wanting to be in trouble or displease others. I have always been this way, but not from my parents scaring me to be that way. My fiancé is worse than I and was raised more like the Chinese, having had parents that disciplined only with European style beatings and fear tactics… Anyways, we are having a dilemma. His parents are incredibly negative and disrespectful people (not all the time but a lot of it), and over a month ago we stopped talking to them because of this. We recently had a baby and they picked a fight because it had been about a week since we had seen them. They escalated to talking about me in a disrespectful and aggressive way. We didn’t go over there after this because I felt totally uncomfortable having had them speak about me this way and accuse me of various things which are all untrue. After that they accused me of keeping the baby away from them on purpose, which is completely not the case, he is way too young to be anywhere without me. My husband explained our perspective via email and they had nothing to say in response. Now it’s been over a month and I feel terrible on one hand because our baby is growing so fast, and I am trying my best to be compassionate about their actions/words and my feelings on this –but I still have no desire what so ever to see them or talk to them. They thrive on negativity and drama, and I really do my best to avoid that. They’ve since fired my husband from his job with his dad, which has left us in a brutal financial situation with a new baby.

So my question is basically: how can I be compassionate and resolve a problem that I have no desire to resolve and do not care to talk to those people, but the situation seems to loom over me none the less? Furthermore, this situation is re-occurring and I never stand up for myself because I don’t see the point. Usually 6mo goes by and eventually everyone pretends like nothing happened. They make me so upset that I feel paralyzed and just want to get away from them. How can I stay present in these moments? And isn’t there a fine line between being compassionate and getting walked on? Where is the line and how should I deal with these types of attacks, especially when it is almost always said to my fiancé and never to me?

I know this is a long message and you’re probably very busy, so I understand if you don’t have time to respond. Have an amazing time in China and good luck with your endeavors!!

Kind regards,


First thing that comes up is that compassion is not the same as acting according concepts and ideas of what compassion should look like. Everybody who is in zen practice will sooner or later run into a non-practitioner who tell you that certain behavior you are showing is ‘not zen’. When we fall into the pitfall of trying to live up to expectations of self, others or society we lose touch with our essence, even if we have Buddhist or enlightened expectations of ourselves. Demanding of myself to be more enlightened or zen than I am will not make me happier nor more enlightened nor more zen. It will make me inauthentic though. Most of us have learned to wear a mask and it is so common that we expect it from others too. But underneath we suffer because the mask is per definition not free, not real and limiting. So to be compassionate is not putting on a mask of loving kindness, it is to allow all the feelings that want to be felt to be felt. No emotion wants to be swept under the carpet. Actually, sweeping emotions under the carpet is not a very compassionate thing to do. Look at how we treat the unwelcome feelings; the guys with the bad rep. They are asking for attention for a good reason. I would allow the pain, the sadness, the fears, the anger, the disappointment and all the other feelings to come up. Acknowledge them and let them have their say.

Second thing that comes up is: I have been very unsuccessful with changing people, especially family members and especially my mother (sorry mom). We can’t change other people but we can change – or better – unfold or liberate ourselves. When we liberate ourselves we give others permission to do the same. But they don’t have an obligation to change, no matter how much work we do on ourselves. Especially family members can be remarkably resistant. So don’t expect to be able to change your parents in law. If you choose so, you can be patient with them. They are wounded too, you know. They didn’t become so aggressive, abusive and negative because to received too much love in their lives.

Third thing that comes up is about listening to what the Universe is trying to tell us. One of the hardest things to admit is that even the people who – in our eyes – are obviously wrong might have a point. Instead of arguing why they are wrong ask yourself if you can see how they are right. My experience is that when accusations hurt they contain an element of truth that I am unwilling to look at. If you accuse me of being Spanish I just shrug my shoulders. But if you accuse me of being a bad mindfulness trainer I might feel shame, fear, anger and indignation. When people are able to hurt you and disempower you it means that they are touching sensitive and painful places inside you. These places require your healing, they won’t go away by others being more sensitive.

