Welcome to episode ten of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
In this episode, presenters Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino are joined by special guest Zen Buddhist nun Sister Sinh Nghiem (Adornment with Liveliness). Together, they look deeply into healing childhood wounds.
All three further discuss: inner healing, from healing the child within to collective healing and how to face our challenges, traumas and suffering to find a way through; the possibility of transformation and healing past relationships; the original fear.
Brother Phap Huu expands upon: the importance of understanding the source of inner wounds in order to start healing them; Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on childhood traumas; the Four Noble Truths; his own experience of being bullied as a child and its consequences; understanding and compassion for those we think are responsible for our suffering; apologizing and forgiveness; stopping the cycle of hate.
Sister Sinh Nghiem shares insights about: her journey to becoming a nun, from escaping Vietnam on a boat with her family after the war, to her career as a psychologist, and finding Thay through another teacher in the Theravada tradition; how the practice of mindfulness helped her deal with abuse suffered as a child; healing her inner child after she became a monastic. She also discusses specific spiritual practices that helped her healing process, like reconnecting with the body, and mindful movement.
Jo recollects a workshop by John Bradshaw on healing the inner child and the deep experience of transformation. He further muses on childhood and creative visualization, defense mechanisms, and the importance of understanding the context of our parents’ lives.
Finally, Brother Phap Huu ends the episode with a guided meditation on generating love for our own selves.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Stream Entering Monastery
Understanding Our Father
The Four Noble Truths
‘The 16 Exercises of Mindful Breathing’
“I’ve always been very impressed with Thich Nhat Hanh because he has integrated the very depths of Buddhist teachings with Western psychology. And he focuses a lot of his teachings on healing our childhood wounds, and that the wounds we receive as children tend to stick with us throughout our lives.“
“In Buddhism, we always practice in order to have liberation – but liberation has to be the liberation of something. Much of the time, as an adult, we want to understand our suffering. And in Buddhism, we have to shine light into the reality of what is happening in the here and now. In meditation and in mindfulness, when you are aware of yourself, you can start to recognize what is causing you pain and what is causing you suffering.”
“When suffering is present, happiness is also there. These opposites go hand in hand. If there is happiness, then we know that suffering is also present – and we have to understand that suffering is not solely negative, because if you truly look deeply into it, you start to understand yourself more.”
“When we meditate on our suffering, we can recognize that it is a continuation of the past. A lot of us experience early suffering as a child. If we didn’t have the chance, as a child, to transform it or to have a breakthrough and be free from it, then that suffering will still be very present with us today.”
“I had all the knowledge and all the wisdom and all the understanding to be able to go and sit with myself as a child and start that healing process.”
“Tai chi and qigong for me are not just about the movement, but about learning to be mindful in my movement.”
“We may forget about the event itself, the situation, the story, but the body remembers the wound; the body remembers the events that happened.”
“Even though our practice is to learn to dwell in the present moment and not be carried away by the future or be swept away by the past, in meditation itself we have to also visit the three times. The three times means we have to know how to reflect on the past, no matter how miserable it can be; it can be a lesson, it can be an insight that allows us to stop because we recognize that what has happened to us gave us so much suffering. And if we don’t transform this, we will offer the same suffering to the next person that is close to us.”
“If we don’t let go, then the perpetrator continues to make us suffer; we never break that cycle.”
“I have learned through Thay’s teaching that, as an adult or as a parent, as an elder brother, as an elder sister, an uncle, an aunt, or a friend, our way of being is a teaching. The way we interact is a transmission in its own right. So my suffering has given me a lot of awareness about how I behave, and that has an immediate impact.”
“We’re all on that path, we are all hurt, we all suffer; Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this original suffering existing from birth. It’s not that we must have had a traumatic experience growing up, but that, actually, birth itself is a traumatic experience.”
“I realized it’s so important to be able to heal through these very simple things, like being able to reconnect with your body to relax and release the tension in it.”
“Our teacher emphasizes a lot about brotherhood- and sisterhood-friendship. This is one of his messages to all of us: that we need communities as individuals. Yes, we can recognize our own suffering, but sometimes our own dark corners are too big for us to illuminate. We need friends to help us see the blind spots so that we can step out of our suffering, to recognize and transform it.”
“This present moment is creating the past. This is one of the keys that helped me become more free in this present moment. If we live it deeply, it will become the new past.”
“When you come here for the practice, you learn to bring the practice into your daily life, so that you become more solid, more stable, and more peaceful, in order to embrace the really difficult stuff – because you need that. If you don’t have a solid foundation of peace and connectedness and groundedness, then when your suffering comes up, you are automatically carried away. You are overwhelmed by the past and are not able to be grounded in the present moment with your breath. And that is a really, really important daily practice, which enables you to heal deeper wounds.”
Dear listeners, welcome to another episode in the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
Today, we’re going to be talking about inner healing. We all have suffering. We all have traumas. We all have issues from our childhood that need resolving. And today we’re going to talk about how to face into our challenges and suffering and find a way through.
The way out is in.
My name is Jo Confino
and I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
And we’re actually in his hut in southwest France in Plum Village, which is the monastery of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Yes, and the hut’s name is Sitting Still Hut. And today we are very happy to have a special guest with us. Sister Sinh Nghiem! And her name translates into Adornment with Liveliness.
And she lives up to that name.
She does. She does. She brings a lot of joy to the community. And if you have been joining our online retreats throughout the pandemic, you have definitely seen her on screen as MC, as well as offering Dharma sharings and other activities online. And it’s very special to have her today because she will be moving to our center in Australia. The center is called Entering the Stream’s Monastery and it is in…
Melbourne. And Sinh Nghiem was originally from Australia. So it’s like returning back to her roots in a way. So I definitely wanted to catch her and have her as a guest before she leaves to Australia. So Sister Sinh Ngheim, would you please introduce yourself a little bit and to share a little bit with our listeners who you are and why did you become a nun? What was your journey?
