Welcome to episode 50 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, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and leadership coach and journalist Jo Confino contemplate how to find compassion for ourselves – even when we feel stuck and unable to move forward, and know what to do but enter self-loathing rather than self-compassion. Together, they discuss what it is to love ourselves and what a difference it can make. Plus, why is it so difficult to change? What should we be mindful of? And what is love to us?
Brother Phap Huu further considers how helpful insights can blossom; attaining new views of growth in spirituality; unconditional love; what it is to be stuck and how to unstick ourselves; ‘striving’ energy, perceptions, and aspirations; creating new stories; and acceptance.
Jo starts with a confession before sharing about epiphanies; times when one’s story is more important than one’s happiness; self-worth; cultivating change at the edges; and mindful reminders.
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
Sister True Dedication
The Miracle of Mindfulness
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
Dharma Talks: ‘True Love and the Four Noble Truths’
The Four Noble Truths
Dharma Talks: ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’
“Peace in oneself, peace in the world.”
“When I know that I don’t hate myself, love is already there. And acceptance is a part of love.”
“Mindfulness is the opposite of forgetfulness, and love is the opposite of hatred.”
“After one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, I said, ‘Sister Jina, don’t you monastics get bored of Thay repeating the same thing over and over again? And doesn’t Thay get bored with repeating the same teachings over and over again?’ And she turned to me and said, ‘But do we practice?’”
“Because of our unmindful society, where there’s more forgetfulness and not enough awareness, love becomes something to gain. People are trying to gain love rather than to cultivate love within them, creating a lot of expectation around it. And when there is love, there is already a need. But in the practice of Buddhism, and in our practice, love should be unconditional.”
“Our practice is to understand that love is a growing organic energy. But hatred is also an organic energy. So the first practice in mindfulness and in Buddhism has to start with oneself. And maybe that is the most painful start because, for some reason, it’s easier to love others.”
“Mindfulness is light. Forgetfulness is the darkness. But the two rely on each other and can dance within each other.”
“If you have an empty bowl, then you’ve got nothing to give. All you really want to do is fill your own bowl. But when your bowl is full and overflowing, it naturally leads to generosity.”
“In my own life, the moments of greatest transformation have been when I’ve stopped long enough for an insight to arise; what I refer to as an epiphany.”
“New forms of life tend to grow at the very edges of ecosystems, like the edges of estuaries where new life forms have space to develop. If they develop and get enough strength, then they come towards the center and become an established lifeform. And they sometimes become what can’t change. Then something else will grow at the edge and come into the center.”
“The Buddha said that we always have to check our perception of our reality and the reality that we want to achieve. And this is very different from aspiration.”
“To look into the past is also to educate, to learn, and to have insight. So insight comes from awareness, and we have to have baby insight to have big insight.”
“Thay says sometimes our habits, our energies, are there for us to reflect on. If I don’t have striving energy, then maybe I don’t have any aspirations.”
Welcome back, dear listeners, to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, are Zen Buddhist monk, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.
And brother, today we’re going to talk about why it’s so difficult to change, even when we know what we need to do, that we often feel stuck and then we can go rather than into self-compassion we go into self-loathing. So we’re going to focus today on how it’s possible to find compassion for ourselves, even when we feel we can’t move forward.
The way out is in.
Hello everyone, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And brother, I want to start today with a confession. Because yesterday actually we recorded a session of question and answers with Sister True Dedication from Lower Hamlet. And she mentioned at one point about something called the Tangerine Meditation, and she described it as, you know, that when you take a segment of tangerine that you recognize the miracle of life in that tangerine. And then as you eat that tangerine, you feel your senses flooded with the sort of the taste and the juiciness and that we realize the miracle of what it is to be alive and that actually we can transform this tangerine into energy that can lead to love and inspiration and compassion, all these good stuff. And as she was saying it, I felt a bit of a jolt in my system because what came flooding into my mind was not the beauty of the tangerine, but the fact that I was eating tangerines all winter and I was enjoying the taste of them thinking, Oh, this is a really tasty tangerine, but at no point did I actually meditate or was truly mindful of that any of those tangerines… I must have eaten hundreds of them. And what it brought to mind was that I have been, in a sense, following the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh for the last 17 years, and in many ways I feel my life has been transformed, but I keep getting stuck in the sense that I keep forgetting. I forget, even though I know the practice, I keep forgetting it. And it reminds me of a question I once put to Sister Jina, who is one of the first Western nuns to become a monastic under Thich Nhat Hanh. And after one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks, I said, Sister Jina, don’t you monastics get bored of Thay repeating the same thing over and over again? And doesn’t Thay get bored with repeating the same teachings over and over again? And she turned to me and said, But do we practice? So I wanted to ask you to help with this today… because I think there’s a… I think we often use the practice to develop our self-loathing, that when we know we want to change, we know that we want to be more loving, and then we feel unable to do that with a particular person or a particular situation, then we often end up feeling that we’re not good enough and then hating ourselves because actually we can’t get over this barrier and we continue to be stuck. So I wanted to talk and ask you to sort of talk a bit about what it is to be stuck and how we unstick ourselves or how we actually accept ourselves for the way we are. When is it okay to say, Well, actually this is how I am and that’s okay for the moment, as opposed to saying I want to be different, I want to be better than myself, which can create a gap.
