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Announcements

Passages Married: On June 17, Lyn Coffin, True Mirror, and Paul Norton, Boundless Attentive Caring, were married in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Dharma Teacher Jack Lawlor (True Direction) performed the ceremony. The happy couple lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Community of Mindful Living Update

We at the central office of Communities of Mindful Living in Berkeley, California have been working mindfully on a number of projects.

Our staff of seven people has been working hard organizing Thay's West Coast events for this Fall—working with volunteers, coordinating publicity, logistics, administrative, and registration processes to make it possible (and easy) for thousands of people to practice with Thay.

We are in the process of creating two new pamphlets: "Welcome to the Order of Interbeing" and "The Communities of Mindful Living Network." These pamphlets are being developed to further connect individuals to one another and to support and nourish lay practice in the United States. We are also compiling data from the Sangha Survey responses and preparing a summary report for interested individuals and Sanghas.

We practice mindfulness in the workplace by enjoying telephone meditation, weekly Beginning Anew practice, and daily meditation in the afternoon. We continue to embrace "don't know" mind as we transition into our new manifestation as a division of the Unified Buddhist Church. Our mindfulness practices in the workplace have been nourishing and deeply healing elements in our daily work lives.

Notes from the Ottawa Sangha

The Ottawa community had three memorable days with Sister Annabel during the weekend of April 14,2000. The study program started with a Dharma talk by Sister Annabel to the Vietnamese community on Friday night. The subject was mindfulness practice and guarding of our six senses. Our community was delighted with the chanting ceremony and singing practice led by Sister Chan Hoa Nghiem in Vietnamese.

The next day was a Day of Mindfulness, organized by the Ottawa Buddhist Society together with all Thay's practice groups in Ottawa. Many people from different traditions and cultures came together for this one-day event. Sister Annabel gave a wonderful talk on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and seven people received the Trainings at the end of the day. Everyone cooperated and practiced beautifully and it felt that this is what the world could be like Sister Annabel's talk was taped and put on the Ottawa local Website by Andre Vellino. The website address is www.ncf.carleton.ca/dharma/.

On Sunday, Sister Annabel and Hoa Nghiem visited the Chanh-Kien Buddhist Youth Family downtown at MacNabb Center. There, Sister Annabel gave another meaningful talk to the young people and their parents.

Notes from Maple Village Sangha

About sixty Order members and friends gathered for the Vietnamese Order of Interbeing annual retreat at Maple Village (Bolton West, Quebec, Canada) during the long weekend of May 19, 2000. During the retreat, a new bell tower was erected in front of the Dharma hall. We now have a beautiful place for the bell, with flowers all around.

Live-in-Mindfulness at Haus Maitreya

Throughout the year, Haus Maitreya in Germany offers the possibility for friends to live and practice. Karl and Helga Riedl, who lived in Plum Village for several years, are the Dharma teachers in residence. Haus Maitreya advises guests to come for at least a week, but shorter periods are possible. For more details or a sample daily schedule, please contact Intersein-Zentrum fur Leben in Achtsamkeit, Haus Maitreya, Unterkashof 2 1/3, 94545 Hohenau, Germany; Tel: (49)8558-920252; Fax: (49)8558-920434; e-mail: intersein.maitreya@t-online.de

MB Subscription Manager Needed

The Mindfulness Bell needs an experienced subscription manager or database manager to manage our subscription list (on Access, Excel, Panorama, or Acumen), input new and renewal subscriptions, and work with the mail house as each issue goes out. If you are interested in focusing loving energy and expertise on The Mindfulness Bell 10-20 hours a week (more just prior to and after each issue's release), please call or send your resume and letter of interest to Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707, USA; Tel: (510)527-3751; Fax: (510)525-7129; cml@iamhome.org

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Intention, Innovation, Insight

A Day of Mindfulness at Google

By Sister Chan Hien Nghiem

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The Google campus is an interesting place. Called the “Googleplex” by Silicon Valley, it is a sprawling mass of buildings of unusual shapes and sizes, with earnest-faced, intelligent-looking young people darting between them. Some of them are riding free “Google bikes,” which––like the buildings––are branded with Google’s signature tones of red, yellow, green, and blue. There is a plastic pink flamingo perched on a dinosaur skeleton in the main courtyard, as well as a mini-pool, a sandy volleyball court, deck chairs, and exotic desert plants native to the Valley. Right away, you know that this is a place full of creative people, playful people––people who are dedicated to their work and their company’s mission of “making the world’s information accessible and useful.” Google is known as one of the most innovative companies in the world––an exciting, challenging, and fun, if sometimes chaotic, place to work. Yet it is also known as a place where its young (average age twenty-nine), talented employees burn out and leave after just a few years.

