teaching

Demons into Butterflies

Chronic Illness as Dharma Teacher By Hannah S. Wilder

As a child, I was always in motion. I carried this energy into adulthood; it ran my life like a demon. As an adult with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I have brain chemistry that operates like two extremes on a dial: scattered/distractible or hyper-focused. As a child, I found respite in reading or lying beside a stream, watching tadpoles change into frogs. I found kindred souls in the streambed, and learned from them that transformation is natural.

The first fifty years of my life were a whirl of ceaseless activity. I rested only when I had pushed myself so far that I collapsed with a cold or flu, or when I found myself stuck in a subway tunnel or traffic. I always carried a book or writing implements, something to busy my mind and still my impatience. I completed several educational degrees, worked around the world, married, had a child, and divorced.

Then, I decided consciously to stop and raise my daughter in a quiet town on the Maine seacoast. I was on my own in raising my daughter and taking care of our home. I wanted very much to "slow down and live," but circumstances and habit pushed on. Thay tells the story of a man riding quickly on a horse. A bystander yells at him, "Where are you going?" and the man replies, "I don't know. Ask the horse!" I was like that man on the horse, propelled by my habit energies.

In the mid-eighties I began a recovery program from growing up in an alcoholic family. At a week - long residential program, a therapist had me portray my life, turning up the volume so that I could see how my busyness was a way of running from pain that only created more suffering. Each person in my group represented a demand in my life. I gave them each a line, and they all said their lines to me at once, so I could experience the overwhelming nature of how I lived: "Earn the money!" "Raise the child!" "Clean the house!" "Help me!" "Listen to me!" "Take care of yourself!" "Mow the lawn!" It was a vivid and clear picture, but still, I didn't stop. At home, I slid back into doing many things at the same time. My behavior was reinforced by others' admiration of my ability to accomplish so much.

Also in the mid-eighties, I first heard about Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching. The message that struck me was "do one thing at a time." I decided to try an experiment. Working in my home one weekend, I began one task. When a second task occurred to me, I wrote it down instead of starting it. I finished the first task, and then completed the rest of the list, one task at a time. I got just as many things done, but felt much more peaceful at the end of the day. I had taken the first step on the path of transformation to a more serene life. In 1993,1 received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and in 1995,1 joined the Order of Interbeing. Shortly after that, a series of challenges turned my world upside down.

Within two years the man I had loved all my life and my brother both died in protracted and agonizing battles with cancer. My parents had died just a few years before. Overworking helped distract me from my losses, but it was too much. My health collapsed. I was in terrible pain and had disturbing symptoms, such as blurred vision and extreme fatigue. I was ready to "stop, calm, rest, and heal," but my family had all died and I still had to support myself.

I accepted an invitation to spend the summer writing in a friend's house on the coast of Somerset in England. There, I rested and wrote, but my health continued to be problematic. Each time I took a long walk, I got extremely tired and felt a lot of pain for several days. After I returned to the States, it gradually became clear that what I'd thought was an acute but curable and known condition was instead a chronic and mysterious one. I continued to have frequent, intense pain, fatigue, and cloudy mental functioning. Doctors shrugged. It looked hopeless. I felt shock and despair. Fortunately, there was a patient group that exchanged information and held a national conference. At length, I got an accurate diagnosis and began taking medication for symptomatic relief. But I was severely depleted, and had to leave my job, with no financial reserve.

How does a chronically-ill person earn a living? Building on my mental health counseling and teaching/mentoring background, I began training to be a personal and business coach and opened a private practice via phone and Internet. Many times I have taken classes by phone, lying in bed, too tired to move. Two or three kind friends gave me moral support. Things seemed to be calming down at last. Then, I received a gift in the form of a daylight robbery. My computer, with three months of data, was stolen. Following this, there was a rash of gang-related activity in which a number of women were tortured. I somehow managed to pack and move into a friend's home. The gift allowed me to see that I could make a move, when I had thought it was almost impossible.

