Welcome to episode 34 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, talk about the modern diseases of busyness, overwhelm, and burnout, and how Zen Buddhist practices and Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings can help us regain our balance.
Brother Phap Huu shares his thoughts on busyness in a monastic environment; coming home to ourselves and learning to stop in the midst of crises; the four elements (the practice, the study, the service, the joy); the noble silence practice in a retreat, and becoming one with the silence; learning to stop and listen to ourselves; the practice of deep belly breathing; impermanence. And do you know how the Zen Master himself would face up and deal with overwhelm?
Jo shares his thoughts on the Climate Leaders retreat and makes a case for an “age of community.” He further reflects on allowing vulnerability in our overwhelm and busyness; compassion for ourselves; selfishness and selflessness; simplicity in the practice; guilt.
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
‘Wake Up Humanity 2022’ retreat
Plum Village Retreats Calendar
Dharma Talks: ‘The Five Skandhas of Grasping and Non-Self’
Songs: ‘The 16 Exercises of Mindful Breathing’
‘Connecting to Our Root Teacher, the Buddha’
Thay’s Poetry: ‘Please Call Me by My True Names’ (song & poem)
‘The Toadskin Hut and Paths of Legend’
“Mindfulness means to be aware of what is happening in the here and now. And when we associate to this practice, a lot of the habits that we have as a practitioner, especially practitioners, we want to feel the good sensation more than the negative. But here, in the spirit of Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha, when we speak about mindfulness, it is to embrace everything that is happening.”
“A lot of monks in this time, and generations before us, have Zen gardens. They have gardens that they would take care of because that is also a way of directing energy, so overwhelming is an energy. So our practice is learning to identify the energy and directing that energy so that it can bring us back to balance.”
“What I think is core to Buddhist practice is that we can only be useful in the world if we’re in balance ourselves. And it’s not selfish to look after yourself, it’s actually selfless because it’s only when our bowl is full and overflowing that we’re able to naturally give to other people. And when our bowl is empty, actually we’ve got nothing to give.”
“When you come to our practice in the retreats, this is the first thing we teach everyone: learning to stop. That’s why these bells in the monastery are so important. We have this aspiration to stop, but our habit, our ancestral habit, our habit from society is so strong in us that we feel like we have to do something.”
“Learn to listen to yourself.”
“Don’t wait for life to be difficult to start practising, but learn to practise in the good times so that when a difficult time comes, we’ve already built that into our system. Because a lot of people think, ‘Oh, well, life is fine. Why do I need to be mindful? Why do I do this? Because everything’s good.’ But it’s when we have space in the good times to focus and to understand how our mind works, how our body works, how we can reflect on ourselves, that in the moments where things get very tough and we lose that space, that we already know how to act. And I think a lot of people feel that they can just do this when times are bad.”
“Coming home to oneself is the beginning of transformation, because when we have the capacity to come home, that’s when we can work on oneself.”
“We want to create sustainability outside, but we have to create sustainability inside also.”
“When you come home to yourself, this is transformation at the base.”
“An important aspect of dealing with overwhelm is to be vulnerable with it, because often we feel that to cope we have to close down, and we have to protect ourselves. Whereas, more than often, the truth is we open up, we share, we are present, we show our weaknesses, we show our scars. And that gives other people permission to do the same.”
“I think so much of dealing with overwhelm, dealing with busyness is to be vulnerable in it. Because if we all feel alone and none of us are sharing about it, then all we’re doing is exacerbating it. We’re not letting anyone offer their support. No one can offer their care because we’ve closed the door.”
“Man is not our enemy. It is ignorance.”
Welcome, dear friends, to another episode in the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Plum Village, student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
And today we are going to talk about the very modern disease of busyness, overwhelm and burnout, and how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings can help us come back into balance.
The way out is in.
Hello, dear friends, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And brother, we’ve been away for a short because we talk about busyness, and you’ve been rather busy. So do you want to just, why have we not been recording every week?
Hello, everyone. Yes, we have been absent for a very good reason. We opened to receive hundreds of people for retreats. So, starting in May, reopening Plum Village, having guests for two weeks. And then came our big celebration of 40 years of Plum Village. We hosted a two week retreat, which hosted 730 people across the three hamlets in Plum Village, France. Then it led to a science retreat, and then a climate activist retreat, and then, most recently, a Wake up retreat for young practitioners from the age of 18 to 35 with 550 young practitioners. That was quite amazing. And actually right now, as we are recording, we are in the midst of the first week of our summer opening. After two years, Plum Village is finally having children program as well as team program back in the monastery.
So brother, a lot of people might imagine that the monastics just sit here and meditate and look for insights into the deeper meaning of life, but actually, you’re just as busy as everybody else.
That’s right. But our busyness also has elements of practice, has element of joy, has element of play, has element of study, because we learn from these retreats, we learn from all of this engagement when we welcome people into our monastery, into our retreat, because it’s a deep dive inward for not just the practitioners that come from outside, but also for all of the monastics.
So, brother, that’s really interesting because those elements, I think let us come back to those because you talked about play, joy, study and practice. So let’s sort of interweave those elements into what we discuss. Because what I’ve been experiencing, brother, not that it’s new, but I would say pretty much every conversation I’ve been having with people recently has been about people feeling overwhelmed. And of course, we know this is not new, but it’s just everybody I talk to is feeling that they’ve got too much to do, they’ve got too little time, that they’re dealing with issues that are almost existential by nature, and that they feel guilty because they feel that actually they need to be… the weight is on their shoulders, they’re responsible for saving the world or saving this or saving that, and finding it very, very difficult to stop, to actually come back to themselves. And people are, as we know, burning out. So I think it’d be really good to devote this episode to really looking at this in detail, because what I find very difficult when I’m speaking to people is that you can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, don’t do what you’re doing.’.