As a result, Google has invested a huge amount in “employee well-being.” All the food, the eighteen cafes, gyms, child care, and other onsite services are offered to its ten thousand employees completely free of charge. If you complete a project well, you can gain free “massage credits” to redeem on campus, or take some time out in a “napping pod.” And yet, none of these “perks” can ever be enough to balance the intense workaholic culture. Google’s CEO said that they have “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” Employees may work up to sixteen hours a day, mostly in front of a screen. No matter how much high-quality food and services they have access to, they suffer greatly. They are so busy that they experience acute stress and pressure, struggle to sustain healthy relationships with their partners, and have little time for family life. And so “Googlers” were delighted when, in 2011, Thich Nhat Hanh agreed to lead a half-day of mindfulness for employees during his US tour. Google was proud to announce on its website that it was the very first corporate headquarters in America to host the world-famous Zen Master. As of this writing, Thay’s Dharma talk Q&A has been viewed over 230,000 times since Google posted it on YouTube.

Thay’s visit on October 23, 2013, was his second time on the Google campus. This time, Google asked for a full Day of Mindfulness, not just a half-day, on the theme “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” More than seven hundred employees signed up, so they needed to open two “satellite” locations where Thay’s Dharma talk was live-streamed on big screens, with monastics assigned to each location. There was a lot of excitement in the bus as we headed to the Googleplex to start the day with an early morning walking meditation. Some of us had been there in 2011 and remembered the joyful, relaxed atmosphere, the openness of the employees, and the fun campus. There is one entrance hall where Google search terms (being submitted by users around the world in “real time”) are projected flowing down a wall like a waterfall. There is another lobby with a giant swirling slide for engineers to slide down from the first floor to the ground floor.

Much of our excitement was not just to go to the Googleplex as a place, but to connect with the Googlers themselves––people in our own generation who share many of our aspirations. Software engineers (or “geeks” as they like to call themselves) are a creative, collaborative, experimental bunch of people, and meditation naturally appeals to their science-based curiosity. If they want to master technology, they also want to master their minds. Many of them have a deep faith that technology can serve the world and bring positive change, creating opportunities for all people across boundaries of nationality, race, and culture. So although we did not have green or blue hair or luminous sneakers like some of the Googlers, as Buddhist monastics we fit right in to Silicon Valley’s “Zen vibe.”

Our Deepest Desire

Google’s unofficial company motto is “Don’t be evil.” Their intention is to make the world’s information available––without being evil. But is information the same as insight? If we had to describe our aspiration as Plum Village monks and nuns, perhaps it would be to do good (water positive seeds and help people suffer less) by making humankind’s deepest insights available to all those who are suffering. It may be that the world has a lot of information, but we may lack the tools, training, and insight to help us suffer less. Information (or too much of it) may even be a cause of our suffering.

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Our Day of Mindfulness began with stopping. Thay was very joyful and relaxed as he explained walking meditation and led the hundreds of employees (many of whom had arrived early) on walking meditation around the courtyard. It was a very quiet morning, and the buildings were shrouded in mist. Everyone was perfectly silent as they took one mindful step at a time, eventually joining Thay to sit on the paving stones silently together. Absolutely nothing happened, and yet everything was happening. There was true stopping. And there was a sense of magic. Here in the pulsing heart of the Internet, there was stopping. There was peace. There was mist, and smiles, and quiet breathing. Nothing was going on, and yet everything was going on. We could feel that the Googlers were 100% engaged, 100% present. They were curious. They were tired. They knew that Thay had something they wanted, and they were eager to learn and taste for themselves what it was. Was it wisdom? Was it happiness? Was it freedom?

In a Dharma Talk back in Plum Village, Thay described how the Googlers had practiced walking meditation that morning so wholeheartedly. “They practiced very well,” said Thay, unaware that one of those Googlers was sitting right there in the Lower Hamlet meditation hall, having decided to come and “check out” Plum Village for herself. She was very proud and happy to hear Thay’s praise for their wholehearted practice. “But,” Thay then continued, “the reason they practiced so wholeheartedly was because they suffer.” And sitting there in the audience, she thought, “Yes, Thay is right. Thay has understood. We do suffer a lot. And this practice does help, a lot.”

After the walking meditation, Thay offered a Dharma talk. “Each of us has a desire, an intention, which we nourish every day,” he began. “Is our desire, our intention, just to run after fame, power, success, and wealth? Or is it something else? Every one of us should take the time to sit down and ask ourselves, ‘What is my deepest desire? What do I want to do with my life?’ It’s not just a question of ‘work-life balance.’ It goes much deeper.

“If our deepest desire is to suffer less and be happier; if our deepest desire is to come back to ourselves, to create joy and happiness, and nourish ourselves, and help others do the same; if our deepest desire is to learn how to suffer, how to come back to ourselves and embrace and look deeply into our suffering, so we suffer much less, and can help others do the same; then that is good.