Very good question, Jo. Being stuck, I am sure all of us have experienced it. Or if we’re still young, we will experience it. It is a journey in life. It is a part of our growth. One thing that always helps me is to understand the opposite of love is hatred. And when I know that I don’t hate myself, love is already there. And acceptance is a part of love. But the word love itself is so grand is really, it’s a big word. And in all religion and spirituality practices, there is a foundation of love, and there’s a lot of teachings on love. And in our modern days, there’s so many courses on love, there’s courses on self-love, there’s courses on self-compassion, loving speech and loving relationship. There are therapists who mainly focus also on love, to help people unknot, or get out of the hole that they’re stuck in. And because of all of this creation of teachings and methods, I also feel that we have also made the word love so big and so far away, just like enlightenment. And I think we think we’re not good enough for love. We also fall into this trap and into the cycle, the circle of samsara, of pain and suffering. And therefore we also forget the meaning of love. And when I’ve been chewing on this, because we messaged each other and we said, What shall we speak about? And we both looked at, Okay, let’s do something on love, because there was a lot of questions about that in our questions that we received. And the first thing that comes up to me was like, what is the opposite of love? And that is hatred. And in this moment, I ask myself first am I hating myself? I said, No. Am I hating anyone where I want to punish them and I want them to go to hell? No. So I feel already good. But is there people who I have struggle with where I can’t fully be with them and feel comfortable? Yes. Are there those who I shy away from? Yes. So when I started to ask these questions and recognize my condition, this is mindfulness. This is to also know where we are at. So the first act and the first awareness is mindfulness is the opposite of forgetfulness, and love is the opposite of hatred. And if we are finding ourself in a hole, we start to need to ask the question, what is love to us? That is really important. And just like when I first started mindfulness and studied the practice of meditation and awareness, and I had to understand what is it that I want to be mindful of? This is the key. What is it that I want to love inside of myself? And try not to achieve this boundless love that we speak of, which is the foundation of our path of mindfulness and practice, which is to touch inner peace, to grow our heart so that it becomes as vast as the ocean. And in the Buddha’s time, he even used this example to the monks. You know, if I take a handful of salt and I put it in a cup, which is a container that is very limited, for sure, the water will get salty. But as I continue to cultivate my love, my heart expands, my acceptance expands, my understanding expands, I become less salty, I become less toxic. That is our modern language. I use this a lot. So our practice is to understand that love is a growing organic energy. And also hatred is also an organic energy. So the first practice in mindfulness and in Buddhism, it has to start with oneself. And maybe that is the most painful start because for some reason, it’s easier to love others. We have this perception because it seems like I can see the other person’s well-being more than I can see myself. And maybe that’s also a clinging, when I can love someone there is a need to want to be loved. So there is an expectation that I want to love someone so that that love can come back. And because of our unmindful society where there’s more forgetfulness and there is not enough awareness, love becomes something to gain. People are trying to gain love rather than to cultivate love within them, and there becomes a lot of expectation towards it. And when there is love, there is already a need. But in the practice of Buddhism and in our practice, love should be unconditional. When I love someone, that is my right, and I offered that, that should be coming from a heart of not wanting anything back because that is my practice. So we have to turn that back to ourself first. Peace in oneself, peace in the world. I think this is one of my favorite calligraphy from Thay, because it talks about our expectation of the world. We want love to come from outside inward. We want peace to come from outside inward. But in our realization and liberation, the Buddha himself realized it has to start with oneself. And so the journey to loving oneself is meditation. The journey of understanding and accepting I’m in a hole right now is enlightenment. The moment you realize I am in a hole, that is mindfulness, ta daaa… You are aware that you’re stuck, and the moment of awareness of being stuck, that is the first noble truth itself. The second step we have to walk towards is looking deeply. This is already meditation. Meditation is not just to sit still and not move, but it is to have the space and the time to look deeper. Where? Why am I stuck? Where am I stuck? Why can’t I move forward? Why can’t I move sideways? What is blocking me? These are all questions for us to meditate on. And an easier language is what nourishment am I lacking right now? And what food is coming in through my senses that is feeding also my suffering to make me be so caught. So this is the second practice, and here I want to talk about we also have to balance ourself, though. Because I also went down this rabbit hole of looking very deeply at my suffering. And I got so negative with myself because I just started to see I’m not a great person. I have such habits. I say things that have hurt people. I’ve done things out of greed. I’ve done things out of ego. So on the other end of looking deeply, we also have to look deeper at our good nature, at the love that we have inside of us, so that we have the awareness, the mindfulness, the enlightenment that I also have wonderful qualities in me. So we have to balance. This is why in Buddhism we have to have the middle way, we have to… It’s so important to balance between the light and the darkness. Mindfulness is light. Forgetfulness is the darkness. But the two rely on each other and they can dance within each other. And this is where I started to also have ease with myself. In love there is ease, there’s acceptance. We start to accept ourselves that we’re limited. I’m still someone who is still going to get lazy. There’s still moments when I’m not going to wake up for meditation and I’m going to beat myself later on and say, Phap Huu, if you just went to sleep a little bit earlier, if you just said no to some of the invitations that came to you… And I think, Jo, we do this, right? Like we receive so many invitations, we receive so many projects and they all look so good, they all look so grand. But then you get into it, you get all worried and then you get into arguments with your brothers and sisters, with the friends who are part of the projects. And then you ask them, Why did I do this to myself? So we all have this experience. And if I look at it from a different angle, can I learn from this? Can I start to set healthy boundaries? This is where it’s very difficult because our habits are so profound, because we have been inheriting it from generations and it has been coming from the mainstream energy of society. And this is where I want to mention that meditation is not a pill for us to escape, and it’s not a pill that will change us right away. And even after three years or five years, it seems like a big investment. And after that, you still see, you’re still saying the same thing, you’re still forgetful when you have a tangerine, and you don’t enjoy it deeply. Well, let’s give ourselves a break, because the habit that we have gained has been 30 something years before you met the Dharma. Or for some 80 years before you met the Dharma. Or because it has been inherited from generation to generation. So don’t expect us to be a super, super man to transform right away. That doesn’t happen like that. And so this is where we can accept ourselves and have compassion and just recognize what is love. It’s the opposite of hatred. If I’m not hating myself, if I’m not trying to punish myself, love is there. And we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And please start to walk. But maybe before walking, crawl first.