Because actually people have got their jobs, they’ve got the responsibilities, they’ve got families, they’ve got a multitude of things. You can’t just say, I’m not going to do any of these things and I’m going to curl up in a ball and go to bed and put the duvet over my head. So what we, what I think will be really useful is to recognize that people are busy, that they will continue to be busy. But then how do they respond to the busyness in a way that doesn’t lead them to go […] So, brother, do you want to start with a sort of just a sensing of why the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhist philosophy, in general, how can that help in these times?
Feeling overwhelm can also mean suffering, because we feel we are not capable of handling the present moment, or handling the project, or the situation. And that leads to us suffering, and that is why we become overwhelmed. And very interestingly, I have been overwhelmed many times. And you may think, like you shared, like monastics, we don’t… we’re levitating, we’re peaceful, we’re in the clouds, or sunshine, and whatnot. But the reality is we are as human as you, Jo, and the first thing we have to do is just to be mindful and to smile to the feeling of being overwhelmed, like really recognizing and embracing ‘I am being overwhelmed.’ And then we have to identify why are we being overwhelmed? What is the cause of it? So normally I think a lot of us, when we are overwhelmed, we find an escape. We try to do something to ease or to have an instant different sensation and feeling. And this is a core habit in all of us, the habit of running away. We want to run away from our suffering, from the present moment. So in our practice, in the teachings of the Buddha, in the teachings of Thay, we speak about the first training, which is mindfulness. And mindfulness means to be aware of what is happening in the here and now. And when we associate to this practice, a lot of the habit that we have as a practitioner, especially practitioners, is we want to feel the good sensation more than the negative. But here, in the spirit of Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha, when we speak about mindfulness, it is to embrace everything that is happening. So when I am overwhelmed, I breathe in as it is a bridge for me to focus on something rather than my nonstop mind that is creating 20,000 different stories, blaming, judging, reacting. And if I don’t do anything to it, it will ruin me, it will destroy my day, it will create more and more perceptions. And so, in this very moment, the first practice, the first key is just to ‘Breathing in, I know I am overwhelmed. Breathing out, I embrace the feeling of being overwhelmed.’ So with this practice of mindful breathing and when I recognize that I am overwhelmed, I can smile to the feeling of being overwhelmed and not seeing it as something negative. And it’s so easy to beat myself up and to say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been a practitioner for so long’ or ‘I’m an adult, I should have my two feet on the ground. I should be solid. I’m a leader, I’m a parent, I am a teacher.’ And then we correct this cycle of blaming, judging, and so we’re adding more layers to already the overwhelming sensation of chaos in us. So here, what we’re learning to do is stopping. And this is the first wing of meditation. And here we have to offer ourself a very concrete practice to stop. We can’t like, we can’t just say don’t do anything, because even if you say that, you’re still doing something with your, with all of your emotions. So here it is, we’re learning to smile to the sensation of being overwhelmed, embracing it, using the breath, and then unpacking it. So what I like to always do is I always want to come back to my body because my body is also an indicator of how I am doing. When this sensation manifests, there are tension that happens in my shoulders, in my face, maybe in my face, maybe my jawline is really tense, or even my gaze is very intense. So coming back to the body, and going through the different parts in your body and just seeing where is there tension? Sometimes it’s my breath. When I’m overwhelmed, my breathing is very heavy. My chest may be very tight. And so I can listen to my body and say, ‘Oh, Phap Huu, your breathing’s really, really tight. Why is that? What is the feeling that you are experiencing?’ And then just to gently recognize, call it by its name, identify it, and then start to be with it. And as you are with it, start to unpack it knowing why am I being overwhelmed? What are the causes of being overwhelmed? And once we can recognize the root of it, we start to feel already free. Because suddenly you see, ‘Ah, this is why, this is what I need to work on.’ And then if I have the energy and the capacity, I’m going to put all of my attention to that one cause of being overwhelmed, and I can work with it. If I’m very overwhelmed, and I already recognize that, ‘Oh, this is my cause, but I need space right now. I need to take care of myself. I know that it is there. It’s not going to go anywhere. But let me take care of my well-being first.’ And this is very key. So we have to know our capacity. What is our limit? What is our energy level right now? Do I have the capacity to really dive into the causes of my chaos right now, or do I need to take care of my well-being? And this is where the element of joy that I spoke about, even in the retreat when we are hosting 730 people and there are so many things to micromanage, in a way, and to pay attention to, in the day I always come back to my body. I’m always recognizing and identifying: Do I have enough nourishment, like real nourishment? And this is not the nourishment about skipping down the road, but this is the nourishment of like I feel balance, I feel my mind is still, I have space, I can embrace difficulties. Or also recognizing, today I’m very overwhelmed. I shouldn’t get into more conversation because the more I get into conversation, I am watering more dialog inside of myself, creating more stories, more perceptions. And maybe what I actually need is just to rest. It is maybe just a simple walk in the forest or a cup of tea with nobody, and learning to drink a cup of tea by myself while taking care of my stillness. And so these simple things that I just mentioned, to us, in Plum Village, they’re not just a normal action. They’re not just a daily chore or anything like that. It can all turn into a practice of nourishing oneself. A lot of monks in this time, and generations before us, they have Zen gardens. They have gardens that they would take care of because that is also a way of directing energy, so overwhelming is an energy. So our practice is learning to identify the energy and directing that energy so that it can bring us back to balance.
As beautifully put, brother, and you mentioned it twice, but I just want to sort of focus on one thing you said, because I have this very strong visualizations. You said, because when we feel overwhelmed, I had this idea that fills every, every centimeter of our space literally, and bleeds out of that. In other words, there is no space left for us. We feel there’s no space. And by naming it and by holding it, actually, what you’re already saying to your mind is that you’re capable of embracing it, and it has a form that you can wrap your arms around. And I think one of the things about everyone is people feel ‘I can’t cope.’ So what I hear you saying is actually by recognizing, naming it, and sort of being tender with it, we’re already actually creating space that allows us because we immediately say, actually, yes, I can cope with this. Whereas normally, actually, if we’re… If we don’t, if we’re not mindful, then actually, it looks hopeless.
