Welcome to episode 45 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.
This time, the presenters – Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino – are joined by lay practitioner Nick Kenrick to talk about Plum Village as a healing center, the many reasons people go there, and the personal transformations and deep healing life journeys taking place there. For the past 18 months, Nick has been living with the Plum Village community of monastics and lay practitioners, and kindly agreed to share his own transformative deep healing journey.
Nick Kenrick worked as a diplomat for the British government for nine years before retraining to work as a psychotherapist for the next decade. He has visited Plum Village every year since Thay and his monastics came to the UK in 2010, and helped to found Wake Up London — a local sangha for younger practitioners in the city – following Thay’s visit. He joined the Order of Interbeing in 2018 and has been living in Plum Village since June 2021.
Nick’s deep sharing touches upon the conditions that brought him to Plum Village, and upon exhaustion and breakdown, changing careers, and recovery and aspects of healing, including the practices he found refuge in. He further delves into individual and collective suffering; perceptions and the roots of conflict; befriending despair; psychotherapy and spiritual practice; healthy boundaries; following ‘the schedule’; sharing circles; taking refuge in the sangha; and much more.
In addition, Brother Phap Huu shares about Plum Village as a practice center for meditation and mindfulness; the energy of collective mindfulness; meditation and its healing dimension; mindfulness of the body; and the importance of the schedule in the life of the community.
And Jo recollects aspects of his own healing journey, and of learning through practice about some hard facts of life.
You also get to witness the Plum Village tradition of watering the positive seeds and showing appreciation.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Sister Chan Khong
Wake Up London
Order of Interbeing
‘Home Practices for the Rains Retreat’
‘Extended Practises’ (Dharma sharing)
The Organic Happy Farms
Brother Phap Linh
Sister True Dedication
‘The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings’
“Plum Village is a place where monks, nuns, and lay practitioners come to cultivate the seeds of mindfulness and the seeds of awareness, so that they can take care of their personal lives physically and emotionally. And through meditation, it offers a space and time to reflect.”
“Plum Village has evolved into a community where practitioners live together, practice together, and produce an energy of collective mindfulness. And this collective mindfulness can become a source of energy to help individuals return to themselves, to look deeply within their current situation and find a way to heal, and find a way to rediscover themselves, so that they can come to the base of their suffering for a real transformation.”
“We never say meditation and Zen will heal you completely and take care of all your suffering. Because for us, it’s a journey, it’s a path, and, actually, suffering is a part of the antidote. Suffering is a part of the transformation – so this understanding of Zen and Buddhism is very important; we’re not here to give you a quick fix: it’s a commitment to be with oneself and to learn to be vulnerable to oneself, as well as to others. I believe that’s where true transformation can begin, because that’s accepting oneself.”
“Spirituality, the practice of meditation, also has a dimension of healing, because what is healing? For us, healing is having time to stop, to rest, and to discover what is happening in the here and now, physically, emotionally, and mentally, so that we can rebalance and not suppress our wounds, but have time to care for them, to mend them, to patch them, to give them the tenderness that they need.”
“I’m so grateful to Thay for using organic metaphors in the teachings, [for suggesting] that being a mindfulness practitioner is like being a gardener. Sometimes you’ve got this really smelly compost, I mean, awful: ‘What on Earth can I do with this?’ And I did not know what to do with this except to follow the schedule and watch my mind. And gradually I saw my mind turning it over. The following day, it would be softer, some of the edges would come off. And then I would see that it would bring pains up, it would turn them over; they would go down again. And I began to realize that there was a practitioner within my mind that was starting to take care of this for me. And the condition I needed to provide was to keep showing up, to let that process work.”
“If I wake up in the morning and I feel good, I follow the schedule. If I wake up and I feel bad, I follow the schedule. If I wake up and I’m consumed by existential dread and despair, I follow the schedule. And I recognize through this the potential for a gradual liberation; that no matter what state I’m in, I can follow the schedule, because the schedule is so fundamentally wholesome.”
“Being open is the first element of learning.”
“When we learn to practice, we always say, ‘Feel the breath, don’t think about the breath.’ We say, ‘Feel the body, don’t think about the body.’ Because if you are mindful, you can feel the tension, you can feel the muscles. And the body is a teacher. If you truly learn to tune into your body, you know what to do and what not to do.”
“Don’t wait until you suffer to practice. It’s too late by then; you won’t know how to practice, because you haven’t yet tasted the goodness of the practice.”
“The engine that was moving forwards left me with a sense of helplessness, because I could only do the bit I could do. But it was enough to experience in that situation these awful conflicts; when perceptions changed and when trust could develop, and when the humanity of each other could be recognized, genuine change in attitude and motivation could take place. I saw that in conflict. Of course, I’ve also seen that in the therapy room; I’ve seen that in the community. And the Buddha’s diagnosis was that, when we get down to the root, the drivers of pain and suffering will be in the energies of hatred, of delusion, of ignorance, of greed. That’s absolutely what I saw.”
“The despair held in mindfulness was slowly dissolving aspects of my past that I was very locked onto. And when I started to see that these experiences of very deep pain could actually be healing experiences, healing me of a fixation or an attachment, when there were enough conditions of safety and mindfulness and care around, there was a very deep shift in my relationship to suffering.”
“When we become rigid and certain about a worldview and we need to have other people agree with it, peace will not come. That is not the way to peace. We can’t wait for everyone to hold the same view. We need the tools to live in harmony; even when we have different perceptions, we have ways to work with it.”
Welcome back, dear listeners, to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in the Plum Village tradition.
Today we’re going to be talking about Plum Village as a healing center. So, many people will know that it’s a practice center for meditation and mindfulness, but a lot of people come here actually, who have been going through a difficult time and wanting to come back home to themselves and to rebalance their lives. And today, we’ll be joined by Nick Kenrick, who has been here for a year and a half and who’s going to talk about his own personal transformation.
The way out is in.
Hello everyone, I’m Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And as I mentioned, we are joined today by Brother Nick Kenrick. Brother, do you want to just say hello?
Hello, Jo. Hello, Phap Huu.
So, Brother Phap Huu, tell us before we speak to Nick about his own journey in Plum Village, tell us about the many reasons people come here.
Plum Village as a practice center, first and foremost is a place where monks, nuns, and lay practitioner come to cultivate the seeds of mindfulness, the seeds of awareness so that we can take care of our personal life physically, as well as emotionally. And in meditation, it offers a space and time to reflect. And in this dimension of practice, Plum Village has evolved into a community where practitioners come, live together, practice together, and what is being produced is we call this an energy of collective mindfulness. And this collective mindfulness can become a source of energy to help individuals return back to themselves, to look deeply within their current situation and find a way to heal, find a way to rediscover themselves so that they can come to the base of their suffering for a real transformation. And everyone has a different journey to come to finding their ways to Plum Village or any other spiritual tradition, I would say. But what is key is that everyone has spirituality in them, a seed of enlightenment, a seed of mindfulness that is there. And many friends, even from my father who came to Plum Village, who was the condition how I met Thay and I met Plum Village, was because of deep suffering. And I think, in different podcasts, I shared that my father left Vietnam as a boat person and that was a real risk to his life because it’s a gamble whether you will survive or not. And through his journey, he was in prison for two years, being caught and then never giving up on the hope went again and then spent another week on the ocean, being rescued and then being in refugee camp for a whole year. And my father would tell me a lot of stories, which were very exciting to the ones hearing, but for him, that was such a journey. And at one point, Canada was lucky enough to receive Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and my father met Thay for the first time. And I think when he met inside, personally for him, he felt he needed a space to heal. And we’re so busy in life that sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves. And so, spirituality, the practice of meditation, also has a dimension of healing, because what is healing? For us, healing is also the definition of having time to stop, to rest, and to discover what is happening in the here and now, physically, emotionally, and mentally, so that we can rebalance and not suppress our wounds, but to have time to care for it, to mend it, to patch it, to give it the right tenderness that it needs. So Plum Village as a meditation practice center, it has also become a refuge for many friends who need space to heal, to go inwards, just like the name of our podcast, having time to go inside. And what is supportive in a practice center is a community, it’s what makes for me, what makes Plum Village special is not the meditation hall, it’s not just nature. Nature is lovely, but it is the people that are living here 24/seven. And Plum Village is active throughout the year, even when we are not hosting a retreat. There are practitioners living 24/seven, monks, nuns, and lay practitioners who are continuously cultivating this energy of mindfulness, this energy of love, this energy of understanding and compassion that is alive. And when we face difficulty in life, I think all of us will experience a search inside to have space to listen to ourselves. And that already is a journey of healing. So for us, spirituality is finding well-being, and well-being, there is an element of healing. So I think in our times, many friends come here for inner healing, but also Plum Village is also a place for cultivation. We want to cultivate happiness, cultivate joy, cultivate understanding, cultivate enlightenment, and so on.
