Monthly Archives: November 2008

Sister D

She tells me her name is Sister D. She is tall, with a beautiful wide smile and eyes of utmost intelligence. She’s dressed in monastic brown robes and headscarf, but her presence is regal. When I watch her walk I understand the description of walking meditation as “walking like a tiger.” Her steps have the stately, unruffled grace of a big cat’s. To be in mindfulness is to be master of the kingdom of oneself. Her walk shows her mastery. She places her feet with grounded, calm presence.

Her full name is Sister Dang Nghiem. She was trained as a medical doctor. She gave up her profession to become a nun, because she wanted not just to treat people but to be a healer. Healing, in this tradition, means transforming suffering at its root.

I’m intimidated by her at first. If we were in school she’d be the beautiful smart girl everyone envies. But she’s disarmingly kind. After dinner one evening she says to me, “My dear, would you be so kind as to take out the trash?” I’ve never been asked so nicely. And so it’s never been such a pleasure to take out the trash.

One day on our way to “working meditation,” I’m walking with Sister D and another visitor. We pass a little pomegranate tree. “Look! They’re like lanterns,” the sister says, pointing at the red fruit. My fellow visitor replies, “They will be delicious.” Sister D smiles as she says, “They are delicious right now.”

Pomegranate Lantern

For working meditation we clean the solar panels (Deer Park gets 100% of its energy from the sun). I’m mopping the blue-purple panels and holding a ladder for Sister D as she sprays the massive structure with a hose. We talk about more efficient ways to clean the panels – power washer? squeegees? – and she starts singing, “All we need is rain!” to the tune of the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. In the midst of strenuous work under hot sun, she stays light-hearted, remarking over and over what a wonderful job we are doing.

Later, Sister D and a visitor dismantle a wooden fence around a large gas tank that needs to be moved. After my working meditation in the garden, I help them carry the last of the boards to the dumpster, just in time for the garbage truck to arrive. I worry that the garbage man will miss the wood pile behind the dumpster, and assume Sister D will direct him as she stands near the truck. But instead of directing him, she waves and yells to the garbage man: “Thank you, brother!” She then watches, enthralled, as the truck’s arms pick up the dumpster and turn it over, dropping the trash with deafening noise. “WOW! Incredible!” Sister D yells. I keep having to remind myself that she’s an MD.

Sister D takes time to talk with me. She tells me about her undergraduate studies (psychology, creative writing and pre-med) and the intensity of medical school. She shares that her partner died the day before her birthday. She says she has healed from this. I don’t want to pry, but I wonder if the loss spurred her toward becoming a nun.

I love being at Deer Park. I love walking to the meditation hall before dawn, under the stars, as the great bell fills the valley with waves of sound. I love the way everyone stops and follows their breathing when the phone rings. I love that when I offer to help in the kitchen, Sister Bamboo bows deeply to me, thanks me, and says, “The environment here is so peaceful in the evening. Please go for a walk and absorb the peace of the mountains.” I love the silence, slowness, simplicity. And I love the nuns, who are gentle, completely nonaggressive, silly, devout, hardworking, loving human beings.

On my last day at Deer Park, the sisters ask me to talk about my time there. I thank them for the practice, their presence, all the gifts I’ve received here. I say I’ll take them with me. Sister Bach Nghiem responds, “Please take us with you, be like our hand extended.” I am so sad to leave. I manage not to cry while packing my suitcase and rolling it to my car. Driving out, I see Sister D walking up the road. She calls my name, comes over to the car and reaches through the open window to give me a long hug. Tears come as I drive down the road, back to Escondido, back to the world where everybody wants to feel like I feel here – totally loved.

Advertisements

Why I Am Not Going Back to Acupuncture School

I’ve spent most of my life wishing I were different. Wanting to be smarter, prettier, a better listener; thinking I should get a better job, get another degree, have a partner, volunteer more. I’ve been like a hungry horse chasing a carrot. But the carrot is dangling from a stick tied to the horse’s own head. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t reach it. She strains until she’s exhausted, never realizing the task is impossible.

So I’ve always been an overachiever and always a failure. Chasing, running, breathless, busy, stressed. Living for the future and never able to catch up. Some people call this perfectionism.