Exactly. And a lot of the times, like, our reaction becomes overreaction. And we become the chaos that we are in. And by trying to handle it, we become more messy because our energy is so dispersed. And I’ve done this to myself. And so when we actually practice the Dharma that the Buddha has offered us and the teachings that Thay has offered us is learn to come back to oneself and recognize what is happening and why is it happening. And then, in the knowing, Thay always says, when you are aware, you will know what to do and what not to do. And so, this is insight. So by stopping, we have the capacity to have deep looking, Vipassana. We have the capacity to dive into what is manifesting in the present moment. And then, because we have a practice of centering ourselves, we learn to be still, which is the image of the lake, that when the lake is calm, it will reflect everything as it is. If a bird fly by, the bird can see itself. When the cloud passes by, it reflects exactly what the cloud is. So our mind is the water, and it’s most of the time always being splashed and it’s not very present. And so learning to slow down and to allow ourselves, giving us permission to pause it’s so simple, but it’s so important, because in the light of the practice, sometimes don’t just do anything, learn to sit there and to be calm and to see what is happening. And this is very fundamental. When you come to our practice in the retreats, this is the first thing we teach everyone: learning to stop. That’s why these bells in the monastery is so important. We have this aspiration to stop, but our habit, our ancestral habit, our habit from society is so strong in us that we feel like we have to do something. Even if you’re so agitated, you think, ‘Okay, because I’m agitated, I need to do something.’ And this energy is not pleasant. And this energy actually doesn’t contribute to our deepest aspiration. It may contribute to something, but it’s maybe something that we need to repair later. And so what we need to learn and bring into our daily life and to the insight of recognizing when we are being overwhelmed and agitated, is having that inner bell in us that chimes and says, ‘Brother Phap Huu, take a pause, come back to your breathing, feel your body, recognize the emotions, the feelings that are happening in the here and now, and take care of it with tenderness. Don’t push it away.’ If I don’t have enough strength, I just say, ‘I know you’re there and I’m going to take care of you, but right now I need to take care of myself.’ So I may allow myself to go and rest, total relaxation, or just disconnecting myself from the space that is also contributing to the feeling of being overwhelmed. So we have to have this inner bell that we listen outside so that that becomes a habit in us, a good habit that gives us the capacity and the skill to embrace our mental formations, this what we call it in the Buddhist terms, or all of the feelings that come up. And another way of saying it is learn to listen to yourself.
What I think is very interesting, what I’m hearing from you, brother, is that don’t wait for life to be difficult to start practicing, but actually learn to practice in the good times so that when a difficult time, we’ve already built that into our system. Because I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh, well, life is fine. Why do I need to be mindful? Why do I do this? Because everything’s good.’ But actually, it’s when we have space in the good times to focus and to understand how our mind works, how our body works, how we can reflect on ourselves, that in the moments where things get very tough and we lose that space, that we already know how to act. And I think a lot of people sort of feel that they can just do this when times are bad.
And the other thing, brother, and I want to reflect a bit on on the Climate Leaders retreat we had, because there were a number of things that came up in that retreat that I think are pertinent to our conversation. And the first is that a lot of people feel guilt. So a lot of people actually felt guilt about coming and spending time in Plum Village and this sort of, this sort of feeling that actually it’s selfish to look after ourselves, it’s selfish to sort of spend time healing ourselves, and that actually our work should be all we should put all our focus on, sort of trying to resolve things outside of ourselves. And what I think is core to the Buddhist practice is actually we can only be useful in the world if we’re actually in balance ourselves. And actually it’s not selfish to look after yourself, it’s actually selfless because actually it’s only when our bowl is full and overflowing that we’re able naturally to give to other people. And when our bowl is empty, actually we’ve got nothing to give. So it would be lovely to get that sense from you about Thay’s teachings on actually importance of, first of all, coming home to oneself.
So coming home to oneself is the beginning of transformation, because when we have the capacity to come home, that’s when we can work on oneself. And just to rift off your sharing on the climate, it’s so important to take care of the climate outside of us. But it is equally important to come back to take care of the climate inside. Because what we are creating in this practice is not just a one-action time, it’s not just a one-time journey. You don’t just do this when you’re overwhelmed, but we’re trying to create a practice that keeps us well for the whole journey. We want to create sustainability outside, but we have to create sustainability inside also. And what we’ve learned in our own practice is that the inner peace, the inner balance, you cannot buy that. The exterior things that we have, they’re only conditions that can support us. But if we use it unmindfully, they also become poison. And so, our culture, where we have rely on so much external things and it has become the feeling of worth, the feeling of existence, because I have this, I’m worth something, etc., etc.. But here, coming home to oneself, we actually start to reconnect to our own purpose, our own love, our own compassion. And when coming home to oneself, we actually might see that our tank of compassion is very low. Our capacity of presence is not there anymore because we have been so occupied with what we are creating outside, even if it is to protect the Earth, to protect our loved ones, to protect our environment. But if we continue this process of how we are behaving, we will lose ourselves, we will burn out. And we have seen it in in our own communities. We have seen it in our friends, our colleagues, and we’ve seen it in the Sangha, in our own Plum Village community. And learning to come home to oneself is beautiful, but is also sometimes so challenging because when you come home to yourself, you start to see the ugliness inside. You start to see the habits that are still so alive in you, that you want to transform, that you have set your journey to change. But it is still there. And so when you come home to yourself, this is transformation at the base. All of the transformation that we can do in our bodily action, I can close the door more gently, I can walk more slowly, but if inside I’m not taking care of my anger, my frustration, easing and taking care of my energies, recognizing the different energies in me, then at one point I’m just going to break and all of these emotions will just take over me. And this is why when we come home to our self is also learning to be truthful to our self. We learn to be transparent with our own self. And even though we see the world is burning, and I feel ‘Who am I to have the privilege of sitting in a space that is so calm?’ But if you are also, who have this deep aspiration, but inside of you is not burning the fire of aspiration, but it is burning with the fire of frustration and anger, resentment, then that will express itself in your speech, in your bodily action, and that will break a lot of relationships, and that will break the communication. That will break the team that you are with. It will break the most precious relationship that you are with, with whom you have with. Because we’re not in… we are not who we want to be. And a lot of the times, our habits is the horse that is driving us forward without knowing where we are going. And so, what we saw in the retreat, Jo, was that everyone expressed what they will take away from the retreat is the deep listening. And the deep listening, first to themselves, listening to when they need support, when they need a moment to pause, to embrace all of their feelings, all of their emotions, and take a pause and to look at their aspiration to see the aspiration that I set out. Do I still have the energy? Do I have the right support? Do I need to find a friend that can support me? So in the coming home is also learning to stop.