Thank you, brother, for that sort of, in a sense, that grounding. And, you know, what I experience is so many people who come here refer to it as though they’re coming home. It’s amazing how, and I know one of Thay’s calligraphy which is in the monastery, I have arrived, I am home. And so many people, I think, have that sense that they’re coming home to themselves often for the first time in their life. So, Nick, before we go into, you know, your own personal transformation, do you want to introduce yourself to our listeners?
Sure, I can do that. So, hello, everyone. My name is Nick, and I’ve been coming to Plum Village for around 12, 13 years now, ever since Thay and the brothers and sisters came to the UK in 2010. And from that point on, we formed a community called Wake Up London for younger practitioners based in London. And I’ve been coming here every year since then and spent three months here over the winter of 2015 – 2016, and I joined the Order of Interbeing here in 2018, and then most recently I came out here a year and a half ago and I’ve been living with the community for the last 18 months.
Great. Thank you. And just give us a sense of before, apart from your time in Plum Village, tell us a little bit about what you do or what you’ve been doing.
So I started out on my professional journey, I suppose working in the space of diplomacy and particularly focused on conflict. I became quite involved with the conflict in Iraq, quite involved with work around terrorism and extremism. And the focus of my professional work for years was in trying to understand the roots of those kind of conflicts where things have gone so badly wrong that all the most destructive energies in human beings come out. And working in that area had led to a lot of that suffering coming into me in a way which I did not recognize to begin with. And it was really through an extended period of time working on Iraq that I came to my own point of exhaustion. And by good fortune, that was exactly the same point where I found Thay and the monastics. And after my very first retreat with the brothers, a few weeks after that, I went back to Iraq as part of my work. And when I returned from that trip, I collapsed with exhaustion and I couldn’t work for six months and I had no idea why. But I was just starting to practice in this tradition, and the only thing really I could do during those six months was practice with my local sangha and help to build up Wake Up London, which was starting at that time, and to look inwards to see what on earth was going on for me. And I find how much of my my fear and trauma and suffering had been touched by being close to these conflicts. And as I went through my recovery from that fatigue, I also found that my life direction started to change. And from wanting to work in the field of diplomacy, which I enjoyed very, very much, very rewarding, very rich, of course, has its challenges, I found that the individual journey became more important to me of how people individually cope with their trauma and suffering. And so from that point, I left to retrain into psychotherapy and I spent the last nine or ten years working in the health service in the UK with people who have deep depression, anxiety, sometimes trauma, sometimes combined with physical health conditions, and working with them both as a psychotherapist but also as a mindfulness practitioner to support how they move forward and then in their own healing.
So, Nick, tell us about why you came to Plum Village a year and a half ago, because it’s interesting that your work was about helping others to sort of heal their traumas and difficulties. And then, of course, you suffered your own. So, do you want to tell us a bit about just the conditions that brought you here.
Absolutely. Well, this time, I really came out for long to take refuge in the Sangha. And I would say for many years, coming here had in some ways felt like a kind of bonus to me. I felt, Oh, actually things are going quite well in my life, but I come here to deepen my practice, to enjoy being with the community. And then just over two years ago, due to a combination of stresses and strains, I experienced an acute psychotic breakdown. I went into a full blown psychosis for 2 to 3 weeks where I had hallucinations and delusions, and I was put into a hospital and restrained and medicated. And during that time, I also suffered a fracture and dislocation to my shoulder during that restraint and hospitalization. And I came out from that with a level of suffering that I had never touched before that had opened up in my mind. And I needed a long period of time to start to come back to myself. And after several months back in the UK, back in the care of my parents, I knew very strongly that I had to start rebuilding my independence, but I couldn’t live on my own at that point. I could not cope with work, but I knew from my experience of coming here over the years that by this point I could cope with being in Plum Village. And I wrote to Phap Huu, and I wrote to Mick, who runs a farm project, and I was very open about my situation. I said, this is, you know, this is what’s happened. I’ve gone through an acute psychosis, I’m recovering from that, and this is a time where I really need to come out and be a cell in the Sangha body and take refuge and recover my practice. And they both wrote back very positively. Phap Huu wrote back and said, Come out, take refuge, keep taking your medication, keep in touch with your, you know, your psychiatric care as well. But you’re welcome. Come here and practice with the community and take refuge. And Mick said, you know, I will welcome you, brother, and you’re welcome here on the farm. And that’s when I came out in June 2021.
And how did that feel to be welcomed in that way when Plum Village could have easily said, well, we don’t want that sort of problem here.
Well, it was life giving and quite possibly life saving, because I felt more vulnerable than I’d ever been at any time in my life. And I had, I also knew that distress is like psychosis, a very challenging for many people to deal with. And I’d seen in the past, sometimes it’s, you know, it hasn’t always been possible for people in a, I mean someone in a psychotic state, when they’re in that state cannot practice, a practice isn’t available in the way that we seek to offer it. And so I knew there was a risk, you know, Phap Huu might say no, because, there’s a need to take care of the whole community to make sure it’s a safe place for everybody. So I didn’t know whether the answer would be yes. So when the answer was yes, there was tremendous relief and gratitude in me. And I felt very committed to make the very best of this opportunity, both for myself, but for the community as well.
And Nick, before we sort of talk about your journey in the last year and a half, Brother Phap Huu, you know, what Nick said was really important, wasn’t it? That this is a monastery, it’s a practice center, it’s not a hospital, it’s not a psychiatric ward.
So how is it possible to look after the community, but also offer refuge to people who need help? Because I imagine one has to have boundaries in place.
Of course. Well, when Nick reached out to us, I don’t make a decision by myself, I always ask among the brothers, especially because we have, I have a relationship with Nick, and I know who Nick is. And we’ve been through some situations together in Plum Village, so I know Nick very well, and I know his level of care. He knows how to take care of himself, and that was very important for me. In our communication I made it very clear like you have to be very responsible for your well-being in the community, because the community is a place that offers a lot of space, but everybody has to be responsible for their own suffering and happiness. And you can’t come to the Sangha and just pour your suffering, say, Please take care of me. But not also be responsible. Of course, it’s always a two way, both sides have to have to meet and have to join palms and bow. It’s not just like this is me and do everything for me. And I was very confident that Nick wouldn’t do that. And in the community, we have set boundaries because we have learned from a lot of experience. We have had friends who come to Plum Village who were on how do you say…
Antipsychotic medication. And after three days in Plum Village, they feel so happy, so confident with themselves and through the practice and then through the love that is here, so they felt that they are healed. And so some friends would stop taking medication, and that’s when things start to become unbalanced for that individual. And I and brothers and sisters and friends had sometimes in the monastery had to take responsibility for handling a special case where we had to take care of that person’s safety as well as other safety, the community at large. And we’ve even had to call sometimes the gendarmerie, which is like the police in our region. And even doctors had to come and help us in situation. And so we’ve learned through 40 years of Plum Village, and so later on, we always ask friends if they’re on any medication and if they are, please respect and please continue to take care of themselves. And we never promise, and I think this is very important, we never say meditation and Zen will heal you all and take care of all your suffering. Because for us, it is a journey, It is a path, and actually suffering is a part of the antidote. Suffering is a part of the transformation. And so this understanding of Zen and Buddhism is very important that we’re not here to give you a quick fix, but it’s a commitment to be with oneself and to also learning to be vulnerable to oneself as well as to others. Because that’s when for me at least, I believe that’s where true transformation can begin, because that’s accepting oneself.
Okay. Thank you, brother. Nick, tell us, well, describe to us really what this last year and a half has been like, you know, because you now, well, I was about to say, you appear to be very balanced, but I know you are very balanced. There has been an extraordinary healing process that has taken place, and I think there’s a huge value to our listeners and also perhaps to those who have suffered something similar to you, to recognize that there is a path and there is a way through, or potentially. So tell us, just tell us what’s, what’s happened, what’s going on?