Brother, there’s so much in what you just said, so I want to try and unpack it a little bit. So just bring it back to my original question about the tangerines. So what you said is absolutely spot on because when I had that jolt from Sister True Dedication, I could see that jolt in two ways. I could see that jolt in, well, it just shows that you’re, after all these years, you’re useless and actually, you know, just shows that you’ve made no progress, and, you know, just shows you’re, you know, you’re just faking it or whatever. You know, why are you doing a podcast if you can’t even eat a tangerine properly? And then there’s another part which could go, Oh, Sister True Dedication, thank you for reminding me. I forgot about that. And also, it’s true that there are many other ways in which I’m recognizing the beauty of life and just how wonderful it is to be alive and the sort of this extraordinary miracle that we’re alive. And, as you say, that depends purely on where we are in our lives and how we view ourselves. Now, luckily, I’ve done enough work on myself that I have moved way beyond pure self-hatred or feeling lack of worth into feeling that I can love myself. And as a result of that, as you talked, what I realized is well, actually, yeah, I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t feel, oh, I’m useless. I just feel, ah, we all forget. And that’s why we need community and that’s why people find it so hard to do this on their own because if you forget, there’s no one to remind you. Whereas, you know, living in Plum Village or having being a monastic or having being a lay practitioner with their own sangha, that you’re constantly reminded because there are other people who want to also create change, who want to… and want to be more mindful. And so there’s this sort of ability to be reminded because we do forget. And as you say, our patterns are also stuck. The other thing brother you talked about is, you know what it is to love ourselves and what difference that makes. And I know I’ve used this example before in a previous episode, but Thay talks about, you know, if you have a bowl and it’s empty, then you’ve got nothing to give. And actually all you really want to do is fill your own bowl. But when your bowl is full and overflowing, it just naturally wants to be generous. And so, as you said, there’s a lot of people in the world who act with generosity. But as you said, there’s a hook in there that actually they want their unmet needs to be met. And of course, we all know that actually, if you can’t meet your own needs, there’s no one else. You can have a black hole and you can have dumpster trucks coming with love all day long for a year, and it would not fill that black hole. And that is up to us to find that for ourselves. I’ve also noticed that in my work over many years that people find it very difficult to love themselves. It’s not easy for all the reasons you said in modern society, in terms of advertising, we’re constantly asked to measure up to an ideal and we constantly feel we’re failing with that ideal. And one way I have sort of recognized this is… I’ve done a lot of before sort of coming into contact with Thay, I did a lot of sort of self-development work in terms of group experiential work. And if you had a circle of people and you put one person in the middle and you asked everyone to notice one thing about that person that they’d noticed, that was a lovely quality and the person in the middle would squirm with it. Some people would hate to be acknowledged. They find it so difficult to receive love because they don’t feel they’re worth it. And so we have to find ways of finding, of helping people to find that love in themselves. And one thing I wanted to ask you, brother, was around striving. So I was having a conversation yesterday with someone called Krishna Das, who is a very well-known devotional singer, devotional chants, and what he was saying, and it was so interesting to hear him because actually everything he was saying and one of the reasons today when I said, Oh, let’s do it about this was because I was talking with him about this yesterday. And one of the things he said is that one of the problems is we try to strive, to get better, to improve ourselves. And he said it’s only by slowing down that we are able to listen to another part of ourselves. And so the more we strive to find love or to be more loving or to experience love, actually, as you said, it’s almost the opposite of what love is, because love is just there, it’s present if we choose to see it, it’s not something we strive for. And I’m aware in my own life that the moments of greatest transformation for me have been when I’ve stopped long enough for an insight to arise, and what I referred to as an epiphany. And Krishna Das was also saying this. He said that his greatest transformation came when he just stopped. And he wasn’t doing anything particular, but this great insight blossomed in him that transformed his life. And then his life wasn’t the same again. So it’d be lovely, brother, for you to talk about how insights blossom, what it is to find space in which to find a new understanding, and also about that sense of what I found when I’ve had probably there’s three or four epiphanies in my life, they provided a whole new foundation of my knowing. It’s not like a momentary understanding that then dissipates within a day. It becomes almost like I’ve taken a step up, I mean, up is a, you know, is one description… because it may not be up, but just for the sake of it, a step up. And then almost the gap underneath just closes and I’m standing on a new platform that has strength and power in it. So I’d love you to talk about that sense of quietening the mind, of insights and actually what an insight provides for us, how it helps us.