And brother, as you speak, what comes to my mind is the… not the necessary solutions, but what helps us to address these things is the answers are not sophisticated. They are, in fact, incredibly simple. And what was one of the things that when people made commitments at the end of the retreat, a lot of people actually didn’t just make commitments about work. They made commitments about their home life. They said, ‘Oh, actually, I’ve noticed, now I realize that when I’m speaking to my kids, I’m not really present for them. I’m also thinking of what I need to do. I’m not there for my husband or my partner. I’m… When I’m cooking, I’m watching Netflix.’ And so there was the sense that actually very few people were actually just present to what was going on at that moment, that their mind was racing in a thousand directions. And two other things that came up very strongly for me, one was that it was a five-day retreat. And after lunch, every day, we did a total relaxation where everyone came into the meditation hall and just lay down. And then there was a a body scanning exercise and some music playing. And people, it was such a revelation to people just to take 45 minutes, just to stop and just to come back, as I say, to the body, just to let everything else go, and how people… It was almost like a revolutionary act. And then, you know, when we started, we asked people ‘What keeps you grounded? What brings you joy?’ And it was not when I go, I like to go on holiday or go for a fancy dinner or to buy a new car or anything. I was people largely said, I like to connect with nature. I like to go for a walk. I like to just sit somewhere quietly. And so what’s so interesting is, in a sense, our society is so sophisticated. So often we’re looking for sophisticated answers. But actually the answers are actually about being calm, being quiet, being present, being singular rather than trying to multitask. And the truth is, all of us can do those things. I mean, none of those are… we have to train for ten years. It’s not like you have to say, well, you have to do this for 20 years and then maybe you’ll get an insight. Actually, you can do that straight away.
And another thing that was a treat, but at the beginning many people were scared of was the noble silence. The noble silence practice in our retreats when it starts at 9:30 and it leads all the way to at the walking meditation in that retreat. And that’s a long time of silence. And what we learned was friends sharing with us that at the beginning they were quite nervous about it because we have created this culture, that silence is not good, that it should always be noisy, we should have music playing in the background, or we turned the TV on so that there is, we call it white noise, I believe. And so we have created this culture that there needs to be things on all the time. And what our friends shared with us was that the silence was delicious. The silence was actually one of the treat that allows us to be with ourselves. And one friend shared that he got nervous when the silence was ending because suddenly the habit says, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to talk to someone now.’ Right? But then actually you don’t, you don’t have to talk to anyone. If you want to continue the silence, it is there. That silence is actually always present. But we have created this lifestyle that we become afraid of the silence. And for me, I love the mornings. That’s why we do our meditations early in the morning, because there is, there’s something very sacred about the morning. It’s when the day is just beginning. Our energy is, for myself, my own experience, I am awake. My energy is starting up. And my mind is actually very calm in the morning. That’s where a lot of the monasteries, they always start the meditations in the morning. And it’s also the energy of the universe of where we are when the sun is rising. It’s like we’re waking up, or waking up with the Earth. So we’re waking up inside of us. And so these mornings, it’s always silent. And in our daily schedule, it ends after breakfast, which is around 8:00. Right? So for me, like, the silence is one of the most precious gifts I always offer myself. And then when I find myself during the lazy days, where we don’t have the morning meditation, being among… After 20 years, I don’t really need an alarm clock. I automatically wake up around 5:00. And sometimes even earlier, and sometimes a little bit later. But I always allow myself to enjoy the morning and becoming one, becoming one with the silence. I think this has been very deep for me and I think this capacity to be at ease with it is also learning to be with oneself, where we will find that inner peace. Because in the silence is where our nature starts to express herself, our true nature, our aspiration, our fears, our habits, our despair. Because it becomes, it becomes present. And we do have to have a practice to also deal and to handle all of these emotions. And that’s why at the beginning, when I shared about the four elements, and this is our training, Jo. Thay has offered this to the monastics. He said, ‘Every day in our life we have to have four elements.’ That is the practice. The practice is always there. And then the study. Study here is not just textbook study. We have to study life, we study our experience, we learn from our interaction. And if we interact with the practice, we will learn twice. And then the third is the service. We want to feel like we are contributing, contributing to our self, our inner growth, contributing to our community, our loved ones, contributing to society. And when I say contribution, we may think a project, we have to create something very grand, but actually we’re always contributing our actions, our contribution. A smile is a contribution. Someone who knows how to be with himself and is peaceful, is solid, it’s a contribution. And then the last one is the joy. We have to have joy in meditation. If we don’t taste the joy of meditation, that means we are practicing wrong. And the joy here it is the joy with many layers. Sometimes I am just on Thay’s deck and I just recognize the simplicity of life. And I feel so joyful and I feel so grateful. And these are the elements of nourishment for oneself that we can find is always there. But are you mindful? Are you present for it? And that is why, in our practice of mindfulness, we also have to learn to have the ability to be present. Presence, when we are mindful, there is a power of presence such as when we are speaking now we are so present. I feel like I am speaking to you. I’m not speaking to nobody. And this presence now is so needed in our times. The loneliness comes because we lack presence. The fear is also because we feel that nobody sees us. But do we see ourselves? And that is why coming home to oneself is so crucial.