“Many of us are consuming technology to cover up our suffering and run away from ourselves, but surely we can design the kind of technology that can help us do the opposite? This is a question of innovation: we have to invent new ways of practice to suit our present situation. If we do not renew our teaching, our practice, then we cannot serve society. All of us have insight, we just need something or someone to help us bring it to life so that we can know which direction to go in––and which direction not to go in.”

Thay went on to speak about the Four Nutriments, and how to nourish body and mind with mindful consumption. He also spoke about how the practice of deep listening and loving speech can be applied in corporations, and about his own experience of nourishing himself with the very simple practices of walking and breathing with mindfulness and compassion. There was then plenty of time for questions and answers. Every question came from the heart. They were the questions of “seekers,” of young minds seeking to make sense of their busy, stressful lives and seeking to bring deep meaning to them. We could feel their openness and their deep trust and respect for Thay. We could also hear their suffering.

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Sharing Aspirations

Many of us were sitting on stage behind Thay, as representatives from a different world. We may go for days or weeks without even opening a computer or listening to a track of worldly music. Unless we have worked in the registration office before Summer Retreat, we may have never known what it’s like to receive several hundred emails a day. We have a chance to stop, not just for a few minutes every day, but for hour after concentrated hour, contemplating our body, our breathing, the food or the miracles of nature around our practice centers. We can take a shower without Radio NST (Non-Stop Thinking) blaring through our mind’s ear.

When I worked in news journalism before I ordained, every day I would have to read six newspapers cover to cover and listen to two hour-long news radio shows, while following the waterfall of live “news wires” cascading down my screen. I feel it has taken me years to slowly quiet my mind and enjoy the silence of nothing happening, except life in all its wonders. Sitting there on the stage, I wondered if any of the Googlers would ever taste the deep peace and relief of being “free from information” which has refreshed my spirit in the monastery. We can’t give them that kind of peace and silence, but we can demonstrate that it is possible––in our smiles and in our steps––and we can show them how to create the conditions to generate tiny, life-changing glimpses of it in their day.

Soon we were all enjoying a delicious, vegan, mindful meal together. Google is a pioneer of corporate mindful eating, and since Thay’s first visit, the company runs a monthly “mindful meal” session in its cafes. During these lunches, Googlers have a chance to listen to the Five Contemplations, eat in silence, and share about their experience together. After Thay’s second visit, they plan to make a permanent “mindful eating zone” on campus, where employees can come to nourish themselves peacefully during their lunch break.

As well as supporting and nourishing their mindfulness practice on campus, some of us also had our own secret aspirations as we stepped into the world of Google that day. One or two of us were looking for GoogleMap employees, hoping we could inspire them to code a live, editable, browsable map of all our Sanghas and mindfulness events around the world. Brothers Phap Luu and Phap Khoi had a giant hard drive stashed in a backpack, hoping to inspire a Googler to import a decade of Thay’s Dharma talks into the back end of YouTube and publish them on our channel. (It would take perhaps a year’s constant uploading to do it from rural France). I was looking for someone who would design a really elegant, simple, flexible, free mindfulness bell app. And Thay, never one to think small, was looking for soul mates who would design the kind of technology that would help people suffer less and stop our civilization going in the wrong direction.

In the afternoon, Thay, his attendants, and a few other monastics met with senior Google engineers to discuss how they could do just that. While several hundred employees enjoyed total relaxation in the auditorium with Sister Chan Khong (surely much more healing and restful than the many massage chairs strategically placed throughout the offices), and others played volleyball with monks and nuns, a dozen of us sat around a giant boardroom table to have a Dharma discussion with Thay on the future of information technology.

Is it possible to create the kind of technology that can help people come back to themselves, embrace and handle the suffering inside? One chic and elegant employee was wearing the new “Google Glass”––the cutting-edge technology that enables you to send messages, run web searches, take photos, and record video without even lifting a finger. But was it helping her be truly present for herself or for the discussion?

The world watches 450,000 years’ worth of Google YouTube videos each month. That’s more than twice as long as modern humans have existed. But is this helping us suffer less? Is it possible to create, and make available on a global scale, the kind of content on the web that helps people to take care of themselves, their loved ones, and the planet? Google may know that someone is checking her Gmail one hundred times in one evening. That person is, at the same time, running Google searches for “causes of depression.” She makes orders through her Chrome browser for large quantities of junk food. Are the Google “algorithms” intelligent enough to offer some constructive ways to help this person? Google wants significant profits, that is true. But they also want to be good, to not be evil. Is there more they can do?

This was no ordinary business meeting, and the two hours we spent together flew by. It was amazing to contribute as part of the Sangha––as though we were the voices of one body, offering a new energy or idea in each moment, with Thay guiding us all the way. It was extraordinary to see our beloved teacher––a Zen Master from another generation, who was already over seventy by the time the 21st Century started––engaging so wholeheartedly with these young technology leaders, with such a quick and sharp mind, and with so much love and joy. The Googlers were delighted. And one of them, as Thay explained the deep meaning of why the bell and stopping are so important, was even moved to tears.