Many of us are perfectionists. Our culture’s theme song could be, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” The media tells us we’ll only be happy when we have a new car or when we get married or when the cows come home. We live in perpetual dissatisfaction. It feels like a constant itch, like something isn’t quite right, things aren’t working out as we planned. We feel this way about ourselves (if only I had better hair) and other people (I wish he’d quit talking that way) and life in general (if only time would slow down, if only life weren’t so hard).

Acupuncture school has been another way for me to chase an ideal. I thought I was meant to be a healer, and in order to be the best possible healer, I had to be an acupuncturist. I was excited about school at first. But after two years, I became overwhelmed by stress, daunted by the encyclopedic quantities of information we had to memorize and the range of skills we had to perfect. It felt like I was climbing a 14,000-foot mountain, thinking that once I reached the top I’d finally be happy and complete.

Earlier this year I stopped absorbing what my teachers were teaching. I was resisting, not learning. After a lot of angst and confusion, I took a leave of absence from school. I had the wonderful opportunity to go on a long retreat this fall, to try and understand what was happening and decide whether to return to school. Spending time in intensive mindfulness practice at Green Gulch Zen Center and Deer Park Monastery gave me some insight.

I realized that we have two choices about how to live.

1. We can fight with life. This feels like perpetually wanting things to be different than how they are. Whether it’s craving a piece of chocolate or resenting our family, this is the essential dissatisfaction that plagues most of us, most of the time.

OR

2. We can revel in life as it is. For me, this means mindfulness in the present moment. Not chasing future or regretting past. No urge to run away, no itch to get out of it or make it different. Just immersed, dunked-in-life awareness. All senses on. Curiosity. Studying things as they are. Present with life as it is. Once you relax into it, it’s thick with surprise. People are startling. Sounds and colors are enthralling. It’s a little like being on a really, really good drug. Even when some nasty feeling comes up, we can just feel it – get the weight, texture, heat, or grime of the feeling. When we let a feeling be there and embrace it, there’s space around it, and eventually it dissolves. (This takes practice but it is such a relief when I can do it.)

I wonder if these two choices are similar to Einstein’s idea: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

But, back to the question about acupuncture school.

While on retreat I thought a lot about healing. What is healing? One of the sisters at Deer Park spent seven years in medical school and residency, then decided to become a nun. She explained that instead of just treating people’s symptoms, she wanted to be a healer. How is a nun a healer? I think of her calm presence, and I think of Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle, who seem to be free from the stress that is sending the rest of us to sleeping pills and blood pressure medications. They’re not suffering; they’re at peace with life as it is (although they are motivated to change the world by relieving other people’s suffering, they aren’t stressed about it). They embody peacefulness. Being in their presence it’s easy to dwell in presence, relax into quiet awareness. Being in their presence is healing. That’s what I’d like to offer people – a true, accepting, not-chasing-anything presence. I’d like to cultivate that in myself so I can pass it on.

Brook Jasmyn, an astrologist, once said to me: “Love is the only thing that heals.” Countless ways to love, countless ways to heal. Acupuncture is a powerful healing tool, but I realized that I don’t need to be an acupuncturist in order to help people heal.

The stress of acupuncture school, and the carrot I was chasing, have fallen away. I don’t need them right now. A lot is dropping away from me these days. Lao Tzu said, “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained. In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.”

Adyashanti says, “What you are experiencing, what many people are experiencing now, is an eroding of your personal will.” The ego, the carrot-chaser, the personal will, is giving way to a quiet, aware presence that loves life as it is.

So I’ve decided not to go back to acupuncture school for now. Instead I’ll be finishing the Asian Bodywork Certificate in December (all my school credits count toward it). I’m still working as an office manager for an acupuncturist, volunteering for Hospice, giving Reiki, writing as much as possible. And practicing mindfulness. It’s an amazing practice – letting go of resistance, landing here in the moment. I’m doing it imperfectly, coming and going, in and out of presence. But it’s available at any time. It’s a practice that anyone can do, at any moment. Reveling in life as it is.