What was that? Well, the place I guess I want to start is the yeah, the state I was in as I came out, it was such a relief to be here. It’s a community I know very well, I feel very comfortable with it, I feel very safe with. But I’d never been here with the kind of level of pain I had. And I was still getting to know my own mind at that time. I was used to having a fairly positive mind state in life. And in this stage of things, when I came out, my basic mind state was really not positive. My basic state had a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, I had very little access to joy or happiness. So there was almost a strangeness to me in being in this environment, which in the past had been very positive and very joyful for me. But I wasn’t touching that on a daily basis at all. On a daily basis, I had a lot of fear, I had a lot of grief, I had a lot of pain. And my mind was opened up to a lot of feelings and emotions that I’d never had to deal with in this concentration, including hopelessness, despair, hatred. And I can say, in this situation I did not know how to heal myself. I didn’t know what to do. And for a time after the psychosis, I had for a period lost my faith in the healing in general. And having practiced as a psychotherapist for ten years as well, it was, there was, a part of me was profoundly upset with suffering and psychosis, because I had my pride and I thought, wow, you know, I’m a trained and practiced psychotherapist for ten years, I’ve been a very committed practitioner in this tradition. And then this happens, you know, this wasn’t supposed to be the… This wasn’t supposed to be in the plan. So I had all sorts of pains coming up, and I had to go through my process of really intense doubt and questioning, which is very good for me because, you know, I loved it when Phap Huu shared just now about going down to the base and finding where that base is. And for me, the journey further down there did involve an intense questioning of what I had thought before. And I sometimes I had to approach certain brothers and I really had to ask myself, look, is the transformation real for this kind of pain? And I needed to find my reference points in the community again. And I could find these brothers who could look me in the eyes and say, Yes, it’s real. And help me to recover my… to sort of borrow some faith from those around me, because I was going through a period where I didn’t have faith. And you could ask, Well, why did I come out here if I didn’t have faith? And what was happening for me was there was a different basis for practice emerging in me, which came from a very, very direct contemplation of suffering. And it came from realizing I was in the worst pain I’ve ever been in my life. And what were my options? And I thought, well, I’m suffering. No one seems to be able to make this go away. I either turn towards this and start to recover my capacity to look into what this is so that I can start to see how the path can be different. Or my judging was realize I didn’t have another plan. This was the only plan available. I have to understand this suffering. So coming out, my capacity was basically limited to being able to follow the schedule. And years ago I had a wonderful Dharma talk here by one of the brothers. Can I namecheck again? Namecheck Brother To Fu, many, many years ago.
Brother Từ Phước.
That’s why I’m here, the only reason.
Just massacred the pronunciation.
Brother To Fu.
No, no. It’s… Brother Từ Phước, that is his nickname. And he used to be in the children program. And the kids couldn’t pronounce his Vietnamese Dharma name, which is Từ Phước, so they just started calling him Brother To Fu and we all just followed the leader of the children.
Thank you for helping me out there. Well, I got to here is two years ago, which was a tremendous transmission on the benefits of following a schedule and the discipline of a schedule. And I probably misremember the talk in many details, but what stayed with me, what it all boiled down to is, you know, if I wake up in the morning, I feel good. I follow the schedule. If I wake up, I feel bad, I follow the schedule. If I wake up and I’m, you know, consumed by existential dread and despair, I follow the schedule. And I recognize through this the potential for a gradual liberation that no matter what state I’m in, I can follow the schedule because the schedule is so fundamentally wholesome. There is no way I can tell myself that I’m harming myself by following this. And if I can just keep following in whatever state I’m in, gradually those states have less power over me. So this had been transmitted to me from being in Plum Village before, and I took this attitude into my service here, and I don’t think I missed a single shift on the farm during the year and a quarter I was on the farm. I was always there at the beginning, no matter how I felt. I would come to the check in circle. I would share very openly, This is my state today, you know, and I’m here to serve and head to work. And then I would spend my afternoon, you know, sometimes picking kale, watching hatred and pain arise in the mind and keep picking kale. And watching it and really do the day by day work of seeing my mind turning over this kind of suffering, just like the compost on the farm. And I’m so grateful for Thay for using these organic metaphors in the teachings, that being a mindfulness practitioner is like being a gardener. And sometimes you’ve got this really smelly compost, I mean, awful, what on earth can I do with this? And I did not know what to do with this except to follow the schedule and watch my mind. And gradually I saw my mind turning this over. In the following day, it would be softer, some of the edges would come off. And then I would see it would bring pains up, it would turn them over. They would go down again. And I started to realize that there was a practitioner within my mind that was starting to take care of this for me. And the condition I needed to provide was to keep showing up, to let that process work.
Thank you, Nick. Brother Phap Huu, we’ll come back to this, Nick, because there’s a lot more to talk about your, you know, the practices and what you did. But brother, just going back to well, two things, actually, one is the importance of the schedule.
So it would be really good to know because that, of course, is true for the monastics as well. So maybe start off with sort of just just picking up on what Nick said because of course, it’s not just important for him.
What Nick shared, it reminds me so much of my novice years. We were trained, we were taught and we were consistently reminded of diligence and how to learn to not follow our habit of laziness. That is a hindrance in our practice to realizing liberation. And for me, the schedule is part of the boundary that you’re asking, Jo. Yes, a practice center, there is love, there’s understanding, but it doesn’t mean anyone can do whatever they want because we are a collective community of practitioners and harmony is so important in a community. We do have rules, we have principles, we have guidelines, but the fundamental, it’s like, it’s the spine of our body, it’s the schedule. And it’s very interesting how it is so basic, but it is what you’re going to meet every day. And that’s where your mind meets. Like every day you wake up, your alarm goes on at 5:15, or five, or 5:30, or sometimes people you learn about yourself, your alarm goes on, you know you should get up, but you want to be there for sitting meditation, because that’s why you’re here in Plum Village. But your laziness, your habit, your wrestling with your mind just to remove the blanket out of your body is so simple, but it is a whole struggle. And so the schedule becomes your trainer. This is your personal trainer that you don’t have to pay for. It is your real discipline. And this is what starts to… you start to cultivate your own independence and you start to cultivate your own inner strength so that you can guide your mind. A lot of the times we will allow our craving, our habits to take over and say, Oh, it’s okay, nobody’s going to say anything. And it’s true, in Plum Village, if you don’t show up, we’re not going to hunt you down. For monastics, excuse me for using that language, for monastics sometimes the mentors, and we have a mindfulness inspector. We’ll come to a Sangha meeting and to remind the community like we see brothers and friends not showing up. Please let us recultivate our diligence and to motivate each other again. But we’re not here to father and mother you at that level, like, please, like, show up, show up, show up. But we’re here to inspire and we expect each individual to have a determination. And where do you meet and where can you develop that determination? It’s a schedule. And I had an underground mentor, so we have an official mentor, but we have many underground mentors who, like what Nick was referring to is like there are brothers and friends in the community where you will meet and you know that they can help you with that particular difficulty, or where you’re feeling blocked and that particular brother has an element where, you know, they may be able to water to seed in you. And one of my underground mentors who was a very busy monk, but I always saw that he was available for the community. And I asked him, like, how are you able to be so present? And he said, all I do is I follow the schedule. And that really stayed with me and throughout my career as a monk, Thay, our teacher, in the Rains Retreat, our three-month Rains Retreat, he would have a monastic day, and that particular day he only talks to the monks and nuns. And these talks are very precious because it’s like monastic survival one-on-one, because Thay knows it’s not simple to become a monk. And it’s not simple to survive as a monastic. There is a lot of training. And on many occasions Thay would say that whenever you are suffering, the safest place to dwell and take refuge in is the Sangha schedule, because the Sangha schedule is made of the ingredients of practice. It’s easier to run away and to avoid suffering, but we can always take refuge in our mindfulness of breath, in our mindfulness of suffering even. You can be mindful of your suffering and you can embrace the suffering. And by being in community, and I want to speak about myself, I remember like meeting such an obstacle and the mind starts to create and generate so many different perceptions and stories. Like the grass is greener on the other side. Maybe the Sangha is actually I feel entrapped here. And the mind is so scary. It creates all of these stories and I just remember, but Thay said, when you’re suffering, go and be with the Sangha. And in that meditation, I was like wrestling my own mind. And I asked myself, Who is asking me to be here? I’m here because I want to free myself. And who is here supporting me? Wow. There are people sitting with me not expecting anything from me. And if I just open my heart, like what Nick said, I can borrow their faith. I can borrow their strength. And that was also a vulnerability. Can you open yourself up to the collective that is present and silent? Sometimes we think support is verbal, but what I discover, support can be just presence and true silence and true stability where I can tap into that strength that is there. And this is when the schedule helps bring the collectiveness together. And that is why a schedule is so key to our community. Where do we spend a lot of our meetings? The schedule. How do we generate a schedule that is balanced for everyone? How do we create a schedule that brings harmony to everyone and offers space? And that’s why the schedule is a teacher for us.
And for those who may have not come to Plum Village, do you want to just quickly explain what the schedule is so that people understand that?
