The Way Out Is In / Transforming Loneliness (Episode #43)

Sr Diệu Nghiêm, Jo Confino, Br Pháp Hữu

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Welcome to episode 43 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.

In the last podcast recording of 2022, the presenters – Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino – are joined by Zen Buddhist nun Sister Jina (the special guest in episode 14, ‘I Have Arrived, I Am Home; What a Blessing’). Together, they discuss loneliness, and how the Buddha’s teachings and Plum Village practices and exercises can help us come back to ourselves, and feel connected and part of life. The three also share moments of loneliness from different points in their lives. 

Sister Jina (Sister Dieu Nghiem, translated as Sister True Wonder) further shares about coming home to oneself; creating self-compassion; people’s fears about looking inside themselves for answers; and learning from our mistakes.

Brother Phap Huu shares about Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of happiness, gratitude, and on identifying the goodness in life; ignoring our suffering; connecting to our true self; the temptation to retell stories of our suffering; the void and taking care of our wellness; learning to forgive; learning to be flexible; the practice of touching the earth; tree hugging; and silence.

Jo shares about feeling worthless and lonely in front of 400 people; reaching out to others when suffering from loneliness; learning to love oneself; gifting presence to ourselves and others; and interbeing. 

The episode ends with a short meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu.

“We send our hearts out to you and hope that this conversation has brought some balm to your lives, and that over this period of days and weeks you find a sense of peace, a sense of calm, a sense of rootedness, and a sense of love and gratitude for yourself.”

See you in the new year! 

Co-produced by the Plum Village App:

And Global Optimism: 

With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation: 

List of resources

Sister Jina

The Way Out Is In: ‘I Have Arrived, I Am Home; What a Blessing’

Dharma Talks: ‘Interbeing and Store Consciousness’ 

Climate Week 

Sutras: ‘Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone’

Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone 

Tom Rivett-Carnac

Christiana Figueres 

Thich Nhat Hanh: Live Our Life Whole: The Surface and the Depth of Our Being (4 February, 1993)

‘The Five Earth Touchings’


“As a young man, rather than true friendship, I was looking to get people to pay attention to me, almost to prove that I was alive and worthy to be alive. And it created an imbalance in my life: rather than thinking I had something to give and offer because I felt strong in myself, I was always looking for other people to mirror my existence.”

“Sometimes when you’re suffering from real loneliness, reach out and be vulnerable and share and allow the love and support of other people to come in.” 

“We’re in a time of what’s supposed to be great connection; we’re all connected, but that connection is very often [on the] surface and is leading to more disconnection.”

“In my orientation, I always guide and I always invite people at the retreat to learn to be a friend with their breath, because that breath accompanies you to the west, to the east, to the north, to the south, inside, outside. As long as you are there, that breath will be with you. And the more you are connected to the breath, the more you learn to guide your mind home to your body, then you have a chance to cultivate your mind.” 

“We have the view that being together is [only about] being with humans. But in our practice, we start to learn that being together is also [being] with nature, it’s also [being] with the conditions around you. Thay would teach us every morning to be grateful for one thing: ‘When you wake up and you see the sunrise; be grateful for that.’ You’re not alone. The sunrise is there for you.”

“Happiness is a very big word, but in the Zen tradition and in Plum Village, Thay talked about happiness as something as simple as having a cup of tea: feeling the warmth, seeing companions, seeing I’m not alone, and starting to train the mind [to see] that I have goodness inside of me, I have happiness inside of me, I have joy inside of me, I have peace inside of me. I can touch that, even though it’s not long-lasting. But peace is available. So the first steps, and the first attention and awareness that we are taught to identify, is the goodness in life, inside of us and around us. And what’s interesting is that it is very easy to have gratitude for things outside of us. [But] it takes a little bit more effort to have gratitude for oneself.” 

“Sometimes we get so lost in our practice or in that present moment, and Thay had a very funny, quirky side, so he would ask one of his students, ‘What moment is this?’ And the right answer would be, ‘This is a happy moment.’ Sometimes we just need to be reminded to show up for ourselves; only when we show up for ourselves we can truly show up for others.” 

