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The following post was written by Ana Romero, graduate of The Perri Institute for Mind and Body. Ana is a yoga teacher, dancer and graphic designer who continually seeks for different adventures traveling and living abroad.
After a ten hour flight from Mexico, I arrived in Paris. I felt excited and scared. I was on my way to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, a village in the countryside of southwest France. I was picked up at the train station in a big white van to go to Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery that was founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. This Vietnamese monk and peace activist has shared his teachings through more than one hundred books and dharma talks to a wide array of professionals including U.S. police officers and congress men and women. The scenery from the train station to the monastery was beautiful with all the cute hills, the vineyards, the sunflower fields, and other crops, and I really wanted to enjoy my experience of the view--but the truth is that I was terrified. I was more than 5,700 miles from home, with a severe inflammation all across my lower back that wouldn't even let me pull my carry-on luggage. After half an hour in the white van, I arrived at the Lower Hamlet, where some of the Buddhist nuns and laypeople practice the art of mindful living. As soon as I arrived, I felt the peace I could potentially reconnect with. It was an austere set of cabins surrounded by plum trees with a beautiful bell tower and a big lotus pond where every morning, one could hear the frogs croaking and the birds singing. Did I mention that there wasn't any internet or phone service?
At Plum Village, the wake up call is at
with the sound of a bell. After rolling a little in bed and splashing some water on my face, I started walking towards the meditation hall. Right away, I felt the calmness of the subtle footsteps of the nuns dressed in long, brown robes, some of them wearing a kneaded hat to cover their shaved heads. The first day we experienced a guided meditation which called many aspects of nature related to the human being. Some of the days we would also practice a slow walking meditation in the hall. After that, we had some time to stretch our bodies, practice yoga, or run. At
it was time for breakfast; the meals were silent most of the time in order to really savor and concentrate on the gift of the delicious vegan foods, and the efforts around them. After breakfast it was time for working meditation, but before we began we would gather in a circle for announcements and for chanting pure and beautiful songs. Off we would go to start different chores like cleaning, gardening, painting, preparing food, etc. Each day we would also practice walking meditation amongst the trees or by a creek, connecting with nature, contemplating, but most importantly focusing on the breath, focusing on each step, focusing on the present moment. Another of my favorite moments of the day was arriving at the time of Noble Silence, which would usually start when the sun started its final descent. During that time, a nun would chant and ring a beautiful low-pitched bell to celebrate our big star. It was a time to reflect, a time to write or read, a time to just be.
I'm somewhat of a shy person, so I arrived to the monastery with the idea of really focusing on myself. And I did--but I also found that it was very easy to establish a connection with the other laywomen. There were moments of very loving and deep conversations, and there were other moments of so much laughter that I would have to find a tissue to dry my tears. As a laywoman, it was amazing to observe this community of monastics and experience their lifestyle in a less committed way. Their facial expressions are very pure and genuine, and there was room for hard work and seriousness--but there was also room for joy, for giggles, and for fun. It was really wonderful to feel their joy and their commitment. There were some days that all the monastics and the lay friends, men and women, would gather in one of the hamlets to celebrate the day of mindfulness. During that day, there was usually a Dharma talk, a sharing of a learning experience from one of the monastics. In one of the talks, a U.S. monastic was sharing his experience about living in a community, and how it isn't easy. Their talks were so simple, so honest, and even daring at times. This American monk shared with us about finding a little piece of soap that hardly lasted for his shower, and how those kind of things, on different levels, could be tricky when living with somebody else, and especially when living within a bigger community. But that simple talk was fun and spontaneous, because he suddenly made us aware that he was giving us images of him naked and showering. He made us laugh!