Soon after, with the help of a Dharma sister who found me a place to live, I moved to Virginia. Just before the robbery I had started my first ghostwriting job, which, fortunately, was portable. I was safe and had become a professional writer, something I had always wanted. I could support myself while working on my coaching career. I breathed a sigh of relief. But in the winter I realized that the years of stress and trauma, and my chronic condition had brought my body close to a state of collapse. Soon I had two more diagnoses: chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I was no longer who I had been, at any level. Constant fatigue, head and body aches, memory loss and confusion, extreme sensitivity to noise, light, and an extreme awareness of other people's moods and energy were my new companions. By February 1999,1 could sit up to write only an hour a day.

The Dharma was in my face, so to speak, and the mindfulness teacher of pain was in my whole body. To get better and maintain the delicate balance necessary to function from day to day, I had to learn to practice twenty-four hours a day. Living the way of non-awareness, my body had been depleted, leaving little margin for forgetfulness. Dietary mistakes, weather changes, overworking, or stress may cause my symptoms to flare up. This means I must stay awake as much as possible, and take exquisite care not to let stress build up. I must notice each need—rest, food, fresh air, or quiet—and take immediate steps to meet it. Not responding invites a temporal flare-up, and also progression of the condition.

As a chronically-ill person, I sometimes reflect the quality of impermanence to those who are still healthy and strong. In a youth and perfection-oriented society, it can be challenging to find a comfortable place for aging and illness. I see people trying to separate themselves from my illness, to explain it in ways that exclude the possibility it could happen to them. My compassion for them comes from remembering when I was in their position, feeling frustrated at my inability to help another person in some active way.

Now more than ever, I understand that being present and listening deeply will help relieve suffering. This realization inspired me to begin asking people with chronic illness, "What attitudes and behaviors are supportive and healing for you? How can we educate our medical professionals, loved ones, friends, coworkers and neighbors so that they understand what we are experiencing and what we would like from them?" Perhaps compiling the answers in an article or short book would help others learn to relieve the suffering of those living with chronic conditions. Of course, the short answer is mindful behavior, compassion, and understanding.

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Medical people who have no treatment or explanation often feel unsure how to live with their uncertainty, and, out of their own "dis-ease," respond in ways that blame the patient. There are still poorly educated doctors who dismiss the condition or insult their patients. Some of those who take the condition seriously adopt a certainty that their specialty has the answer: if they are surgeons, it's a brain stem psychiatrists, it's depression and antidepressants will do the trick. Sometimes the variety of simplistic and radically different explanations and cures is overwhelming. Maybe there is a way to convey mindfulness to the health-care professionals as well, and let them know what it feels like on the receiving end of so much confusing and contradictory information, how it feels to be disbelieved and dismissed. So, added to living with the condition and earning a living is the challenge of education those who could be supportive.

In my other life, as I now call it, I loved to travel from snowy fields of the Northeast to high-desert mountains in the Southwest. Now I sit down in my lounge chair, lean back, put on my headphones, and open my laptop computer, traveling via the Internet or telephone to visit clients in California or Brazil, friends and Dharma brothers and sisters in Scotland or Scandinavia. I appreciate that the Internet was developed when I most needed it. Remaining in the comfort of home I can be in contact with the whole world! I speak to someone in Brazil or Australia, then go outside for a walk beside the stream to visit my friendly tadpoles.

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Aside from some persistent financial stress—selling a home to pay medical bills and living expenses often goes with chronic illness—and occasional discomfort, mine is a happy life. I have peace, beauty, and friendship, near and far. I am able to serve, by teaching tele-classes on mindfulness, by developing a program for mindful awareness at work, by coaching people in various walks of life, by leading two international groups of coaches by telephone, by mentoring a new aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, and by helping build our local Sangha. I am endlessly grateful for so many things.