“We also have to forgive ourselves. This forgiving is a journey, because when we forgive ourselves, we may also be forgiving our ancestors or our parents, who inflicted suffering to us, our society that inflicted suffering on us. And so this forgiving oneself has another layer that is unseen: learning to meet the other conditions, and forgiving, and recognizing them, embracing and transforming them, and letting them go. And when we say let go, it doesn’t mean they are not there anymore, but we’re not attached to them anymore because we, as practitioners, want to learn to be more free, because freedom is an element of self-love.”

“I am as I am because of causes and conditions. And who am I to judge other people? What are their dreams? What are their hopes? What are their fears? And so I think the issue is not the other people; it’s inside of me – and that’s good because I can do something about 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 in the tradition of Plum Village, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.


And brother, this is our last podcast recording of the year. And so today we’re going to be talking about loneliness, how we can actually help ourselves to feel connected and to feel part of life.


The way out is in.


Hello everyone. I am Jo Confino.


And I am Brother Phap Huu.


Brother Phap Huu, we have a special guest today, and not for the first time. Do you want to tell us who is here with us?


Yes. Dear friends, dear listeners, today we have back with us Sister Jina. Sister Dieu Nghiem, translated as Sister True Wonder. She is a great elder in our community. She is a Buddhist nun now residing in the Lower Hamlet, and she was the former Abbess of Lower Hamlet. And she was in an episode last year, episode 14, about the practice of I have arrived and I am home, how to do dwell in the here and now. So if you would like to visit that episode, you can because it is truly a very deep session that we had together in that conversation.


Great. Welcome, sister.


Thank you.


So, brother, before we talk about the Plum Village teachings on how to come back to ourselves and how to deal with issues like loneliness, maybe it would be good just to share maybe a moment or an experience of loneliness that we have had in our lives. And because actually everyone suffers from loneliness at various times in their life. So do you want to… Is there anything that comes to mind with you?


Sure. I would start with my journey as a young novice monk. When I was an aspirant to be trained to become a monk, I was very energized and enthusiastic in everything, fully participate in all of the sangha activity. And I was only 13 years old at that time, but my aspiration was so strong, so I didn’t miss home. But within one year, later, I think just as human beings, no matter if you are a monk or a nun or or a Zen master, we have mental formations and we have emotions that will naturally come. And I remember one day just sitting in the room, I was totally missing my mother and I felt so alone. And that feeling was very, very, very raw. And I felt that the connection that I had with my mother was so real, and real meaning that I always felt loved by her. But sometimes we have this idea like, okay, well, we are entering into a spiritual path, becoming a monastic, we’re letting go of all of our attachment, all of our feelings. That was a view I had, like I shouldn’t miss my mother. I shouldn’t miss my friends. I shouldn’t have these feelings. And if I do, oh, that means I’m a weak practitioner, I am not yet solid as a mountain and so on. And that moment when that loneliness came up, what followed was tears. And it was my first time crying as a monk. And at that time, I just learned to embrace my tears and allow vulnerability to be present. I was very, very raw, so I didn’t know what to do and I was very aware of people’s perception about one another. Even living in a community as monastics, we are very mindful of how we show up in the community and sometimes we have very strong judgment towards ourselves as well as to our own community, our members in our community. So I always had this persona as like a young, fresh monk, happy, jolly, and suddenly I was quite afraid of that feeling of loneliness and that feeling of being vulnerable like that. So that was a moment during my youth as a young monk. And fast forward, like, I think 15 years in, our 16th year in as a monastic, there was a time when I was with the community, very involved, I am abbot by now, have led many sessions of meetings, being a part of so many organizations, so involved in the community, surrounded by so many wonderful human beings. But I was quite lonely. I was suffering, but I was ignoring my suffering. And by ignoring my suffering, I built up a lot of resentment even towards the community that is supporting me because I was so tunnel vision within my suffering that I was trying to figure out and I was trying to be by myself to work on it and not express my suffering, my weak side to the Sanga, to my beloved community. And it was Lunar New Year, and Lunar New Year in Plum Village is a very big celebration, very warm, just like Christmas in the West. And it’s a time for connection, it’s a time for letting go of formalities between the monks and nuns. And we are drinking tea in each other’s rooms, having quite deep conversations, or just looking at photo albums of each other and to see where we all came from. So it’s a very intimate moment. And that particular day it was a celebration in Upper Hamlet, and I’ve been holding a suffering that I was still learning to identify, I was learning to also embrace it. And that particular day in the monks’ residence, there was so much laughter, there was so much connection, but I felt like a drop of oil in this beautiful lake of the community. And I felt so isolated. And I even had this feeling of, like, being outcast and that I couldn’t enter into my own room where we were hosting our sisters, our brothers, our lay friends from around the world. And I felt so, so, so, so lonely. And because my heart wasn’t present and it couldn’t connect to the ones that I was with, and so I had quite some shame. Shame followed with the feeling of loneliness, feeling like Oh, my God, I am 16 years in now. I should have… I should be able to transform these energies, these emotions, these feelings. But here I am, totally taken over by this sensation and this feeling. And what I did was I left the monks’ residence, and I went for a long walk. And I came back to my room much later when the noise has reduced, joyful noise. And I remember sitting with the feeling of guilt coming up because loneliness isolated myself from people. The guilt of like not being able to connect. And that was a real, real hard moment. And I sat with it for not just that particular evening, but a few days that followed. And just to learning to smile through it, that was tough. That was so, so, so, so, so, so tough because of the judgment I also had for myself. So that was an experience, and it also shows that even when we are amongst so many, it doesn’t mean we are connected. Right? And recently, I’ve seen this meme because it was leading up to Thanksgiving, and a meme is like a joke, and there is this image and the writings in the image was Great, we’re all going to come together, sit at the same table, but we’re all just going to stare at our phones. Because we don’t know how to connect. And I had such a great laugh because this is so true. But at the same time, it was so scary because I’m like, this is reality. This is our modern day suffering. And I think all of us in the world, we have experienced this and we will meet our self at a moment in life when it’s going to be so real that we just feel so disconnected. So that was one of my… two of my experiences that I would like to publicly share.