Yes, thank you for inviting me. It’s a real pleasure and honor to be in a podcast. It’s… I’ve never been on a podcast before. This is the very first time. And we’re very… We used to have like radio stations, but this is like, in some ways, a bit like that. So I’m Sister Sinh Nghiem and I was born in Vietnam, but I went to Australia when I was eight and I grew up in Australia, studied there and had a bit of a career in Australia before I ordained at 32 years. That’s relatively late compared to many of our brothers and sisters here who ordained in their late teens or early 20s. So I was a bit of a late bloomer, you could say.
And sister, what was the reason you became a nun? So what was the spark for your monastic life?
Yeah, I don’t know where to start because there have been many conditions that led me to become a monastic. I wasn’t… As a teenager, I remember attending my grandfather’s funeral at a local temple in Australia, and we just, you know, like we chanted in the Vietnamese traditional style. And I remember I attended all the ceremonies and I kept falling asleep in all of them because I don’t understand any of the chanting because it was all in Sino-Vietnamese. But I think that some things got in, but my first teacher, my first Buddhist teacher was a monk, an English monk called Abhinyana. And he ordained in a Therevadan tradition, but he often went to the refugee camps in Indonesia and Malaysia to teach the Dharma to the refugee people. And he was very much in contact with the Vietnamese community there. And I remember around 16, my parents took me to listen to these Dharma talks from this English monk. And he always encouraged me to ask questions, because I always had a lot of questions to ask him. And I think that was my first contact with the Dharma, around 16. But I remember as a child, maybe around five years old or something, I remember in Vietnam, I remember watching a movie and I saw the image of a Catholic nun, you know, with the the black and white habit. And I thought, Oh, I like that, I want to be, you know, I want to wear that. So that was my first… something much deeper than my memory could go. But I wanted to become a nun, some sort of a religious person, even as a very young person, a young child. And then at 16 when I came in contact with the Dharma, I followed this teacher for a while and he gave me the name Stone, because actually my nickname is Đa and put a dấu sắc on, like the accent, and becomes Đa or Stone. But he wouldn’t take any disciples. But in some ways I felt like I was his disciple in some ways. And he gave me a name. And then he became very sick with throat cancer. And when he became sick, that was when I went to Plum Village for the first time to check out monastic life. And then when he died, before he died, I asked him, Oh, what do you think if I ordained? It was like, he was passing me on… I had found somebody to continue my spiritual journey. And yeah, I felt like we had some sort of a teacher-student relationship. And then I found Thay and I ordained after that.
Great. Thank you, sister. So today we were going to talk about healing our childhood wounds. And one of the things I’ve always been very impressed with Thich Nhat Hanh is the fact that he has integrated the very depths of Buddhist teachings with also some Western psychology. And he does a lot of focus within the monastery within his teachings about healing our childhood wounds and the fact that actually the wounds we get as children tend to actually stick with us all our lives. And actually one of the most important parts of our healing journey is to actually be able to go back and understand what it is that created these wounds and to start healing them. Brother Phap Huu, do you want to talk a little bit about Thich Nhat Hanh and his focus on our childhood traumas?
Yes. In Buddhism, we always practice in order to have liberation, but liberation always has to be liberation of something. And a lot of the time as an adult, we want to understand our suffering. And in Buddhism, we have to shine light into the reality of what is happening in the here and the now. And in meditation and in mindfulness when you are aware of yourself, you can start to recognize what is causing you pain and what is causing you suffering. And therefore, in Buddhism, the Buddha teaches us about the Four Noble Truths. And the First Noble Truth is that there is suffering. And I used to ask why would suffering be so noble? And we learned that because suffering is present, therefore happiness is also there. It is the two opposites that go hand in hand. And if there is happiness, then we know that suffering is also present and we have to understand that you cannot look at suffering as something that is only negative, because if you truly look deeply into suffering, you start to understand yourself more. You start to see, why am I suffering? What are the roots of my suffering? Which is the Second Noble Truth. We have to look deeply enough to see what are the causes of my suffering that is present today. And when you meditate on our suffering, we can recognize that our suffering is a continuation of the past. And a lot of us have the experience of early suffering as a child. And if we don’t have the chance as a child to transform it or to have a breakthrough and be free from it, then that suffering will still be very present with us today. And it is a kind of character that is developed and we carry it as as we continue to grow. If we continue the way we are without understanding our suffering and taking care of it, at one point is going to knock on our front door and say, Hey, please take care of me. I am a child. I am you. I have not had the chance to be understood. You haven’t yet taken care of me and transform me. And I think each and every one of us have this kind of journey and has this kind of childhood wound that is present either very small or very big. And everyone has a different story and it’s very unique. And in Buddhism and in our teachings, when we understand our suffering, then at the same time we are understanding ourself much more. And we have a chance to heal ourself and begin anew with ourself. And I think this is why it is so important in meditation is to have time and have time for oneself. That’s why our podcast is learning to come inward to see the way out.
