People say that loneliness and depression are the greatest sicknesses of our time. We feel disconnected from ourselves and others and as a result, life loses all of its joy and brilliance.
I remember when I was a young teenager, having to take a bus crammed with people every morning in order to go to school, to build a very hazy, insecure future for myself. My only way of dealing with this was to put in my earphones and blast my music as loud as possible in order not to feel the discomfort and the tiredness that we were all bringing onto the bus. When I think of this it always makes me smile. Although now I live in the middle of an oak forest in the French countryside, and my life cannot be called stressful, I still dislike getting on buses. This feeling is quite subtle and I hardly notice it as it manifests, but it is certainly one of the reasons why I choose to bike the 26 kilometers to our weekly day of mindfulness in the New Hamlet. It’s a little residue of the suffering I went through as a teenager.
Hearing this you might think that this is quite a normal experience, and that nobody likes the smell, the noise, the traffic and the crowded spaces of our urban life. But three or four years into my monastic life I had another experience that surprised me very much and changed me.
I remember when the Sangha had organized a flashmob sitting meditation in a big square in Madrid, Spain. Thay was there and he sat in silence with the whole community, surrounded by thirty or forty monks and nuns. In just ten or fifteen minutes several hundred people had gathered around us, and sitting together as a Sangha we generated a very strong energy of silence and peace. People were walking all around us. Some would simply rush past, completely failing to notice our presence. Others would raise their gaze and stop for a few seconds, surprised at the bizarre sight. A few people saw what was happening and decided to sit down with us, while others were satisfied with standing on the far edges of our circle to take some pictures. Suddenly I became aware of the noise surrounding us. You could hear the loud hubbub of the traffic, and breathe the smell of the city. As I was observing closely my body and my feelings, I noticed that there was something strange there. In a similar situation I would normally feel quite uncomfortable and unsettled, but I surprised myself by having a very joyful sense of freedom. I could hear the noise of the city and yet “I was not it”.
Remembering this moment still gives me so much happiness. For the first time in my life I experienced being in the heart of our urban society and yet not feeling affected by it. I could see the direction that everybody was running toward, but I did not have to follow! That was a moment of liberation that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Our intention in life is to thrive and not simply to survive, but sometimes we have to face some adverse conditions. Our cities are not built to fit a relaxed and leisured lifestyle. But with a community of friends, we can find enough energy to bring the practice to the very heart of our busy society. If we are able to touch a moment of joy, of happiness and freedom there, we have achieved a great victory. However difficult the situation is around us, we should not allow it to rob us of our right to generate small moments of happiness. If by some chance I had to sit again on the same bus I used to take to go to school, I would certainly do it in a very different way. Of course, it would be a challenge, but I would not hesitate to do it, because I trust that if I am really present, something surprising would happen one day or another.
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Br. Phap Bieu lives in the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, France. He was ordained as a monk when he was 18 years old and became a Dharma Teacher this year. He is originally from Italy and speaks Italian, French, English and Vietnamese fluently. He is a talented musician and often conducts the Plum Village Monastics when they chant.