Omega Institute retreat 1995

Touching Peace and Pain

By Sister Tue Nghiem Amid the blazing colors of autumn, a large group of people silently, slowly, and mindfully walked down the paved road covered with autumn leaves. Occasionally, the sound of a bell resonated through the sound of footsteps; everyone stopped and paused momentarily to breathe, smile, and enjoy the presence of each other and the beautiful, peaceful landscape around them. Then the group continued walking mindfully and slowly. This is the scene of walking meditation during the retreat at Omega Institute during Thay's autumn visit to the United States.

After a long trip in the airplane and a tiresome car ride, we were happy to set our feet on the earth of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The red, brown, yellow, and orange colors of autumn, the woods around the institute, and the peacefulness and naturalness of the landscape welcomed us all. After a short rest, the brothers and sisters from Plum Village and our friends, the organizers for Thay' s visit, began welcoming a group of 800 people to attend the autumn retreat.

Each of us led a small group of people from a certain geographic area in an effort to cultivate peace and joy and to nourish our seeds of mindful living. Thay gave wonderful talks on mindfulness and on love that inspired everyone to go back to themselves in order to touch the seeds of mindfulness, peace, joy, and love in them. Together with Thay, the brothers and sisters from Plum Village and our friends, we created a peaceful, happy and mindful environment for everyone. All the retreatants integrated into the practice naturally, silently. Everyone participated in the retreat wholeheartedly—with 100% of their being—so they could fully benefit from the teachings and the community of practice, nourish peace and joy, cultivate an awareness and appreciation for life, and heal and transform the pain and suffering.

I was assigned as a practice leader to a group of people from New York City. I enjoyed practicing together with these friends. We created our meditation hall as a home where we came together for sitting meditation, Dharma discussion, total relaxation sessions, apple meditation, and Touching the Earth practice. It was the first time I was a practice leader, and I was full of anticipation to come to the home meditation hall and practice together with my new friends. I wanted to know everything, to hear everything about them.

I created opportunities for them to speak out their experiences in the practice of mindful living, of going back and touching the joy as well as the pain in them. Many people expressed their joy and deep insight as they practiced being present for themselves and for everything in the here and the now. Many people touched territories in themselves they had repressed and shut up for years since their childhood. These people revealed their pain and suffering from being sexually abused as children. The joyful atmosphere of the home meditation hall became heavy. I felt overwhelmed, sad, and incapacitated and was unable to help relieve and remove the suffering from these people who I came to love as brothers and sisters. After the session, I practiced walking meditation in the twilight, trying to embrace my sadness and find ways to help these people.

The next morning, two friends who had seen my sadness came up to me after the morning sitting meditation and suggested that we organize a discussion group for the incest survivors to talk out and learn from those who had healed themselves of childhood abuse with the practice. These two women were also sexually abused as children and healed themselves with the practice of mindfulness. They were strong, happy women who during the past few days practiced wholeheartedly and mindfully. The discussion group was announced. That afternoon, about 30 people attended the discussion group.

Two sisters from Plum Village and I came to support and practice deep listening. Many people were able to express their pain and hurt, perhaps for the very first time. Many spoke of the suffering without fear or shame, while others listened with tears rolling down their cheeks. The two women who facilitated the discussion shared their experiences and their success in accepting themselves and the people who hurt them, healing themselves, and transforming their anger, hatred, and shame into positive energy that allowed them to help other people who shared their same pain and suffering.

Everyone felt at ease in the discussion group and expressed their appreciation and desire for more meetings, more time to practice together with other incest survivors in order to learn from each other and to support each other in the healing process and in cultivating peace, acceptance, and happiness in themselves. Everyone left the room knowing they were accepted and feeling optimistic that they could heal their wounds with the practice of mindfulness. I left the room feeling lighter in my heart and mind.

mb15-Touching

I came to the retreat to help retreatants fully benefit from the teachings of Thay, from the practice of mindfulness, and from the presence of the Sangha. The retreatants, however, gave me a lot of joy and helped nourish the seeds of understanding and love in me. They helped me see my strengths and weaknesses. And, through being with them and listening to their suffering, I realized that the only way they could heal themselves, or I could help them, or transform my own suffering, is by living every moment mindfully, being aware of the joy and pain, and embracing and cradling the suffering with 100% presence. I left the retreat with a smile on my lips, with new strength, and with compassion warming my own heart.

Sister Tue Nghiem is a nun at Plum Village.

PDF of this article

Apples of Life

By Brenda Carr Many connections were resonating for me as I joined in apple meditation at the Omega retreat with Thay. As I crunched thoughtfully on my tart-sweet fall apple, lovingly delivered from the hands of local organic farmers, I recalled Thay's instruction to Westerners to look deeply into their spiritual traditions for new insights into their jewels. I also recalled his observation that when Jesus offered bread at the "first supper" and asked his disciples to reflect on how it embodied his life, he was asking them to undertake a practice of mindful attention to interbeing. As Thay says in Living Buddha, Living Christ, "The bread we eat is the whole cosmos."  This insight into Christian communion as an opportunity to eat mindfully and awaken from forgetfulness was embodied in the apple meditation practice. As someone else in the Sangha noted, the apple in the Judeo-Christian tradition is such a problem fruit—the sign of the fall from grace and paradise. Like the bread, we found the apple to contain all of life—earth, decayed leaf, root, water, sap, sky, sun, blossom, laboring hands. To look deeply into the apple is to see it renewed as the apple of life, to be restored to paradise.

mb15-Apples

Life was so evident in the sharp crunch and crack of the lusty and delicious bites we all enjoyed together. This brought me back to my earliest memories of the Christian Eucharist where I felt embarrassed by the necessity of chewing the bread and swallowing the juice of the vine. As a young girl, I tried very hard, often with awkward results, to chew and swallow without making a sound. I assumed that the quieter and less physical the experience was, the holier it was. I also tried not to meet the eyes of the person who handed me the bread. I am not sure where I got these ideas of disembodied and ethereal transcendence, but it strikes me that much of Western culture from Plato onwards associates the sacred, the ideal, and the beautiful with experience that transcends these bodies that gurgle, cough, snore, sneeze, chew, and swallow. What was so wonderfully healing forme was the revelation that the sacred is nowhere else but here—in the juicy apple of life passed lovingly from one warm pair of hands to the next, and crunched en masse.

Brenda Carr is an instructor of Canadian and twentieth-century literature at Carleton Universify in Ottawa, Ontario, and a new member of the Warm Snow Sangha

PDF of this article