And, brother, you talked about earlier, just about, we need to fill every space. And I had the most profound example of that. I was doing a training workshops for the senior executives of a large company, and one of the executive shared, he said, ‘From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, I fill every single second of that time with doing something.’ And he’d had this realization. And he said, at the end of it, he made a commitment, he said, ‘I’m going to spend 15 minutes a day just staring at a wall’, which is maybe not the most effective way of doing it, but it was just extraordinary. I’d never met someone who actually wasn’t even allowing a moment of quiet. And when you’re doing that, in a sense, you can’t help by running away from yourself because you’re not there. You can’t touch yourself. And my experience has also been, it’s a sort of general principle I have in life, which means that obviously sometimes it’s wrong, but most of the time we are trying to resolve what’s in ourselves, in the work we do in the world. Because this is no coincidence that we end up doing work, the work we do outside, because it’s by nature a reflection of what we feel inside. And people have this misconception and misunderstanding and it’s not conscious, but they almost export the thing they’re trying to solve in themselves to the outside world, they painted on the outside world, then try and solve it out there. But actually solving anything out there can never be the same as solving it inside. Because when you solve it outside, often we don’t get the benefit of that because the reason we have the problem is through issues like guilt or whatever. But when we solve it or we find the capacity to be at peace with it inside, then we’re naturally, as you say, it flows out into the world. So this idea, brother, that you know, when there’s this such, again, a misunderstanding, that if we focus on ourselves, it’s selfish, that it’s egotistical, that it’s actually at the expense of others. But actually when we solve it in ourself, we solve it for everyone around us because everyone who comes into contact with us will feel that.
Yes. And we had an experience where presence was so needed for reconciliation. And we had a five-hour team building after one of the retreats. And because we were so present, we can be real with each other. If we weren’t present, I don’t think we would have been able to untangle all of the knots that has been accumulated, because then we’re just going to spiritually bypass it. We’re just going to say, ‘All right, that was not the best, but whatever. Let’s just move on to the next.’ Right? And that’s when we don’t want to be present and we don’t want to be one with another. And what I see in this practice of learning to be present is also learning to take care of the chaos, to take care of the feelings of being overwhelmed, because to change the energy of being overwhelmed is bringing that overwhelm energy back inwards, seeing it and working with it. And because all of us who were in that deep listening and loving speech session of communication, we have been practicing for a long time and we have developed our presence. And when what I saw was when we all recognize, because we have the awareness of presence, when we felt that we were also overwhelmed, we allow each other to take a 15 minute break to go for a walk. And we all went and did our own walking meditation. And that was so beautiful because that wasn’t an act of running away, but that was an act of recognizing all of us are very emotional right now. And our presence, the level of presence is slowly disintegrating. And we were not having the capacity to listen anymore. And when we recognized that, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s take a break.’ And I, I felt, for me, in that moment, I felt great love for the whole group and great respect because we, none of us saw that we’re running away and we all recognize that let’s go and take care of ourself. Let’s go take care of our well-being. And then we all came back and continued for another 2 hours, which was amazing. It was mind-blowing, and the tears that were coming, the hugs, the smile that manifested later. And none of this could have happened, none of this transformation could have happened if none of us were able to be present for each other. And it was real work that we had to do for all of us. And there was really this kind of overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed. But we looked at the sensation of being overwhelmed and we said, ‘We have to come together and we have to be there for each other and listen to each other.’ And so, the action, the first action we did recognize, then the second action came together to be with each other, listen to each other. And then when this feeling that it was too much, know to take a break, come back to the practice, because that practice is always there, it doesn’t belong in a meditation hall, it doesn’t belong in the monastery. It can be at any space. And we all went for a walk. We all came back, looked at each other, gave each other a nod, and we continued. And this is a direct experience of what we just went through, of how to take care of the feeling of being overwhelmed, because we were overwhelmed with the experience. And there was some knot that was manifested, some misunderstanding, and we really needed to come together and to untie that. And I believe if we didn’t, that knot would have carried through and we would have been very heavy in the Wake Up of retreat and then to now to summer retreat. So learning to stop.
Yeah. And in that stopping because, in a sense, stopping is saying I’m no longer prepared to, I’m no longer going to run away. And when you stop and listen to yourself and are with people you trust, then it allows you to be vulnerable. So I feel that’s such an important aspect of dealing with overwhelm, is to be vulnerable with it, because often we feel that to cope we have to close down and we have to protect ourselves, whereas, actually, more than often the truth is actually we open up, we share, we be present, we show our weaknesses, we show our scars. And that gives other people permission to do the same. And one thing we haven’t really described, brother, is that, you know, the Climate Leaders retreat, what we were basing it around was trying to get everyone around one topic with every different perspective. So people who fundamentally agreed with the solution to the climate crisis and other people who felt it was completely wrong and there was another solution. And what we did is we, you know, whenever I’ve been to climate conferences in the past, you get the full schedule in advance. You get the list of everyone who’s going to be attending and you get the pre-networking opportunities in the app, so you can get in touch with people already and make your appointments. And so you’re already judging who do I, what session do I want to go to? Who do I want to speak to? Who might help me with my project? Who do I want to avoid? Who’s there who I hate? Who’s there who I like? Who’s there who I want to go to dinner with? Who’s there, etc., etc. And what we did, we didn’t send out any information to people. We didn’t send out the schedule. We didn’t send out who was going to be coming. We didn’t offer any opportunities before to be in touch with each other. So people came as themselves. And I think that’s what was most powerful about the workshop is for the first three days there was no discussion on the actual topic at hand itself. It was just people being together, getting to know each other, getting to appreciate each other, getting to listen to each other, getting to see when they’re misunderstood, when they feel appreciated, and all that actually created the opportunity to be vulnerable and the vulnerability created community. And the community created this sense of we’re here to support each other. We’re here to help each other. And so often when you feel overwhelmed, you feel alone and you feel protected and you want to hide away and you don’t feel any… you feel the world is your enemy. So I think so much of dealing with overwhelm, dealing with busyness is to be vulnerable in it. Because if we all feel alone and none of us are sharing about it, then actually all we’re doing is exacerbating it. We’re not letting anyone offer their support. No one can offer their care because actually we’ve closed the door.
