Welcome to episode 29 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, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino, discuss the Four Nutriments – edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness – and share their own experiences and understanding of this core Buddhist teaching.
By further delving into each Nutriment, the two find Buddhist insights and practical ways to explore and shift how we can consume mindfully.
Brother Phap Huu shares his thoughts about practicing moderation and gratitude for our meals (plus, the benefits of chewing each bite a full 30 times); nourishing our consumption when we eat; being mindful in an addictive society and recognising the energies in us; volition as a source of energy; wholesome individual and collective consciousness (and habits); mental formations; lazy days; and: what is enough?
Jo considers food politics and ethics; addiction and suffering; shifts in the mindfulness of eating; the impact of big cities on our consumption; the possible dangers of volition (with a story from the 70s television drama Colditz); collective ‘rivers’ of consciousness; and forgiveness.
The episode ends with a short meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Plum Village Community
Sutras: ‘Discourse on the Four Kinds of Nutriments’
Dharma Talks: ‘The Four Kinds of Nutriments Mindful Cooking Retreat’
Dharma Talks: ‘Nutriments for Healing’
Hungry Children Program
‘51 Mental Formations’
Sister Chan Duc
“The bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos.”
“Don’t eat your thoughts. Don’t eat your project. Eat your food.”
“Whatever we consume, it becomes our energy.”
“When we are lining up for the food, we are practicing moderation. We eat just what is enough. And this is really crucial, because it helps us not take more than what we need from the Earth.”
“I think people have a sort of a reverence for the taste of food, but not for the food itself.”
“’If you take a single piece of carrot, and before you put it in your mouth, just look deeply at that piece of carrot and you can see that the entire universe is in that piece of carrot.’ He [Thay] was saying that for the carrot to grow, it needs the air, it needs the water, it needs the soil, and it needs the sun. And for the sun to exist, the whole universe has to exist. And then, from a human perspective, it needs the farmer and the person picking the crop, and then delivering it to the shop, and then the shopkeeper to sell it to you. So in just one carrot, if you really stop and look, you would develop a reverence for that carrot because you see that all of life was needed for it to exist.”
“We have to speak about very practical things so that we can have a journey, a practice, so that we can become aware of our habits. We have personal habits, and we even have collective habits, as a community, as a society. And then we have habits that are passed down through our ancestors to us, in relation to how we consume life.”
“We have needs and we think they’re essential for us, but if we reflect and review the way we are consuming, I think we are happy with having less.”
“Are we consuming mindfully? It’s not about not consuming, it’s about how we are consuming.”
“There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.”
“We are in a dynamic relationship with life, and often we’re not really conscious of that.”
“All of our thoughts create this river of consciousness.”
“Nature is a very good television. But it’s not about just watching it, but being in it.”
“There’s so much coming at us, from a thousand directions. And if we are not aware of how we are responding to life, then we lose our agency and become a victim.”
“I have this image of a racehorse going around the track with blinkers on its eyes. They put blinkers on it so it can only look forward and isn’t distracted by life. And, in a sense, that’s always the risk, isn’t it? We think our job is to race around the track as fast as possible – but then we miss everything that’s going on in life, and any opportunity to try to transform.”
“If someone is really purifying their mind, that is going to have a positive impact on the collective consciousness. And it made me realize that, actually, all our actions – whatever we do or choose to think or act on – feed into what the future will look like.”
Hello dear listeners and welcome to the latest episode of the podcast. The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in the Plum Village community in France.
And today, brother, we’re going to be looking at one of the core teachings of the Buddha, which are known as the Four Nutriments which are edible foods, sense impressions, volition and consciousness. Now, I’m not sure if I know what all this means. I know about edible foods, but listen, dear listeners, and hopefully we will by the end of this, have a clue what’s going on.
The way out is in.
Welcome, dear listeners. I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today, brother, we’re talking about what’s called the four nutriments: edible foods, sense impressions, volition and consciousness. Now I am sort of feeling like I get a couple of these, but I’m going to look, I’m going to lean on you heavily for support on this podcast, because my sort of basic understanding is that we are in a dynamic relationship with life and often we’re not really conscious of that. But actually there are many ways in which we are in relationships. So we eat food, we think, we have judgments, we have ambitions, and wishes, and dreams. And also we have the sum total of our thoughts and the thoughts of our ancestors and then the thoughts of our community and the world. And so all those are actually in dynamic relationship with each other. Is that sort of what we’re talking about?
In a way, yes. And we will also be talking about how we take care of our wellbeing in body and mind and also spirit.
Right. So what’s the best way? Should we should we go through each one? Or do you want to talk about the Buddhist teaching as a sort of overall message? What is he trying to tell us?
So when I was learning how to be more mindful in my daily life as a monk, this is our bread and butter. Every morning we wake up, we start our day, and already when you wake up, you begin your day, you are training to take care of your mind and take care of your body. So we know that the relationship to our well-being and the world is very interconnected. And how we relate to the world, how we relate to everything outside of us is also in our capacity. We actually have agency for all of this. So to practice Buddhism and to practice mindfulness is to learn to nourish our body, nourish our mind, care for our body, care for our mind, understand our mind more, understand our body in order to be an offering also to the world. So we know that in Buddhism, the Buddha always teaches us that everything needs food to survive. This is for me, this is one of the I would say, the second noble truth that the Buddha teaches us that everything has roots. So if we want to look at our well-being, we have to see how we are consuming, consuming via edible foods, nourishing our body — what we drink, what we eat. And then our sense impression. I think this is a very interesting one. I think we can go quite deep into this because in today’s world we’re not just consuming through smell and taste, but now what we are able to see through a small screen, all of the information throughout the world, the internet is so vast and we have to be very mindful of how we consume the media, how we consume the images, the sounds that will influence our perceptions, our judgment, our views, our way of life. And then how coming back to our own consciousness, are we aware of what we’re thinking, what we are producing in the form of our thoughts in daily life? And all of this is a relationship to us as an individual, but also a relationship to the collective, collective consciousness of our community, our family, our loved ones, our society, even consciousness to our planet.