Home Sweet Home (Resisting the Hook)

“It is likely that your view of happiness is the main obstacle keeping you from being happy. Please look into your idea of happiness. You may think you need this or that to be happy. It may be that if you abandon your view of happiness, happiness will be available for you here and now. All the conditions for happiness are already here.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, dharma talk in June 2000


During my stay at Deer Park Monastery this fall, one of my biggest struggles was withdrawal from my sugar addiction. If you know me, you know that I LOVE sweets. Especially chocolate. When my life gets stressful, I escape into chocolate, cookies, ice cream, or anything else high on the glycemic index. I love the taste of sweets. But sometimes I don’t even taste them; I just gobble them mindlessly. After gobbling, I enter a pleasant state of oblivion, hovering dreamily a few feet above my body (and my problems) for a few blessed minutes. Then I usually get a headache, have a bad taste in my mouth, have trouble with my digestion, and want more sugar so I can feel spacey again. It’s a vicious cycle. The more sugar I eat, the more I want.

Of course, the nuns and monks at Deer Park are extremely healthy eaters. There’s no chocolate, meat, dairy, French fries, potato chips, or other fun-camouflaged-as-food at the monastery. I knew my retreat would be a prime opportunity to break my sugar habit.

On my way to Deer Park I was like a bachelorette having a last one-night stand. I stopped for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar and then curly fries and an Oreo milkshake from Jack-in-the-Box. I felt jittery, jacked-up, driving 80 mph to get to the monastery.

“I have arrived. I am home.” These words, calligraphed on a small wooden placard, greeted me outside the door of my cabin. At Deer Park, every moment of daily life is seen as a chance to practice meditation. The emphasis is on enjoying life in the present moment, because in fact, the present moment is all we have. If we bring our full attention to it, then it comes alive. “I have arrived” means we don’t need to go anywhere but here; we can rest in this moment, here and now. “I am home” means we can feel at home with life as it is. If we relax in this moment, we are already at home.

I had arrived. I sat on the front steps of the cabin and listened to the monastery. From the meditation hall came the sound of nuns chanting in Vietnamese, along with a steady drumbeat and reverberating bell. There was the whistly song of crickets. But underneath all these sounds was silence. Vast silence. There was the sound of my breath, but there was also a pause between my in-breath and out-breath. That pause was the same as the silence. It was empty, spacious.

In my first week at the monastery I thought a lot about food. Mealtimes were very structured; the sisters ate every meal together at specified times. Most meals were shared in silence, so that people were not distracted by conversation while they practiced “mindful eating,” being fully aware of each bite. The food was vegetarian, abundant, and delicious. But there was no snacking between meals. So I thought obsessively about the Clif Bars in my car. Even after a completely satisfying dinner, when I wasn’t hungry, I had an overpowering desire to eat one of those Clif Bars for dessert. I wanted a treat. I knew this was my sugar-craving neurosis, but I wanted it. I waited until my roommate took a shower, then I went out to my car, got a Clif Bar and ate it. It tasted okay. I had a moment’s satiation. Then the predictable bad taste and heaviness in my gut.

Over the next few days, I still craved chocolate. I felt like Winnie the Pooh without honey. My cravings waned a little, but I still thought about food between meals. Then a dharma talk gave me some insight.

We all gathered in the sisters’ meditation hall to listen to the dharma talk, given by Thich Nhat Hanh (recorded in Vietnamese, played on CD, and translated for the English speakers by one of the bilingual sisters). Thây talked about desire, and how important it is for us to be aware of our desires and to “throw them out.” We can throw out our desires the same way we throw out thoughts when they come up in meditation, and bring our attention back to breathing in and breathing out.

He talked about our “pursuit of things that are harmful to us.” I thought about all the ice cream I ate in the week before coming to Deer Park.

To illustrate his message about desire, Thây gave two metaphors. First, he told a story about a man who is very thirsty, and goes into a house where there is a bottle of water. But someone in the house tells him not to drink it, because it’s actually poison. If the man loses himself to forgetfulness and doesn’t remember that this liquid is poison, gives in to his thirst and drinks from the bottle, he dies.

Thây’s second example: “If you go fishing, you use bait that is colorful and attractive to the fish. The bait may not even be real food; it may be plastic, but it is designed in a way that looks delicious to the fish. Inside the bait is a hook. The fish thinks it is getting a delicious treat but instead it is biting a hook.”

He gave these stark analogies to show that desire can make us forgetful and blind. When something looks yummy, even when it’s unhealthy or deadly to us, we pursue it anyway, overpowered by our desire. I thought about cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, sugar: alluring poisons that have us hooked.