Talking about masks. So, you know, my first sort of deep experience of transformation was… I grew up thinking I grew up in a perfect family, and that was my, actually, defense mechanism. And I remember I was a journalist for the Daily Telegraph. I was actually the Wall Street correspondent in New York, and I went off to report on a weekend workshop in New Orleans by a very well-known sort of therapist called John Bradshaw, who became an expert on healing the child within. And I always remember that I was sitting in a group of about 300 people, and he just asked us to close our eyes and took us on a sort of visualization. And he asked us to come back to, as an adult, to travel back in time to when we were a child and he asked us to walk back to our family home. And I remember going in there and then he said, Go and find yourself as a child. And I remember going upstairs and going into my bedroom and seeing myself as probably, I think, an eight or nine-year-old just crying my eyes out and just feeling very, very alone. And I really got in touch with the depths of the suffering, and I realized that, you know, as an adult, we contextualize things, we understand things we can go back and would say this happened because of that. But actually to get back in touch with that original feeling that a child feels, which is absolute, and feeling this desperate sadness. And then he asked us to just, I remember, sitting on the bed with myself as a child and realizing that I could go back in time as an adult and actually be present for myself as a child. And that actually I could… the two of us were there, but I could be there for myself in a way that I never could understand. And then it ended with him suggesting that we sort of take our child by the hand and walk out the house. And, you know, even as I say this now, it sort of it loses so much of the depth of feeling and transformation. And I recognize that that moment, first of all, how much I’d hidden and blocked of my experience as a child. And secondly, that actually, I had all the knowledge now and all the wisdom and all the understanding to be able to go and sit with myself as a child and start that healing process. And that was a transformational experience, and I’ve realized that was 30 years ago now. And that I’m still on that healing journey, you know, I’m still… that healing journey is never finished. But the understanding and the ability to give myself love, give myself understanding, give myself compassion was actually completely transformational. Sister Sinh Nghiem, tell us a little bit about, you know, how this process has worked for you.
Yeah, I definitely think that this is such an important practice for our personal growth, whether you seriously or kind of intentionally embark on a spiritual journey or not. But I think that it has made me feel so much more whole as a person to have been through this journey of healing for myself. I remember when… I was born just after the Vietnam War in 1976, and then things were quite difficult after that, and my parents wanted to give me a future that is brighter than what they saw in the current state of Vietnam at the time. And so we escaped on a boat. We were the boat people and we came and we were on the ocean for five days and four nights. And I was very well protected by my parents because they’re always there for me. But it was in the refugee camps in Indonesia, that was when I had the wound. And I didn’t really know how to take care of it until after I had become a monastic and known about the process of healing the inner child within. But during my stay in the refugee camps, I was molested by a couple of teenage boys. And I remember that that evening my parents had to go to some sort of meeting with the community, and they just left me with another girl of the same age as me just to kind of hang out. And then in the army barracks, there was this older teenage boy who saw us and he said, Oh, do you want to play a game? And of course, yeah, yeah, we want to play a game. We were kids, you know. And so he just asked questions like he said, If I ask you a question and you can’t answer it, I would tickle you. And then, of course, he asked, you know, questions like, Oh, where is Paris? I remember something about Paris. And of course, we had no idea. So he would tickle me and then take advantage of that moment. And I remember that evening I was really angry with my parents because they were not there to protect me. And I remember kind of emotionally cutting myself off from my parents. You know, that night, because I normally sleep next to my mum, and that night, I would turn away from her. I didn’t want to sleep and be cuddled next to her. And yeah, it kind of gave me a very independent character. Of course, physically, I had to still be dependent on my parents, for my schooling, for my daily needs. But emotionally, I would never go to my parents. I would never confide in my parents for anything. And when I got older, I was quite a wild child. I would do things and then tell them, for example, you know, I would go to buy a ticket to go to see my boyfriend overseas and then tell them afterwards. And this is something like total no-no in the Vietnamese community. It might not be anything in the a western country like Australia, but yeah, it made my parents suffer so much. And I just couldn’t connect with their suffering at all. I just… I had no idea, I couldn’t feel their suffering because I had been so emotionally cut off from them and I was very angry with them. And I never told them about these incidents in the refugee camps until, like, you know, five years ago or something when I really began to share with them and the first time. And they were very upset because all this time they wanted to care for me, they wanted to protect me. But they couldn’t, you know, they felt really helpless and… But I said to them, It’s OK, I’m going through… I’m healing things now and it’s okay now. I mean, they’re OK about it.
Can you tell us a bit about your healing journey and how this practice has helped you?
I mean, aside from being very angry with my parents and cutting off from my parents, I saw another effect was the way that I relate to men, the way that I relate to sexual relationships, the way I relate to intimacy. And I see that it has been very… It comes from a wrong view. The way that I relate to men has been coming from a wrong view that all they want is sex. And I could see throughout my different partners that whenever I got into a relationship, I always wanted to tell them about this wound inside of me and hoping that they could kind of hold it or help me to heal in some ways. But of course, they didn’t know how to, and I never got that feeling of healing when I was in these relationships. And perhaps I was looking for some way to heal through being in an intimate relationship. But I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t know how to relate to them. I was either kind of always trying to please them or using sex as a way to manipulate. And it was very unhealthy for me. And I suppose also growing up in a society where sex sells and you get everything bombarded with sexual images, sexual connotation, and the society where sexual freedom is so much what people want, especially young people. And it’s all about individual pleasure. And you, you know, everything was billboards, great big billboards, bigger, longer, that kind of thing. And of course, I feel, I don’t know, it was such a… I feel that I had gone in the wrong way for a long time. And I thought I had sexual freedom, but actually, it didn’t give me any happiness inside, and it didn’t really feel this kind of emptiness and this longing to heal inside. Until finally, it’s kind of like ironic that I was looking for love and looking for healing through relationships, sexual relationships, but I couldn’t find it until I got out of it, until I became celibate. Then I really had a chance to see myself more clearly, see the wounds, understand the wounds more clearly so that I can begin to heal my journey of healing myself and to heal the relationship with my parents. That’s also was very important. And also to heal my relationship with men, to begin to see men as spiritual beings, and that there is a possibility for spirituality.