It is essential to maintain the balance between accepting "what is" and continuing to hope and search for a possible cure, to strengthen myself. When I first moved to Virginia, I could not walk up my very steep driveway, so I drove down in my car, parked and walked across the rickety bridge to get the mail. Little by little, I walked farther each day, mindful of how much was just enough. By last summer, I was able to walk down and up my neighbor's driveway, swim a few laps around their pond, and then walk home up my hill. I have learned to replace grief at being an impaired person with gratitude for being able to walk and talk and look fairly "normal", and appreciation for the wonderful gifts around me. There are now times when I can dance!

I have improved faster than anyone else I know with this condition, and it's still with me. Applying my knowledge of holistic health and my research expertise on the Internet, I created a program for myself of nutritional supplements; a strict diet; a daily movement routine combining yoga, chi-gong, sa-long (in the Bon tradition), and mindful movements learned from Dharma teacher Thu Nguyen and Thay's tape. I meditate at least once a day sitting, and also do walking meditation. Practicing daily by myself, weekly with a Sangha, and sometimes traveling to Days of Mindfulness with Anh Huong  and Thu Nguyen sustain me. I am constantly reminded that being slow, being present, is all that is needed. I read the seventh of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings very often!

The tendency to wonder exactly what mistake brought me to this state, to rush around seeking an immediate cure, to worry about the future is still in my store consciousness. I do not water these seeds. I do not revisit my losses. And I remember Thay's words: "This is the shore of suffering, the shore of illbeing, despair, fear, and anger. I don't want to stay on this shore. I want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of well-being, forgiveness, peace, and compassion... When you practice to identify what is there and look deeply into the nature of what is there, you are practicing prajna paramita, and the insight you get will bring you to the other shore, the shore of liberation and well-being."

I am here, learning the gentle ways of butterflies as they light on flowers or settle at the edges of the stream looking for moisture on a hot summer day, sitting so still that the white-tailed deer, the wild turkeys, and the baby rabbits do not consider me alien. It is a peaceful, magical valley, an island of the self, a true home. And it goes where I go, through my constant practice.

Hannah S. Wilder, True Good Heart, practices with Cloud Floating Free Sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. She can be reached by e-mail  at Hannah@Wiseheartcoach.com and would like to hear from others who are practicing with chronic conditions, teaching mindfulness at work, or those who are experts at resting.

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Cranberry Juice

Mindfulness for College Students By Ben Howard

For their first assignment in "The Art of Meditation," my course in mindfulness practice, I asked the students to read the opening chapter of Thich Nhat Hanh's, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I also urged them, whenever drinking, to use both hands, giving the act of drinking their full attention. When I asked the students, a week later, how their practice was coming along, a slender, restless student named Meredith reported a minor awakening. What she discovered, through mindful drinking, was that she really hated cranberry juice. "And I've been drinking it," she added, "all my life."

Meredith's discovery of vasana, or habit-energies and their power, was one of many positive outcomes of "The Art of Meditation," which I offered last fall as an honors course at Alfred University. Although the college atmosphere, with its noise and drugs and alcohol, may seem inimical to meditation, the course filled quickly, attracting the maximum enrollment-fifteen students. We met in a spacious, high-ceilinged room in our new Performing Arts Center, whose tall windows look out on green fields and wooded hills. The room offered ample space for doing Mindful Movements - a sequence of ten contemplative exercises developed by Thich Nhat Hanh - and for walking meditation. Students wore loose clothing and brought cushions and pillows of various shapes and sizes.

As our primary text, we read the Anapanasati Sutra (Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing), which also provided the structure of the course. As readers of The Mindfulness Bell know, the heart of the Anapanasati Sutra is a sequence of sixteen breathing exercises, grouped in tetrads. The tetrads deal respectively with mindfulness of the body, the feelings, the mind, and objects of mind. It might please (or amuse) the Buddha to know that the sixteen exercises of the Anapanasati sutra fit comfortably into the fifteen weeks of an American college semester. During the first half of the semester, we focused on mindfulness of the body and the feelings, giving special attention to the cultivation of compassion; during the second, we practiced mindfulness of thoughts, and we explored the realities of impermanence and interdependence. Broadly speaking, the first half of the course promoted samatha or "stopping"; the second encouraged vipassana, or "looking." In practice, of course, the two aspects of meditation, like the sixteen exercises of the Anapanasati Sutra, partake of each other.