It was hard to bring the meeting to a close, and even harder to leave the room. We did so as friends, perhaps even as soul mates. The next time we meet will be for a retreat.

We didn’t take the slide down to the ground floor. We enjoyed every step.

mb66-Intention4Sister True Dedication (Chan Hien Nghiem) was born and raised in England and currently lives in the Lower Hamlet, Plum Village. She has been practising with the Sangha since 2002 and ordained as a nun in 2008.

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Letting Go

  By Roberta Schnorr

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Sweat.

I am bathed in sweat.

The temperature has gone up ten degrees since breakfast. I have put on more clothes: a long sleeved “Haz-Mat” suit, huge rubber overshoe boots, and three pairs of gloves (nitrile medical gloves, covered by dishwashing gloves, covered by leather work gloves). A respirator conceals my nose and mouth; goggles cover my eyeglasses. Each breath smells and tastes like old rubber tires. The stale moisture from my lungs accumulates. My glasses fog. Time to move.

To manage these giant boots I learn to pick up each foot a little higher. I take smaller steps; I am conscious of each step. The crotch of my jumpsuit goes to my knees. The legs are long, the body loose and baggy. Sitting, kneeling — and especially getting back up — requires mental planning. Climbing a stepladder in floppy boots and a baggy suit is a new exercise. Once, I almost fall, trying to descend too quickly. I catch myself, regroup, and take it one step at a time. I make certain both feet are on the floor before I pivot or walk away.

My tools are a hammer and a short pry bar. I find that I am able to wrap my thickly gloved fingers around these, and possibly, use them. Time to work.

I am in New Orleans in July. It has been nearly two years since Katrina washed away those old, tired levees. It is not Cajun food or jazz that beckons, but a wish to help drain the stagnant pool left by disaster and neglect. Here I stand, inside my Haz-Mat suit, boots, goggles and triple gloves. I am like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.

I Am Melting!

But somehow, I am okay. It seems my fears about my ability to tolerate the heat were unfounded. I am not nauseous. I have no headache, no migraine aura. I am really okay.

I am working with a team of eight people — adults and teenage youth. We are “gutting” a house. Our instructions are simple: all paneling, sheetrock, tile, molding, doors, insulation, carpet, and linoleum must go. We must find and pull every interior nail. All that will remain are two-by-four studs and subfloor.

Three of us begin in a small bedroom. We learn how to negotiate this job and coordinate our movements in the confined space. We work without talking, silenced by bulky respirators.

Everywhere I turn, I notice the water stains on the walls — about twenty-four inches above the floor. This marks the peak — where the floodwaters crested and stood after filling this home. As I pull Sheetrock from interior closet walls I find a barrette and a Barbie doll shoe. I think of my daughters and the bedroom they shared when they were small. This barren space was once a little girl’s room. I picture her, playing with her dolls, trying to sit still while her mother does her hair; sleeping snugly in her “big girl” bed.

It is hot. We take a break every hour. When one of us stops to rest, we tell all the others. We lay down our tools, remove our respirators and gloves, and gather in the backyard. We pull cold water bottles from the cooler and pass them around. We settle under a little shade — on coolers and storage boxes. As we sit and drink the best water we have ever tasted, we notice each other, and more. Sometimes there is a gentle breeze. We are grateful.

Among our little group are friends, and also, new acquaintances. Here we sit, bound by shared effort on this modest, water-stained house. As we huddle in the meager shade, I am struck by what I experience with my new teammates. There is no need to fill the space with chatter. We talk. We listen. We are still. Words or silence — it feels just right.

Working Meditation

I notice, even on my first day, that I find a rhythm and unfamiliar satisfaction as I plug along. The old walls give up Sheetrock easily — except for the six to eight inches near the floor. Real wood baseboard — four inches high — is snugly fastened around each room’s perimeter. I try prying the baseboard from the studs. It does not budge. I kneel down for a closer look. At the bottom of the baseboard is quarter round. A closer look reveals more— carpet strip — a flat strip of wood that fastened the edges of wall-to-wall carpet.

After some experimentation, I figure out how to get under one end of the carpet strip. I use the straight end of my pry bar and hammer, removing the strip three or four inches at a time. I return to my starting place and position my pry bar (the curved end this time) on top of the quarter round, near the baseboard. I hammer down on the curve of the bar and the quarter round gives. Working in tenor twelve-inch sections seems best. Finally, I approach the solid wood baseboard. I move steadily from one two-by-four stud to the next, inserting the curved end of my pry bar, hammering (down) then prying (up), hammering and prying. At some unpredictable point the length of baseboard gives. Long sections come loose.