Are there any particular practices that helped you? Because obviously, Thich Nhat Hanh is known as the father of mindfulness that, you know, he teaches about meditation, about walking meditation, about coming back to ourselves, about being in the present moment, about healing. What within the spiritual practice of Thich Nhat Hanh has supported your healing process?
I think reconnecting with my body was really important. I mean, Thay talks about breathing and the breath as like a bridge in helping us to come back to our body, to be aware of our body and to listen to our body and learn how to take care of our body. Because I remember growing up and I always feel such a huge complex about my body. I hated my body. And because there was so much in the media about how you should look like as a young woman, to be attractive, to be socially acceptable. And I remember feeling and thinking many times I should have some sort of cosmetic surgery or to enhance my physical appearance so that I could… because I thought that would bring me more happiness. But it didn’t. Luckily, I didn’t have anything, and it took many years to be able to come back and learn to connect with my body, to listen to my body through all the daily practices of stopping and coming back to the breath and learning to relax, learning to be aware of your body. The 16 exercises of breathing to listen to your body, to calm your body, to relax and release all the tension. And I also started to do Qigong and Tai chi. I mean, Tai chi and Qigong for me are not just about the movement, but it’s about learning to be mindful in my movement because we often have sitting meditation. And I also really love walking meditation. Walking meditation really helps me to come back to my body, to be aware of where there is tension. And throughout the years of just practicing with the community, I learned that actually the wounds… we may forget about the event itself, the situation, the story, but the body remembers the wound, the body remembers the events that happened. And so just to learn to listen, to be able to release the tension. I remember a practice I did while I was in Hong Kong is to play with my inner child, have a time to play because I think maybe my play has been kind of, what’s the word? Tainted? Or it’s been… Play is not pleasant. Play is kind of associated with something not very nice. So I didn’t know how to play and be natural. And one day I was thinking… I realize and observed that usually in the afternoon I would get very lonely. This sense of being very lonely would come up, and I would wonder why that is. And one day I thought, Oh, maybe it’s my inner child, and maybe let’s just, you know, go for a bike ride with my inner child. And I remember feeling very excited, and I could kind of visualize her sitting on the seat, behind the bicycle. And I would just ride the bicycle like very fast and feel the wind and just play, I don’t know. It’s hard to kind of explain to you now, but it takes some sort of experimenting to be with my little girl inside and to spend time playing with her because playing is quite important to spend time playing with her. And being joyful with her was what helped so that she doesn’t have to feel so lonely. And because I didn’t know how to look after her and spend time with her, then just listening to her. And then, later on, I also did some other things, like I did some drawings after telling my parents about it and I drew a little picture of my mom lying down and I draw the picture of the little girl turning into my mom this time. And this one day I just felt I wanted to draw this image of me turning back to my mom, turning back to be with her, to not have that separation and emotional cut-off from her anymore. And so that was quite healing for me to be able to draw that and kind of express that process of coming back to my mom.
Sister Sinh Nghiem, I just want to say this is my first time hearing this story from you, and I’m very touched and I’m here for you. I’m your brother on the spiritual path and I want to support you in any way that’s possible. I think we all have a child within that is wounded, and we can say that’s the past that still needs to be reflected on. And even though our practice is to learn to dwell in the present moment and not be carried away by the future and be swept away by the past, but in meditation itself, we have to also visit the three times and the three times it means we have to know how to reflect in the past, because in the past how miserable it can be, it can be a lesson, it can be insight that can allow us to stop because we recognize that what has happened to us gave us so much suffering. And if we don’t transform this, we can be the person that will offer the same suffering to the next person that is close to us. And I think this was also part of my inner journey in a spiritual path because my family was also a refugee moving and coming to Canada. And I didn’t have to be on the boat with my parents, but when I arrived in Canada, my father had had also a really tough time in refugee camp. And of course, if you can’t handle those suffering, then you find a way to express it and it is through frustration, anger, alcohol, et cetera. And as a child, you’re so pure, you just suck all of that in and that becomes you. And I had a particular cousin who was very angry, and I was one of his victims who he would just bully for no reason. And then when I entered into the monastic community, one of my realizations is that I still have a lot of fear towards a particular figure, like a man who is six-foot-tall, a little bit sturdy. And whenever I see that I can feel like I shrink a little bit and I have some complexes, inferiority complexes that arise. And I would say, like, I don’t know Sister Sinh Nghiem how long it was for you to finally call it by its true name, but for myself, I think it was by like fourth year in as a monastic. And I started to ask myself, like, why do I have this nervousness around particular members in my community? And Thay’s teaching is we all have a five-year-old child we’ve been speaking about, or we can say, eight-year-old, nine-year-old. But Thay chose five-year-old and we have a meditation on the five-year-old child. But don’t be caught by the number. Everyone has a different history. And for myself, you have to return back and listen to that five-year-old child because it’s like a wound that is telling you that it needs healing. And for myself, when I recognize that and I remember what Thay taught us is also we have to communicate with the child and tell the child that now we have a chance to heal. We are a grown-up. We have the right to protect ourself. We know how to speak out. We know how to also be stable. And that’s why in meditation, it is also so important to know how to nourish our well-being. And the meditation is how to take care of our happiness, how to cultivate our joy, how to cultivate our compassion, how to cultivate our understanding. Because when you actually come back to that five-year-old child, that five-year-old child needs all of this and needs compassion. It needs tenderness, it needs embracing and it needs to be known that it’s OK now. And I also remember just telling the five-year-old that everyone around you now, especially in Plum Village, these are very kind people. They are not there to harm you. They’re there to just be with you on this path. And that was really… like right now that I’m saying it, it sounds so simple. But for that moment when I was meditating with this wounded child inside of me, it was a breakthrough. And I just remember feeling so much lighter, so much more free. But it wasn’t the end, though, you know. And because we have habits and we have still marks of fear that needs to slowly be transformed. And even though I realize that and I would go about my day with my community, see the brothers, the sisters. And then from time to time, I still recognize a reaction in my body. And then I tell… that’s when I say, Oh, this is my five-year-old child that is still afraid. And you have to come back and you have to revisit this child and say, it’s OK, embrace it. Be there for it. And it took me a few years to really know where I can kind of say like, I am… I have transformed you. And I think that child is still present, but it is so much more stronger, it is so much more wiser because the me today is that child also. And there’s even deeper practice within this, we also bring that meditation towards someone else that makes us suffer because if we see them as a five-year-old child must have has so much more suffering for them to behave in such a way. Then we can have a little bit more understanding and we can even dare to have compassion for them. Yes.