Striving is an energy that we all have, it’s to run away from and not accept what we are now. And it’s also… it has, for me, the word that comes up for me is competition, like competing against myself and competing against the ones around me. Even in love, we are competing. Like I love, I love you more, so please give me more attention. And this whole idea that that we are not enough, therefore we need to strive forward is also… Looking back at myself, I wasted a lot of mind energy there because this comes to perception. And the Buddha said that we always have to check our perception of our reality and the reality that we want to achieve. And this is very different than aspiration. So I think a lot of people, they find this is when like, wait, a part of Buddhism, it tells us to let go, but then there’s a part that tells us to have volition and aspiration and so on, and a goal sometimes. So here we have to see that when somebody who has totally no will to live, no direction to go in, that’s also someone who is very lost and someone who is also suffering deeply because there is no path that he is walking or she is walking. And coming with that carries the energy of loneliness, carries the energy of laziness, and carries the energy of feeling not rooted. And we have a language called like a hungry ghost, someone who has no direction because then they cannot accept and receive and see the light that is around them, the love that is around them. And so, when we, in Buddhism, when somebody who is so lost, a Zen teacher will give them a direction to help them find a path to walk. But when you have that path already, this is when you have to bring in the insight of aimlessness, the insight to slow down on the path, the insight to enjoy the path that you’re walking, to not get caught in a view that only when I achieved that goal, I will be happy. And this is where my generation, I feel we have been educated to have a goal and to keep running after it. And once you get this, you can be happier. Once you get that, you’re going to be happier. And this has also leaked into the spiritual world. I’m sure many of us have entered into the spiritual dimension because of suffering. That is a condition for us to meet the Dharma, to meet the teachings, because we have met a wall and once we enter into the monastery or into a practice center, you may start to see monks, nuns, lay practitioners who are so at peace, so at ease, so present. This is when you want to strive to become like that. So this is not good and bad because this is the kind of food that you need. You need to also grow your trust that is possible because if you have never received love, if you have never seen someone who is solid and stable, you will never have that understanding that that is achievable. But in the Dharma, we speak about the teacher in you, and you have to recognize that teacher in you and you have to trust that teacher in you. The Dharma is to come and see for yourself and to experience for yourself. So here is to help us trust and have faith in our own capacity and not to look for it outside of us. And the striving can be watered down from from this insight that I am who I am because of all of the conditions that I have come to be. And so first, mindfulness is just to be who you are, accept who you are, that is the first baby enlightenment that we all can achieve. And in this present moment, accepting who you are, you may start to look and explore yourself, be curious. What is it that I am grateful for myself? What is it that I still see? This is still energies and habits that brings me suffering. And not to be shy away from it. And not to hate yourself from it, but to now bring this love that we’ve been talking about, and to shower our negative side, and to just accept it. Accepting is the act of love. And because we have accepted it, we will have to hav. The insight to want to transform it. Insight is to liberate us. Insight is not to use to compete against each other. Is, Jo, what’s your insight? And you give me then, I’m like, I’m going to want to, you know…
I want… but I want more of that.
You know, like even in this podcast, you know, sometimes I am sure we’re trying to strive to become better each day and to outshine ourselves. But what always happens is actually when we just show up, and we see each other, we’re honest with each other. What is it that we can speak about and that we can be true to? I think that’s where we run away from the striving because we know we’re gonna offer the best we can today. And I’m sure when we look back ten years in the future, we look back and we’re like, Oh my God, why did we say that, Jo?
Can we please get rid of this?
And, you know, this is the beauty of growth. And so in meditation and in the path of practice, it’s beautiful to see ourselves, remove layers of ourselves, and accept layers of ourselves. I always look at seasons as ourself. A brother just recently asked me, Brother, what is your favorite season? And I think it’s spring and autumn, I’m not discriminating against winter and summer.
Shhh, don’t tell winter and summer. I hope you didn’t hear that.
Yeah, but I think because in the springtime, you know, nature is reborning. Is that a word?