I realize how different this feels from my usual mind states. I am focused, fully present — not daydreaming or racing to reach some imaginary goal. Occasionally, my mind wanders. I think about an unfinished project that awaits me at home. Each time, I catch my thoughts, let go, come back. I will give it my full attention when I get home. I realize that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am fully engaged with the task at hand. It seems I am able to be just here, hammering, prying and sliding along. I am not fighting the repetitive work and slow progress — I am pulled into a friendly, rhythmic pace. I work with, not against this old house, coaxing her along, as she slowly surrenders her handsome wood trim.

One day, as we pull Sheetrock from the ceiling, we discover what seems like miles of corner bead, a strong metal trim that forms and sustains the corner joints. Working overhead on a shaky stepladder, it presents a new challenge. I change my method, pulling down all of the Sheetrock first. Blown-in insulation spills out, covering my head and shoulders. I press forward, exposing the

relentless corner bead. I try force. I try pulling. Finally, I concede to its strength and seek its pattern. The corner bead is nailed every three inches. I can free only three inches at a time. I accept this truth and focus on one nail, then another nail.

Something shifts in this moment. The struggle is over. I use my claw hammer — insert at the point of the nail and push away. One by one, the nails come free, often with a single push. As with the baseboard, I find my rhythm, and I am right there, nail after nail, foot after foot of corner bead — like me — just letting go.

An Unexpected Retreat

In New Orleans, in the house of a woman I will never meet, I discovered long, silent hours to be with myself, working mindfully, staying present. I was surprised that in this place, my mind did little wandering, but tuned in, moment by moment, to the present. Here, I did not think about tasks or outcomes, discovering satisfaction as I became one with the process — accessing an unfamiliar rhythm as I pulled sheetrock and molding, freed corner bead, shoveled debris, or pushed a wheelbarrow.

Time with people I hardly knew was pleasant, tranquil. We came together every hour, for cool water and rest. At midday, we traded items from simple box lunches. We talked. We listened. We sat in silence with our weary breath.

In this time far from home, doing unfamiliar work, I was, for many moments, present — to myself, to others. Present — to my experience — right here, right now — in someone’s stripped house in New Orleans.

Romb48-Letting2berta Schnorr lives in Central Square, New York with her husband Dick and teenage daughters Grete and Molly. She is an education professor at SUNY Oswego.  In July, 2007, Roberta and Grete traveled to New Orleans with members of a Lutheran church to assist families whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic mb52-AFrolic1

A Buddhist retreat at Plum Village is unlike any other Buddhist retreat (as far as I know). There’s relatively little sitting meditation, which surprises and disappoints some folks. But there are lots of other forms of meditation — in fact the practice of mindfulness means meditating twenty-four hours a day, no matter what we are doing. The point, of course, is to teach us how to do this in daily life, out in the “real” world.

There are two particularly ingenious methods that Plum Village has devised for teaching the practice of mindfulness. The first is working meditation. At the Path of the Buddha retreat, I was in the francophone family with my friend Pascale and my mentor, Sister Dao Nghiem. Our job for the three-week retreat was to clean the bathrooms in Lower Hamlet. Hence our name: Delicate Fragrance.

Working with people every day, you get to know who likes to scrub every corner and who would rather pick flowers for the sinks. Who has a bad back but doesn’t want to complain. Who stops to chat (and chat and chat), who’s cheerful no matter what, who’s grumpy. Who wants to tell people exactly how to do everything (me) and who on the second day realizes that grown women know how to clean bathrooms and can decide among themselves who’s going to do what (me again).

You learn a lot about other people, but mainly you learn about yourself, in the context of community and activity. Being as how most of us live and work with others, these lessons come in very handy once we return home.

On the Road to Plum Village

The other ingenious device to teach mindfulness on retreat is the skit. Most Vietnamese people love to play; and since their culture was only recently infected with modern technology, they still enjoy old-fashioned homegrown entertainment. So at the end of every retreat there’s a grand performance. Fortunately, we’re doing the performances within each hamlet rather than all 600 of us together. After living together for three weeks, Lower Hamlet feels like one big family.

Which is a good thing, because there’s nothing that brings up people’s neuroses like the idea of performing in public.

Unlike most families, we started working on our skit the very first week. Serge, the one man among twenty-three women (our hamlet hosts women and a few couples), proposed a lovely old French folk song that someone had rewritten into a Plum Village song, “On the Road to Plum Village.” We decided to rewrite the song again with a story about us: arriving at Plum Village all tired and stressed out, then cleaning toilets and showers together, finally finding freedom and happiness.

Working on the song that first week was a blast. A few people did the writing, then Beatrice, a delightful and energetic Swiss woman who could not for the life of her hold a tune, emerged as the director. We formed two choirs who sang back and forth to each other. Sur la route des Pruniers...

At the end of the second week it all turned sour. We’d been rehearsing every day, and had the music down pretty well but were getting tired of it. Hélène, who happens to be a fabulous singer, arrived at the retreat two weeks late. That evening she sat down with the only two people who still wanted to rehearse and she taught them a slightly different version of the tune. And the three of them came up with a new way of performing it.