Desire is a muscular force, hard to resist. Every time we obey our desire and give in to a habit, that desire becomes a little stronger. One of the sisters explained that our desires and feelings run along neural pathways in our nervous system. Each time a desire is felt and acted upon, a certain groove is etched into the neural pathway. The more often we act on the desire, the deeper that groove becomes. Repetition breeds habit. It’s like memorizing a song. The more you sing it, the deeper its neural track grows, so that pretty soon you can sing the song without even thinking about it. You can sing it while doing laundry and making a mental note to buy popsicles. It becomes a reflex, a knee-jerk impulse, seemingly beyond conscious choice.

The more we feed our habits, the stronger they get.

Impacted by the dharma talk, I thought about antidotes to my habit:

1. Feed other habits instead. When we have an annoying song stuck in our head, the best remedy is to splash it out of the water with another song. For me, instead of feeding the sugar habit, I can feed myself a healthy snack. Since sugar cravings are thinly-disguised pleas for energy, a protein snack like yogurt, nuts, or a hard-boiled egg is much more satisfying for the tired cells of my body. Or, when I feel a gnawing for chocolate I can splash it out of my consciousness with another activity that releases endorphins and lights up happy neural pathways… running around the neighborhood, going dancing, writing a passionate poem. It might take ever-flashier distractions to veer me off the crash course of sugar addiction. The process takes patience.

2. Think of the hook inside that shiny chocolate wrapper. It will spike my blood sugar, then drop me into headachy tiredness.

3. Return to the moment. Realize what is happening here and now. If I am awake and reveling in the textures and colors around me, then my problems drop away. I am home. So I don’t need any escape, even chocolate.

A lot of us are hooked on unhealthy habits, habits that our hurtful to us. If we’re willing to pursue things that are harmful to ourselves, what does this mean about how we’re willing to treat other people? Maybe if we start treating ourselves with respect, we’ll be more motivated to treat others in kind.

We all have the ability to nourish healthy habits. There’s no time except the present moment to make this choice. Our bodies are miracles, functioning harmoniously in ways we don’t even know about. While I’m writing this, my bones are assembling blood cells, my lymph cells are fighting off bacteria, my kidneys are turning water into urine, and my brain is singing a song that’s been stuck in my head since yesterday. How does it all happen? Miraculous synchrony unfolds in our bodies at every moment. It lets us see the blue sky, hear crickets and drums and laughter, walk into sunlight and feel warmed, hold the hand of someone we love. These bodies are treasure beyond price. Why would we want to put anything but pure, clean, nourishing, life-enhancing substances into them? We have every reason to treat ourselves like sanctuaries.

All the conditions for happiness are already here. We’re home in the here and now. If we knew this, would we still chase things that are harmful to us? When we’re home, why go anywhere else?

About Thich Nhat Hanh and Deer Park Monastery

My Teacher

I don’t think I would know about real happiness if it weren’t for Thich Nhat Hanh. By happiness, I mean being able to accept and enjoy life as it is, rather than wanting it to be different. Although this kind of happiness isn’t my constant state of being, I know it is available all the time, and I’m faithfully traveling the path of practice that makes happiness possible. I owe this understanding to Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Thây” (Vietnamese for teacher) was born in 1926 in Vietnam. He became a Buddhist monk at age sixteen. His years as a novice monk included studying the canon of Buddhist teachings and training in the practice of mindfulness. He explains in his book The Art of Power:

The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense. As a novice monk, several times a day I had to light incense to offer on the altar of the meditation hall. I was taught to pick up the stick of incense with both hands, the left hand on top of the right hand, which picks up the stick of incense. A stick of incense is very light. Why do you have to use both hands? The idea is that you have to invest one hundred percent of yourself into this simple act of picking up an incense stick. When you strike the match and light the incense, or put the tip of the incense stick into the flame of a candle, you have to be with the act of lighting one hundred percent. This is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice is the heart of waking up to life – being present in the rich, ever-changing present moment. Thây’s simple, elegant teachings are doorways to mindfulness practice for many people. He emphasizes compassion, understanding and love as both root and fruition of one’s practice.

As a monk in his homeland during the Vietnam War (known there as the American War), Thây built a sangha dedicated to mindful living and peace. He founded the Zen “Order of Interbeing,” a name that reflects the interdependence of all life, to describe how this order’s social activism goes hand in hand with spirituality.