And brother, I mean, it’s… We are under assault, basically. I mean, what you’re saying is that there’s so much coming at us from a thousand directions. And so if we are not aware of how we are responding to life, then we lose our agency and we become a victim. And also, you know, it’s true that, you know, when we look at social media and we look at, you know, the algorithms of a number of these platforms, they are there to take over our mind. So actually, it’s really critical that we actually start to become conscious, aware and to actually say, see, what is our relationship to life? Where are we relating in a way that is filling us with fear, or dread, or anxiety. And where we’re going that is feeling us, as you see, developing our well-being.
Yes, exactly. And I think this is why we have to speak about very practical things so that we can have a journey, a practice, so that we can become also aware of our habits. We have personal habits, and then I would even say we have collective habits, as a community, as a society. And then we have habits that are passed down through our ancestors to us in relationship to how we consume life.
So shall we dive in, brother?
Shall we start with edible foods? So that seems the most obvious thing to people. And I was I was thinking about this a bit today, brother, because I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth. And so I sort of was watching my habit today. So I got up, had a cup of tea with a sugar in it, then had another cup of tea with some sugar in it. And then I had a piece of banana cake. And then I had a macaroon, and then I had a slice of cake. And that was all before lunch. So, so I was watching myself do that and realizing that with edible foods, you know, it’s like each time I had something sweet, it’s like I was having a moment of sweetness. So some sense is in my mouth were excited and enjoying that food. But actually, I was not thinking at all about the fact that that food was going into my stomach, that it would take many hours to process it, that that the sugar content was probably changing my mood and behavior, and that it was probably going to affect at some point my body weight. And so, in a sense, what I was doing was I was responding to a sort of a craving for something that I’m habituated to, but I have no… I never normally think about. Actually, there’s a long tail to that behavior. So is that sort of a bit of what we’re talking about here?
That is, Jo, you just talked about mindfulness of consumption right there. And and we, as a practitioner, we learn to have a relationship with food. And if you actually reflect on your relationship with food, you can see how it is connected to your everyday, feelings, emotions, and even your suffering. A lot of the time when we are lonely or we have nothing to do, and we are filled with silence in our life or with emptiness, we have a habit to cover it up. We have a habit to put things into that empty hole, that void. And it’s very easy to just consume food because, like you said, it gives you this feeling of joy, this feeling of happiness, this feeling of also you are doing something to cover up. And now, with the lens of mindfulness, with the lens of awareness, we can see that that is a habit that we have inherited from our way of living and the consequences of it, it can make our energy lower later in the day. It can make us feel, actually not better, but even a little bit worse. So there are so many relationships when we talk about food. And for us the word that comes to my mind and in our meditation is that we need to have moderation. We have to have moderation in order to to take care of our body. So when we speak about about this element, you know, I think you might think that oh, Brother Phap Huu is going to say, oh, I shouldn’t be eating at all because that’s not good for you. But actually, we, as a practitioner, we do have the right to enjoy life and to enjoy sweets, enjoy that piece of cake. But are we doing it with mindfulness? That’s the key right there. It’s like, am I consuming because I actually need it? I think most of the time we consume when we don’t need the food and we are consuming it more in a way of just to cover up a space. And our body pays for all of that. Our desire tells us that, oh, maybe a piece of chocolate would feel good right now, but our bodies are like, ‘No, I don’t need that actually, what I need is more water,’ for example. So when we practice mindfulness of body, coming back home to the body, we have to become aware of how we are caring for our body. And food plays a very big part in that. So we know that whatever we consume it becomes our energy.
Yeah. And also, brother, it’s about, for me, there’s something about availability. So if I open the cupboard and there was no cake, and no biscuits, or no chocolate, I’d actually be fine.
You know, I might momentarily have that sort of desire, but it’s not there and I would get on with my day. But I think one of the problems and for a lot of people is that, you know, especially in the West, there’s… The cupboard is normally, you know, for people who have money, there’s food in the cupboard. And so, you know, it’s a bit like social media, it’s all available. And so therefore, actually, the temptation is always stronger. And I think when, you know, when I was growing up, you know, it was called a treat because it was something you had once in a while. And now, you know, almost it’s no longer a treat. It’s just like it’s there and I can just grab it when I want. But, brother, I think it’d be good to talk about the sort of broader aspect of food. Because, you know, one thing again, when I was growing up I ate meat, and I ate fish, and I ate all sorts of food and I never once in probably my first 30 years of life ever thought about where the food came from, or the conditions of the food, or the condition, or its relationship to the planet. You know, it just wasn’t in my gestalt. It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t sort of it wasn’t reported on. But for people who are sort of living through these times, I mean, food has become also a very big political and environmental issue because actually it’s not just now how food affects our body, it’s fact that if we choose to eat a packet of biscuits, that often includes palm oil, and palm oil is responsible for destruction of rainforests. Or if we’re eating beef, we realize that meat sort of accounts for, whatever, 17 or 20% on average of global emissions. So actually mindfulness of eating, I think, in the last ten years has fundamentally shifted.