Beautiful. I totally agree. Learning to be vulnerable, I think this year, 2022, I have unlocked that. I have unlocked that in myself. I have learned to cry and to express, and to accept the tears. And we had two sessions that we were able to be vulnerable with one another. And yeah, it’s not weak, it’s not weakness. Vulnerability is a real strength. It’s a real way in, it’s a real way in.
Because we allow ourselves to crack open, and when we crack open and show ourselves more fully and then realize, actually, we can do that. And that is not, as you say, it’s not a weakness, actually, it’s an allowance. And it gives permission to other people to open up. And so much of the problems in the world is everyone’s trying to strive to be the perfect person, trying to strive not to show their weaknesses, to show that you’re strong and that you know what you’re talking about. And actually, that is driving us to the crisis we’re in. And it’s actually meaning that people, we’re actually creating the damage to the world because we’re actually creating damage to ourselves. And so I think what we’re creating outside is also what’s creating, what’s reflecting inside.
Brother, one of the Buddhist practices, or, I’m not sure if it’s the Sutras, about coming back to the island of your self. Can you tell us a bit about how that is would be supportive of sort of this practice of dealing with overwhelm?
Yes. The Buddha has taught many times that we all have an island in us, this island of our five skandhas, of our self, the island where we can come back and take refuge in ourself. Because we have, in the practice, when we speak about coming home to oneself is also learning to build that refuge in our self. Some of us, at the beginning, when we start the journey of spirituality, we need a teacher. We need a teacher to guide us, to show us the way, to give us the practice that we can develop. But we have to develop that teacher also inside of ourselves so that we can always take refuge within ourselves. So the sutra that you just mentioned was a time when, in the Buddha’s time, when two of the Buddha’s greatest disciples just passed away, Sariputra and Maha Mogallana. And it was a date when the Buddha called all of his monks and nuns together, and he looked at the community and he said, you know, ‘With the passing of Sariputra and Maha Mogallana, it feels like there is a big gap in the community.’ And this is, when I read the sutra, it showed the Buddha’s vulnerability because even the Buddha who is enlightened and awakened being and where everybody respects, but even he feels that there is an emptiness when two of my elder students have passed away. And he address his community because I’m sure he knows that there’s grief in the sangha. And so he said, ‘When these two monastics pass away, it feels like there is an emptiness because they were such solid presence in the community. But, you know, one day even I will have to go. Your teacher, the Buddha, will also have to go.’ But he said, ‘But isn’t that how life is? In the big tree, all of the bigger branch that was there for us, one day it will rot and collapse first… But the younger sprouts will still be there. And so this is why everyone, all of you monks and nuns, you have to learn to take refuge in yourself, in your island of practice. And for us, concretely, what is that? That is the practice of mindful breathing in the Plum Village tradition, our walking meditation practice, our practice of coming home to the present moment, embracing the emotions and the mental formations and the feelings that manifest. Smile to your anger, smile to whatever manifests in you, and embrace it, and take care of it. So this island within, nobody can take that away. Nobody can take that away. The only person that will not come to that island is yourself. But we have to develop that island. We have to develop that refuge. And that is why in the first evening of our retreat, we asked everyone to share what is a practice that we do outside of the monastery that helps ground us. You know? And everybody had a different answer. And when it came to the monastics, and we can only pick one. Right? We said, because we were a big group, so everyone was only allowed to pick one. And I would say, 70% of the monastics shared like, we know is very cliche, but my mindful breathing, that is the one place of refuge I know that will always be there for me. And this, because it is so installed in our tradition, the 16 awarenesses of mindful breathing has become my deepest refuge, and this has become my island. So, in any situation that I am in, whatever meeting it is, when I’m listening to something that is being shared, that it is painful, it is hurting me, it is hurting my brothers and my sister, I’ve learned to not overreact or else, and I learned not to interrupt because then it becomes a fight. So the best place for me to take care of all of my emotions at that moment is to come back to my mindful breathing and to recognize my sensations. And that mindful breathing becomes the gentle palm of a loved one that is soothing, stroking the back of that little baby, that little child. And so this, when we say about the island, for us, it means our practice that we take refuge in. And all of us, we have this island that nobody can take away from us. For us, monastics, our island is also our p[…] body. The trainings that we have receive from the Buddha’s time, which has been renewed by Thay and has been handed down to us. So they are a set of of guidelines of what to do and what not to do. That is also our island, our island of freedom. We know if we are going to do this, it’s going to equal suffering. So we take refuge in that island and in ourself. And so this island within it can always grow. And it can, it’s very organic, it’s very conditional, but the condition is you. And that’s the hardest part, because we like to ask others to do things for us, but when it comes to the island within, it is our own investment and the spiritual practice of mindful breathing, sitting in stillness, mindful walking, total relaxation, having a cup of tea, enjoying the sunrise, enjoying the sunset. Don’t think that you’re selfish when you are allowing yourself these quality moments. They are investments for your refuge so that you can come back to, because when you have tasted it, you have faith in yourself. You have faith that you have the capacity to be still, to touch inner peace, to have understanding, to have compassion. And because you have experienced it, you know you can do it.