Of course. Right now in our schedule, we are in the midst of our holiday retreat, Christmas and New Year, so our wake up time is five, 5:45, and our first practice together is 6:30, with a sitting meditation together for 30 minutes in silence or sometimes guided meditation. And then followed by a practice of touching the earth and breakfast in silence. And then followed by a morning session of Dharma talks or workshops, and it varies throughout the year. And then collective walking meditation outdoor, lunch together in silence with contemplations, bells, etc.. And then we have the afternoon, a break for everybody to a personal space, followed by service meditation. Service here is like we see Plum Village as a home for all and we all want to pitch in to take care of the monastery. And actually it’s a very important time to learn to do without trying to achieve. So you can practice mindfulness in service. And of course, for the friends who come, it’s mostly like raking the leaves, gardening, cleaning, etc. And for some of us, monastics, this is when we would do administration work and many of the other things that are behind the scenes, followed by either Dharma sharing or sometimes free time for exercise, sports. And we always end the day with sitting meditation in the evening to wrap up the day. Sometimes is sitting and chanting, sometimes just sitting and slow walking, and then followed by noble silence from 9:30 to all the way to after wash up after breakfast. And for some retreats we even extend the noble silence. And our schedule would vary through the season. And so this is a collective cultivation, depending on what retreats we’re holding, what kind of activities that we are gearing towards, sometimes in the spring we have more service time because we need to be outdoors more. And so we’re very flexible. But the principle of the schedule is to help everybody practice collectively mindfulness, because independently we can just be lazy and no one would know. But collectively it offers this boost of support for one another. And we talked about it in another podcast, we always have lazy days, so where we can rest, where we can also be more free. And there is a lot of joy. We do a lot of songs. During Christmas some friends from their talent, they offer a piano session which was so beautiful. And we have moments where open space is theirs for creativity to come. And when you generate a schedule like this, it also helps set the minds of people. So what I’ve heard and what I’ve helped guide people when they come to Plum Village, the first few days there is some unease because you are asked to slow down. The schedule is suddenly less noisy. It’s present, but it’s less noisy. So the stillness is challenging, but it helps, this helps us to arrive in our body, to arrive in the present moment. So the schedule becomes a friend to allow us to enter into this meditative presence that is there, that we can allow to be cultivated. And so for many friends, in orientation, I always say please also surrender a little bit too to the schedule, because our mind is very active, it can be like, yes, no, judgmental, it can… But then you don’t take anything from that. If anything, actually, I feel you lose more energy. So sometimes coming to a practice center, the most challenging is being open. And actually being open is the first element of learning.
Thank you, brother. Nick, I just wanted to come back to one thing you said before we move on, because one of the traditions in Plum Village is about their sharing circles or what are called Dharma sharing circles. And you talked about, you started to talk about, you know, this impact on your pride, being the psychotherapist, who then, you know, wasn’t able to heal himself in that moment. And you talked about every day on the Happy Farm, there was a circle with some sharing. And I’m just wondering what it felt like every day to truly open up to your pain and suffering and how that helped you. Or if it did help you, actually.
Yeah. Thank you. This is a very I mean, a very beautiful experience, really, on the whole, and a deepening of trust and safety ultimately. And I think it’s the last year where I’ve learned much more deeply and concretely another layer of what it means to take refuge in a Sangha, which does involve so much openness and honesty and trust, because certainly speaking in my own experience, there is a deep conditioning that there may be some experiences that are inside that if I, if I really show everything, you know, may be rejected. And maybe, you know, somehow there’s actually a deep level of toxicity that, you know, maybe if I share this, people go, Well, no, I don’t have that at all, that’s awful. And then, you know, the sense of being terribly alone would be sort of confirmed. So there’s this journey for me into deeper and deeper. It’s both trust, but it’s also risk taking. This is a curious thing for me about how the experience of trust develops is taking some risks to reveal a bit more. So on these circles on the farm, when we’d have our morning check in, it was a group of eight of us on the farm for the whole year, we work together, we live together, and at the start of every session we would have that check in, and I would always be completely transparent about my state. I didn’t speak at length and I wasn’t seeking, I was clear, I wasn’t looking for anybody in the circle to make that state better, I was just sharing, you know, this is what I’m arriving with. And so, you know, today I have a lot of despair coming up, but I am glad to be here, and everyone in the circle would share their state. And my experience over time was in a way that I didn’t recognize, it was also an offering to the group because this was a time in my life where I didn’t feel I had anything to offer. I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute. I was here to, wow, just to… sometimes I’d even know why I was here, but I certainly didn’t have the idea I was offering anything. And gradually I saw that, you know, just by the willingness to recognize I’m a human with deep despair, sometimes deep hopelessness, it supports others in the circle that when they feel that hopelessness, they realize, Oh, that, you know, they weren’t alone, actually, they’re not the only ones. And it is so human. For me, the deeper the suffering I touch, the more I find the kind of coming out in the human condition and actually makes me less alone when I’m really able to touch that.
So you talk about you arrived here, your first practice was to follow the schedule, and then you are on the farm, and you talk about the physicality of the work and linking so directly to Thay’s talks, which were so often in metaphors of gardening.
And you talk about sharing. So that was, in a sense, your arrival and your first, in a sense, grounding here.
Tell us now what developed from there.
So the first thing that comes up is mindfulness of the body which became central to my daily life and the way in for that for me has always been through breathing. And for years I was as a sort of a breath following fanatic.
And I have Phap Linh to thank for this back in 2012 when I was asking him about, you know, what happens when like, you know, following my breathing, but also something is happening and I’m sort of dividing my attention and which do I focus on? And he said, Well, you know, can you approach these situations in such a way that you’re just aware of the breath being there in the background the whole time? So this went into my head in 2012 and I thought, well, this makes sense. But having a somewhat obsessive, slightly compulsive nature, I thought, Right, I really want to train this. So how do I know I’m getting better at this? And I started counting my breaths during the day across all activities. So whether I was washing up or doing the ironing or even eventually I developed this, I could continue counting my breath while I was reading the Internet or in a conversation. And this is actually quite a bad use of attention and in the extreme to which I took it. But I had this idea in my mind, right? This is absolutely the platform of my stability, so I’m going to count a million breaths this year, so that’s 3200 a day. So every day I would count, I’d maintain a continuous count. And every time I got to 100, I would just click a little counter and I’d go back to one and once once counted 3200 in a day, just while I was doing normal activities, I would then pause. And at some point, like it gradually dawned on me that spending so much mental capacity just racking up a number in my head was now gone a little bit beyond the teaching point that Phap Linh was making. The point of this was not to accumulate some massive score, but to anchor me in the present so I could be properly available. And the next time I saw Phap Linh, and I said, Oh yeah, I was doing this, and one day I counted to 7200 and then I thought, maybe this has gone a bit too far, and I stopped doing it. And he looked at me and he said, Good. And that for me is a great example of sort of being a little bit bitten by the snake. I had like one idea about the practice and I took it to the extreme, but it was a very useful background habit as I was starting to rebuild my practice on the farm, I came back to the discipline of having the breath there through everything I was doing and expanding around that to try and feel the whole movement of the body. And having a body in movement while I was practicing with this level of suffering was an incredible support to me. And this is something that’s also known in trauma work when we manage the intensity of feelings that we can fixate on that can overwhelm us. And in trauma, for example, you often see people who’ve gone through trauma, in sort of shock therapy, sort of rocking. You see this, there’s this wisdom within the body to bring some movement and grounding in to know that our body is with us and that we are holding ourselves in the midst of our suffering. So on the farm, I started to recover my intentional practice of being aware of all the movements of the body and to watch my hand reaching out to pick the kale to coming back. And the suffering was still there, but it was now accompanied by this feeling of this constant flow of body movement that just created some room and space around the suffering. So that was the first thing that started to really come back to me on the farm.
Brother, coming back to you because I’m one person who came very late to knowing I had a body. In the sense, you know, I think a lot of people feel that they’re heads on sticks and their bodies they’re just to move their head around, move their mind and head around. Just picking up on what Nick said, again, just for our listeners, just to deepen this conversation in terms of, you know, from your perspective what Nick was saying about, you know, bringing the breathing back to the body, the importance of recognizing, being mindful of the body rather than thinking, can you just, is there anything you’d like to add?