You are correct, Jo. The way we consume through what we eat, edible food, it has a large impact on the environment situation that we are in right now as a human species. So when you start to see that food is not also just a means, but there’s a relationship to it, I think you have to shift your way of looking at food. And, our practice, you know, before we get the food from the dining table in our monastery, so we have a practice already when we are lining up for the food, we are practicing moderation. We eat just what is enough. And this is really crucial. This is really important because this is to help us not take more than what we need from the Earth. And as humans, I think that we have this habit, and this pride, and this kind of like thinking that man is everything and everything belongs to us. But that is not the insight of our ancestor, and that’s not the insight of Mother Earth. Actually, we are all interconnected, so if we know how to consume more mindfully, we will in relation take care of our planet in a more skillful way. And what we choose to eat is also very important. I think the awareness of the meat industry, alcohol industry, all the impact that all the farming of the crop in order to just feed the cows, in order to just make beverages for us, it costs more than we think. So we have to really take a moment in our day, in our weeks, and just contemplate how do I consume food? What is enough? And we we have to sometimes meditate on seeing what we are eating. Sometimes we’re not just eating the food, but we’re eating the future, in a way. I know it’s a very tough meditation sometimes, because if we consume the way we are as humans, there’s not going to be much for the future. And if we think in that way, we have that… then we can say this is insight. And if we have that insight and we want to apply that insight, we have to change. And to change is not difficult. It’s just in the view and our understanding. So for us, you know, in the monastery, we choose a plant based diet because we know we are also nourishing our compassion when we eat these kind of meals. And it has not just spiritually supporting us and then mentally, and then compassion, but we also are nourishing our body because we know that our body is easier, and digesting plant based food. So this is a personal choice, I know, for everyone, but we know that it has a very direct relationship to Mother Earth and caring for the environment. Then our teacher has encouraged many of our friends who come to Plum Village, after the retreat, if within one month they can eat two weeks of vegetarian throughout the month, you know, just to slowly divide the meals so that we can see our interrelationship with the whole universe.
You know, in some ways, food is quite political. I remember when I was at The Guardian, one of the things I wanted to do was to bring in a one day a week vegetarian only meal in the canteen. And I thought, you know, The Guardian is obviously a very liberal newspaper. And I thought, you know, this would be welcomed. But actually there was so much anger and aggression that one day a week we were going to go vegetarian. And so eventually it did not go ahead. And I was just really intrigued because food also is very cultural. It’s very… It’s based on, you know, family history, you know, and people feel that they have a right, their individual right to eat whatever they want. But in some ways, I felt at the time that was very selfish, that actually we need to broaden our horizon. And one thing, as you’re talking, brother, that came to my mind is that I think people have a sort of a reverence for the taste of food, but. I don’t think they have a reverence for the food itself. And I’m aware of that myself. So last time I went shopping, I had my trolley and I went to the sort of fruit and veg section, and I just grabbed, you know, I didn’t do it in a hurry, but I just took, you know, you open a bag, grab a handful of beans, I throw it in the bag, and then later I just toss it into the shopping cart. And then I, you know, and I don’t actually have any relationship to it. There’s no sort of sense of, wow, you know, if I were to really stop and I think this is one of, you know, Thay’s deepest teachings that touched me was… I always remember, I was in one of his talks, and he said, you know, ‘If you take a single piece of carrot, and before you put it in your mouth, just look deeply at that piece of carrot and you can see that the entire universe is in that piece of carrot.’ And he was saying, well, you know, for the carrot to grow, it needs the air, it needs the water, it needs the soil, and it needs the sun. And for the sun to exist, the whole universe has to exist. And then from a human perspective, it needs the farmer and the person picking the crop, and then delivering it to the shop, and then the shopkeeper to sell it to you. So actually in just one carrot. If you really stop and look, you would actually develop a reverence for that carrot because you see that actually all of life was needed for that carrot to exist. But even though I know that, and even though it touched me very deeply, I’m in the supermarket is just filled with food and I just bag it up and and take it out.
Yeah, Jo, I think what you talk about, I think that’s a lot of us. It’s not just you. And one of our practice that we have to bring up as we eat is gratitude. And what I’ve experienced is whenever we have gratitude for the meal, the food becomes ten times more delicious. And it’s very interesting how, you know, we have, most of us, if we’re lucky, we have three meals a day. And some of us two meals a day or even just one meal a day. But we think that food is just like fuel for our engine, so that’s why we don’t have this relationship and we don’t see our connection to food, and that’s why we don’t feel grateful for the food. But if you put yourself in the position of someone who is hungry, a hungry child who don’t have enough to eat, who is very skinny, and just to have a cup of milk it means the world to them. And Plum Village has the Hungry Children program that we would always have a fund to give to programs that support hungry children in Vietnam. And we supported another trust in India and some other places in the world. And when I was an aspirant, I was asked that every month we get pocket money, €40, and if we would like to put anything in to that fund. And every time that pocket came and I would put five or ten, depending on my generosity of that moment, but I felt so grateful that I know that I can feed someone else outside of my circle. And then that helped nourish my gratitude to food. And that really shifted my whole consciousness to realizing that even having a bowl of rice and soy sauce was already a blessing. So one of my favorite, I didn’t have a sweet tooth like you, Jo. My mother does, but I love savory foods. I love chips, crackers, and I love soda. So I think I grew up on those kind of things, always in the fridge. And coming to Plum Village, we are so far away from the supermarket — which is a good thing — but slowly there’s more supermarket coming closer to Plum Village, which is a little bit dangerous just for the practice of moderation. But I was so grateful for this training because I was really able to break free from this habit of eating junk food. So, you know, like whenever I went home from school as a child, I think the first thing I did coming home from school was turn on the TV and then start munching on chips or anything available. And that slowly just became a habit. Like, just like you said, every time you go home, the first thing you go to is put your backpack, turn on the television, and then open the cupboard. So when I came to Plum Village, that wasn’t available. And the conditions of the environment is also very supportive to changing of your habit. So I would also want to mention that if we can recognize what are the habits of our consumption of food, sometimes we just need to switch, change the situation that we’re in, maybe put the bag of chips or the cookie a little bit further down the cupboard, put a lock on it or something, or even don’t have it for a few days of the week. And you see it will change. But we have needs and those needs become… We think they’re essential for us, but if we reflect and we review the way we are consuming. I think we are happy with having less.
