“It is clear that much of humanity is suffering and that I am the cause of some of that suffering, what can I do to help relieve it instead?” The sweet wrinkled face of the woman across from me smiled and quickly answered in Vietnamese “Become a nun.”
The alarm went off very early the next day, switching on the light, I looked for my sweatshirt. The night before I had returned to Plum Village after settling my bill in Bourdeaux. Now that I was officially part of the residential community I was required to take part in the daily activities of the monastery alongside the nuns, and every day they started with a long seated meditation. Exiting the dormitory, several silent figures floated past me and across the grounds towards the meditation hall, their robes gently following them. Once inside, I followed as each of the women settled down onto one of the neatly spaced cushions and crossed their legs, preparing for their practice.
I had been studying meditation for the last eight years and had carefully listened to a number of suggestions and approaches from a variety of Buddhist teachers. My approach had always been one of philosophical interest, the religious fervor, while I respected the importance for the speaker, never interested me. Basically I felt that everyone’s experience of the same piece of knowledge is different and like chemistry reacts to the existing conditions within each person. We are all composed of a universe of moments colliding or finding synergy. Mediation is simply breathing and looking closely at the present moment, being fully alive and a wake to every experience or emotion you have as a result and not turning away.
“Breathing in I see myself as a flower, Breathing out I feel fresh. Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid. Breathing in, I make myself still, like a pond on a mountain, and, breathing out, I reflect things as they are.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Perhaps the build up of residue caused by US advertising and self-promotion or perhaps as a result of who I would have been regardless of birthplace, I have always been fiercely protective of my independence. It may be this that prevents me from accepting that a “guru” is the answer to recovering yourself from the abyss of never-ending distraction. This is not to say that I do not find some teachers words inspiring or admire their choices but that I do not believe anyone can accurately dictate the direction of personal evolution for another. Meditating as an act of exploring living has proved the best guide for me so far and I welcome insight regarding technique from teachers of all disciplines, although ultimately it is my own dedication that will prevail as the most useful.
Seated meditation can include long hours of stillness in the same position and occasionally pain can arise as the experience, many teachers will describe this pain as an opportunity to regain your attention on the present moment. The first morning in the meditation hall, stiff and cold, several months of traveling and without regular practice, I experienced some leg cramps for the first hour. It was with was with some relief that the large metal bowl was struck signifying the end of that mornings session. The sun was rising over the tree tops and beginning to chase the dew away as we stepped out of the hall and slipped back into our shoes. We walked together silently and a deep tranquility permeated the atmosphere. It was a kind of calm and peace that had been built up and reinforced like a habit over thousands of mornings like this one and I smiled to think of it.
All meals at the monastery were silent and it was during this time that the sounding of the 15 minute bell most connected the purpose of the community. Everyone stopping and reconnecting with their surroundings – dropping back down out of their minds and returning to life together. Later in the day I took part in a few hours of service, working to help clean one of the guest house buildings with a group of the nuns. Before beginning our work, we climbed up onto the small balcony of the house a gorgeous green canopy above us swaying and dripping shadows onto the unfinished wood deck. One of the nuns responsible for organizing the task that afternoon took out a small tangerine for each of us. With everyone facing each other she explained “Tangerine Meditation”. The instructions were simple; silently peel and eat the tangerine and while doing so fully taste the flavors of the fruit and delight in the complete experience of eating a tangerine. Notice the texture of the peel as it came off into your hand, the tenderness of the segments inside, the smell of the fruit as you brought it to your mouth, etc… By doing this together, she explained, we would be sharing the simple beauty present in our human sensation of eating a tangerine.
After several days of living at Plum Village, mediating, working, eating and walking amongst the nuns, it was announced that we were going to share the day with the monks down the road – the monastery was dived along gender lines. Additionally Thich Nhat Hanh had returned to Plum Village and would be giving a teaching later that day. The atmosphere of calm reflection changed drastically and I remembered that the women around me had committed their lives to this teacher. They had left their families and homes to live a life solely dedicated to his teachings. I felt simultaneously envious of their clarity and disappointed to remember that the utopian life I had been enjoying had a ruler.
As we were preparing to leave as a group, one of the nuns who had taken a leader role at the monastery pulled me aside to explain that I needed to cover up my shoulders as I would be disrespecting the practice of the monks by tempting them sexually. Europe was in the middle of a heat wave, the temperatures were sweltering and I was wearing a tank top. Returning to the dormitory while the rest of the group started off down the road, I initially felt anger at being singled out, then shame at having been inappropriate and then acknowledgement of the human-ness of the community in which I was a guest. I chose a shawl and began walking silently with a young french nun who had been waiting. As we followed a dirt road through the surrounding vineyards, I let my emotions air out like opening the windows in a smoke-filled house. After I had thoroughly calmed down I was left with the feeling that we were all so very fragile, that our paths even though chosen, could become difficult to follow.
The rest of the day, I barely spoke at all; observing the lecture given by a man I greatly admire and respect, eating a plate of food in the sunshine, participating in a long walking meditation, helping to wash dishes and eventually returning down the dirt road back to the dormitory. Later that evening I sat on a plastic stool in the orchard reflecting on my experience of the previous twelve hours. The condition of being human offers us the ability to feel compassion and desire, to feel tranquility and love. It also creates the ideal conditions for experiencing suffering, despair, pain and loneliness. It was clear I would not be joining the monastery as a nun, but the last ten days had reminded that courageously turning towards this uncertainty in my own life and in the lives around me was the path I had chosen to experiencing humanity.