The next evening after dinner we started to rehearse, and all hell broke loose. Ah non non non! On recommence pas à zéro! No, we’re not starting over, someone huffed and stomped off. Others shook their heads in disgust and did not return from cleaning their dishes. The rest of us regrouped, decided to put the song mostly back the way we had it, and had a great time singing our hearts out and laughing.

The next day we started adding the skit. It had been my bright idea to have actors pantomime what the words were saying. (No one in our audience was going to understand our song, because it was in French! The other 140 retreatants at Lower Hamlet were British, Dutch, German, American, with a few Italians.) From the supply closet by the kitchen, I had collected all kinds of props — new brushes, sponges, mops, spray bottles — all stashed in a suitcase for the first part of the skit.

Retreat Rockettes

Don’t you just wish that after all these years of listening to Dharma talks, meditating, paying therapists, going on retreat — don’t you wish you could stay enlightened for more than thirty seconds at a time? When it came time to create the little skit, just three minutes of pantomime, my ego came out to play. Big time.

Because I had some really good ideas! Brilliant ideas! Every morning and every evening in meditation, in the deep stillness of the meditation hall, it was the first thing that sprang into my mind: Sur la route des Pruniers... I saw our three nuns doing this, and our lay friends doing that in the next verse, and a stupendous finale with everybody dancing... as stunning as the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Enough already! Quiet.

When it came time to rehearse with our family, my overbearing enthusiasm was not well received. Beatrice was a little miffed that I had wrenched all the fun stuff away from her. And the actors never managed to come together at the same time: Andréa got sick, Géraldine had to make an emergency trip to care for a friend, Josslyn had somewhere else to be after Dharma discussion. But the obvious reason that it didn’t come together is that it was supposed to be a collaboration. Silly me.

Day after day, I dealt with my feelings and frustrations — looking deeply in meditation, stepping back when rehearsals weren’t going well, letting go, letting go.

Thank goodness the performance was pushed back to Thursday. On Tuesday Sister Dao Nghiem, who had left us to our own devices, initiated a rehearsal. The two groups sullenly stood facing each other in a semicircle and half-heartedly sang: Sur la route des Pruniers... The nuns walked through the center as we had scripted. The actors feebly acted out our part. With only a little squabbling in the middle, we limped to the finale.

Sister Dao Nghiem calmly admonished us to relax a little bit and have fun. Then she redesigned the ending, adding some peaceful walking in pairs rather than our manic scurrying and jumping. We performed it a few more times but our hearts weren’t in it.

I Have an Idea!

The big day came. We rehearsed before dinner, but it wasn’t going very well. I was disgusted with myself for getting so hung up on the whole thing, for not being able to communicate my ideas effectively, and especially because my magnificent finale had been scrapped.

Finally I decided to just throw myself into it. What did I have to lose? I banished my ego once and for all and joined in the fun. We were nervous, we were excited, we were enjoying ourselves again.

Then Hélène said, “Attendez, j’ai une idée! Wait, I have an idea!” We all screamed. She was joking of course. Béatrice suggested next time we do a skit we should call it “I have an idea!” We all laughed; we knew exactly what she meant.

That night in the meditation hall we were one of the last acts to perform. There were five or six before us, all funnier and more inspired than the last. The pot-washing family pounded tubs and pans for an energetic percussion piece, accompanied by nuns and laywomen waving big pot lids in a traditional Vietnamese hat dance. The vegetable-chopping family did a skit about having to work in silence (Delicate Fragrance conveniently forgot about the practice of silent working meditation).

When it came our turn, yes, you guessed it — we pulled it off! Our fellow retreatants laughed and clapped along to our silly song. We exited the stage area breathless, joyful, eminently pleased with ourselves.

Someone from another family later remarked on how much harmony there was in our family. We laughed our heads off when we heard that.

But there was harmony. A far deeper harmony than when we started. During the worst of it, when some people disappeared from the family for a day or two and our dinners together were glum, Sister Dao Nghiem told us that harmony does not mean the absence of conflict. You can have differences — in a community there will always be differences — but still you have harmony because you care about one another. You want it to work, so you do whatever it takes.

In fact, I believe those very difficulties are what knit the community into a harmonious whole. How else would we get to know one another deeply, to know ourselves?

That’s why Thay says he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where there’s no suffering. It’s in those cracks that healing occurs. It’s when our heart breaks that we learn how to love.

That’s the whole point of the skit — aside from motivating us to relax and play, us Westerners who can take the whole thing so seriously. It’s fi to feel peaceful and loving when you’re sitting on a cushion or walking in the woods or eating with friends in silence. But try to do something together and that’s where the real practice begins.

Those are the lessons that I’ve taken home with me, and put to use in my daily life -- humility, joy, Sur la route des Pruniers...

mb52-AFrolic2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practices with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado.