Fourth thing: the feeling of never wanting to be in trouble or displease others comes from fears like the fear of making mistakes, disappointing others, not fitting in, being revealed as an inadequate, unacceptable or ‘bad person, being rejected and being excluded to name a few. In my experience fear always comes in a cluster. We obey our fears out of self preservation. Self preservation mechanisms only care about the survival of the self and are therefore deeply selfish. The transformation is to go from ‘kind’ and ‘compassionate’ behavior motivated by fear of displeasing and punishment to serving others wholeheartedly and generously.

If I would be in this situation I would act very selfishly. I would try to distill the lessons that are there for me and take care of my own stuff first. I would tell my parents in law that I feel too weak to stand my ground against them and that I have work to do. First I would want to find out what compassion and presence really means and get a taste of self-compassion. Once I feel strong enough I would invite them back into my life. I would share what I have learned and would try to put my lessons into practice. If I would fail I would retreat again. But if there were little victories I would let these victories be the foundation of a new relationship. I would not be resuscitating a destructive and unhealthy relationship but I would try to form new, healthier relationships.

Anybody else some heartfelt advice for our friend? Feel free to use the comments.


  1. Nisa says

    dear Atalwin and C.,
    apart from the very beautiful reply that you give, Atalwin, i would like to add that this situation with parents or parents in law escalating after the birth of a child, is quite common. I remember those days quite well – in my case i insulted all the (grand)parents because i didn’t allow them to hold the baby in their arms. And i am not the only mother doing these things.
    Wonderful thing, a little baby, you want to protect him/her from all the things not pure. So, anything you didn’t dissolve in your relationship with the world (read here: parents), is pressing on you, urging you to guard the child. Let’s say it makes it all very clear. Visible. And big. Let’s say it is a time of cleansing for YOU. If the parents are too crude for you, maybe you have lived with it for years, but now you can’t let that happen to the innocent little child. So now you stand up. Okay, crisis is what you get. Well, that’s the price. But it’s better than just carrying on. So enjoy and be true and be grateful that you’re no longer in a dependent financial situation here. Choose what is right. If this means there is a crisis right now, well, that’s how it is. It will change, one day. Growing up is the moment that you no longer complain about the world, instead of that you start to build a sanctuary, to grow a garden, to paint, to love, to create. To make the world more beautiful. The parents will adjust or they won’t.
    And, in time, you will relax more, once the child is a little older. Of course they will have their chances to be grandparents, there will be enough time for that. But now is a very special period, so enjoy and don’t doubt about yourself and give the best you can give. And all the rest, just leave it, you don’t have to dissolve everything. Stop “being nice” and start giving the best that you have – and after all, that’s the only thing you really want when you have a child in your arms.
    love, Nisa

  2. Mam says

    Dear C…,

    The other day I read a little story in an article about attention and how real – mindful – attention can make miracles happen; it does take some time however!

    The tale is about a young woman who really hated her mother in law. The marriage had been arranged by the fathers and the poor girl was swept out of her own family and put in the big house of her in-laws. She could not get along with her bossy mother in law and it got worse and worse. One day she could not stand it anymore and she decided to get rid of the old hag.
    She went to see a witch who lived deep in the forest. Could she get some secret potion to realize her plan? The witch instructed her: “From now on you have to brush the hair of your mother in law every morning. After three months you must pull three hairs out of her head and with those you come back to me, as I need them for the remedy I’ll make for you”.
    After three months the young woman came back to the witch in the forest. She felt miserable. Wringing her hands, she cried ‘Can I back out of it, or is it too late? Here are the three hairs you asked for. But I do not want to hurt my mother in law anymore!’

    Half an hour full attention daily for three months dissolved the hatred and made mom in law a nice and lovable person.

    Of course I know that things are not that easy in real life, but maybe there is a little thread that you could pick up and that would help you to change things for the better.
    Maybe you could send short e-mails regularly with a picture and the latest news of your baby, or make an e-mail account in his name and let him ‘send the messages himself’, telling about the little things he has learned, how happy he is, how much Mommy and Daddy love him, etc. etc.
    No grandma can stay negative when her sweet little grandson gives her all his attention and tries to get hers! At least that is what I think.
    Good luck, girl, and a big hug from Atalwin’s unchangeable mom,

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