And new leaves are coming, the buds manifesting, and you get to see the journey of a tree, of a plant, of a flower. And then, in the autumn, for it to survive, for it to start to receive the cold winter, it needs to know how to preserve its energy. So therefore, it starts to release its life, its leaf. It kills its leaf in a way, it allows it to die in order to protect and to grow again in the new season. And so I invite all of us to look at our spiritual path like that. There’s gonna be moments of growth, of springing, of flowers blossoming. Seeing yourself full of energy and motivated, ready to be at the frontline of any suffering and embrace it, transform it. And there’s gonna be moments when the harsh winter is coming. And you need to close your doors to keep the warmth inside. You need to take a step back. You need to say no. And this is not giving up. This is not degrading. Is that right? So we’re not… Sometimes we think like we should always move forward, but sometimes moving backward is moving forward. There’s a saying in Vietnamese, take a step back to take two steps forward later. So we have to give ourselves a new view of growth in spirituality. Maturity is not to always be solid as a mountain, to be spacious. Sometimes it’s just to learn to be still and to accept what is there. And so the striving here, when it’s carrying the energy of competition, reflect on that. Be mindful. Who are you competing against? And is it truly going to give you joy and happiness? I realize that sometimes I’m competing with myself. I want to be better than myself yesterday. If you’re already practicing mindfulness, you’re already a different person. And Thay gives us this practice. He tells us to take a photo of ourself when we were much younger and to ask ourself, Are you the same or are you different? And the answer is not, Yes, I’m much better than him or her, but actually, Wow, thank you for that youth, for all those conditions, because it has given me insight for who I am today. And thank you for the pain and the suffering that I received. It has taught me that suffering is real and therefore I don’t want to repeat that suffering to myself. And I don’t want to give that suffering that I receive to others around me. So to look into the past is also to educate and to learn and to have insight. So insight comes from awareness and we have to have baby insight to have big insight. And so the striving is also this energy of projecting ourself to the future. But Thay once said this and it woke me up. He said, You know what’s at the future? It’s your graveyard. So why rush there? Wow… You know, when we’re all young, we want to be 18 to be, quote unquote, independent, do whatever the heck you want. And then when you’re older, you all want to be younger. So we’re such confused human beings.
We always want something else.
We always want something else. We’re always trying to run after what we’re not. And mindfulness, awareness, is to recognize who you are now. What is your age? I’m 35. I have a lot of energy, but I’m also starting to have limits. It’s different than when I was 20 years old, in my twenties.
Just wait till your 61, brother.
I’ll arrive there. I’m not waiting, because I know I will arrive there.
I might not be here to see you, but anyway…
Right? So this, you know, actually I’ve reflected a lot on my striving. The striving is the pushing and the running forward, the running away from. So that has become my meditation sometimes to just check in with myself. What am I competing against? What am I trying to run away from? It is the opposite of what is it that I am cultivating? So I love the word cultivating because the cultivation is very organic, and we are a garden ourself. We have moments when I have let go of a particular skillset that I have, I know I can always smile. I don’t have to work on my smiling. I’m always… My smile can always be born. Now I’m working on saying no, knowing my limits. So I have let go of one art because I have, it has been installed in me already. And so in our practice, this is how we recognize our own growth also. Don’t try to be exactly the same as before, and don’t try to run fully after something that you’re not. Just see what it is that you need that is nourishing for you in this moment, like we’re doing this podcast and one of the things I’m always cultivating is I’m not doing this to receive praise. I’m cultivating, we’re doing this because we want to offer our dear listeners, friends who are living alone, a sangha member. We are their sangha member. We are their meditations that they carry throughout the week. And that, for me, gives me so much happiness and it grows my heart. And we receive feedback. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes I’m like, Yeah, why did I say that? Sometimes I’m like, Oh man, that insight wasn’t so profound, or what I said, there’s still a lot of hooks, you know, and it’s not clear. And when I receive that, instead of now bringing myself down, I will say thank you for the feedback. I will continue to grow and cultivate my sharing, my insight, so it can be received even easier. Right? So the striving sometimes can be a mirror for us. So it is exactly not also bad because Thay says sometimes our habits, our energies are there for us to reflect on. If I don’t have striving energy, then maybe I don’t have any aspiration. So this is where interbeing comes into play, and not to have a dualistic view can help us also be liberated.
Wow. Again, very beautifully spoken, brother. And just as a response to that, a lot of what you said can be summed up in Thay’s calligraphy Be beautiful, be yourself. Because if you’re pretending to be someone else, you can’t grow an insight from a place you’re not. You can only have an insight, you can only cultivate your own field. If you’re trying to cultivate someone else’s field or a field that doesn’t actually really exist, and you just believe, you’re trying to make your field look pure, but actually it’s full of stones and sand, then you can’t cultivate anything. And what I’m aware of, brother, is this exists everywhere, and even in the monastery. So I’ve noticed that there can be a tendency in some of the young monastics who come that they want to be more advanced than maybe they are. And that can be a trap. And I’m aware that one story is one of the young monastics came to our house for tea, this was a year or two ago, probably a year and a half. And he was talking about his suffering, that he didn’t feel he was good enough. And we were at the top of our garden and there’s a table there. And I said, Well, look, stand where you think you currently are in your understanding, in your behavior, in your actions. And he stood to the left, at the left end of the table. And then I said, Move your right leg to where you’re trying to be. And he took a big step with his right leg to the right, and I pushed him to the ground because he had no stability, because where he really was was at one end of the table, where he wanted to be, his leg was at the other side of the table. And it was such a… It was a sort of quite a powerful physical representation for me also, is that there’s no point trying to be someone else because you can’t grow from that. You can only grow from where you currently are. And that is the compassion, isn’t it? Is to say I’m imperfect, I’ve got a lot to learn. I make mistakes. I sometimes am naive. I’m sometimes angry. That we have everything inside us. And that we can’t cultivate from any other point. And one of the other things, brother, that comes to mind is when we ask how can we cultivate ourselves from where we are, one of the understandings I’ve come to is what it takes to be at the edge of our comfort zone. So it’s very hard to change from the center. Where we change is from the edge. And I’ll give you an example, and there’s a whole discipline like on edge economics, and it’s based on a sort of an understanding of ecosystems that in the center an ecosystem is very established, which in a human place would be our patterns, our habits, our culture. It’s very, very difficult to change because everything is so established that it’s very difficult for anything new to emerge because it gets squashed by the center. And that where new forms of life tend to grow is at the very edges of ecosystems. So like the edges of estuaries where nothing established can grow and new life forms have space to develop. And that if they develop and get enough strength, then they come towards the center and then they become the established sort of lifeform. And then they sometimes become what can’t change. And then something else will grow at the edge and come into the center. So it’s very similar to how you talk about it. It’s like the seasons, like one step back, two steps forward. And the other thing I’ve understood is that in my own life, what I like to do and where I think I’m at my best is where I dance at the edge. And that is also where when I interview people, what I do is I don’t want to undermine people. I’m not looking to find their faults, but I’m looking for where are their edges, so to take them off their center. Because when I interview people and they’re in their center, all they do is they repeat what they know. But when you take them to the edge of what they know, then something new can emerge. They might have their own insight, they might say something they’ve never said before. They will have to be open and conscious of what’s happening in that moment because they might not have a ready answer for it. And that for me works, it can also be a bit dangerous because sometimes I go slightly over the edge and it can cause hurt on occasion. But my deep sense is that that’s where we cultivate the changes, at the edge. And that allows us to see life in new ways.