And brother, just one other thing around reverence for our food. When I was working in New York, the last few years, you know, so many people at the HuffPost where I was working would basically grab their food and sit in front of the computer and work while they were eating, and eating very fast. And I know in Plum Village you have two things. One is about chewing your food many times, and you know how that brings out the sweetness of food. So I’m not very good at that, but maybe you could tell us a bit more about that. And the other thing is that when we sit down for lunch, there’s normally 15, 20 minutes of silence.
What’s all that about?
Yes. So let’s talk about the eating… the chewing, because that was such a training for me. So another habit that we have is that let’s just get it through, let’s just finish the meal and check it off and then get on with life. I think a lot of the times we relate to food in that way. I also do that from time to time here, in Plum Village. And now that we speak about it, I need to begin anew, refresh my practice with this. Yeah, so having the time to be present for the food is our practice. If we don’t establish yourself in the present moment and then look at the food and recognize the food and see for what it is. And when we look at the food deeply, we can see beyond the food. We can see the sun. The whole universe have come together, all the farmers… Like there’s just so much conditions that have come together for the fruit to be there. And Thay has this calligraphy that I really love whenever I enter into the dining hall back then, I don’t see it around anymore, I don’t know where it is, but ‘The bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos …
The bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos. That’s so beautiful. So it’s saying that in this piece of bread, the whole cosmos have come together for it to manifest. So if I have that insight, I’ll be so grateful for this piece of bread. And one of the practice of mindfulness, it is to help us become more aware, and we have to slow down our habits. Most of us, we are walking, running… It seems like we’re running after something at every moment, like we’re chasing after the future, even when we’re eating. So when we come to Plum Village, we kind of ask everyone to go from gear five to down to like gear two, if possible. And if some need to go down to gear one just in order to really shift our habit, our habitual actions, you know. So chewing is something we do when we eat. And when you are present with the food, you know that by chewing the food you help nourishing your body. And instead of like just putting food into our mouth and eating like a machine, do we actually have time to even taste the food? So this practice is to help us recognize the food, taste the food, enjoy it, and then let the food become us and not… Thay usually tell us, ‘I want you to eat the food, don’t eat your thinking.’ Wow. Don’t eat your thought. Don’t eat your project. Eat your food. Isn’t that crazy? I mean, we are eating our food, but most of the time we are eating the past, the future, our worries, our anxiety, our excitements, our thinking. So do we actually… Have we tasted that piece of carrot? Right. So this practice is very fundamental, is very basic, but at the same time, it is one of the most deepest practice because that is allowing yourself to be mindfulness. Mindfulness is not an app. Mindfulness is not just breathing. Mindfulness is every action. So when we chew our food… One time Thay told me, ‘Did you know that when you’re chewing your food isn’t amazing, that you don’t bite your tongue?’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’ And I started to realize how skillful your tongue is pushing the food to the right or the left side in order to consume the food into your body. So there are so many things happening at that moment that you’re eating. So that becomes a whole practice in itself. And the practice of chewing for 30 times, it seems crazy. When I first heard about it, I was like, wow, chew for 30 time? This is going to take an hour of just eating this bowl of rice and food. But actually it’s not as bad as it seems. And another practice that we do, that I was trained, is that when you take a spoonful, you learn to put the spoon down and chew the food. Wow. Another new technique, because we have this tendency to take one spoonful, put it in our mouth, and then already, as we’re chewing, we’re preparing for the next thing, the next spoonful. Isn’t that just our mind going into the future again? So this is another technique that you all can put into practice. Like if you take a spoonful, put the fork or spoon down and just enjoy chewing that food. And the silence, the silence allows us to be more available. Conversation is very beautiful because conversation helps connection. So in our practice, especially for lunch and dinner in the Upper Hamlet, the morning, we keep it completely silent. So, no bells, we just begin in silence and end in silence. Even if you’ve finished, you respect a noble silence in the dining hall. And after you wash up, you can start your conversation, but outside, because, you know, others are practicing. But for lunch, it’s like, lunch is like one of the main meal in the monastery because it’s the time of when the Buddha and his community ate, so that’s like the main course of the day. And we all gather and we would wait for three-fourths of the community to be seated or sometimes the whole community. And we would start altogether with two sounds of the bell, a contemplation and then another sound of the bell. And then we would allow the community 20 minutes of silence just to eat. And that silence is very interesting. If you’ve been a long time practitioner, I think you would really enjoy it. For some, it’s almost scary to eat in silence and just to be aware of the food or aware of yourself. So this, the space that we offer, it’s a real time of practice to be, to have a connection with the food and also to have that space and time to see what manifests in the mind while you’re eating. That’s my own practice. And Thay says that we have a nonstop radio station. And can you help quiet that radio station in your mind by directing it to the attention of the food? So before I put that broccoli into my mouth, I would give it a split second and I would even say, ‘this is broccoli’ as as my training.
So, brother, looks like we could talk about food all day.
I know. We got to go on.
We got to move on. We got to move on. So the second one is sense impressions. So, do you want to give us a sort of brief intro?