Mindfulness of the body is the first establishment of mindfulness that we train in our practice here, part of the four establishments of mindfulness. And the body is a very safe place to ground our practice because a lot of times we think too much and we think even about meditation. But the first practice is learning to stop. What are we stopping? We’re stopping running. What are we running from? What are we running to? Or are we going in circles? Right? And it can be our minds, it can be energy, etc.. So mindfulness is like we have to be, we have to have an object of mindfulness. What is our mindfulness? Where can it be generated? And we’ve heard this many times, the bodies are a temple. And even the Buddha, Siddhartha, on his path of seeking liberation he realized that the body is something to meditate on, to care for, and to nourish because it is a gift. You know, as part of the Buddha’s journey, he went through quite an extreme view is like to have normal feelings to annhiliation, so that then I feel liberated. But part of his meditation, he realized that what I am doing is so harmful. And we have to have balance. We have to have loving care, because this body is not just suddenly, it’s not just an instrument. The body is something that is a part of this universe, and if cultivated and generated beautifully, it becomes a flower to humanity. And I always come back to this line where Thay says, Even humans are flowers, are all flowers, different flowers in the garden of humanity. And that is to remind us that we have freshness in oneself. We have the capacity to love. We have the capacity to be kind. We have the capacity to support others. And our flowers, nature, is also to become compost, which can be regenerated, to become new flowers. And that is the metaphor for us to understand and to not push away suffering, to not see that suffering is our enemy and difficulty is our enemy. And so when we learn to practice, we always say, Feel the breath, don’t think about the breath. We say, Feel the body, don’t think about the body. Because if you are mindful, you can feel the tension. You can feel the muscles. And the body is a teacher. If you truly learn to tune into your body, you know what to do and what not to do. And healing takes the action of stopping. If we want to heal, but we’re always running toward something, if we want to heal, but we are continuously being active, how can the healing take place? So in our development of the Dharmas of the practice, total relaxation has become a very important key practice. It’s very simple. Go and lay down and scan your body. Use mindfulness to scan your body and be grateful for it. And in this practice, you start to touch happiness, and we’re starting to gladden our minds. Like suddenly you realize I have eyesight that are still in good conditions. My heart is working day in, day out, generating blood flow to nourish my body. And then that can be a bell of mindfulness. How am I caring for my heart? Am I staying late every night? Am I overeating and overdrinking? Am I smoking? Am I anxious all the time? Right? So you start to have insight. So the body is a teacher. And so if you are aware of your body, you start to know how to care for yourself. That is self-love. And once you start to know how to care for yourself, you also have the insight of caring for others. So the body is the first establishment of mindfulness, and it’s not to be selfish, is actually it’s learning to be more generous because I know what is important for me, then I know what is important for others. I was an attendant to Thay, I knew I had to learn to be aware of his bodily movement. I had to learn to understand his bodily action, how to support him, etc. So learning from each other’s body can be itself a whole training. And your mindfulness in this practice can give you so much insight. And I’ve learned to become aware of my habits, of fidgeting, of being anxious. Your body echoes your mind. And then this leads you to training your mind, which is another establishment of mindfulness. Yeah.
Thank you, brother. So, Nick, you had the foundational practice of slowing down, of the schedule of sharing and then of what we’ve, you know, just been talking about of sort of the body. Tell us what else was coming up for you? What else did you find? What other practices did you find refuge in?
Well, that started to give me a platform, first of all, for stability. And that was the first requirement really was how do I just survive? And I think during this time in my life, I substantially lowered my ambitions. And I realized sometimes survival is the only thing I can do, and that’s enough for today. And as I started to have that stable base, I started to find more ways to relate to my suffering. And this sort of storehouse of having come here for ten years opened up many of the teachings that I had not connected to so personally but came through in this time. One was relating to my ancestors and recognizing my ancestors have survived suffering, I probably can’t imagine in order for me to exist in this moment. I cannot know what my whole history of ancestors, what they have managed to go through and to overcome, to constitute my mind and body in this moment. And I realize that just by surviving, I honor them and I give them a chance to find a fresh way forwards in this moment, and to bring in another dear friend and teacher here, Sister True Dedication, and in one of my black days in Upper Hamlet, she saw me struggling and I referenced the level of despair I had and she shared a bit about her own experience with that. And she said that Thay had said to her very sternly once when she was only seeing the mud, he said to her, We do it for the ancestors. And this resonated with me. So with this stable base, I started to already feel I’m doing my job by developing my stability and just allowing myself to be with these experiences. And I started to see fruits coming out in ways I didn’t expect. I think at this point, mindfulness of the body throughout the day was a sort of survival imperative for me. So I was tremendously aware of how I was moving around. And one day my roommate came up to me and he said, Wow, he said, Man, you are just radiating peace. And I, in that moment, I wasn’t feeling any peace at all. I was kind of clinging on for dear life. And so this was kind of like a little bit of a koan for me. So I thought, how is this moment actually peaceful? And to see that by the mere act of really bringing presence to my body and my physical form, that created a level of grounding which is actually experienced by others. And again, this was a time where I didn’t feel I had anything to offer. I didn’t feel I was contributing to the Sangha. I didn’t want to volunteer for anything. I couldn’t serve. I was just doing the best I could to take care of my stability. But I realized that by doing that, this was also already offering to my environment. And that gave me an extra sense of confidence. Okay, this practice is producing some fruits, even if I don’t feel I’m directly touching those fruits right now, the fruits are there and they’re coming into the space. And that then also gets reflected and moved around. And I’m being held by that.
Brother Phap Huu, when Nick talked about he’d been practicing for 12 years and then suddenly he, at the critical time, the teachings, in a sense, took on a deeper meaning. And there are a lot of people who might have a trauma or difficulty in their life and think, okay, now I’ll start practicing. And what we know is that it’s very, very difficult to start practicing when you’re already in the midst of turbulence. So it’ll be really useful again, just to hear from you, brother, about the importance of practicing in the good times in order to be ready for the difficult times. Of course, and we’ve seen this in many periods of history, you know, in terms of drought, you know, if you saved food during the good years, like in Egypt, and if the drought comes along you’ve stored up. Goodness, I mean we see it in many aspects of life. But in terms of the practice, can you just maybe talk a little bit about that?
Yes. My personal experience is it’s so much easier to touch inner peace and touch well-being while we are happy, happy enough, we don’t have to be 100% happy, but we’re happy enough, we are mindful enough, we are well enough. And the practice in our tradition, we see it as a way of mindfulness rather than like as like we’re not here to just learn to intellect and store information, but it’s to be experience and to be seen for each individual and to be applied by each individual with their own breath, with their own steps, with their own physical body, and to be reflected within their own life’s journey. The metaphor that is in Zen is it’s like chopping wood during the spring and the summer. During the spring, in the summer, when the weather is very pleasant, the day is longer, so you you can go into the forest and look for the dry branches that have been released during the winter, in the autumn. And when winter comes, you have wood that is already dried and ready to heat up to keep yourself warm and to care for yourself. And the practice, if we can use the language of… it’s a very good investment. It’s a very important investment to have the ability to connect to our mindfulness. When we speak about mindfulness in our school of Plum Village, which is also part of school of manifestation, we see that mindfulness as a seed. Everyone has a seed of mindfulness, but if we don’t develop it, it can’t be called upon. And the beauty of honing and practicing mindfulness daily, it becomes a very good habit. It becomes automatic. It is like an angel that just appears and says, okay, you’re angry, you’re in despair, come back to your practice of mindfulness, whether it is walking, whether it is sitting, whether it is drinking tea, whether it is going to hug a tree, whether it is being mindful that I need good companions right now to nourish myself. So this mindfulness becomes a light for you. And we have to be able to cultivate the flame and protect the flame so that when the storm comes, you can, you know, how to ignite that fire that is there. And so our teacher always says like, don’t wait until you suffer to practice. It’s too late by then, because you won’t know how to practice because you haven’t yet tasted the goodness of the practice. And when we start to embark on a spiritual practice, even ten breaths a day, don’t think it’s nothing. One time, I’ll never forget this, before walking meditation, Thay called all of us, students. And he sat on this rock right beside the linden tree in Upper Hamlet. And he told us that, you know, in Thay’s experience of practice, insights don’t particularly come during formal practice, such as sitting meditation or walking meditation, during this formal practice, they may come when Thay is most relaxed, or Thay is enjoying the garden and insight just manifests. But it is these formal practices that is developing and that is supporting the insight to ripen. So for us the tree and the fruits are a wonderful metaphor. Our practice is to generate insights, but the insight is already there. But when the right moment comes, it ripens and you have an a-ha moment. You have, Ah, I know, I know how to take care of myself. Such as, Nick shared about ancestors. It’s not that throughout all this year, Nick didn’t care about the ancestors, it’s always been there. But in that moment, the insight of ancestors became a support for the journey, for the healing, and for a boost of motivation. This is not just about you. In this moment, while you are taking care of your suffering, you’re doing it for all your ancestors too. They haven’t had this condition to meet a teacher, to meet a spiritual community that aligns with the heart. And so in this very moment, it’s an opportunity for one, but at the same time, for all. And we can even say we’re doing this for our descendants that may have not yet existed. And so these insights in Buddhism, we always say nothing is lost. And I remember I always fell asleep during Thay’s Dharma talk because Thay’s voice was so smooth and so relaxing. And I remember, yes, snoring.