Yeah. And that edge will allow us to take another step beyond our comfort. And I think one of the reason why it’s so hard to change is also because we’re so attached to a story about ourself and that story we keep replaying it over and over and over. And if we remove that story, we will feel empty. And I think that becomes our comfort and that becomes our safety net that we come home to. I’ve heard so many people share, Well, it’s all beautiful in Plum Village, but in the real world, it has to be like that. So therefore I can’t change. But that’s your story. And that story has also been painted by society. And that story has been painted by maybe our family, our conditions and so on. And that’s why in meditation, there’s this warrior that we talk about, because that warrior talks about the courage, that courage to face our own habits, to face the suffering that we see and the warrior to cut our own afflictions off. That is where it’s very difficult because there is a letting go practice there, a letting go of a layer of who we are. But the beauty that people forget is that we’re always changing and we can create new stories. The present moment is a paintbrush that you get to paint and draw and create a new you. And that’s where there is freedom. That’s the insight of freedom, of the present moment offers you this profound opportunity. And because I have the chance to live so closely to Thay, you know, Thay told me that for Thay to be alive, it’s a miracle, […]. […] is student. He says, from time to time Thay would say, you know that Thay being here and sitting in this peaceful environment with Plum Village, it’s a miracle. And when Thay says that, he’s not taking it for granted because Thay said Thay has survived the war. For what Thay did, he was almost killed on two occasions. And luckily, one time, you know, the grenade just deflected and went into another place. And another time it just didn’t go off. And so for Thay to be present, it’s a miracle. And that’s why his first book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, is that life is a miracle. And Thay was so skillful in his Dharma talks. He barely talks about his past, of that experience, because he doesn’t want to use that story to ask for love from people. But he is… The only time he would use it is to wake us up, to say, But what you have is peace. There’s no bombs flying, being dropped, there’s no cries that you’re hearing day in, day out. There’s no fire that you’re trying to help extinguish. There’s no hunger left and right, beside you. There’s not people dying, people losing an arm, a leg, etc. Orphans left in the villages. He uses these moments to wake all of us up, to say stand up, practice, cultivate, so that you live deeply so that you don’t waste your life. And I’ve learned so much as I have continuously reflected on how to continue Thay. It’s so simple. Just actually practice what he teaches you, and you will start to see that life is very beautiful. And so we can also break free from our stories.
Thank you, brother. So as I was literally just a few minutes before I left to come up to the hut, I just picked up Thay’s book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, which is one of my favorite books of his, because it’s such a beautiful representation of the key Buddhist teachings. And so it just relates so perfectly to what you said, brother. There was just literally a little paragraph or two that I just, I opened the book and this is what I came across, which I think is very relevant. He said, Sometimes we feel as though we are drowning in the ocean of suffering, carrying the burden of all social injustice of all times. The Buddha said when a wise person suffers, she asks herself, What can I do to be free from this suffering? Who can help me? What have I done to free myself from this suffering? But when a foolish person suffers, she asks herself, Who has wronged me? How can I show others that I am the victim of wrongdoing? How can I punish those who have caused my suffering? Why is it that others who have been exposed to the same conditions do not seem to suffer as much as we do? You might like to write down the first set of questions and read them every time you’re caught in your suffering. Of course you have the right to suffer, but as a practitioner you do not have the right not to practice. We all need to be understood and loved, but the practice is not merely to expect understanding and love, it is to practice understanding and love. Please don’t complain when no one seems to love or understand you. Make the effort to understand and love them better. If someone has betrayed you, ask why. If you feel the responsibility lies entirely with them, look more deeply. Perhaps you have watered the seed of betrayal in her. Perhaps you have lived in a way that has encouraged her to withdraw. We are all co-responsible, and if you hold onto the attitude of blame, the situation will only get worse. If you can learn how to water the seed of loyalty in her, that seed may flower again. Look deeply into the nature of your suffering so you will know what to do and what not to do to restore the relationship. Apply your mindfulness, concentration and insight and you will know what nourishes you and what nourishes her. Practice the first noble truth identifying your suffering. The second noble truth, seeing its sources. The third and fourth noble truths, finding ways to transform your suffering and realize peace. The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are not theories, they are ways of action. So brother, just coming back to that point, he says you have a right to suffer, but you don’t have a right not to practice. Tell us a bit more about that, because what does that actually mean to you?