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On the Fifth Mindfulness Training

Nourishment and Healing  By Nguyen Khoa Duc (Tam Thuong Son) 

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Her words punctured the still air and rippled through what had been a very calm Dharma discussion. She said repeatedly to the Dharma group, “There is no way I can do that, no way, I am not ready…not now.” I turned to her, somewhat taken aback by the raw emotion in her voice. The middle-aged lady from Brooklyn who had been mostly silent throughout several Dharma discussions was now full of life and expressing herself in ways only New Yorkers can.

The focus of the Dharma sharing had been on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as several of us were preparing to participate in the ceremony to be presided over by Thay the next morning. The sharing had been somewhat subdued and uneventful until the last training became the topic of discussion. The lady disclosed to the group that she enjoyed red wine, sometimes lots of it. It had been as much a staple of her diet as food itself. She felt that receiving the Fifth Mindfulness Training would present a conflict with her continuing this habit—one that she was not prepared to give up.

It was October 2009, my first-ever visit to Blue Cliff Monastery. My family had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in the retreat led by Thay. People had come from everywhere to this quiet town surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. I still vividly remember our short time together, the tranquility and the bonding. Moreover, I was looking forward to the Five Mindfulness Trainings ceremony. Now this lady’s candor made me pause and reflect upon my own situation. I began to mull over what the Fifth Mindfulness Training meant to me; I found myself no longer present in the circle of my Sangha brothers and sisters. My mind started to drift away…to another time and to another place.

Foundation of Suffering 

Those of us who grew up in Vietnam during and immediately after the Vietnam War remember that millions of families had to struggle to cope with the physical and emotional hardships of the aftermath. Families were broken apart. Freedom was taken away. Fathers, husbands, brothers, and other loved ones were separated; those left behind did their best to carry on under a dark cloud of doubts, uncertainty, fear, and suppression.

Our family was no different. My father, just like hundreds of thousands of other men and women who were part of the South Vietnamese government, was sent to a concentration camp. I was nine at the time and had no idea why I suddenly had become fatherless. My mother found herself in the unfamiliar role of providing and caring for her four children while trying to keep track of my father’s well-being from afar. I missed him very much. I saw him once, one year after his imprisonment, and not again until our family was reunited here in Virginia in the early 1990s, fifteen years later. I remember many moments when I was alone, crying from missing him. I couldn’t understand why we were apart. Worse, I didn’t know if I’d see him again.

As the years passed, my friends who were in similar situations began to see their family members; one by one they trickled home. Our family was hopeful but was repeatedly devastated as the sparse news of my father seemed to indicate that he was actually being transferred farther and farther from home. My mother did her best to be the father figure to the four of us. She encouraged us to stay active with school and community events so we wouldn’t feel like outsiders, and continued to instill Buddhism in whatever form practicable amidst her own challenges. I sensed that she was overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that fell on her shoulders. Her health suffered from the great burden placed upon her.

In the late 1970s my mother began planning for me to leave Vietnam in search of a better future. I was in my early teens and keenly aware of her intent, but felt the sadness deepen inside me as I was about to be separated from another parent. I prayed that my attempts to flee Vietnam would fail, just so I could see her again. Then I’d regret the prayers when I saw the pain and disappointment on her face after each attempt failed. I finally made it out of Vietnam in 1980.

These experiences became the foundation of my teenage years and adulthood. The trauma and sorrows that peppered my childhood hardened me. I developed a fear of intimacy and trust, feeling that their fragile nature inevitably would create disappointment and sorrow. I began to feel detached from relationships. I yearned for love and envisioned my happiness in the presence of a companion, but I turned away when relationships became real. I feared that the emotional investment would let me down and hurt me, as it did when I lost my family during my earlier years. I struggled to sustain relationships; my insecurity, and as a result, erratic behavior, fractured relationships and ultimately drove those close to me away. I sought loneliness, reasoning that it was a safe haven free from suffering.

To substitute for substantive, meaningful feelings, I developed an insatiable appetite to consume information from the Internet, newspapers, books, magazines, and other sources. I became an avid sports fan; burying myself in somebody else’s world, real or fictional, provided me with with an outlet of comfort. My self-worth was no longer based on my internal being, but rather was dependent on artificial perceptions of the outside world.

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Without solidity, I felt a lack of purpose in my life and it was easy for me to develop negative habits as I grew older. I drank several cups of coffee a day to keep me alert; I also consumed large amounts of soda after exercising, which provided momentary relief from stress. I also became a workaholic, a habit I continue to try to transform today. These practices became the food I needed to survive emotionally, and I needed to continue consuming them in order to survive. I simply didn’t realize that I was sustaining myself on the wrong nutrients. I found my source of happiness everywhere but within.