Just like your voice, brother.
Thank you. Thank you. So, dear friends, if you fall asleep during these podcasts, nothing is lost.
It’s Plum Village tradition.
And I remember because my father told me this there in my first year in Plum Village, every Dharma talk I was falling asleep and the kids were always in the front row, so I’d sleep, like, right in front of Thay. And my father, I’m sure he was maybe a little bit embarrassed. So one day he was about to wake me up to go to the children program and Thay said, Let him sleep. Because it is coming through, even though he’s sleeping but the talk and the energy of the community is going to penetrate into his body and his store consciousness, and Thay said because nothing is lost.
He also saw that one day you might be abbots and have less opportunity to sleep so you could store it up.
So, Nick, before we sort of, in a sense, come back with a sort of broad and macro lens, were there any other, in this year and a half, were there any other specific practices or experiences that you found were really helpful in your healing?
Yes, for sure. And one thing I want to pick up on is just earlier on Phap Huu shared that, you know, some of our suffering may sometimes be the medicine, may be actually essential. And throughout this period my relationship to my suffering did change in a way that is for me now one of the biggest fruits, because to begin with, my experience of despair, of hatred, my mindset was, you know, these are awful sufferings and I want to develop my stability so I can sort of heal them and, you know, in a way not have them. And I found as my stability became stronger, I could see the despair in me when it was held in the right way was healing me in a way I didn’t realize. And this was a very big shift in mindset for me. And I started to see, I remember the moment I saw this down on the farm that every time I was aware of suffering, it was because I was trying to do something impossible. I was trying to be something I couldn’t be. I was trying to do something I couldn’t do, or I was trying to know something I couldn’t know. And in trying so hard to do something impossible, it was actually creating a state of despair in me. And I had lost many things in my life with this particular breakdown, and that brought a despair in me which was pointing towards the need for a letting go, which was very hard and very painful. And the despair came from the fact that I found it so hard to let go of certain things. And as I was able to develop more stability and capacity I didn’t do the letting go, but my experience was the despair held in mindfulness, turned into a letting go and created space for me to come back together in a new way that created a possibility for a new future. So the despair held in mindfulness was slowly dissolving aspects of my past that I was very locked onto. And when I started to see that these experiences of very deep pain could actually be healing experiences, healing me of a fixation in a way or an attachment when there were enough conditions of safety and mindfulness and care around was a very deep shift in my relationship to suffering in general. And what it’s meant for me is I no longer have the idea that I want to live in a way that gets me away from all these emotions, but I more seek to have a freedom of movement to be able to touch deep despair if it’s necessary, because sometimes that might be healing for me, it might be healing for someone else who’s going through despair. And I want to be able to be there with them and not say, Oh, it’s so terrible, you have despair, you know, from where I am in this place of well-being. You know, for me, that’s not the role I want to play with people. I want to be able to continue actually to touch that suffering because it allows me to be with them and accompany them and to see how that suffering that I thought was all bad, actually with the right conditions can create a better future.
And that’s one of the most profound healings for people, is that you can sit with people in their hell.
And not feel the need to hook them out and not feel that you become a victim of it.
That you can truly be there for someone in their suffering, knowing deep suffering and just be with them in that suffering. And that comradeship, that friendship, is sometimes enough.
That for me is the real freedom. Now, in my stage of practice is not to seek to, you know, to dwell in heaven rather than hell. And the beautiful practice song we have here, The Map of the Mind, and the map of the mind is mine, I can choose, I can choose where I wish to be. Both heaven and hell I know equally well, the choice is up to me. And when I heard that in the past, I thought, Oh, this is great. You know, as I train in the practice, I’m going to understand the conditions of heaven and the conditions of hell, and I can just choose to stay in heaven. And now, actually, I’m much more interested in the kind of freedom of movement that I can feel comfortable to be in heaven, I can feel comfortable to be in hell if that’s what the moment calls for. But I can do that with a stability and a capacity and to be there for the nutriments that can come out of suffering to create something new. And that’s still absolutely a part of a practice journey for me, but it’s changed my relationship to the how I think about hell and actually my wish to be able to to keep going there at times when that is of service and a benefit.
Brother Phap Huu, I just want to bring you back at this moment because what Nick is saying is that it can sometimes take, in this case 12 years, for something to happen that allows him to really more deeply understand an insight or a knowing. And so I just want to ask you about that because the other thing Nick is saying is it’s never like, Oh, got it, sorted, dealt with that, that’s going away, or I fully understand this. Every evolving practice however good we think, however insightful we feel, we can go deeper and deeper. And I’ve often thought that with Thay’s calligraphies like you can take any one of his calligraphies and you could actually spend a lifetime just studying that one thing, whether it’s, you know, even drink your tea, you know, you could spend a lifetime actually, what is it to really drink your tea? In your experience, you’ve been a monk now for sort of 22 years or so? 20 years?
Almost 21 years. Can you talk about a bit about maybe an experience that you’ve had, which is the deepening, the ripening of… And the fact that it keeps on, there’s more and more and more to go for?
Yeah. One of the most beautiful things about Buddhism that Thay has shared and I’ve touched myself and it’s part of our training is learning to be open to the present moment. And there’s no absolute. We don’t believe that there is just one god, that I have made everything and is the answer to everything, but life is always teaching us. And if we know how to be present, we can learn, we can love, we can experience, we can suffer, we can be a part of it and we can grow from it. And so this openness and this is why humility is so important for us humans. We have to continue to cultivate this idea of success as… A successful person is someone who doesn’t suffer anymore is ignorant. It’s ignorance. It’s a source of suffering itself that view. And what I have learned, and I share this because I feel a lot of the times we will come to monastics or even to Thay. It is so easy to elevate the practice and elevate holy people on the holy path as someone who don’t suffer anymore, as someone who knows it all. I’m sorry to say that’s not the truth. We still suffer. We still cry. We still need moments when we don’t want to see people. We need to take care of our suffering. We need to take care of our past. We need to take care of our ancestors suffering. We need to take care of the present moment suffering. And if anything, it keeps us more alive. It allows us to be more in tune with life. And this personal journey for myself as a monastic, I’ve also had the idea like, I want to cultivate myself to be a super mindful monk, whatever that means. But I had that view and I really cultivate it instead of Nick counting breaths, like I was like I had this book where I would like have every day key points that I’m mindful of opening this drawer, mindful putting on these shoes. And at one stage it was very important because it became my steps to develop my determination and develop my habits. But at one point, it also becomes its own trap, because then you become dogmatic about it and you you become judgmental about it. You also start to criticize yourself if you are not doing it well. And the Buddha has said himself, the noble truth that helps us touch liberation is suffering. And so, no matter how long you are as a practitioner, you will never run away from suffering. But it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. This is the key. Thay wrote this calligraphy and is very challenging. Are you ready?
Are you sure?
Is that the one?
Suffering is optional. I had to meditate on this one a lot. It means that life, there’s always going to be suffering. If we look back in history, there’s always heaven and hell on earth. To create a world where there is only happiness, that is a wrong view. To find a place, a kingdom of god, or a kingdom of heaven, or pure land of the Buddha where there is only happiness, there’s only flowers, there’s only fruits, there’s only good fragrance, that is an illusion that we have created. But the true reality is happiness and suffering depend on each other. But when there is suffering, it doesn’t mean you have to suffer. You can see suffering, accept suffering, look at suffering, embrace suffering, but what you bring to the suffering is not suffering. You bring understanding, you bring compassion, you bring tenderness, you bring friendship, such as, like Nick’s aspiration was very beautiful. It’s like, like a doctor doesn’t have to be sick to heal someone. Right? A teacher can help guide someone, but doesn’t have to particularly suffer exactly like that person. But because of energy, I am connected to you. When I see you suffer, there’s no way I can be 100% happy. Well, we can, but then we are ignoring suffering. And so a part of my growth in the practice has been the growth of accepting my limits, accepting my capacity, and then being open to how much more understanding and love I can actually have. In Buddhism, stability and peace and love is limitless, and there’s no barriers around that. And that is something to be generated every day. And it may be impossible in one person, but it’s possible in a collective energy. And I think one element where I saw Nick flourish in is taking refuge in the Sangha. And I know, even sometimes I will see Nick is suffering and I don’t try to have the answer for Nick, but I just come to Nick and I just maybe just ask him, How are you? And he can share openly. And sometimes I said, I know you are there. And sometimes I would see Nick, and I just offer him a smile. And for me, that is also telling him that I am here, even though I may not have the answer. But we’re here. And because we’re alive, we are still breathing, we’re still cultivating the practice, there’s an opportunity. And so, what I have learned from my own suffering is being patient with oneself is also very important. Accepting oneself is very important. Sometimes I do feel unstoppable, like in retreat mode, like I feel like we can keep going. And then there are moments I’m just so overwhelmed. And to be able to accept that also is so important. So the Buddha has taught the middle way and to not burn out. Right? As humans, as a teacher, as psychotherapists, as practitioners, as father, mother, teachers, we all have limits that we have to also accept and we have to know how to also care for oneself. And this care for oneself is not to be selfish, but is like in order to continue to offer. And I think what one of the messages that Thay has been sharing, this collective awakening and this collective love in this community is to say that we can’t do this alone. We have to do it together and we have to learn to be less selfish by knowing how to be one with oneself. It may sound contradicting, but how can you truly offer presence to someone when you don’t know how to be present for yourself? And so the one and the all it all inter-be. And so there are moments where I am totally selfish and I am in touch with interbeing and I am riding on this wave of collective energy. And then there are moments when I also have to come home to myself, take care of my garden inside, take care of the compost, turn it into good fertilizer, and then look at some of the weeds shining light, cut the weeds, remove the weeds that are not helpful. And the beauty of a community sometimes is we help each other in taking care of each other’s garden also. So there is the beauty of imperfection. And I think that’s one thing. This is the insight of where if you know how to suffer, you can suffer much less.