What it means to me is be mindful of where your mind is going in the moment of hurt, because we are so programmed to complain. We’re so programmed to judge. We’re so programmed to look for the fault outside of us. And we think that suffering comes from outside, and all the wrong action is not me, it is something else. And that is, again, running away from what actually has happened and running away from the future. When Thay teaches us to practice is the key to be responsible for how we’re going to handle the situation. And once we handle it in the best capacity we can in that moment, we are coming home to ourselves, caring for ourselves, loving ourselves, and caring for the situation, and that knot that has been set because of that pain, that suffering, will get tighter. How many knots have we allowed to be tightened and we think we can just put it under the rug. Everything comes around, and so there’s going to be a moment if we don’t give it the attention it needs, it’s going to be banging on our door, asking for our care and our love and our transformation. So when Thay teaches us, please practice, that is to give us the freedom of how to live in this moment, because mindfulness, concentration and insight is to give us freedom. Even in the midst of suffering, even in the moment of deep conflict, we still have an opportunity to learn from the conflict. We still have an opportunity to be mindful, to not water more that conflict, to take a step back, to look at the conflict. This is deep looking. This is meditation, and you can grow insight from it. Maybe some conflicts will take time to heal and take time to be resolved. And maybe the best thing to do is to take a step back, maybe to accept that we have conflict. We cannot deal head on right now, because we’re just going to be clashing. We’re not going to listen to each other and the hatred is going to grow even more. So in love it’s also to know and have the ability when we don’t have capacity. That is also change. Maybe before you just want things to be the way you want it to be. So you’re going to come in and tell them how wrong they are and how right you are. But now the changes, okay, this happened. Where is my understanding? Why have it become like that? What is that person’s capacity also? Do we recognize the other person’s capacity? Or are we pushing beyond their capacity? Or can we help them grow their capacity? This is being responsible for the present moment, for this situation. And it’s very difficult because it asks us to be selfless. And the opposite of selfishness is selflessness. And when we’re very selfish, that love is very toxic, that love is very needy, it’s very consuming. It takes energy away rather than giving energy. So the change that I always come to is am I practicing selflessness, not selfishness?
So, brother, can I give an example of that from my own life? And I’ve talked about this before, but when I was young, I didn’t really have any sort of self-worth or any self-love actually, it just didn’t occur to me that I could love myself. And I was always looking needy of love and attention from other people. And so what would happen was that I would be so needy of other people that I would push them away because they would just see me as being needy. And, you know, we know what it’s like to be around a needy person. You just want to get some space or after a while it just becomes too much. But then, of course, I would use that to justify that I wasn’t, that I had no… that I wasn’t someone who was lovable. And in just that very simple example is everything actually, for me, because I had a belief, I had a story that if I created these conditions where it looked like I was trying to escape it or go beyond it, but actually all I was doing was reinforcing that. And by reinforcing that, actually it allowed me to believe my story. So that means my story was more important than my happiness. And, you know, I’ve seen this in many different forms. The most extreme one, which I may have mentioned before, I’m not sure about, is the dynamic of someone who believes their parents have ruined their lives in the way they were treated. And even when their parents have died, that person will continue to sabotage their own life because it’s more important for them to believe the story that their parents had ruined their life rather than to have a happy life. And I think in some ways minor, major, more obvious, less obvious, we all do that at different times, that the story is more important than the truth and is just such a powerful… I mean, it’s like madness. You know, why would we choose unhappiness over happiness? But it’s because it allows us to hold on to a belief. And it sort of is… I mean, I think that describes a lot what you’re saying. And when I realized that it changed the way I am. And now, you know, a lot of people will say to me, Oh, Jo, you know, you’re so warm, you’re so giving rather than Jo, you’re so taking. Because I think when I was young, people would say, Oh, you’re so needy. You know, you’re just, you know, chill out. And so when I look at that transformation, I haven’t changed in a sense, I’m still, I mean, of course I’ve changed, but the raw ingredients were always there. It’s just I stopped some parts of me from emerging and I fed other parts, which, of course, is, you know, the Buddhist teachings of store consciousness of, you know, we have all the seeds inside of us. Which seeds do we choose to water? And I chose to water this seed of loneliness and not being enough. But the seeds of love and compassion were always there. But I was actually ignoring them. And if they popped up, I would actually try and push them down. I would try to suppress the good things in my life because I wanted to believe the bad things.
I think one thing that I’ve grown out of or grown more is I used to have the wish to just make other people happy. There’s a word for it…
To being sacrificed, you mean?
Yeah, like sacrifice, and making sure that the other person is more happy, happy… People pleasing.