Brief intro, sense impression. We have many, many windows in our body. Our eyes are windows. Our ears are windows. Our nose is smelling, it’s another window. And then all of that has an influence on our mind and it has an influence on our spirit and also our view of life. So does this sense impression we are always consuming. Even when you are listening to this podcast, you are consuming. But are we consuming mindfully? So it’s not about not consuming is about how are we consuming? What are the direction we are giving ourself. So when we are in a very busy city, let’s say New York, Jo, because you lived in New York. I visited New York a few times and there’s so much going on from what you see, the sound and even the smell. And that all has a relationship and is communicating something to you. Right? And I remember being in New York like I always heard the siren every day. And my practice, whenever I heard the siren was to contemplate compassion because something has gone wrong. That’s why the siren is on. So I generate compassion. But if you live in an environment like that, 24/7 and I know many do, that will have an impact on our life, on our way of thinking, and our way of going on, carrying on with our daily lives. So how do we have practices to balance all of this noise, all of these images, etc.? So but more practically, I think what a lot of times when I we talk about sense impression, first of all, we talk about what we consume with our eyes — movies, televisions, shows, just social media. All of those are food for our consciousness and our spirit also. And it will have an influence on our view of life. So we have to have time to become aware of what are our mental formations. When I say mental formations, it means our feelings, our emotions, our anger. Like what comes up in our daily life more and more? And this is mindfulness. We have to be aware of what we’re feeling today. And what we are feeling, how is it being nourished? That’s very important. And a lot of times we can connect it to what we consume by our senses, especially by our eyes, and what we read, then what we hear, what we listen to. I love music, Jo. You know that. I do a lot of singing and sometimes, from time to time, a little bit of hip hop, a little bit of rap. And I have a tendency I love sad music also. And there’s something about it that it brings you into a place that makes you feel vulnerable and makes you feel, I don’t know, just empty in a way. And this is not emptiness of Buddhism. This is more empty of feelings and whatnot. And so part of the monks trainings in our precept is to be mindful and selective of what we listen to. So that was a real training for me as a young monk. I had to stop consuming these… my favorite music that in the past, and to change what I hear, because all of that becomes a source of energy for me.
Yeah. And also, you know, we are… We lose our sovereignty.
And or, you know, agency or whatever we want to call it. Because for me, it’s like if we’re constantly consuming things, then actually, you know, that’s what we become. And, you know, but the Buddha said, you know, with our thoughts we create the world. But also our thoughts are generated from our experiences and what we see in the world. And if we’re constantly… And this is what we’re seeing with polarization in the US that if you’re constantly listening to conspiracy theories and that you mix with friends who also believe conspiracy theories, you’re going to actually build a universe around absolutely believing those conspiracy theories and then acting on them. And then anyone who doesn’t believe them or the people who are the victims of the conspiracy theories, you know, it just becomes, you know, we… unless we’re aware, we lose ourselves. And I noticed that even in the last week. I don’t know why I’ve been noticing things in the last week, but I have. And I’ve noticed that whenever I am making food, what I tend to do is I’ll stick something on the pan and then my phone will be there and I’ll pick up and I might look at Instagram or I might look at something. And what I feel is how quickly I get lost in that. And then I’ll smell, smell of burning, and I think, ‘Oh my God,’ you know. And I did that a week ago, I sort of burned the pan because I was heating it, ready for something, and I got caught by something, a bit of news or whatever. And then you just start following it down a rabbit hole. And I completely lost my sense of time. I completely lost my sense of place. And I completely lost my mindfulness of what I was doing. And I think that, you know, as you say, within cities, you know, like I always felt with cities and particularly with London, that there’s almost a psychic energy, that cities actually have an energy and that if you have a sensitivity, often you’ll get drowned in that energy. You know, I used to, I remember, I used to sort of walk into the underground, into the subway station in London and go down the escalator. I would just start to feel that energy of being rushed, of speed. And then, you know, the culture in journalism is about speed, and suddenly you realize that your whole life is speeding up. So, brother, what’s the best way of almost, you know, just turning that? Because it’s very easy to say, well, just switch it off. And we know that there are lots of practical things we can do, like an hour before bed don’t look at the news or don’t look at any media because then you take it into your sleep. And when you wake up don’t immediately switch on the phone. But there is in a sort of an addiction, we are living in an addictive society around this. And I’m just wondering how to be mindful, you know, if people are stuck in this place, which I sometimes am, but I tend to develop an awareness and try and moderate it. But how do we start to work with this?
I think first what we can do is reflect on and be honest with ourselves what we are addicted to. Is it television? Is it music? Is it information? And then can we start to switch our channels of what we’re consuming to have something more wholesome, such as hopefully this podcast is a kind of good nutriment. But we also have many other things that we can consume that can be nourishing for ourself. And then finding that balance. And we know that nature is a very good television. But it’s not about just watching it, but is being in it. And I see that we get into these addictions is because we feel there’s nothing else to do. And so our teacher tells us that we have to learn to recognize the energies that are in us. Even if it’s restlessness or even if it’s dullness, it’s like nothing to do, we can shift our energy by doing, by being active in it. So the practice is to really look and recognize and be honest what is our habits. What is it that makes us go away from the present moment? That’s what it is. Because all of this going through our telephone, going through the Internet, is to be away from the here and now, to be away from us. And if we recognize that and we see that by coming back to our self, oh, I do feel empty. And how can I nourish myself now? And there are so many different ways. And consuming the media is only one way. There is walks in nature. There is connecting to a friend, doing writing, reading, doing a hobby that can nourish our spirit. Our teacher does calligraphy on his free time because that nourishes his joy, bringing his practice into writing. Some of us love gardening. We would spend time, hours, to just take care of the bonsai, take care of the orchids. So it’s about shifting our attention. I think this is the art. This is a whole art, but it’s very doable. And then, if we can’t do it alone, find friends to do it with in order to change our habits. And we have to take it step by step. Sometimes you feel very caught up in something and you feel it’s so hard to be out of it. What you need is support from others. And if we are lucky enough to have those friends that can be a support for us, we can program once a week. Can we go for a walk together, for example, just to have different… Is like having different food within our meal plan. So instead of just being caught in one system and thinking that is everything, actually, the world is so vast and there’s so much things to do, and there are simple things that can actually bring a lot of joy. I love cleaning, so I would…
Come round to my house anytime, brother.
Your house is actually very clean, Jo. But, you know, like just the joy of sweeping, the joy of doing your laundry, all of these simple things can be a practice. Washing, washing up after a meal, etc. So they’re…. It’s all about… Our teacher used to say it’s changing the peg. If you know you’re doing something that makes you suffer or that makes you down, make you lose yourself, you have to have the courage to change. And you can’t just say, I’m not going to do anything, because our habit is going to, it’s going to be drawn to that that addiction again. And so we have to change the peg. We have to bring in new elements.