So, brother, can you give us an example of Thich Nhat Hanh, because there were periods in his life where he faced enormous difficulties and overwhelm both during the Vietnam War, but also when there were difficulties for his newly ordained monastics in Vietnam. You know, there were many moments during his life where he’s faced really, really tough places that would have overwhelmed many, many people. Have you got any examples of when you’ve seen Thay face up and how he dealt with it?
Yes. Walking meditation. We would go for walks and because we are a culture of awareness, so I was very in tune to Thay, and I was very aware that because I am suffering, because my brothers and my sisters in Vietnam were suffering, so as a teacher, the suffering is probably times 20. Because as a teacher, you feel responsible. And the walking meditation became his island, where he can come back to himself, take care of the emotions and the feelings that are arising. And I can’t name them because I don’t know what they were. But I was walking behind Thay and we were going down the path to […] Monastery, the path that Thay has named ‘the legendary path.’ And it’s very beautiful because it’s through the pine trees. And when I was walking behind him, without Thay even telling me, I know that the footsteps are his teachers right now. They are the place of grounding, the place of refuge. And through the practice of channeling our energy, then clarity manifests. And during this time, Thay used the suffering. And he wrote these amazing letters to his students. And in the past, Thay would write us letters every year. It’s very personal. He would write by hand, and then we would all receive a photocopy of it. And it was like, it was like the best check of the year that we would receive. And normally Thay would give us a letter twice a year. Like, one time in the spring and then one time in the summer, during a summer retreat, because it’s our busiest season, and we’re all offering probably 120% of ourself to the whole community where we’re hosting the retreat, we’re cooking, we’re giving Dharma talks, giving presentations, consultations, and nonstop. And so Thay, as a teacher, he’s so aware that his students are going above and beyond and, you know, and the whole community who is present is giving 100% to everyone. And so he would write by week three. He’s… He has the understanding of the mind, so he knows when to give the vitamin C, in a way. And Thay would write these encouraging words. And it’s so beautiful. And, like, one example, he would say, you know, by the way of our presence, when we are offering a smile to someone, many work for years to see the effect of their impact. But with your mindful smile and compassionate smile, you can offer the other person a smile, and they can bloom a smile on their face. Your impact is right here, right now. And it’s because we were very young and Thay was helping us see that not by waiting to become enlightened, to have an impact to the world, not to wait until we are 50 years as a monastic to have an impact. But Thay said here and now there is impact. But during this era of especially when Thay has suffering, this is when he writes the deepest poetry. If you read Thay’s poem from Please Call Me by My True Name, some of the deepest insight comes from the suffering. And so Thay would use the suffering to have deep insight, to look at the suffering. And so during the time of the war, you know, one of the poems and one of the lines that still stays with me and it’s one of my Northern Star that helps me not lose myself when I’m super angry. Is ‘Man is not our enemy. It is ignorance.’ Right? Sometimes because you see that it is ignorance and… but the other person still has that perception or that view, you get so aggressive, you get so angry, and that anger becomes poison towards yourself. So Thay wrote this poem, recommendation for us who wants to read it and Thay says that ‘man is not our enemy, it is ignorance.’ And when you see that it is ignorance, you want to help them be free from that ignorance rather than you want to kill them or destroy them. So in the […] […], Thay would write these letters to us and he would share that this is a wake up bell for Vietnam, or this is a chance for us to see that there is still so much suffering in the world. And that is why we have to be the compassion, the understanding. Even though they don’t have understanding, we have to have understanding, and we don’t become a victim to the suffering, but we can see that they are a victim to a view. And so Thay would use the practice to have the clarity to look at the situation in a new light. So that was something that I was able to witness and even be a part of. And another practice that Thay always comes back to is calligraphy. Thay would really enjoy doing calligraphy. You know, the whole process, making a cup of tea, pouring, drinking a cup of tea, and then pouring a little bit of the tea in the ink, and then cutting the paper, the rice paper, setting up the table, and then one at a time, just do calligraphy phrase, sentence after sentence. And each sentence is a practice. So you’re generating activities to help focus your own energies. And so this is something that we all can pick up on. But you said that every example I gave you was not something to run away from. It wasn’t a screen to forget yourself into a Netflix series, or it wasn’t music to lose yourself in. But it’s always something to bring yourself back to the present moment, to give you more clarity, and then have insight, and then writing it down as an art, as also a discovery, and a truth, in a way.
So, brother, what I hear, you know, when I’m just…
Taking it all in.
In my mind, sort of, linking that then back to busyness and overwhelm because it, because what it brings up for me is that well, a few things. Firstly, if we have compassion for ourselves in our overwhelm, then we’ll have compassion for everyone else in their overwhelm. So that’s just a natural connection to people. But also, if we’re able to slow down for ourselves, then naturally we slow down things for other people. And it was that sense of, you know, that, you know, there are so many issues in the world that have been created from our busyness and from our striving and from our determination to stand out and be individual. And so when we’re able to solve that in ourselves, we solve it in the world. But as if we come to try and solve these problems of the world by being guilty, by being overwhelmed, by being busy, by thinking it’s all our responsibility, by thinking it’s all on our shoulders. Then actually we’re trying to solve the problems of the world with the problem that created the world. So actually the only way that, actually, you can solve these problems outside is if we find a new way inside. And the new way inside is, of course, nothing is ever new. It’s actually coming back to the wisdom of indigenous and people from the past who recognize that actually slowing down, resting, healing, and from that place where feel fresh. We can feel joy, we can be patient, we have insights, we have clarity. And those are the gifts that we need to bring to the world. Not more busyness, not more overwhelm, not more guilt, because the world is already full of those. And just, lastly, because I think one of the thing when it comes to overwhelm, which may be worth touching on, is, of course, the core Buddhist notion of impermanence. Because I know for myself that when there are moments where I feel overwhelmed, in that moment, I feel it’s going to last forever. Because if, you know, when it fills up so much and you just look at it and you just say, ‘Wow, I can’t cope.’ And that almost becomes this idea that that is it. This is the way it’s going to be. And yet, we know that, actually, life is… Well, we know, on one level, we know that life constantly is changing, that that overwhelm at one point will not be necessarily overwhelm even two or three hours later or a day later. But actually, it feels really helpful to recognize that actually what we feel overwhelmed by will change. Our feelings of overwhelm will change and we ourselves will change. But it might be helpful, brother, just to just to link that sense of impermanence to busyness, overwhelm feeling oh my God, I can’t cope.