And I recognized that that was also a part of me looking or giving love outside of me. Because there is an interbeing when somebody else is happy, you are also happy. But when you’re not recognizing your own happiness, you will never feel fulfilled. And so I think that’s one thing that like looking back, you know, as we speak about change, I was just, I just asked myself, like, what is the one thing concretely that I see? I have changes, I have more clarity in where I give my energy and I recognize the expectation that everybody should be happy. And I think this comes from my growing up, it always comes back to our childhood. And because I always wanted my family to be happy and sometimes we weren’t, and that vast hole was there, especially growing up and seeing my family struggle and so and so, you were running after happiness. And now, as I practice, I can recognize that that energy is still there, but I’m embracing it much more and I’m having clarity that, oh, also accepting other people’s suffering and giving them the place to transform and not trying to like make them transform right away. I think that’s also another habit that because we want people to change, so we force it on them and that causes a lot of suffering also. And that is also suffering for oneself because then you’re putting all of your dreams and happiness on another person. And if they don’t arrive there, then you get more harsh and you become also more little. Your heart grows smaller rather than bigger.
Beautiful. Brother, this sounds a good place to stop, but I just want to appreciate this conversation today because it was going through my mind sort of without me being clear on it after hearing Sister True Dedication. And so this has been a good reminder for me of how we can work effectively with wanting to change, but not going outside of ourself to do that and coming home, back home to ourselves, always. So, thank you.
Thank you, Jo.
And, dear listeners, we normally end our sessions with a guided meditation. So, Brother Phap Huu, if you would like to bring us back to this moment. I love Thay when he talks about listening to his talks, he talks about it being Dharma rain, saying don’t hang on to it. The conversation is now over. We release it into the world, whatever will go into any of us, will go in, whatever runs off into the rivers, it will go down to the sea, so nothing is wasted. But we let go of it all now, and the purpose of our meditations at the end of each session is just to allow us to resettle, come back to this moment and to come back to ourselves.
Dear friends, whether you are sitting on a sofa, on a chair, on a bus, or an airplane, on a train, or if you’re going for a jog, cleaning your house, going for a walk, please allow yourself to be still, whether you can, either you can stand or find a bench near you, or just sit on the grass, or even lay down if you’re so tired. And just start to feel the weight of your body. Just become aware of your body, know that you are there, know that you are breathing. You are alive. This is love. This is accepting. I am here for myself. And as I sink into my body feeling the weight, I start to release any tension there is in my body, whether it’s on my face, I can offer myself a smile. If it’s my shoulders, I can just put the burden down, the worries down. And if it’s my arms, my fingers, my palms, maybe I’ve been holding on to something for so long. In this moment, let us just release it because it’s not going to go anywhere, but allow yourself to feel the relaxation of releasing the tension in your arms, your hands, your fingers. What am I grabbing onto? Feeling my abdomen rising and falling as I breathe in and out. My breath is life. Being aware of my buttocks, my thighs, my calf, my leg, my feet firmly on the ground. I release any of the hurry that I’ve been running towards. Or running backwards. I just want to be present in this moment. As I breathe in, I’m aware that I am here for myself. As I breathe out, I smile to myself in this moment. I am here. I smile. As I breathe in, I offer myself my true acceptance. As I breathe out, I smile with acceptance. Even if I didn’t have the best day, even if I said something that I am still regretting, I did something, I smile, I accept. And I make a vow to say things more mindfully, more lovingly, to do things with compassion. And if I am full of love, full of compassion, full of wellness, how can I continue to cultivate this and to offer it to those around me that are lacking this energy? Breathing in, I accept myself. Breathing out, I smile. As I breathe in, I know that love is present. Breathing out, I offer that love to the ones that I am still working with, working on. It’s okay to have a little bit of suffering. Breathing in, I recognize my capacity. Breathing out, I give myself space. Knowing my capacity, giving space. Breathing in, I know I am of the nature of change. I am constantly growing, and constantly letting go. And because of impermanence, there is opportunity everywhere. Breathing out, I breathe this insight of change. Breathing in, changing. Breathing out, letting go. Breathing in, new opportunities in this present moment. Breathing out, with mindfulness I make a vow to practice with love. Breathing in, I am enough. Breathing out, I offer myself tenderness, kindness, and warmth. Breathing in, I am enough. Breathing out, coziness in the here and now.
Thank you, dear friends, for practicing with us.
Thank you, Brother Phap Huu for that beautiful meditation. You can find all previous episodes of this podcast on the Plum Village App. You can also find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and all other platforms that carry podcasts series. If you like what we’re doing, then please subscribe to the Way Out Is In on the platform of your choice. And also it would be lovely if you feel called to do is to leave a review so that others can find also these teachings.
And if you ever need a meditation on the go, you can always go to our Plum Village App or our Plum Village App YouTube channel and find previous guided meditations. And this podcast is co-produced by Global Optimism and the Plum Village App with support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you feel inspired to support the podcast moving forward, as well as the International Plum Village community, please visit our website www.TNHF.org/donate. And we really want to offer our gratitude to our friends and collaborators. Clay, our Podfather, and also our co-producer, Cata, the founder of the Plum Village App, also our co-producer of this podcast. Joe, our audio editing. Anca, our show notes and publishing. Jasmine and Cyndee, our social media guardian angels, as well as Maarten and Brother Niem Thung, who are always there helping recording and sound engineering, as well as gratitude to our teacher and to the International Plum Village community for always supporting us.
And finally, a personal thanks to Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac who through Global Optimism have actually supported us from the very beginnings and allow this podcast to be so professionally produced by Clay.
Thank you everyone, and see you next time.
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