Beautifully spoken, brother. Thank you. And, Nick, tell us, how are you now? So you’ve been here a year and a half? How would you describe yourself right now?
Yeah, I am very much returned to a good level of wellness and health. And when I use the word returned, I don’t mean I’ve returned to how I was before because that was not actually an option. My life and the way I function has changed, and I’m now very grateful for that change, because I see I actually have more freedom. I have more stability, I have more capacity in some ways than I had before, and not necessarily in the way I would have expected. And I want to touch on two aspects of the fruits of this past year in my own experience, and particularly this theme of relationship to suffering and how we see the goodness of suffering, which I think can be a challenging expression. And I talked a bit about despair and my experiences of despair and how I saw that despair held in mindfulness was changing, changing who I was actually. And there are two fruits, two kinds of fruits from this for me. The first one is the little bit more obvious one. When there was despair in me because of something I was very attached to, something in my life that was no longer here, the liberation of working through that is I no longer feel that despair about what has changed and what was lost. There’s a freedom in that. The second kind of liberation is in my relationship to despair itself, so that when I do feel despair in future, I’m much less frightened of it. And this is how I am working through the sort of the paradox in the teachings of Wow, you know, if there’s always going to be suffering and, you know, suffering and happiness inter-are, all that means I’m still going to have suffering, but that’s not what I thought was going to happen. How does this become okay? And as Phap Huu says, having suffering doesn’t necessarily mean we suffer with our suffering. And this is an opening journey for me. And I start to have a level of friendship with the experience of despair, which is new to me. And this might sound very odd and it’s something that is still, I think, settling in my mind, but I see despair now as having an opportunity to move into greater freedom, because it is an indicator for me that my mind is caught and constricted on something that’s impossible. And actually when that lets go, it’s not a terrible loss, it’s not plunging into a state of devastation, it’s actually a substantial opening up of freedom and a much greater presence here in the here and now where my life actually is. It’s a gradual freeing of living in the past and living in the future. And that is what going through these deep experiences of despair in these conditions, and I need to emphasize there were safe conditions to do that, has opened up. So where I am on the far side is I feel much more healthy. I noticed in September I came off the farm and I moved to Upper Hamlet to join the full flow of the Rains Retreat, and I can feel my enthusiasm to offer, to serve, to contribute had come back and the capacity had come back. And it was a very clear shift that I could recognize. This energy is flowing again. And in the past year I had not known whether that kind of capacity would ever return, and I’d let go of that, actually, because I’d had an experience that I could come here in the state I was in, and I was not rejected by the Sangha. So my safety in the Sangha now and my acceptance within the Sangha, it doesn’t rest on my ability to do certain things or have certain capacities in the way that I used to fear it might. So now when I become involved in facilitating or in organizing or supporting in other ways, I have much more freedom because actually I know that my acceptance in the Sangha, the love from others, doesn’t depend on those things. So I’ve returned to much more capacity. That’s very enjoyable for me, but it comes back with more freedom. And what is very exciting for me is I feel there’s a new capacity to offer, and particularly in the future when I look to probably return to psychotherapy work, there’s a much deeper capacity to be with states of deep suffering with a real grounded trust that there is a way through this suffering and it doesn’t have to be as toxic and devastating as we may think, but it can change us in ways that we cannot yet understand. But the mind can put that to good use if the conditions are there.
Thank you, Nick. So I have three questions that are lining up in my mind. It’s literally, like I can feel them queuing up, haven’t had that experience for a while…
Very English, I’m glad they’re in a queue.
Very British. Okay, line up. Stop pushing in, your turn will come. So the first one is you have clearly been very fortunate.
You have had a year and a half of being in a healing center with all the time and support you have needed. And you have taken the responsibility for that. There are a lot of people who may be suffering similarly to you who maybe don’t have any of those conditions. So I’m just wondering, what if there’s someone listening who might have suffered in a similar way to you, who is thinking, Oh, I’d love to come to Plum Village for a year and a half and that’s not possible. What is it that you could offer them as a pathway that doesn’t rely on Plum Village, but is an almost the essence of what you have learned through being here?
I think I’ve seen firsthand the extraordinary capacity in the mind to rebuild and regenerate in a way where we don’t actually have to know how it’s doing it or what it’s doing, we just have to allow it to happen. And it’s new for me to experience it from the inside to this level. As a therapist, I’ve worked with many, many people who’ve experienced deep despair and suicidal thoughts and intentions. And within the theory side of psychotherapy, we understand very well that when despair is very strong, it can convince the mind that there’s no way out, there’s no way, that’s part of the experience of hopelessness. And from the outside, we can see that it’s just a phase, that is a part of the experience when you have those thoughts and you see no way. And as a therapist, you know, if you can put safety around that, and I’m very used to building an alliance with people I work with of if these sorts of feelings come up, what is our plan to just get through that? Because we know that that state is impermanent, it does pass. Now, I had that experience as a therapist and that knowledge, and, of course, when I went through it myself and I was in it, those thoughts came up and they were just as convincing as they’d be for anyone else, because I, you know, my mind would say, Oh, you know, a psychotherapist would say, you know, this phase will pass, but this isn’t going to pass. This cannot pass. This, there is no way for this to get better. So I experienced from the inside the conviction of no way out. And what I’m so grateful for in this is having the experience of that deep conviction that there’s no way out and somehow a decision to simply continue and let conditions around me penetrate into me and change me, let the consciousness come in. I feel I can say with much more kind of personal experience that our mind has capacities that we don’t even know. It’s more mysterious than we can know, and it is wired at the deepest level to restore itself and to find a way. Our ancestors have done it many times. Humanity, humans, in so many forms and situations have come through things that can be unimaginable to us. And at that level, when we touch, for me, I never wanted to have that level of suffering. But strangely, it makes me feel more connected to humanity than it ever has, because in that level I truly feel I’m not alone. Because it is something in the confrontation with life, the fear of death, the terror of suffering, so to someone who touches that to know we are not alone. It’s so convincing in that state to feel, yeah, but I can’t come through this. This, you know, this is not what someone else has experienced. That experience itself is profoundly human. And to give ourselves every chance. For me, I say, in all honesty, I’m glad this suffering happened for me. I’m incredibly fortunate, conditions were there to come through it, because I can see there were times when that was not at all certain. There’s a very plausible alternative history where I didn’t come through this. I can see that, and I’ve touched that possibility. But on the side of where I am now, I’m glad to have encountered that because on the far side, there’s actually more freedom, there’s less fear, there’s more connection. So there is a fruit that has come from the deepest pain I’ve experienced. And if we can just carry on, this can happen. And sometimes that’s the only condition we can supply. Beyond that, we find every resource we can draw on, every friend we can take refuge in, every place of stability. And when they’re not in person, they’re in the teachings, they’re in the books, people who’ve gone through awfulness. During this I started, I was drawn to read more about the Holocaust and accounts of Holocaust survivors. And this is something I’ve actually shied away from in my life. But in this past year, I felt this draw. I needed to look at people who had come through the crucible of the darkest suffering that I could imagine and had survived. And not only survived, the fruits had come from that, and I needed to know that. And those people are there in their stories. They’re there in our books. And as Phap Huu shared earlier on, we’re not saying here that, you know, you sit on the cushion and it kind of all gets, you know, that’s the only thing. It’s an eightfold path, not a onefold path. And we bring everything to that that we can in our action, in our speech, in our environment, in our livelihood. And the mind can find a way.