Wake Up Bell 

In spite of the constant struggles with relationships, in my early twenties I met a wonderful lady whose enormous tolerance and boundless compassion has led me in a healing process. Twenty-one years later, she continues to walk beside me along the path. I remember that right after we had our first child, I became so submerged in work that one day my wife sent a calendar invite to my Outlook email; she merely wanted to request an appointment with me so we could catch up with each other. That was the wake up bell that, unfortunately only much later, I realized I needed.

I came to mindfulness practice about five years ago, through Days of Mindfulness with the Thuyen Tu Sangha. I began to slow down and learned the importance of healing. I learned how it’s okay to face and take care of pain, as that is the only way to transform suffering. While I embraced the concept of mindfulness, I initially found many activities within the practice—such as mindful eating, walking meditation, and deep relaxation—awkward and counterintuitive. I realized a key component of the practice was the support of the Sangha that provides me the strength and energy to help me recognize, embrace, and take care of my negative energies.

Even today, I find it difficult to invite in the sadness, despair, and regrets of my inner child so that I can touch them. I still don’t feel completely safe with intimacy but have begun to recognize the seeds of suffering within me. I realize that I have not reached the end of my journey on the path to healing; in fact, I feel as if it has barely begun. I also realize that the journey may take more than this lifetime. But now I don’t worry about the future or expectations, for I am resting comfortably in the present and in the presence of my Sangha friends. I continue to move forward in their arms.

Recently I reduced my coffee consumption to one cup a day, and that hasn’t affected my alertness or how I function at work and at home. I no longer depend on a pain reliever to get me through my daily runs; in fact, I’ve discovered that my dependence on the pain reliever was all mental. I still find myself eating lunch with one hand on the computer mouse, feverishly clicking, or with both eyes fixed on my iPhone, but that has lessened as I’ve become more aware of this unwholesome habit energy. Most importantly, the practice of bringing my mind and my breath back into the present has helped me restore my consciousness and the clarity with which I now look at life. The transformation is slow and some days I feel like it does not progress at all; however, I have begun to find—however temporarily—peace and joy sprouting from these seeds. I become more present with my wife and children, and our collective energy has begun to permeate the relationships among us and deepen our appreciation of each other.

The sound of the bell from the monastic leading the discussion brought me back to the present and to the circle of Dharma brothers and sisters. The sharing was about to end, and as everyone was slowly walking away, I caught up to the lady from Brooklyn. I smiled, “Dear sister, I, too, have had the same struggle, for different reasons, and although I am not completely sure, I think that as long as you are mindful in your alcohol consumption, and continue to practice mindfulness with your local Sangha, you will be fine. Taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings doesn’t mean our lives are 100% reflective of them. Being aware of them is a start. I hope to see you tomorrow morning.” She smiled at me, as if she appreciated my advice. Little did she know that my reassurance was directed as much to myself as to her.

This article was also published in the Spring 2013 Newsletter of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (www.mpcf.org). 

mb64-OnTheFifth3Nguyen Khoa Duc is a member of the Boat of Compassion Sangha in the Washington, D.C., area. He began the practice in 2008. This article was his presentation of the Fifth Mindfulness Training on a Day of Mindfulness, which was led by the Blue Cliff Monastery monastics in Virginia in March of 2013. Duc has been married to Lanh Nguyen for twentyone years. They have two children, Joey (14) and Sydney (12), and live in Vienna, Virginia. 

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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Why I Became a Buddhist

By Ruth Fishel 

mb61-WhyIBecame1Many people have asked me why I became a Buddhist. To be honest, if you told me I would do this ten or twenty years ago, I would have laughed! Not I, I would say. Although I read everything I could get my hands on about the Buddhist philosophy, I had no plans at all to become a Buddhist.

I was born into the Jewish faith but haven’t practiced this religion since I was a kid. Over the years I became an agnostic. Finally, disaster hit. After a great deal of pain and suffering from the disease of alcoholism, I found a self-help program and was able to find sobriety. Because the main purpose was to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety, with gratitude for a new purpose, I became deeply committed to helping other people recover as well.

My spiritual search led to meditating daily and reading countless books. I found myself strongly attracted to the writings and teachings of Buddhism and to author and meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. While attending a retreat, I heard him say the simple words: “Our purpose is to stop our own suffering and to help stop the suffering of everyone.” His words resonated in my heart. An indescribable feeling of peace poured over me. Everything around me disappeared and I was only aware of these words and the meaning they had in my life. I knew I was on a new, yet parallel path. While I would continue to help people suffering from the disease of alcoholism, I now would reach out to help anyone I could through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhism.

After four years of studying, I had the privilege of being ordained into Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing in August 2009. It has been a perfect fit. 

mb61-WhyIBecame2Ruth Fishel, True Land of Virtue, is a retreat leader and meditation teacher. She is the author of Peace In Our Hearts, Peace In the World and Wrinkles Don’t Hurt: The Joy of Aging Mindfully. For more information, go to: www.ruthfishel.com. 

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