No two sessions of the class were the same, but all followed a common pattern. We would begin with a fifteen minute guided meditation, using one of the exercises from Thich Nhat Hanh's The Blooming of a Lotus. That would be followed by a discussion of the students' recent experiences in the practice -their frustrations, challenges and discoveries. I would then give a talk on whichever aspect of practice we were learning, using the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness ( discussed in Thich Nhat Hanh's Transformation and Healing) as a secondary source. We would then practice Mindful Movements, followed by a second sitting, in which the students were instructed to follow the breath and to give attention to one other thing: to parts of the body, or to the recognition of feelings, or to the rise, duration, and dissolution of mental formations. We would then do slow walking meditation - one step for the in-breath, one for the outbreath. Class would end with readings and a period of silent meditation.

Within this established structure there was room to experiment and to follow the natural evolution of the practice. On one cool October evening, we practiced walking meditation outdoors, climbing a long, uphill road and coming down again. A soft rain sprayed our faces. One student went barefoot. On another evening, we spent twenty minutes eating luscious, Clementine tangerines, having listened to the Buddha's discourse on eating tangerines. At our last class, we drank Tazo lemon-ginger tea, using both hands and giving full attention to its fragrance, its spicy taste, its travels through our bodies.

And what impact did this three-month experience have on the students who took part? If I may judge from their reports the effects ranged from salutary to radical, from pleasant to profound. "In attempting to be mindful of my actions," wrote one student, "I was quite surprised to discover that I had never brushed my teeth, shampooed my hair, or tied my shoes. Until this point in my life, I had lived a dream of performing these actions." Another said that meditation had given her a "subtle clarity in almost every aspect of her life." Others reported improvements in their studies, their performance, and their relationships, and they noted how their happiness had influenced people around them. In one striking instance a theater student told of going to New York City to audition for a play:

"It was a cold, windy day and the tension could be felt in the air. Everyone there knew that everyone else was competition for the part they wanted. After a while of getting nervous waiting to go in, I decided to meditate right there on the street with hundreds of people surrounding me. I sat down with the two friends that went with me and we begin to meditate. I instructed them using methods learned in class. Eventually, about fifteen people joined in the meditation with me leading them all. I feel this changed my life. I was able to take something that I learned, something that changed my life, and be able to share it with other people. Not only did I change my attitude in life, but I changed my outlook on life."

To foster such changes was my chief motive in offering 'The Art of Meditation." Although not every institution may be liberal enough to allow such a course to be offered, I would urge anyone who can do so to give it a try. In thirty years of college teaching, I have not had a more rewarding experience.

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Ben Howard received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1995. An English professor at Alfred University in New York, he teaches mindfulness classes offered to honors students and coordinates a sitting group for students and the community.

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Growing Up with the Practice

By Megan Lawlor At my first retreat with Thay and the monks and nuns of Plum Village, I was eleven years old. Now almost thirteen years have passed by, yet I still remember each moment clearly.

As children, we spent most of our time at the retreat playing end less games of baseball and frisbee outside."We struggled to keep silent through each meal and begged unsuspecting ad ul ts to please, please take us to McDonalds."We explored every corner of the retreat center and chose our favorite places to play. If there was a certain element of freedom at those retreats.

As a part of the Sangha, I remember sitting in the front row of every dharma talk and fee ling as if Thay was speaking directly to me. l remember walking with the adults during outdoor walking meditation and fee ling completely frustrated and confused at the strange, turtle-like pace . And I loved creating skits with the other children that we performed for the Sangha at the end of each re treat. "Buddha Meets the Jetsons" was our first, brilliant masterpiece. We spent hours practicing a skit in which Buddha is whisked away into the future and spends an afternoon with the Jetson family. Of course, the Jetsons were shocked by Buddha's mindful behavior, and we were delighted with the laughter we received.