Brother Phap Huu, that’s really interesting what you were saying about not only having compassion for ourselves, but also starting to have compassion for the people we think are responsible for the suffering. So one of the things for me is that, you know, my parents did everything they could for me and, you know, I have no particular trauma that I remember at all. And I think it’s dangerous to sort of compare my experience to other people’s experience because actually our experiences, our own… It’s felt on our own, it’s not for saying, oh, yours was worse than mine. We feel what we feel. But I know that over the years, it’s been very important for me to understand the context of my parents’ life as you were talking, not only as them, as children, which I don’t know, but you know, my parents were also refugees, which is quite interesting that all of our parents were refugees. My father from Bulgaria, my mother from Germany. And actually, they had a lot of trauma and a lot of suffering themselves in their life, in their adult lives, having to leave their countries, having to start new lives. And, you know, all the issues around that. And that was really helpful in sort of coming to terms and realizing actually they were doing their best. But I wonder, Sister Sinh Nghiem, you know, the perpetrators of the abuse of you, you know, has your feelings towards them changed? Has the practice helped you to come to terms with that? What has that experience been like for you?
Hmm, that’s interesting, because I haven’t done much with the perpetrator. And perhaps I’ve tried to contemplate what their background is because when I was… Because I worked in mental health for some years, I was a psychologist. And working in the mental health field, I understood that many people who suffer from mental illness have a history of sexual abuse. Maybe 50, up to 50 per cent of people who have mental illness have some sort of sexual abuse background. And even the perpetrators of sexual abuse were themselves victims of some sort of abuse themselves. So for the people who molested me back then, the boys… I sometimes thought about, oh, what they must have experienced for them to be doing this to me. The only thing that came up for me was that perhaps they had been touched inappropriately or if they had been abused themselves, and they were kind of continuing that in some ways. Or it could be that they were just kind of experimenting. As teenagers, your hormones go a bit haywire, go a bit wild. And so maybe they were just out of curiosity or something like that that they did this or they may have seen somebody do it. Because the situation, the living conditions in refugee camps are very basic and people just lived in each other’s lives without much privacy. And I don’t have any ill feelings towards these teenage boys. Yeah, it was more an internal process for me where I had to deal with a lot of anger towards my parents and cutting them off and realizing that I had actually cut them off from my life. And I didn’t realize it back then. Because, yeah, as a child, you just kind of did things without thinking about it. It was just a natural reaction to… No, I don’t want to connect with my parents anymore because I didn’t think they were reliable or something like that. Of course, like you said, they had done the best they could given the conditions and things like that. Yeah, I didn’t really blame them, I just remember being very angry with them and cutting them off and not wanting to involve them in my personal life so much, that’s all.
And brother, you know, you talk about, you know, this bullying, you know, how do you feel towards the person that perpetrated that?
Yeah, I’ve always had fear around him, I remember, growing up. And even later on after I became a monk, even on my home visit, I still had a percentage of fear. More fear than anger, interestingly. But at one point I started to see, I started to forgive him for me, meaning that I wanted to move on from this and I really wanted to heal this five-year-old in me. And maybe in this lifetime he won’t change because he doesn’t have enough conditions to join or to be introduced into a spiritual community or into a way of life, to recognize and to transform. And if I’m to wait for him to heal for me to be satisfied, that might never happen. And so I started to accept that action and then forgive my myself for being weak at that moment. And I think I forgave him inside of me for my own sake, for my own growth. And I think through that process, I don’t want to sound so arrogant, but I’ve always recognized that I forgive a lot of people. And I think this comes from my mother. My mother is someone who is very kind and is very understanding in her own way, and I’m very grateful that somehow this has been transmitted to me and it’s through her way of taking care of me as a child. And I’ve… now that he has children, which are like my nephews and nieces, I think if I didn’t become a monk and I have not met the practice, I may have behaved in a particular way to give back violence, to give back an action to feel at ease with what has happened to me in the past towards my particular cousin. And thanks to this, because I have been able to understand and forgive him inside of me, I’ve been able to stop that cycle of hate. And every time I see my nephew and nieces that are his children, I only have love for them and I really want them to have a much better experience as a child that is with love. Because I have learned through Thay’s teaching that as an adult or as a parent, as an elder brother, as an elder sister, an uncle, an aunt, or a friend, just our way of being is a teaching. The way we interact is a transmission in its own right, in its own way. So this suffering has given me a lot of awareness in how I behave, and that has an impact right away.