Yeah. And that does take, you know, a commitment and courage. You know, you have to take ownership again, coming back to agents, I remember I was doing some self-development work with an experiential group and I remember there was one workshop and someone came in, it was a three day workshop, and he was talking about his addiction to gambling. And he was quite a focus of the three day workshop, and the facilitator worked very deeply with him around, you know, the causes of his addiction and, you know, his childhood traumas. And, you know, he was given a lot of time and space and a lot of love from the group to change. And then I remember on the last morning, just before we closed, he put up his hand to the facilitator, turned to him, said ‘yes.’ And the guy said, ‘You know, we’re coming to the end, and I’m really worried that I’m going to go back to, you know, gambling again. And, you know, what’s your advice to me?’ And the facilitator was quite frustrated at that point, just turned to him and just said, ‘Just stop’ and ‘Just stop it.’ And there’s also an aspect that we use our addictions to avoid suffering. And I think that’s that’s one of the aspects, brother, you started to touch on. But I think maybe we could go a bit deeper on, which is that why do we consume things all the time? Because why are we rushing? Because there’s the fear of what happens if we stop. And it’s like a downward spiral that we are fearful of our traumas or our suffering in our life coming up to the surface. So when it starts to bubble up, we look for an escape. And by looking for an escape, we block our sufferings. Our suffering goes deeper underground. It therefore builds its power. And so this whole sort of cycle is actually an avoidance of our suffering. And because we are avoiding it in our mind, it must be so big. If we are avoiding, it must be because we can’t deal with it. And so so by constantly avoiding it, we’re constantly making it bigger in our mind until eventually, you know, we just block out completely. Whereas actually if we were to face it in that moment when it comes up rather than look for an excuse, we will realize actually it’s not so big. We can handle it, we can look after it, we can be there for our suffering. It doesn’t have to overwhelm us. So I think there’s something around recognizing that actually the way to stop the addiction is to recognize that what it is we’re trying to cover up.
Exactly. Exactly. And I think in today’s world, even for myself, in the monastery, like we have, we have created like shared emails, a kind of sanga eye on even like our social media pages of the community and just to support each other as we interact in this whole new, this whole new world. Because all of that, it’s also can be an addiction. Right? And there’s many documentaries and research that shows how social media can also give a sense of worth, self-worth in our dopamine. Yeah, exactly. So like we are entering into a world where it’s so important of just human relationship. I feel that’s why our teacher was so strong on building communities, because a lot of our addiction is because we are alone. We are disconnected. And we don’t feel love. We don’t feel… and we don’t know how to love also. And therefore, we go on this path of self-pleasure, self harm, and death. Pleasure and harm can also be addiction. And what we recognize is that communities can be a great support to overcome this feeling of loneliness and these feelings of habits that are so hard to change. And sometimes we can’t do it alone. We need the support of others. And I think, for myself, I can’t practice mindfulness by myself in two days where I feel it’s just so much, there’s just so much sense impressions that are pulling me in so many directions. And I have to be reminded that being still and doing nothing is an art and is so enjoyable. And that’s why we have a very holy day in Plum Village that will never change in this tradition, and it’s called lazy day. And a lot of the times when we have this free, lazy day, you know, we tend to pack it up with more things to do than on a normal schedule. And sometimes I have to tell myself, do not plan a new thing, just let the day manifest, just let the day be, and just to go with the flow of the day. And you can see how beautiful 24 hours can be. So even planning can become a source of food for our self, but it can direct ourselves to become more anxious or even more goal oriented. It means we become more pushy with ourselves and we are not free. We are not liberated in the present moment.
And brother, that brings us to the third one, which is volition. And I mean, before I came to Plum Village, I never heard of that word. But I mean, volition is essentially one’s aim, or one’s dream, or one’s wish for how we want our lives to be so. Talk to us a bit about volition and why is this relevant?
So here volition is like an energy that gives, it’s a nutriment for us. So when we have a path, when we have a direction in life, that gives us an energy. I can speak for myself because when I came to Plum Village and I know that in my heart it was telling me I need to become a monk. And that became my volition. That became, that became a very deep aspiration inside of me. And it suddenly it gave me so much energy, and I was willing to go through any kind of training in order to fulfill this aspiration. So here we can see that volition is a source of energy, and we know nutrients are energy also. So food gives us energy. What we hear, what we listen, what we read also gives us energy. But here is looking at our deepest desire, our deepest aspiration. If we have an aspiration that gives, that brings peace and love to the world, that’s a very noble and beautiful aspiration that this energy will be limitless. Right? But it also needs nourishment. It needs the right condition. But if someone who has also a volition to destroy, to punish, that is also a very dangerous energy and a very dangerous nutriment. And that can influence not just oneself, but a whole community, a whole nation, a whole society. So volition, the will is something very strong because that is connected to our mind consciousness. And we know, in in the teachings of the Buddha, the mind can also create the world. So if we know how to take care of our mind, we know what nourishes our mind, what feeds our compassion, our understanding, our love, our inclusiveness, then our volition will be with those flavors. But if we’re always consuming violence, consuming sources that divides us, then that will become our volition. We would want to be more separated. We would want to feed our ego, feed our sense of power. So this here is a very deep meditation in coming back and asking ourselves, what is our direction? What is our deepest aspiration? And are we walking that path?
And also, brother, it’s, for me, and I think what Thay’s teachings also tell us is not to believe that our aspiration is going to lead us to is our happiness. So, you know, Thay has a famous phrase, you know, ‘There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.’ And I think he once gave the example in a talk I was at many years ago, he said, you know, you can have an aspiration to want a Ph.D..
