20th September, 2013
Dear friends of the four fold Sangha,
A deep bow to you all from Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.
Here we have just started the first week of our Autumn retreat, the golden poplar leaves are floating down in the gusts of wind, rain is finally falling on our summer parched grass and we are getting out our scarves and woolly hats.
Our teacher Thay is still in the US so here it’s very quiet, only 10 or so guests each week (compared to 220 in the full swing of summer retreat) and we are so happy to be following our new Autumn schedule after months of retreats followed by delicious Lazy Days!
For those of you who do not know me, I am a “Baby Nun” from the Azalea Ordination family, ordained just 18 months ago (4th July 2012). Although English, I’ve spent almost half my life in France, and that is where I met the practice. For 14 years I practiced as a lay person, first with the French Sangha and then for 2 years in Hampshire, England. During this time I went regularly and often to Plum Village but eventually I took the leap into the monastic river, where I’m now splashing around like a new born baby, delighted to practice and play in this extraordinary place.
You may be wondering how that transition went, and this article is an opportunity for me to reflect on my infant monastic life so far.
I became a monastic because I love the practice so much, exploring the mind and being able to transform my difficulties by means of the practice. Getting to know my own mind better and with the experience of transforming my own suffering, I hope to share this to help others.
Before I ordained, monastic life itself was pretty much a mystery and I couldn’t even say the word “nun”, as it conjured up so many negative Western cultural associations for me. Plum-Village-speak “monastic” was OK.
Being a lot older (in years) than most of the monastics, how would I take on having to change so many habits of a (rather long) lifetime?*
Many years ago, when I first met Ani Lodron (Scots Dharmacharya) in Plum Village – back then she was still in Tibetan robes – she shared, “Thay’s practice all comes down to 2 words, letting go.” Thank you Ani, I’ve never forgotten your words and they often come back to my ears, unbidden, in difficult times. Oh yes, perhaps this is yet another opportunity to let go! And it’s usually my ideas that I need to let go of… Though I have to add that as a monastic I’ve also had to give up a lot of “stuff” too (elder sisters’ belongings can usually fit into 1 suitcase…).
Before ordination, I expected (expectations are very good things to let go of) that my greatest challenge would be living in a community. During my lay life I had lived quite long periods alone, and enjoyed it. We do what we like, when we like, how we like!
But I had also lived in a family, with my ex-partner and his 2 children, and I enjoyed that too, even though it had meant a lot less personal space. However, the thought of sharing a room with 3 other sisters and the study room with 11 other sisters, that was not going to be easy, I thought.
But in fact it’s very pleasant! Sharing a room is delightfully cosy, there is always someone to share with if we feel sad, or going through a difficult moment. Always someone to give you a hug. No opportunity to go and hide if I feel angry or irritated (what I used to do as a child), so I just have to practice. Living in such close quarters, everyone we come into contact with is a mirror for our own feelings and mental states, so it’s a great place for deepening practice. There’s no escape!
But remembering my first weeks sharing a room, post ordination, there were many things or rather desires that I had to let go of – the desire for 8 undisturbed hours of sleep (here alarm clocks ring at all hours of the night – you may think that 5am is early to get up in Plum Village but most sisters get up way earlier than that!), the desire to sleep in a dark room (often lights are left on), the desire to choose for yourself which bed, which desk, where you sit in the van… (as a younger sister we get to choose last on most things). 18 months on I can now see that this training has made me less fussy, more equanimous, allowing me to entrust myself to the Sangha. I see that day by day my confidence in the Sangha grows, that it really does give me all that I need and takes care of me. This is the most wonderfully fertile earth in which I can grow.
Living in a community, I have never felt alone, there is such a great choice of sisters and brothers with whom I can share, or take a walk, or drink tea. Here there is such a capacity to listen and understand, (after all, that’s what we’re all here for!) I truly live in a beloved community, a monastic family. I realize more and more that simply living in this community heals the childhood suffering experienced in my blood family, where parents were often busy, pre-occupied with their own difficulties, unfortunate in that they had never learnt themselves how to take care of strong emotions, let alone talk about them or try to care for those of their children!
Throughout my 18 months of monastic life I have been faced with countless occasions to test my capacity, or incapacity, to “let go.” Happily, this has led me to another beautiful practice, deeply connected and just as fundamental, developing compassion for myself. If it’s possible, I allow myself to take the time I need to let go, above all not being violent to myself. I love the analogy of a ripening fruit, once it’s ripe it will let go of the branch all by itself. I allow myself to ripen and that might be the time to come back to my breath and open to the situation and my feelings, or it might take several weeks or months. Slowly I develop patience and self care.
After my ordination, being of the “good student” type, I did my best to live up to what I thought were the expectations for me. Big mistake! Trying to please is not a good path, leading only to exhaustion and despair, and even to disliking the practice. Little by little, like a toddler finding its first steps, I have built the confidence to know that I have to be myself, with all my faults. One of the greatest jewels I have observed in this community is the absence of blaming and judging. I feel accepted as I am, in fact far more than that, I feel loved for who I am. What a gift!
Recently, on a Lazy morning (no sitting, breakfast at 8 am so a lie-in is possible) I am woken up at 3h30 am by a very loud alarm. I turn to look with sleepy, bad tempered and accusing eyes at the perpetrator. I see my dear elder sister room-mate, sitting up in bed, fiddling with her new electronic alarm, trying to turn off the noise and laughing with delight at the sound from her new toy. Suddenly it comes to mind that I have a choice, I can either be grumpy, or I can laugh at the humour of the situation because she really does look very sweet, chuckling all by herself in the early morning. Easily, I smile to myself, turn over and go straight back to sleep. Progress!
Thank you, dear friends, for all your support. Please come to visit us often and take the opportunity to flow with us in the four fold Sangha river.
A basket of ripe Autumn figs for you,
* Normally the age limit for becoming an aspirant –the first step towards monastic life – is 50 but I was already 55 when I made my request. Thankfully our community, although having a lot of rules, also makes a lot of exceptions!