And this is a very tender space, isn’t it? Because it’s not about excusing people’s behavior, but you know, as you were talking, it triggers this memory. I remember reading an article about a man who had killed a woman and the parents, whose daughter had been murdered, saying that they forgave the killer. And I always remember being so shocked because when I was reading it, someone asked, you know, why have you forgiven them? And they said, because otherwise our whole lives would be ruined and soured by that experience. And actually, if we don’t let go, then actually the perpetrator continues to make us suffer, actually, we never break that cycle.
But one of the things as we’re talking, I know it’s been important for me, is that, in a sense, as children, we lose our innocence. And I sometimes feel our journey through life is about regaining our innocence. And I remember once… I found creative visualizations to be very powerful, and I was once seeing a therapist and he took me through this creative visualization, this journey. And I remember leaping into the abyss. Actually, I didn’t leap, I was actually hanging on to the edge of the abyss for all my life. And he said, Just let go. And I remember falling, falling, falling, falling and eventually landing softly on my feet in a very dark space, but seeing a passageway as my eyes acclimatize to the light at the very minimal light that was there. And I remember following this path through this tunnel and coming across a very still pool of water. And there was a candle burning on the other side and a little bassinet with a child. And I walked over to the bassinet and picked up the child and realized that the child was myself, who was my innocent self. And I remember hugging that child. And as I hugged the child, I remember the darkness disappearing, and in a sense, me being catapulted back up to the surface of the Earth. And it was a beautiful spring day and all the birds were singing. It was a very sort of bucolic image of rolling hills and green grass and butterflies. But what I realized is I had regained my innocence. And I think in a sense, we’re all on that path, we’re all hurt, we all suffer, and Thich Nhat Hanh talks very much about this original suffering from even our birth. I mean, it’s not that we have to have had a traumatic experience as we’re growing up. Actually our birth is a traumatic experience. I mean, Brother Phap Huu, do you want to talk a little bit about just helping us understand that.
Oh, sure. Just to bring context to this sharing is so in our retreats that we offer, especially during the summer, I think we are one of the rare monasteries that allow children to come and meditate with adults. And of course, they don’t sit for 30 minutes in silence. They don’t do slow walking meditation. They don’t eat in full silence. But we actually create programs that can let the children experience wellness, well-being and just being around a community that is loving. And I think that is very important. And in our teacher’s Dharma Talk as well as now our Dharma Talks as Dharma teachers start to teach on behalf of our teacher, we always save the beginning, about 10 to 15 minutes, to share the Dharma for the young ones. And we would use stories, we would use examples to let them understand about good action or so-and-so. And in one particular time, in one of Thay’s stories, Thay is Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It means teacher in Vietnamese. Thay’s story that he shares that always interests me, and it gives me a lot of reflection is Thay talks to us and asks us to meditate when we were a child, a baby in the womb of our mother, how comfortable it was, how much love our mother is giving us at that moment because we are connected to our mother through the umbilical cord. Is that right?
Yes, that’s right.
And whatever she is eating is feeding us. Whatever how she’s breathing, we are breathing through that. What she’s drinking, we are being nourished. And her experience in that moment is what we are experiencing inside of her. And during childbirth you know that because your father is aware that you are inside your mother. Your father wants to do everything he can to comfort your mother, to offer peace and wellness. So suddenly you’re being embraced by this love. And that moment when it comes that you want to come out and you want to be on your own, it’s actually a very scary moment. I’m sure most of us don’t remember, but it’s there, deep down inside of us. It’s because is the first moment when we had to take our own first breath. We had to inhale, right? And we had to breathe on our own and we know now we’re separate. And Thay sometimes says that is actually the first moment of fear, original fear. And that original fear is also connected to being separated from our mother, the love and the tenderness and the care that she has given to us through that nine months. So that is just a meditation for us to reflect on. And that we can already see that even though we can have one of the happiest childhood, but there is fear that is there. There is some suffering that is there. And if we look at suffering with a new light, seeing it as a way for us to understand ourself more, to understand the world more, to understand our loved ones more, then suffering becomes something like a teacher, like a friend. And our teacher believes and teaches us, if we know how to suffer, then we will suffer much less meaning if we know how to recognize our suffering, understand our suffering, take care of our suffering, give it a chance to transform, our suffering will not be just pain. It will also be healing in itself. And that is wellness. That is strength for oneself.
And as you say, the name of this podcast series is The Way Out Is In because we have to… I think a lot of people fear that if they go into their suffering, it will destroy them, and it will be so large that they won’t be able to cope with it. But the truth… I’ve always had this sort of imagery of a sort of a mouse in front of a light, in a room, dark room. And on the wall it looks like there’s this huge monster coming to get you and you want to run away. But actually when you face that fear it turns out to be actually… we have the ability to face it, because it turns out to be not as great as we have and that we have the capacity to find a way. And sister, I wanted to ask you because, you know, so much of the heart of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is about engaged Buddhism. You’re not just healing for yourself, but through your healing you’re healing for the collective consciousness. You’re also healing that when someone comes to you, because the monastics do a lot of support to individuals and groups, that when other people come with their suffering that you’re able to be present for them. Can you talk about that sort of process of your own healing as a route to a collective healing?
Just before I talk about that, when Brother Phap Huu was talking about the experience of being in the womb. And sometimes a birth could be very traumatic because something goes wrong at birth, and that original fear could be very big. But actually, you may not have like a memory of it, but there is a felt feeling of real fear. I mean, that’s just another point that I wanted to mention. The birth process can be a very… life or death experience.
A great suffering in its own right, but as Brother Phap Huu says we have very little memory of it. If at all.
Yeah. But it’s still kind of inside us. We still store, we keep a memory of it in our store consciousness, even if we’re not conscious of it in our daily life.