Last year, after almost thirteen years of learning with Thay, I visited Plum Village for the first time. I had imagined it and heard of its orchards and lotus ponds, but the opportunity to finally see it with my own eyes was wonderful. It was there that I realized how important Thay's teachings have been throughout my life.

A gatha that I learned in fifth grade still remains a sol id place to which I return, although I may have changed the words:

mb31-Growing2In, out. Deep, slow. Calm, peace. Smile, release. Present moment. Wonderful moment.

When I was little, I must have memorized this poem without realizing it. Now, whenever I am nervous or upset, it surfaces in my mind and has an immediate and calming effect.l\J believe that the opportunity to hear Thay's teachings has taught me so much. When I read his words I can imagine his voice, as ifhe is in the room reading to me. His presence as a teacher, and as almost a family member, has been incredible.

Today, many years after my first retreat, I am teaching my first year of high school his story at a public school on the south side of Chicago. Confronted by children in grown up bodies and the struggles that they face each day just to get to school , I am often overwhelmed. There are times in my classroom when chaos arises and remembering how to stop, take a few deep breaths, and then smile at the children who are expecting me to yell changes everything .It is still the most simple, and the most difficult practice. But I am practicing every day by listening to these beautiful children's stories and dreams.

It is interesting to go to retreats now and no longer sit in the front row during dharma talks or stand up part way through the talk to go outside to play.I remember how it felt when I look at the children, and I smile. Then, Ilisten to Thay for the children that I am now teaching, in the hopes that I can give some of his insight and compassion to them.

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Megan Lawlor is twenty-four-years-old. Her father, Jack Lawlor is a Dharma Teacher.

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Apple Meditation

Adam  Bernstein I lead a jazz department at a private school in Brooklyn, New York.  Our school is very overcrowded and the atmosphere is often tense. The students and faculty often speak of the tension and when an opportunity to slow down occurs, we all    benefit.

I have just begun my fifth year at the school and have always used mindfulness practice as a part of my teaching. Every year I’ve led meditation workshops for the students (grades 7 - 12) and many of them claim to enjoy it. They have interesting questions about spiritual life and they seem to be searching for a way to be more at home within themselves.

Recently I’ve begun to sound the bell in almost all my classes. I explain that this is a time to come back to ourselves, to relax and focus. I tell the students it is a time to enjoy doing nothing. That is a real surprise to them — I want them to do nothing! We breathe together for a few breaths and it never fails to settle all of us down. It’s very helpful to the spirit of the class and often there is a light humorous feeling. Many of the students think I’m a bit loony but I don’t mind. It’s true, I am.

Our school decided to have a Peace One Day assembly in solidarity with the program endorsed by the United Nations. I was asked to lead a short meditation so I decided to offer an apple eating meditation. We bought 600 organic Gala apples from the local food co-op. We really enjoyed washing them! We passed them out at the assembly and I spoke about mindful eating. The students and faculty were happy to be doing something so unusual and were very attentive to their apple. When I told them to take the first bite, a loud crunch sounded and all 600 of us began laughing. Everyone remembers that assembly to this day.

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I have much gratitude for the practice and feel genuine happiness sharing it with my students and co-workers.

Adam Bernstein, Radiant Joy of the Heart.

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Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

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Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Awakening to Life

Two Stories by Dzung Vo mb65-Awakening1

mb65-Awakening2Dzung Vo, True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen), lives in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, and practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community of Vancouver. As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, he practices engaged Buddhism by offering mindfulness to young people suffering from stress and pain.

Just One Thing

In 2013, I attended a five-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the international Sangha at Deer Park Monastery. Mindfulness retreats are such a wonderful gift. Retreats are so important for me, to have time to free myself from my day-to-day habit energies, and to nourish my soul and spirit to bring the practice back home and to the world. Coming to Deer Park, or any of the other practice centers in the Plum Village Sangha, feels like coming home. I am deeply grateful to my teachers and the Sangha for this compassionate offering.