So you work five years for that Ph.D., because at some level you think, if only I have that Ph.D., that’s going to make me happy. But actually, once you got your Ph.D., what are you doing the next day? And I think a lot of people mistake… And it talks something about sort of the nature of impermanence, that if we have this fixed dream that this is, you know, because, yeah, we know that, and it’s very much in the world of business that, you know, people want purpose and people want meaning. Of course they do, because that gives us a sense of belonging in a sense that our lives have value. But if we believe our happiness is dependent on that, then actually, you know, what we’re developing is the very seeds of our unhappiness. And there’s one example I always remember. So when I was growing up, there was a TV series in England called Colditz. And it was basically it was this German castle where prisoners of war from the British army and Air Force were kept. And the whole series was about people who were always trying to escape. So they were building planes, and they were digging tunnels, and, you know, and every week there was a sort of different type of escape. And there was one episode and I don’t know, it just struck me so deeply at the time. And it was this UK member of the armed forces who basically came up with this idea to pretend he had gone mad. And that they would release him if he could convince them that he had basically lost the plot. And so every day he practiced losing, you know, pretending he was losing his mind. And then after several months, he convinced them. And so the Germans let him go. And he was he was allowed to go back to the U.K. And I remember all the prisoners of war were cheering, ‘Yay, he made it. He got away with it.’ And then a couple of months later, they received a letter from this man’s wife saying, you know, Jim is settled in the home and, you know, and and, you know, he’s mad, but at least he’s home. And it was such a powerful thing because it’s like, because he pretended to be that so well and every day, he became that. He actually became mad. So the very thing he thought would be his escape was his madness. And it speaks of, in a sense, the danger of volition and the sense that you can also be fixated with something that you just become that and lose any, any broader sense of self.
Wow, thank you, Jo, for that story because that’s, that’s very real. I’ve also seen very close friends who go down because of their volition and they get tunnel vision and without seeing all the effect, even we have to be mindful of our volition because it can also be a source of suffering for others. And we have to also meditate and have time to check because our volition can always change, because our understanding can grow, so our aspiration can can grow. And I think that’s the beauty. When I look at these teachings, it’s like it’s not absolute. It’s like to be good it’s not the only aspiration because what does it mean to be good? Because there’s so many layers to it. Like true love. There’s so many layers to love, right? And there’s so many layers to be mindful. There’s so many layers to be awakened. And we have to also be honest where we’re at and not to be caught in the destination, like you said, because happiness is not at the final destination, but it’s the path already to have a path is already a beautiful, a beautiful passage. Like it’s a very beautiful sense of like, I have a path, I’m walking, I’m on it, and I know if I continue to walk it, I will be able to enjoy each moment. And if I have the conditions to arrive at the destination, it would be wonderful. But it’s not the end because the path continues.
I have this image, brother, of a racehorse going around the track and, you know, they put blinkers on its eyes. They can only look forward and it does that they put the blinkers on so it’s not distracted by life. And in a sense that’s always the risk, isn’t it? We think our job is to race around the track as fast as possible. And, and then we miss everything that’s going on in life and miss any opportunity to try to transform. And, brother, one last thing on that is you talked, you just mentioned in passing, but you said our volition can create suffering for other people. And I thought that was really, really profound because often we think of our volition, our ambition, our aim is what will make us happy, what we think will fulfill us, rather than thinking, actually, how does it support the community? I mean, how does it support the family I belong in? How does it support the world? So there’s that thing about volition could also be very selfish.
Exactly. And I was just going to talk about that, too, which was to mention mentioned when we speak about volition, it’s not only individual, we can also bring it to collective volition as a couple. You know, you, I hope you have time to speak with your partner about the shared volition. Right? Because that has an impact on both of us. And then if we live in a community, we have to have moments to share about collective volition, individual volition, and also collective volition, and businesses, corporations, I think that it’s so important to see the one into all and the all into one. And that is also a very deep teaching of Buddhism. But I think we’ve got to go to the next one.
Yeah. So this is the one I find most difficult to grab hold of. So, consciousness. So it’d be really helpful, brother, because I mean there are two types of consciousness, I suppose that there’s again, as you were just saying, there’s our individual consciousness, which I take to be the sort of body of all our own thoughts and sort of ancestors thoughts that that we’ve been passed down. And there’s a collective consciousness which is, in a sense, all the thoughts of society. So it’s a bit like I’m, I think of the film the Ghostbusters, when there’s, underneath the city, there’s this river of feelings. It’s everywhere. I mean, they tend to be the negative feelings, but, in a sense, it’s a bit like that, rivers. Like all of our thoughts, individual thoughts and all of everyone else’s thoughts, in a sense, create this river of consciousness. But is that a reasonable definition or can you take it forward from that?
Yes. So I think you’ve gone to the like the deeper meaning of it. But when the Buddha shared about this, he and our teacher shares about it, first of all, let’s talk about individual consciousness. So we have mind consciousness and store consciousness. So mind consciousness is what our thinking, what manifests in the day, our feelings, our emotions, things that maybe we can grasp by having awareness of it. And then we have store consciousness, which holds all of our experience, all of the past and all of these formations — anger, jealousy, greed, hatred — but also very beautiful qualities — love, compassion, understanding, equanimity, joy, peace. And then there are some neutral mental formation also. So when we speak about consciousness, we know that our consciousness is also a food. So Thay gives us an example which is like the cow has like in the stomach, like, I think, please forgive me, I don’t know the exact detail, but Thay mentioned it like the cow can eat the grass and he can keep it and he can bring it out and chew it again.
Regurgitates it and then it chews it again.
