By Evelyn van de Veen During the Summer Retreat in Plum Village, I was asked to give a short presentation about how I practice with the First Mindfulness Training, “Reverence for Life.” While I was preparing this presentation, something funny happened. I was sitting with my notebook, thinking about the theme of not killing, of protecting the lives of people and animals, and how I have tried to integrate the practice of the First Mindfulness Training into my life. It was very pleasant, letting my thoughts roam and feeling in touch with the beauty of the aspiration of the training. The bell for the working meditation was invited, and my work happened to be washing lettuce. Within a few minutes I found myself dunking lettuces into white tubs filled with cold water and salt, drowning many tiny insects. In that working meditation, I faced the contrast between my lofty aspirations and the impossibility of fully living up to them.
Dealing with small insects has taught me an interesting lesson. I was brought up to take great care of the well-being of animals. In our house, pets were fed before people. But this care did not extend to small insects such as spiders and mosquitoes. I swatted mosquitoes and vacuumed spiders without thinking about it. After taking the mindfulness trainings, I decided this was one area that needed the focus of my practice. Instead of using the vacuum, I tried to entice spiders to walk onto a piece of paper so I could put them outside. Or I would carefully cup my two hands around them and carry them that way, feeling their legs tickle the palms of my hands.
And then I noticed something. I had never been afraid of spiders (at least not the smallish ones you find in Europe), but I didn’t particularly like them. I was indifferent about them. But treating them with more care created a connection. As I watch a spider scurry off after I release it outside, I get a wonderful warm feeling of satisfaction and tenderness. It is as if the tenderness with which I treat the spider is also tenderness toward myself. I discovered that by being kind to a spider, I watered my own seeds of happiness. Being nice to spiders is not only good for them; it’s also very good for me!
Not every small animal is safe with me. Occasionally, I swat a buzzing mosquito that keeps me awake at night and refuses to fly out the window. I use an organic spray to kill the lice that eat my plants. I drowned tiny insects so we could all eat clean lettuce leaves. And so the list goes on. However, making a small change in my behaviour has taught me a valuable lesson about the close connection between actions and feelings, and about the value of trying to put the mindfulness trainings into practice in daily life, however imperfectly.
When I first came across the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt it was pointless to promise to try to do things that I knew were impossible. But I have changed my mind about this. A manager of the London Underground once said in an interview that their policy was to completely eliminate the chance of fatal accidents.
When the journalist commented that surely that was impossible, the manager replied, “Of course it’s impossible, but we cannot do otherwise than strive for it anyway. You can’t have as an official policy that one death a year is acceptable.”
I have begun to see the mindfulness trainings in the same way. The goal may be impossible, but it’s not an option to have a goal that is less ambitious.
Evelyn van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, lives in Amsterdam and works as a teacher trainer in higher education. She visited Plum Village for the first time in 1999 and has been coming back ever since. She practises with the Amsterdam Sangha.