Yeah. Yes. Everything is of the nature of impermanence. Our emotions are impermanent. The feelings, they come and they go. Sometimes some feelings stay much longer, but it’s also the nature of impermanence. There’s a cycle to it. And our teacher has advised us on multiple times, when the strong emotion comes it is like the big storm. Learn to close your senses, the doors so that the wind don’t come in and blow everything. Learn to close the mind sense of what you’re hearing, what you’re listening to, what is agitating you. Come back and be with the storm inside. And you know that when you’re with the storm, the storm will ease and you can even watch the storm. You can see the hurricane, but you are safe in this refuge. And Thay has taught and I was a teenager when I first came in my early years of Plum Village, before I decided to become a monk, and this teaching Thay would give to the young ones. He always encouraged us to develop deep belly breathing as an anchor. And especially when we have very strong emotion, don’t become a victim of your emotions because the emotions is just a part of you, it is not everything of you. And the emotion will arise and it will also go away. And when you have these super intense emotions and feelings, come back to your deep belly breathing and breathe with it. Let the emotion be guided by your breathing. And Thay has told us to put our hands on our abdomen and to invite our breath to become deeper and slower as we breathe out. And so this practice of deep breathing has been a deep friend of mine that I always come back to when the strong emotions manifest, that becomes my greatest refuge because it allows me to see the storm and not to be a victim of the storm. And having the insight of impermanence, knowing that everything will end, but I have to also help create the condition for it to end. But I need clarity to see how am I continuing to nourish this storm or am I offering more elements to the storm? And so this deep breathing has been such a support for me. But, like you said, don’t wait into your overwhelm and into your strong emotion to practice because that is when it’s too late. You have to do it now, when we are well enough, we are clear enough. We have energy and we develop, we invest in our true nature, our refuge, our own refuge, so that when the time comes and we need that refuge, we can rely on it. And to go even further, even when you’re joyful, you can be in the refuge because that joy, the happiness, the love that you experience can also nourish that refuge. So the refuge also needs nourishment, so don’t also just see it as a life jacket, but see it as a companion for you, for it to be with you in this whole journey.
Yeah. And just finally, brother, one last thing that comes to my mind is we never do things alone. You know, the power of community, you know? And again, just referencing the Climate Leaders retreat, that people came as individuals and they left as a community, even when people disagreed with each other about the route forward. And I think overwhelm often comes from feeling we have to do it on our own. And I think, you know, what I see constantly here in Plum Village is that this is a community and this is the age of community. This is the age where we have to come back to community. Because when we see ourselves as individuals and not part of community, then we, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed, it’s much easier to feel you can’t cope. But when you have a community of practice and a community of people, then actually we all end up supporting each other. And that just changes the whole nature. So, dear listeners, I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. And, brother, we normally end with a quiet, not a quiet reflection, but a moment of reflection. And so I wonder if you could maybe give us a short meditation.
Dear friends, wherever you may be, if you are going for a jog, if you’re walking, if you’re sitting on a bus, sitting in a car, or cleaning your house, just offer yourself the space to be still. You can remain standing or you would like to find a bench, a sofa, a chair, and just be seated or even lie down, allowing yourself to fully feel the weight of your body relaxing on this planet, on Mother Earth. So give yourself that space to just be still. Feel your two feet on the ground. And now I invite you to become aware of your inbreath. As you breathe in, just say this is my inbreath. As you breathe out, just say this is my outbreath. In and out.
And as I breathe in, I allow my breath to become deeper, feeling my abdomen rising. As I breathe out, I allow my breath to become lower, as my abdomen is falling. Deep inbreath. Slow outbreath.
And as and breathe in, I recognize calm in me. As I breathe out, I breathe out with ease. In, calm. Out, ease. Breathing in, I want to offer a smile to myself. Breathing out, I release all in my mind, all my worries, the tension. For this moment, I’m just gonna release. I smile to myself breathing in and I release, I release my burdens. Offer that smile of love and tenderness to yourself. Release your fear in this moment, knowing that you are a source of love and compassion. Breathing in, this is a present moment that I allow myself to dwell in. Breathing out, this is a wonderful moment. Being alive, being here. Because you are alive, everything is possible. In, present moment. Out, wonderful moment. And in this moment, I invite you to reflect a gratitude that you have for yourself. Thank you to myself. And bring that gratitude to the mind’s eye. And smile to that gratitude to yourself. Breathing in, I am grateful to myself. Breathing out, I am grateful to all the conditions around me, that supports me, that guides me, that offer me love and compassion.
Thank you, friends for joining, listening and practicing with us.
So, dear listeners, we want to, first of all, also thank Robbie, who is a long-term lay friend who has stepped in today to do the recording with us. So, Robbie, thank you for joining us. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, then lots more so you can find the series. The Way Out Is In on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on other platforms that carry podcasts, and on our own, very own Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support future episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.TNHF.org/donate. Thank you very much, and see you again next time.
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