walking and holding hands of monastics

How to Instantly Drop Feelings of Shyness, Loneliness, & Separateness

A Dharma Lamp Talk Plum Village November 13, 2004 by Annabelle Zinser


Often it is specific, concrete suggestions for practice that help us most in our process of transformation. In this section, practitioners, both experienced and beginner, share ways to incorporate a deeper awareness of mindfulness into our daily lives. We hear about the fears and joys of walking meditation from a new Dharma teacher; about how the practice of shining the light can be used in a Sangha setting; how one Sangha responded to a person in need; the courage it took to attend a first retreat; and some suggestions on how we can reduce our need for consuming a little bit more each day.

I first came to Plum Village in the summer, one year after the death of my mother. I had a feeling that there was something I needed to learn, and it seemed important to come and discover what that was.

When I look back now, I see that what I needed to learn was how to practice skillful and loving communication. I needed to learn not just the theory, but how to get the practice into my flesh and bones. It is the key to manifesting interbeing and emptiness in reality and to transforming suffering into freedom and happiness.

The practice which touched me most was to walk hand in hand with someone during walking meditation. Normally in life, people only hold hands with someone who is near and dear to them; but here in Plum Village, the process of becoming close to people is sometimes accelerated. At first I just watched others walking hand in hand, too shy to practice it myself. Sometimes even a feeling of loneliness came up when I saw so many people holding hands.

My background includes many years of practice in the Thera­vada Vipassana tradition. During those silent retreats instructions are given to avoid eye contact and any direct physical contact. This method of staying completely with your own process helps you to experience impermanence and no-self, as you witness the constant changes in bodily sensations, feelings, and mental formations. So for me the practice of holding hands with a stranger was something new and special.

At that retreat we had a Rose Festival, where I shared about being with my mother during the months before she died. Af­terwards, one nun came to me and talked about the death of her mother, and later, when the walking meditation started, she came to me again, bowed and smiled, and took my hand. She was very clear-eyed and trusting and I experienced a great ease and comfort walking with her and the Sangha around the lotus pond in the Lower Hamlet.

I did not know this nun very well, and there had even been an incident where she had behaved in a way which had brought up feelings of disapproval in me. But now she had come to me and taken my hand, and we walked together as if we had always been each other’s best friend. Feeling the warmness of her hand, and arriving carefully in each step together, I could let go of all judgments about her and feel at home with this hand and this step.

The clarity and firmness with which she had bowed and taken my hand was a great teaching for me. It showed me how simple it can be to drop shyness and the feeling of being separate and lonely. This teaching of instant connecting encouraged me to do the same with other friends.

I found that the easiest people to approach for holding hands are the children and the nuns. Even children who are normally quite wild can develop stability and trust and a kind of calm joy when I smile to them, take their hands firmly, and invite them: “Let’s go together and try to be aware of every step.” In Berlin I like to join hands with Than Thu, the daughter of a Vietnamese couple who has Downs Syndrome. I know that she is sometimes a great challenge to her mother’s patience, and I am happy that Than Thu trusts me and allows me to take her hand.

I also began to practice walking with my mother, after she had passed away. Whenever I thought of my mother—and often these thoughts were accompanied by regrets of having not spent enough time with her or not expressing my love enough—I would speak to her: “Dearest mother, I love you. It is so wonderful that we can go hand in hand together now. You are always with me.” When I practice this way, I can see her smiling face and feel her happiness, which gives me great relief for all my shortcomings.

When I go to visit her at the cemetery I am aware of every step, so my mind can go into a deep concentration. I start with this mantra as I open the door of the cemetery: “Dearest mother I love you so,” repeating it as I arrive at her place and staying with it as I drive home in the car. Instead of nourishing sad thoughts of regret, my walk in the cemetery is very joyous, uplifting, and nourishing for my mind, and I feel very near to my mother.

When the nuns came to Berlin to start the Source of Compas­sion Practice Center, I often joined them for walking meditation around eleven o`clock in the morning. At first it was difficult for me and the other lay people who joined in the walk, as our feelings of insecurity arose. People who passed by on the street would stare at us, walking and holding hands with these brown-robed women. We imagined they were wondering what kind of strange sect we were. But soon I developed a good relationship with the neighbors and talked to them about our practice of mindfulness, so they became more comfortable with us.

To hold hands with the nuns during walking meditation in Plum village or Berlin feels very safe and free for me. It feels like:

No coming, no going, no after, no before

Just holding hands together and there is nothing more.

mb39-How2Annabelle Zinser, True Fragrance of the Mindfulness Trainings, was given the lamp transmission in the winter of 2004.

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