Yeah. So to the point about engaged Buddhism, about how my healing could help other people? Well, first of all, when I can heal for myself, then I feel more whole as a person, I am able to take care of my loneliness or when it comes up. And I feel that after that time when I began to observe that my loneliness comes up at a regular time, then since then it hasn’t come up. So it’s like you’ve been able to take care of some aspect of that wound, and it doesn’t become a problem for you anymore. And your inner child kind of grows up and become stronger as Brother Phap Huu said. And you’re not so controlled by that urge to get into a relationship in order to heal. Because I know I have that seed inside of me of attachment, of wanting to be in a relationship with somebody in order to heal. But since I’ve been able to heal, I don’t rely on having somebody external in order to make me feel well and whole. And through the process of being able to be aware of my body and take care of my body, I feel that I can be myself. I don’t have to be somebody else. I don’t have to worry about how my appearance is. But I still notice sometimes when these thoughts come up and I can just recognize, Oh, that’s just my habit, and I don’t have to worry about that anymore. But I suppose when I can share about my experience, or I can help people, or when people come to me and share with me their difficulties, then I can empathize with them more easily because I’ve been through it myself and can offer some hope that there is a possibility of transformation and healing. And I know that when we practice in the community, that’s the one thing that really helped me to be able to let go of my career so easily because I saw that when I practiced for myself and create the healing energy, the peaceful energy, the wholeness energy for myself, then those who come and in touch with the practice, they receive that energy. So as I was doing therapy in a very natural way, I was living my therapy. I don’t have to. I remember being as a psychologist, I always struggled: how can I help this person through the really huge suffering? And sometimes I felt very helpless. Most of the time I felt very helpless in the face of huge suffering and abuse, and I didn’t know how to help them. But when I came to the practice and I was practicing to heal myself and people came to practice to touch that peace, to touch that relaxation, to touch that inner healing for themselves, they also started to heal without me having to try and do anything. So that’s why I thought, Oh, quite a great way to do therapy without doing anything. And of course, there is always this… But as a therapist, you have to maintain some sort of professional boundary with your clients, and I always felt it was so unnatural because you can’t do some very simple things like just sit and offer your listening, and sit and enjoy a cup of tea, walk together, eat together. These sometimes are very nourishing things, nourish our joy and happiness for the simple things in life that really heals people. But in the professional context, I couldn’t do that. I could only go talk about the suffering again. And sometimes when people talk about their suffering they’re reliving their suffering and they’re being retraumatized in that way. And of course, there are methods and techniques to help people through their suffering, but I realized it’s so important to be able to heal through these very simple things, like being able to reconnect with your body to relax, release the tension in your body. You know, when you go to a therapist, you have one hour or maximum one hour and a half with them. And then after that, you have to deal with your daily life again and you don’t know how to nourish your joy. And you don’t know how to touch peace in your daily life. But with the practice, you do that, and I think that is so important for the healing process to be able to nourish that joy, to be able to nourish that peace and solidity. And I think that’s what really helped me to be able to open up the more difficult things in my wound. And that’s what I love most about engaged Buddhism. And when you come here for the practice, you really learn to bring the practice in your daily life so that you become more solid, more stable, more peaceful in order to be able to embrace the really difficult stuff, because you need that. If you don’t have a solid foundation of peace and connectedness and groundedness when your suffering comes up, you are automatically carried away. You are overwhelmed by the past and you are not able to be grounded in the present moment with your breath. And that is such a really, really important daily practice that enables you to heal deeper wounds.
That’s so interesting, sister, because…. and beautifully spoken, if you don’t mind me saying so. I can feel your power in your voice. And, you know, so much about healing is about time and space. And you talked about often people think about sort of sex as a way of escaping suffering, but actually the whole of modern western capitalist system is based on the avoidance of suffering. It’s like we’ve tried to create a bypass for suffering that we have so many things we can fill our time in and actually, rather than touch our suffering, people use any excuse to avoid the suffering as though anything, whether it’s alcohol, gambling, sex and any of those, none of those can help because they don’t take us to the place we need to go. It’s only if we go into it that we can find. But what you’re so beautifully speaking of is we need to create a foundation from which we can respond and accept because otherwise we’ll continue to be knocked over and unable to find our path. Brother Phap Huu?
And we’ll just continue to run away from ourself. And I just want to add a little bit to what our dear sister shared and our community is so important. I know my transformation. I can only give gratitude and thankfulness to my community for being there and supporting. And even though they know I suffer, I just have to see that they are there and they are stable, solid that I can come and just have a cup of tea and know it’s OK because that’s my inner healing that I’m still doing to overcome my own complexes. And by their presence there, they can give me their stability. And I see that our teacher emphasizes a lot on brotherhood and sisterhood friendship. And this is one of his messages to all of us is that we need communities as an individual. Yes, we can recognize our own suffering, but sometimes our own dark corners is too big for us to shine the light. We need other friends to help us see the blind spots so that we can step out of our suffering, or I recognize it and transform it. And I think this is something that we are still aspiring to do, and that’s why I think we’re still here in Plum Village and we’re still devoting our life to building this community and offering these teachings throughout our years so that we can help many of us connect to ourselves, connect to our body, like what our sister shared, to accept their body, don’t be ashamed of it. And knowing that in this very moment, this present moment is creating the past. This is one of the keys that helped me become more free, which is this present moment. If we live it deeply, it will become the new past. And instead of remembering all of the difficulties in the past, we know how to build a new path so that can help heal the other past. And in this way, we’re also building our future. It’s very simple, but it’s very deep, and this is really a commitment. You have to have courage also to transform oneself. And just before we end, I just wanted to complete my story and very inspired by our sister’s transformation. And one of my engagements in my action of healing the past was also I started to recognize as I was growing up, especially around 12 and 11, I had a violent side in me and one particular younger cousin I had, I remember also bullying her. And even though I know I truly deeply loved her because she was the only child and she looked towards me and my elder sister as her own siblings, and we played together every day. But from time to time, I would remember, you know, saying something really mean for no reason or doing something just to make her angry for no reason. And throughout my transformation of recognizing my five-year-old child and healing it, I started to recognize through that experience. And at one moment, I called my cousin, and I’ve been a monk already now, like four or five years, and I called her and I apologized. I said, Hey, cousin, I’m calling you because I really want to say sorry. And we haven’t seen each other for four or five years because I became a monk living in France now. And she said we haven’t seen each other for so long, why are you apologizing for? And I said: Well, do you remember all those times? And she said: Oh yeah, you were so mean to me for no reason. And I said: Exactly, I really want to apologize and please, with understanding, accept if you can. And she said: Oh, I’ve forgiven you a long time already, but that wasn’t important for me. What was important is that I spoke up and I acknowledged my action and I acknowledged something that I was not proud of because I felt if I didn’t have that courage to say that, to share that, then that wound she could have experienced, she could have still held onto it. And I truly believed that with that action, I was able to stop that and let that heal so that she doesn’t continue this into the future. And so we can see that with meditation, it gives us insight, but we also have to have courage to to do what is right.