During a question-and-answer session at the retreat, Thay reflected on how to stay involved in social activism and positive social change, while at the same time not burning out or giving in to despair. He answered, “My name, Nhat Hanh, means ‘Just One Thing.’ Find just one thing to do, and do that with all of your heart. That is enough.”

When I heard this, I noticed my initial thought-response: “Wait a minute, Thay, how can you say that? You write books, you do calligraphy, give Dharma talks, lead retreats, organize an international Sangha, speak out for social change, meet with world leaders … you do so many things, not just one thing!”

As I looked more deeply into the teaching, I began to receive a different message. I saw that when Thay is giving a Dharma talk to the Sangha, he is fully there with us, 100%, unburdened in that moment by any of his other projects. When he is walking, he is just walking. When he is writing, he is just writing. I believe that this is one way he keeps his joy and compassion alive and protects himself from burnout and despair.

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Since returning to Vancouver, I’ve been trying to practice Just One Thing. That first Monday morning, as I was brewing my coffee, I felt a familiar pang of “back to work” anxiety as I began automatically running through my mental to-do list. I noticed it, breathed and smiled, and returned my full attention to the simple act of brewing coffee. The same thing happened again as I was cutting an apple for breakfast. And again as I shaved and brushed my teeth.

One challenge for me about mindfulness practice is that it demands constant attention, endless repetition, to be awake to life in every moment. One wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that every moment is an opportunity to be awake, to be free. Every moment. This moment. This is it.

mb65-Awakening4Opening, Opening, Now

I decided to become an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing about three years ago, when I began teaching mindfulness to youth in an explicit and intentional way. I knew that I needed to strengthen my own mindfulness practice, and I asked for the guidance and container of the Order of Interbeing to support me. I wanted my practice to be as solid and compassionate as possible, in order for me to be able to offer something beautiful and healing to the youth.

I received the ordination on October 15, 2013, at the Deer Park retreat. Thay gave me the ordination name True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen). Our ordination family name is True Garden, which I love because it is a reminder that practice is always organic and alive, and it needs continuous love and tending in order to produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. I feel that the name “Diligence” is a challenge––as if Thay were reminding me, “Don’t get complacent; don’t take anything for granted. Keep practicing, always!” During the ordination, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. What a compassionate gift from Thay, from the fourfold Sangha that held us in a loving embrace, from my order aspirant teachers Jeanie Seward-Magee and Brother Phap Hai, and from all ancestral teachers. I felt that their greatest hope for us is to wake up to our true nature of interbeing, compassion, and mindfulness. The most I can do to repay that gift is to practice diligently and joyfully, and offer that to the world.

The day before the ordination, I practiced heart-opening in order to be fully present to receive the nourishment and support of the Sangha. My gatha with each step and each breath was,“Opening.” I wrote this haiku on the morning of ordination as I walked slowly to the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, feeling enveloped by and deeply connected to the vast universe of stars in the pre-dawn sky.

ordination day opening, opening, now universe is here

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Letter from the Editor

mb54-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha, When I was young I wanted to be a teacher. I held summer classes for the neighborhood kids, complete with handouts, recess, and homework (and they tolerated it!). Later I set aside that dream, believing I lacked the authority and knowledge to teach. But having taught meditation for the past year, I’ve learned that compassion and mindfulness are the most powerful teaching tools—much more powerful than knowledge.

This summer I’ll be teaching creative writing to children. To prepare for the job I observed a young teacher at the writing school. He gave his undivided attention and encouragement to each six-year-old budding writer. I realized that to teach, we don’t need to know everything about our subject. We only need to love the topic and give the class our full, caring attention. In mutual exchange, we discover and learn with our students. Similarly, if we love eating our meals with mindfulness, love being fully present with each footstep, we’ll naturally share this beloved practice and exchange discoveries with friends who practice too.