Exactly. So Thay used this as an example. Sometimes we have an experience from the past that was very painful. And very… It’s a big source of suffering. And instead of being free from it by working with it, looking at it, working with it, transforming it, healing it, we always revisit it, and it comes back and it haunts us again, and again, and again. To give an example, like if you were beaten, it was like a slap in the face, and now that you remember it, that’s another slap. So your consciousness can become a kind of nutriment of what you’re giving yourself. So here is talking about the suffering more when we talk about this. So we know that our practice is not to run away from the past, and not to forget the past, but is to take care and to heal the past. And so our consciousness is also the store of all of our experience. It’s a continuous lineage of also our ancestors experience. And we can transform it for them. So when we take care of our consciousness, when we become aware of how we are, what we are thinking, and it’s connected to the first three, I would say, by what we consume by food, what we consume, by our senses, and how do we motivate ourself in our life by direction or volition, it will have an impact on our consciousness. And I sometimes procrastinate a lot, and I can just sit there in la la land in my head for hours and just like fantasize or so. That is also a food, that’s a kind of consumption. And so we also have to be mindful of how we are thinking and how we are creating thoughts, what is nourishing our thoughts. So that is consciousness. But then there’s also collective consciousness, which our teacher talks a lot about. Also, by being in an environment that is supportive, that feeds our good intention, that feeds our well-being, feeds our body and mind. But if we happen to be in an environment which is very destructive, very violent, and if we have the capacity to break free from it, to make sure we don’t become that violence. Right? So here is looking at that environment, the collective consciousness could also become us. I want to say also very clearly that in our path as Buddhism, we also have bodhisattvas who makes the aspiration to go into the challenging places in order to help transform the collective consciousness. But if we don’t have that capacity and we can become a victim to that collective consciousness of destruction, of hatred. If we are skillful and we have a way to break free from it in order to nourish and to care for ourself to have agency for our well-being. That’s very important to look at our collective consciousness, our collective environment.
Yeah. And also, brother, as you as you speak, the couple of short stories that come to mind. One is I remember reading an article many years ago about the parents of a… and their child had been murdered. And the article was about the fact that the parents had forgiven the murderer. And I always remember, you know, how could you forgive someone who’s killed your only child? And as I read the article, you know, that was the question. How can you forgive him? And I always remember them saying, if we don’t forgive, we are the ones who are going to spend our lives suffering. We’re going to be paying the penalty and we’ll be passing that on in everything in our lives. But if we are able to forgive the murderer, actually, we’re also finding forgiveness in ourselves. And again, that was a moment that really struck me deeply, the fact that we do… again, we keep on coming back to this sense of you can either be a victim or you can have sovereignty. You know, that we’re constantly got that choice of are we going to fall victim to this or are we actually going to have agency? And actually, in every thought we have, in every action we take, you know, we do have choices. And a lot of the time, I think people feel, well, you know, that’s just the way it is or that’s how I am, that’s how I was born, and that’s who the person I am. But actually all the time we have some agency if we choose it. And the other story that came to my mind, Sister Chan Duc, who, for those who don’t know, is the longest serving Western… She was the first Western nun to be ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh. And I interviewed her a couple of years ago, and I was saying, you know, at that point, she was about just over 70 years old, I think. And I said, Sister Chan Duc, you know, what’s your volition? What’s your ambition? What do you want to do with the rest of your life? You know, you’re getting on a bit and, you know, you know, you’ve got less years to live than you have lived. So, you know, what do you want to do with your remaining time? And it really struck me at the time, she said, I want to be the very, very best person that I can be in order to… because this will influence the collective unconscious, the collective conscious, rather. And I was thinking about it, I thought, but, you know, most people don’t even know you exist. Most people don’t know… will never come across. You are basically doing all this focus on your mindfulness, on your sort of purifying your mind and everything. And what I got is yes, that will on an energetic level that that feeds into the collective consciousness because actually the collective consciousness is just everyone’s thoughts. And so if someone is really purifying their mind, that is going to have a positive impact on the collective consciousness. And it just made me realize that actually all our actions, whatever we do or choose to think or choose to act on, feeds into what the future will look like.
So, brother, I think we should probably stop there. What do you think?
I think so. I think we were able to go through all four categories and share our experience as well as share our understanding on the nutriments.
And Brother Phap Huu, as is now customer, we have our own positive habits here and we tend to finish off with a short meditation by yours sincerely. Would you like to take us away?
Actually not take us away. Bring us home.
Let us go inwards. So, dear friends, wherever you may be, if you are going for a walk, going for a jog, or sitting on the bus, sitting on the plane, sitting on a train, or just enjoying your home, if you can allow yourself to be still whether standing, or sitting, and allow me to bring you to the present moment. Let us become aware of our breath as we breathe in. Recognize this is our inbreath. As we breathe out, recognize this is outbreath. Inbreath. Outbreath. Breathing in, this is inbreath. Breathing out, this is outbreath. As I breathe in, I become aware of my body. Breathing out, I relax my body. In, aware of body. Out, I relax my body. If there’s any tension in our shoulders, in our face, in our back, our legs, allow the tension to be release with each inbreath and outbreath. In, aware of the body. Out, I release the tension in my body. Breathing in. I connect to the piece inside of me. The stillness. Breathing out. I enjoy this quiet stillness and peace. In. Recognizing peace. Out. I enjoyed this piece. Breathing in, connecting myself to the sounds around me, not being carried away, but just recognizing. Out. I am established in the present moment. In. Aware of life around me. Out. I am present for life, inside of me and all around me. Breathing in, I am in touch with compassion in my heart. Breathing out, I offer my love and compassion to the world, the ones that I love, the ones that are around me, and also to the ones that I may have difficulty with. Just connecting and letting my compassion manifest, my understanding. In. There is love in my heart. Out. I am nourishing my understanding. Breathing in, I am in touch with the present moment. How simple, how wonderful it is to be alive. Breathing out, I give gratitude and thanks to this air, to the condition of life that allows me to be. In. Life. Out. Gratitude.
Thank you, friends, for practicing, for breathing mindfully. And we will see you next time in our podcast The Way Out Is In.
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The way out is in.