Plum Village is a beautiful place full of nature. It is a great place to practice being with yourself and with a community. The talks were simple and sincere, but at the same time, they left a huge learning experience. It was the ideal place to focus on my breath and just be. As a yoga teacher, I wanted to deepen my meditation practice to then share it with my students, and to incorporate it more into my classes. After all, yoga is a meditation itself, as well as preparing the body to have a meditation practice. Being at Plum Village not only planted the seed to deepen the meditation practice for my classes, but it transformed the way I feel when something is going wrong or difficult in my life. I learned from one of the sisters that instead of denying or pushing away that suffering, it was more effective to acknowledge it and give it love in order for it to heal. In a video talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, he said, "Take your suffering as if it would be a crying baby, you don't know what the newborn needs yet but at least you are holding and giving him/her love." My stay at Plum Village was a huge experience because I was really hurt physically, and yet, I was fine. Slowly, I started to feel that transformation of joy and laughter, and therefore, I started to heal.
Photography by Ana Romero
TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
American historian, author, playwright, social activist
Powerful thoughts – especially for this time. Now I recognize that I share this not as a youth from Gaza or a Muslim in Burma or a mother of Mexico. I am a privileged, white American. If I had a Twitter, I could fill my feed with #FirstWorldProblems. And yet I sense that this passage’s message, while immensely valuable to the whole of the world, must especially move those of us who are comfortable (read: can sleep knowing we will be safe in our shelter of a home and have abundant food and water the following day). In my mind, those of us blessed with much bear the responsibility to, at the very least, live lives full of compassion, tolerance, patience, and kindness. Because it really is a grass-roots operation, this motive to bring lasting peace to our world. What we begin ourselves, in the most mundane of moments, can build gradually, spreading through our communities to our neighbors, and on and on. So we can hope, and so we can try.
I realize that much of our world’s suffering probably wouldn’t list peace as their first priority at this point. There are more dire, essential needs at hand. But if we could cultivate qualities that promote care and love for those we know well, as well as the strangers we pass on the street, could other social, economic, and political issues be dealt with in a more efficient, altruistic manner?
The situations that prompt a push for peace often exist as a result of years of historical strife, which unfortunately could not be solved by one measly blog post. However, what we do on small scales can effect change, and that change can be contagious. Think of random acts of kindness or the expression, ‘Pay it forward’. If we give worth to such small acts, we can recognize the capacity for change that loving-kindness meditation can proffer.
I recently read that the Buddha first taught loving-kindness, or metta, as an antidote for fear. How fascinating, no? We may imagine those who are fighting in the Gaza Strip, for example, as angry, and perhaps they are, but could we not attribute some, or even much tension over land or between ethnic groups to fear? Fear of other? I don’t mean to simplify the incredibly complex sagas around our world, but it’s something to consider, even in regards to the milieu of our personal lives.
With loving-kindness meditation, we work to quell negativity and self-doubt, in an effort to develop a stronger acceptance of ourselves. From there, the meditation extends our attention beyond ourselves to others. Different teachers offer differing methods as to who you consider, but often, they encourage us to develop loving-kindness towards people we love and admire, then someone more neutral in the sense that you interact with them on a less personal level (i.e. the man or woman who served you coffee this morning), and finally, someone you are challenged by. Sending loving-kindness to each of these can break down any barriers that have arisen in our hearts and minds and open us to the possibility of compassion’s workings on our relationships. If just five minutes of morning meditation can alter a day, how powerful could the practice of loving-kindness meditation be for our wounded world?
I began giving more thought to loving-kindness meditation after a friend recommended Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness 28-Day Challenge. Since the exercises for this ‘challenge’ live in a book and corresponding CDs, I downloaded the audio files onto my iPod and continue to listen to them when I sense I need some guidance in my meditation practice. It can be especially nice to have on the subway! What I appreciate about Sharon’s work is that she makes meditation accessible. Before each meditation exercise, she educates you on the purpose and method of each meditation practice within the series (Breathing Meditation, Walking Meditation, Loving-Kindness Meditation). When she speaks of loving-kindness meditation, she talks about taking an interest in other. We don’t need to pretend that we have no problems, that everything is good; instead, we look to this practice as a means of attaining a more realistic, full picture of the people and matters around us. Loving-kindness meditation does not promote the manufacturing of feelings. It gathers our attention behind mantras – repeated phrases that wish ourselves and others well, in this case. Sharon offers the phrases below:
May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.