With its theme of Mindful Education, this issue offers a wonderful collection of stories, photos, activities, and resources on teaching and learning. This issue isn’t just for classroom professors and students. It’s for all of us. As students of Thay, of the Buddha, we are studying the way of awareness and always teaching by example. These stories show us how we might bring mindful practices not just to schools, but also to our families, friends, and co-workers—the people we teach every day with our actions, our words, our presence.

One of my Sangha mentors, Glen Schneider, shared an insight he learned from Thay: “What should a student expect from a teacher? The student should expect that the teacher is a free person, free from craving, fear, and despair. What should a teacher expect from a student? You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom.” Such simple, profound expectations can alter the course of an education, a relationship, a life.

Instead of a Dharma talk from Thay, in this issue we include his essay, Bat Nha: A Koan. Thay shines a penetrating light on the coercion and violence that happened at Prajna Temple in Vietnam. Our teacher guides us to cultivate insight by looking compassionately into the hearts of others, and invites us into a fearless practice of interbeing.

May you be peaceful and at ease, enjoying your breathing as you read this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. May these stories enrich your practice and awaken your bodhicitta, your mind of love.

Editor-NBsig

Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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The Wisdom of Ordinary Children

By Mike Bell mb54-TheWisdom1

I started learning to meditate in the late 1980s and went on my first retreat with Thay around 1992. I joined the Order of Interbeing in 1996. By 1999 I was looking for a new career and decided to take up teaching. I found I had less time to go to local Sangha meetings and so spent more time integrating the practice into my everyday life.

Mindfulness Trainings: Guidelines for a Better Life

I first thought about trying to use Buddhist ideas in the classroom while teaching a General Studies class of sixth formers (sixteen-year-olds). We had been talking about ethics. I remembered hearing that if you ask a group of schoolchildren about the things that upset people at school, and then ask them to come up with rules to prevent these things from happening, they will naturally generate the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I decided to give it a try.

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I asked the pupils to write down one or two things that had made them unhappy at school. They read their ideas out loud, and I wrote them on the board. The most common reason that people get upset in school is because of things others say, and particularly, being talked about behind their backs. I asked the pupils to group the ideas into categories and, finally, to come up with a rule that they might be prepared to follow to prevent these things from happening.

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It soon became clear that this exercise was going to work, but not quite as I had anticipated. The pupils came up with a list of what they called “Rules for a Happy Society,” which included:

  1. Consideration for others—no discrimination on the basis of age, sex, religion, or disability.
  2. No stealing
  3. No hurting, violation, or murder.
  4. Protection for religions and cultures. Accept a reasonable level of risk—do not look for blame.
  5. Welcome asylum-seekers, but deport illegal immigrants.
  6. Make facilities available for people of all ages.
  7. Limit the use of addictive drugs.

I noticed the importance to young people of tolerance: religions, musical tastes, fashions, and sexuality were all mentioned in our class discussion as objects of tolerance.

I have tried the same exercise with twelve-year-olds. I introduce the practice as “the science of happiness,” and tell them not to believe what I tell them, just to examine the facts. On one occasion, without any prompting, they did indeed group their concerns into the same five areas as the precepts: violence, stealing, speech, sexual misconduct, and consumption. I found from experience that I needed to include a second question, such as: “What things that you eat, buy, or consume can make you or other people unhappy?” Once prompted, they easily came up with overeating, getting drunk, and using drugs.

Mindfulness Practice: Calming Your Mind

I have several times tried to adapt our mindfulness practice to the classroom. I introduce these ideas as ways to calm your mind, to stop from worrying, to think more clearly, or to help you focus. Initially I thought I would follow Thay’s idea of the “pebble meditation”: moving five pebbles from hand to hand as you breathe in and out. I then realised that if I sent thirty pupils out of the classroom to collect five pieces of gravel from the driveway, I would really not end up with a meditation lesson! So first I tried using five pencils. Unfortunately, not every child has five pencils, and pencils come with some disadvantages—they take a lot of tidying up, they lend themselves to tapping, and they fall on the floor—so I decided to invent a simpler system. This is the five-finger meditation.