And also, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the fact that we don’t have to wait years, we can say something in the moment where our anger or frustration comes up. We can say something in the moment, in that moment that is mean or upsetting to somebody. But we can… I think Thay says, you know, it’s like firing an arrow. We can send a second arrow after that first arrow to neutralize the first one. So actually, we can do that at any point. And in fact, my wife Paz is… Sometimes if you can’t heal it with the person you have the problem with, you can be generous to somebody else and you can do the healing in another way. So there’s always ways to find space for healing.
Sister Sinh Nghiem, it’s been such a pleasure you joining us today and for being so honest. Because another thing that this honesty does is it gives permission to other people. So you’ve given permission to both of us to share more freely because of your willingness and vulnerability to share. So that is such a wonderful example of the power of vulnerability. By being vulnerable, often people see us as weakness, but actually almost is the greatest strength and it gives permission. So thank you for joining us and we wish you all speed to Australia and to bring your wisdom and teaching to people there. They are very, very lucky to be receiving you.
Thank you very much for having me and for giving me this opportunity to share about my story because I’ve kind of held onto this story for 30, more than 30 years, and didn’t know how to handle that and didn’t know how to heal. But yeah, I realized that slowly I can talk about it more freely. Before, I couldn’t, I couldn’t speak about it in a public space like this. I could hardly tell anyone, I couldn’t talk to my parents. But as I’m learning to heal myself and it’s still an ongoing process, I learned that I can begin to love truly, touch true love. Before, I got very mixed up between love and sex. And that’s through this healing process that I start to touch true love. And like I said, ironically, you know, when I start to leave the sexual relationship context to have a celibate life that I begin to really find healing for myself in this way, in terms of relationship with men and relationship with myself. I can really feel more love for myself and feel connected to my body and feel more whole and accept my body as it is. And I can also relate to my brother in a much more healthy way. And I really feel very grateful that I can see the spirituality in my brothers and not relate to them as just what I thought people… ‘all they want is sex’, but I can really begin to heal my relationship with men and really begin to have a true relationship with my brothers.
So we wish all our listeners, all of you, a healing journey, a chance to come back to ourselves, to heal. And on every podcast we seek to end with a short meditation. So, Brother Phap Huu, can you give us a short meditation, please?
So dear listeners, wherever you are, if you are walking, going for a jog, you’re on a commute, sitting on a train, a bus or you are cleaning your house or doing homework. If you allow yourself to just be still for a few minutes and allow me to guide you in a little meditation. I think what is appropriate after this podcast is to generate love for oneself. So let us reconnect to the breath. Just become aware of our body. If we’re standing, sitting, if there’s any tension in our shoulders, in our back, in our face, just release the tension and become aware of the inbreath. As I breathe in, I know this is an inbreath. As I breathe out, I know this is an outbreath. Just identify this is inbreath, and this is outbreath. And now let us concentrate with the inbreath. As I breathe in, I follow my inbreath from the beginning to the end. And as I breathe out, I concentrate on my outbreath, following the outbreath from the beginning to the end. Let the breath bring the mind home to the body. In this very minute, very moment, allow yourself to connect to the sensations in your body. Breathing in, I am aware of my body, I accept my body. And breathing out, I smile to my body. Our body has worked very hard throughout the years. It needs our gentleness, our tenderness, our awareness. Now offer it the care and the love that is deep in our hearts. Aware of my body, I offer love to my body. Breathing in, my past is also very present. I bring my understanding and my compassion in this very moment to shine light to my past. Breathing in, the past is in the now. Breathing out, I will transform the past. I will heal the past. I will take care of the past in the very here and now. Breathing in, I have compassion for myself. Breathing out, I accept myself. Now with this love, this compassion inside of us, I offer it to my loved ones around me. Breathing in, I can think of a person that is very dear to me, that needs my love, needs my compassion. I hold them in my heart. And breathing out, I send my loving kindness, my compassion, my joy and my inclusiveness to that person. In, love inside of me. Out, I offer this love to the ones that are dear to me. Breathing in, this is the present moment. Breathing out, this is a wonderful moment. Thank you, dear listeners, for practicing with us here in Plum Village, France.
Yes, and if you enjoyed this podcast, then you can listen to the rest of the series The Way Out Is In on Apple podcasts, on Spotify or other platforms that carry podcasts. And a special mention, as always, to our very own Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the Plum Village community, as well as the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.
The way out is in.