Thây visited the United States in 1966 to represent his people’s wish to end the war. His government saw his peace work as suspicious and exiled him from his homeland. He finally returned to Vietnam in 2006, accompanied by hundreds of members of the Order of Interbeing. During those forty years in exile, he had built a monastic sangha of over 500 monks and nuns, as well as a worldwide network of laypersons’ sanghas too numerous to count. He also established three practice centers: Plum Village in France, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, and Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

Deer Park Monastery

A peaceful oasis in the desert of southern California, Deer Park Monastery is home to monks and nuns ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Spread over forty acres of dry, oak-chaparral hills, Deer Park was previously inhabited by the California Conservation Corps, which built bungalows, dining halls and roads – the perfect raw materials for a monastery. With help from their lay friends, the monastics made the modest wooden structures suitable for religious life and visitors, and settled here in the early 2000s. They constructed the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall, a grand yet simple structure with a wavelike copper roof and two round, richly colored stained glass windows that mirror each other on the north and south walls.

The land is stunning, serene, vastly silent. From the monastery grounds you can climb dirt roads in several directions, surveying a panorama of lush hillsides (and, in the far distance, the bustling city of Escondido and speeding traffic of Highway 15). The peace-loving residents, thanks to their religious belief in reverence for all life, try to maintain harmonious – or at least non-intrusive – relations with their animal landmates. From coyotes to cottontail rabbits, crickets to rattlesnakes, the place is literally crawling with wildlife! One evening after dinner, we heard coyotes ow-ow-owing like dog pups at play on a nearby hill, and one of the nuns grinned, “Our friends are coming down!” Another sister, who once encountered a rattlesnake in a bamboo patch, described the community’s relationship with rattlers: “We try to put them in a trash can and then move them away, far away. We tell them: please come into this trash can because we want you to live, and if you stay here you might get killed accidentally.”

The “sisters” and “brothers” at Deer Park are the most gentle, nonaggressive humans I’ve ever met. The five precepts of Buddhism guide them to be compassionate, to communicate with “deep listening and loving speech,” and to seek out suffering in order to help transform it into compassion and happiness. Spending a week with them is like traveling to a land before civilization, or a fairy-tale future, where humans are not only decent but deeply kind to each other. It’s hard to believe people can behave like this, until you live with these brown-robed folks and find yourself doing good deeds for strangers without a moment’s thought.

In tandem with compassion, the monks and nuns diligently practice mindfulness – awareness of what is happening here and now. In every moment (as every moment is the only moment), they use the techniques of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful dishwashing, tooth-brushing, etc., to cultivate presence and appreciation in life as it is. This practice was taught by the Buddha more than 2,000 years ago, and has been reinvigorated by Thich Nhat Hanh and many other teachers in modern times, as an antidote to suffering. The Buddha taught that suffering comes from either ignorance, desire, or aversion – in other words, from wrong perceptions and the desire for life to be different than it is. We torture ourselves constantly by regretting or romanticizing the past, or scheming or fearing the future. Past and future are illusions. All we have is this moment. Training our minds and bodies to be awake in this moment can lead to real happiness – the kind of happiness that isn’t based on chasing pleasure or avoiding pain, but is grounded in appreciating life just as it is. This kind of happiness makes every cell of your body smile. This must be why all the monks and nuns at Deer Park have radiant, contagious smiles.

Deer Park Monastery and the shining roof of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall

Deer Park Monastery and the shining roof of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall

Haiku

I recently spent about 2 weeks at Deer Park Monastery. This beautiful, peaceful place is the home of monks and nuns who belong to the Order of Interbeing (founded by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh) and who practice mindfulness and compassion in daily life. Below are some haiku I wrote while I was there.

*

thoughts rise, then

sink into ocean

of silence

*

morning bird

echoed by chirping

smoke alarm

*

no chasing

in the here and now

I am home

*

turtle climbs

onto lotus leaf

they both sink

*

for Buddha

dying was just a

change of clothes

*

I listen

so you can fully

speak your heart

*

we look like pilgrims

climbing toward Buddha’s likeness

but we are Buddhas

*

fly hovers

around my nostril –

don’t inhale!