Thank you, Nick. You’ve… That deep sharing it’s brought up in me a similar moment in my life where while, as a journalist, I was also doing some coaching and I’d been taught this phrase, this Korean proverb, which said, you know, even if the sky were to fall in that we’d find… there’d be a way out, a way through. And so whenever I was working with someone who was going through a difficult time, I would say that. And then there came a time where my first marriage was falling apart and I was falling apart with it. And I remember at one point sort of leaving my house and going into the forest and sitting at the base of a very old yew tree and just thinking, this is where it ends. And realizing that I couldn’t coach anyone else because I couldn’t coach someone and say that proverb, which was at the heart of what I had thought I knew because I couldn’t find a way out at that point. I felt this is where it all ends, this is where it all falls apart. This is the moment it all stops. And I knew, how can I help someone else if I have not found a way through? So I just stopped. And it was, you know, two or three years before I was able to go back and say, well, actually I have found a way through. And because I found a way through I can really be there for people in the way you describe. So I think there’s a great truth in what you say. My second question… In this podcast, we like to talk about the personal and the collective, about individuals and society. And you started off by saying that you had been studying conflict and the roots of conflict and seeing, you know, devastating conflicts in the world, like Iraq. And I’m just wondering, you’ve learned about something on an individual level, but I’m wondering, on a collective level, when you take your understanding that you’ve developed now and you take it back to those places, do you see anything different?
For me, certainly now, the link between the personal, the individual, and the collective manifestations of suffering is I know what comes to mind is complete, I mean, that sounds very presumptuous, but I, in some way, I really I don’t see this difference. It was already clear to me working in the conflict in Iraq, sometimes in negotiation with people directly involved in their conflict and in conflict with us, how the roots of it were in perceptions. And when those perceptions could open up and change, the driver for the conflict could change. And I experienced that in a number of times during my work. It was against the sort of devastation of a backdrop where actually the suffering had become so vast. The engine that was sort of moving forwards left me with a sort of sense of helplessness because I could only do the bit I could do. But it was enough to experience in that situation, these awful conflicts that when perceptions changed and when trust could develop, and when the humanity of each other could be recognized, genuine change in attitude and motivation could take place. So I saw that in conflict. Of course, I’ve seen that in the therapy room. I’ve seen that in community. And the other thing I would say on that for now is that the Buddha’s diagnosis, that when we get down to the root, you know, the drivers of the pain and suffering will be in the energies of hatred, of delusion, of ignorance, of greed. That’s absolutely what I saw. And it doesn’t take a big narrative of conspiracy or a group of evil people creating bad things. And in some ways, you know, it would be simpler if it was like that, but what I’ve seen both in that conflict work and also in the psychotherapy room, that there is more than enough scope for suffering to develop just through ignorance, confusion, misunderstanding. And even when there are many people with good intentions, sometimes, acting well, but with distorted perceptions, suffering arises. So I’m sort of very satisfied now with the perspective on suffering offered and the crucial link to perceptions and worldviews and how we see that. And when we become rigid and certain about a worldview and we have to have other people agree with it, then peace will not come. That is not the way through to peace. We can’t wait for everyone to hold the same view. And we need the tools to live in harmony, even when we have different perceptions and to have ways to work with it.
Thank you, Nick. And my last question, which has been queuing up very patiently, actually, didn’t try and push in once.
It’s very British.
Was in a sense coming back to mind a bit. We’ve been a lot in deep feelings and emotions, but I think it’s important because you know that the teachings you’ve been here a year and a half and you’re a psychotherapist, and Thay was very interesting because he was in the West and he realized to reach Western audiences, he needed to have teachings which were relevant. He did incorporate some psychological practices, like he really has a focus on healing the inner child and seeing our parents as children, which in a sense is a psychological tool to gain, to develop understanding and compassion and what have you. What are the limits? What do you see as the difference? So why would someone go and see a psychotherapist rather than come to Plum Village or come to Plum Village rather than a psychotherapist? Or would you just always say, Well, actually, I’d like to see both, please, because they are perfectly in alignment and there’s no crossover.
How wonderful. Yes, this is a very alive area of exploration for me because obviously psychotherapy is my profession. I’ve benefited tremendously from receiving psychotherapy and from working as a therapist, and I benefited tremendously from practicing in this tradition and supporting the growth of Sanghas in this tradition. And I don’t actually know how personally I would have done one without the other. They have both complemented each other, and they’re so broad and deep. And with psychotherapy, for example, you know, it’s such a broad space. There are more than 400 recognized psychotherapies, so when we talk about psychotherapy in general, I mean, maybe we can’t even talk about it in general because there are so many types of therapy. But I can give the view that I’ve come to at the moment around the relationship, because they are such allies in a certain way, and they both, for me, have a great deal to do with the journey towards wholeness. But it’s sometimes the case that psychotherapy and spiritual practice can have a different understanding of where that wholeness ultimately lies, what that really means. And most psychotherapies that I’m familiar with, very firmly rooted in what we say is the historical dimension, and the world of separation, where there’s a separate me, there’s a separate you, we have these problems of loneliness, disconnection, and the psychotherapeutic project in a way, is how do we develop the healthiest psyche, the healthiest psychology to cope with this challenge of living in what appears to be a world of separation? And in a world of separation, we have all our emotions of anger, hatred, loneliness, the problems that stem from that, and we need a way to hold those emotions and how to survive this sense of being separate, and lonely, and afraid, and impermanent. And much of psychotherapy for me is a movement towards the wholeness of that human experience and embracing all of it, which includes many of the emotions we don’t want to have. But this psychotherapeutic project in many parts of psychotherapy, I feel very, very cautious offering this because I only have my understanding of psychotherapy. But I would say many psychotherapies end at the point of this is now a healthy, integrated psyche with access to all the emotions and a capacity to respond effectively to life, but it leaves this residual unaddressed pain of I’m still separate. I’m still going to have to face death. How do I possibly confront that? And the spiritual path, the path of transformation, here is to support the mind, to gradually touch the possibility that maybe that separation actually never happened in the first place. It’s something that’s generated in the space of perceptions. And when that is unlocked, so many of the causes and conditions of our pain that arises through grasping, through trying to surmount the separation, trying to grab on to safety in a way that we may not actually have to do, will drop away. But with those differences, there are occasionally times when the language of psychotherapy and the language of spiritual practice can seem like they pull in different directions. And particularly sometimes this can come into areas around boundaries where we may want to say there, it’s very skillful to think of boundaries around a practice center, around our practice life between individuals. Monasticism is defined by a set of boundaries, by the precept body to put a boundary around actions, to protect the aspiration to grow and develop in a certain way. And boundaries do not mean that we’re fundamentally separate, it simply reflects there are skillful ways to take care of our energies, to take care of our emotions, to take care of our actions, to move us further towards a healthier, kinder life, and a deeper insight. So sometimes I notice there can be a sense in which the subject of boundaries in particular can be a tricky one for people because we don’t want to be separate, we don’t want to be alone. And if we think that boundaries keep us separate or cut off from something, that can be a painful experience. But safe and healthy boundaries are precisely those things that allow us to connect and engage and to do things together, and ultimately to find a way to touch the fact that we are maybe not separate to begin with.
Thank you, Nick. And that took us more into the mind, which is, I think, helpful. But I want to finish with one Plum Village practice, if that is okay with both of you, because it feels relevant at this moment. And we’ve talked a lot in the past, Brother Phap Huu about, you know, the Plum Village tradition of watering the positive seeds or watering people’s flowers and showing appreciation. So I just wonder, Nick, if you would like to show an appreciation for Phap Huu, and whether Phap Huu, you’d like to share an appreciation for Nick. Nick, do you want to… Is there something you’d like to share?
Yeah. Yeah, I do. And I want to recollect my early experiences of Phap Huu, because there were three things that brought me into this tradition, the first three kind of hooks. The first was seeing Thay himself and his teachings. The second was reading the first line of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the commitment in that training that the teachings are guiding means to bring us towards compassion, a healthy way of living, they’re not something to fight over. And if they get in the way, it’s that that we let go, not the compassion. But the third thing was meeting the younger brothers and sisters in the practice and finding people I could relate to and feel, yeah, I warmed to this person. I enjoy them as a whole integrated human who’s chosen this path. I feel, wow, I feel an affinity with these people. And that they had an authenticity and a realness that was deeply reassuring to me. I didn’t feel that they were trying to run away or block out, but they were real and relatable, and Phap Huu