Sitting comfortably, not trying to force anything or make something happen, we present this mantra to ourselves, for ourselves. Then, after a time, we extend these same phrases to others. Again, the people we offer up these phrases for can differ, but here are those Sharon proposes:
-Someone who helped or inspired you. Imagine a countenance, or say a name to yourself; get a feeling of that person’s presence. Wish for them what you have wished for yourself.
-Someone who is hurting or having a difficult time right now.
-Someone you encounter now and then. You might not know much or anything about them.
-A difficult person, whose words and actions are hard to bear. If you struggle to offer up these well wishes to this person, she recommends you center your attention once more on yourself, so that you can soften the barriers obstructing you. Clearly you need some compassion in regards to this relationship!
-All beings everywhere, the boundlessness of life.
As with any meditation, we may find ourselves following or attacking emotions or thoughts that arise. Simply let go, and begin again. This chance to continually begin again is a beautiful piece of meditation that can be drawn into our everyday lives, promoting patience, faith, and hope.
Loving-kindness meditation doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to be the singular savior of our suffering world, but at this point in history, couldn’t our world use a little or a lot of it to get us started? Let us consider how we foster or mar the peaceful potential of our own lives each day, so that the compassion and spirit of generosity built inside our homes can swell and spread throughout the world. It’s at least worth a try.
- Liz Beres
Violence and suffering saturate our world on a daily basis, yet certain tragedies like those in Boston, Texas, and Newtown tend to draw this reality into a harsher light. Hearing about conflict that exists far away from us can become just another piece of news, glossed over, even when we recognize the horror of the situation. What can we do to help those in Syria, for example? How can we solve the problems that underlie these terrible crises?
We would like to believe that human beings are inherently good, yet it seems that violence between individuals and larger groups is inevitable in our world as it exists today. While we would hope to never again hear of a shooting or civil war, perhaps the incidents that hit closer to home benefit us at least in the sense that they trigger something sharper within us, something that drives us to act and work against such unnecessary aggression. Considering the vastness of the universe, we could consider ourselves to be lowly individuals, but as human beings we possess immense powers to promote peace in our world. We can indeed look after each other, as well as the world that swaddles us, through small actions as much as larger ones.
In his book One City, author and Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern suggests that we live from a place of 'thinking globally [and] acting locally'. I find this mantra inspiring in its recognition of the bigger pictures of our world and simultaneous direction to take action closer to home. What we learn from outside sources - newspapers, television, social media, even word of mouth - contributes to our worldview which, in turn, affects our behavior. Taking the time to stay informed seems to be a first step towards Ethan's suggestion; making the time to read and listen becomes requisite to taking that time.
As members of the 21st century, most of us live unbelievably busy lives that often leave little time for personal downtime. Rushing from obligation to obligation, it can become difficult to see further than what lies directly in our sight line. This disappearance into our own lives can lead us further from active engagement with our community. It becomes important then to remember, as Ethan also notes, that the world comes from each of us, not just at us. The way that we treat the man who works next door at the bodega will affect the way he treats his next customer, which will affect the way that person interacts with the next person he or she comes into contact with, and so it will continue, on and on.
In her most recent On the Mat post, TaraMarie spoke to the power of intention. She particularly offered the practice of maitri, or loving-kindness meditation, whereby you send intentions of happiness, health, safety, and ease to those near and far (http://mindbodybrew.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/on-the-mat-a-difficult-practice/). During a workshop with Ethan, he mentioned he attempts to pick up and dispose of one piece of litter each day. This physical manifestation of his attempts at looking after the world, which most certainly includes our natural environment, reminds us that contributing to goodness can be as easy as bending over and standing back up.
Our actions, our choices are directly related to the state of our world. Perhaps it is idealistic, even naive to think that a slight shift in each of our own life moments could result in a calmer, cleaner, more peaceful world. But if each of us made a conscious choice - to smile at the next person we meet on the street rather than look away, to pick up that piece of litter, or to pay for the next person in line's coffee just because - I believe we could birth seismic shifts that would benefit those who walk this earth today, as well as all those to come.
- Liz Beres
* To read up on some easy ways to stay green and look after our Earth, visit http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/green-new-years-resolutions-10109?src=soc_fcbks#slide-1