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You start with the index finger of one hand resting on the wrist of the other hand, just below the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the thumb. Breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of the thumb. Breathing in, slide the finger up the first finger; breathing out, slide the finger down the other side of that finger, etc. With nothing to fall on the floor, this system has worked reasonably well.

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Slow walking meditation around the outside of the classroom was less successful— too many pupils did silly things, giggled, and poked each other. However, walking meditation has really worked with children who are being bullied.

I point out that bullies are people who enjoy seeing somebody else upset, so the trick is to not give them any idea that you are upset. I have shown several pupils how to bring their attention down to the contact point between their feet and the ground and how to keep their focus there as they walk across the playground, not allowing any change in expression when somebody makes a taunting comment. I have observed a change in two or three pupils. One girl, who would stop behind to tell me how horrible people were, now stops and tells me something else!

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After I taught these exercises to one or two classes, a group of rather unruly boys asked me if I would teach them meditation. I told them that I would only do it with classes that I knew and only if everybody agreed to participate. I never expected the boys to be able to be quiet enough to do it. But each lesson they kept asking, so I decided to give it a try. To my amazement, they did quite well, with one particular boy practising extremely well. I asked him whether he did any activities that were repetitive and that required focusing his mind. He told me that he was a cross-country runner and that when he was running, he often paid attention to the feeling in his legs. He had no trouble sitting still without fidgeting, clearly focused for much longer than the other pupils.

On the day of their exams, I was waiting with my pupils outside the examination hall when two of them asked if they could do the relaxation practice again. (I had told them it would help them with their exam.) A group of five or six started breathing meditation. One of their friends came over. “What you lot doin’?” he asked in a jeering voice. One of my pupils immediately replied, “Meditating. Sir taught us… and it’s gonna make us better in our exam, so you can shu’ up!”

Can We Live by Ourselves Alone?

This year I was planning to teach eleven-year-olds about the characteristics of living things. I asked the technician to bring me a green plant and a large stone. Showing these items to the pupils, I asked them what would happen if I put the stone in a cupboard and left it for a year and took it out again. They had no trouble telling me that the stone would be roughly as it was before—perhaps a little dusty or even mouldy, but basically the same. When I asked them what would happen to the plant if it were kept in a cupboard for a year, they readily agreed that the plant would be dead, all rotten or all brown. I then asked them what the plant needed that the stone didn’t, and they said that it needed light and water and stuff from the soil. They copied my diagram and labelled it with things the plant needed. I then asked them what the plant needed to be happy, and they were clear that it needed more sunlight, more water, and more nutrients. I asked them what the difference was between the stone and the plant, and they came up with the general idea that the plant “cannot live by itself alone.”

I then asked what would happen if the pupils were shut in a cupboard for a year (pointing out that I had no intention of doing this!). They easily agreed that they would be dead and rotten and smelly. I asked them what they needed to stay alive, and they first thought of food, water, and air; they soon added friends, family, and a house. They were ready to acknowledge that they could not live by themselves alone. I then asked them what they needed to be happy, and again they had no trouble listing the things that would help them. I asked them whether they thought the plant was separate from the water and the sunshine and the soil. This needed a little more thought, but they eventually agreed that the plant was not separate. I asked them if they were separate from their family and the air and the rain. They had no trouble with the idea that they were not separate. I asked what they needed to do to make sure that they were happy, and they decided that they needed to look after their family and the environment in order to be happy.

These experiences suggest to me that the wisdom found in Buddhism can be easily discovered by ordinary children without any reference to Buddhist terminology. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are not rules handed down by an authority but a set of guidelines for living that any group of reasonable people—even schoolchildren—can agree upon. I believe that my efforts to introduce mindfulness practice into the classroom have significantly affected and improved the lives of my pupils.

mb54-TheWisdom7Mike Bell, True Sword of Understanding, lives near Cambridge, England and teaches science in a state secondary school. He is interested in exploring ways to offer the benefits of the practice to those who would be put off by labels, rituals and complex language.

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