So if we’re publicly sharing, brother, so what came to my mind was also two experiences and for me. And one was when I was a young child, I didn’t know why I was alive. I didn’t feel I had a place in this world. I felt utterly alone and separate and small and insignificant. And I remember, and I don’t know the exact day, but I remember something like as an eight-year-old in the small bedroom, in the house I lived in. And there were bars across the windows. I don’t know why there were bars on the windows of the top floor, but anyway, there were bars in the window. But there was a part of me that just wanted to end my life then because I didn’t feel connected to anything. I just didn’t understand why I was alive. And I know that’s played out a big role in my life because that sense of insignificance has always… means I’ve been very needy of attention, very needy of… So rather than, as a young man, rather than true friendship, I was looking to get people to pay attention to me to almost to prove that I was alive and that I was worthy enough to be alive. And it created this whole sort of, this whole imbalance in my life that rather than me thinking I had something to give and offer because I felt strong in myself, I was always looking for other people to mirror my existence. And as we go through this podcast, we, you know, I’m sure we’ll talk about the practices that can help that, but it still has that resonance. Even with all the practice I’ve had over the years, I still see myself sometimes looking for that recognition, looking for that attention. And the other thing that just popped into my head as you were sharing deeply, brother, because it was moment I’d forgotten about but it just came very strongly into my mind that when I was at The Guardian as a journalist, I was asked to do a keynote speech at a major conference during what’s called Climate Week. There are about 350 400 people in this conference, and that morning I’d had a very difficult time at work and something had happened. I’d been accused of something. And I was feeling completely shut off and feeling completely dejected and completely alone, actually, this sense of loneliness, of feeling that that I’d been pushed away and that I’d been accused of something that felt very unfair. And that went to sort of the core of my values. And the conference was actually in the big conference center below where the office of The Guardian is. And I had to go down there, and I was sitting in the front row, in the reserve place waiting to be called. And I was sitting there and I thought, I can’t do this. How can I stand in front of 400 people when I’m feeling worthless? And at that moment, I felt so lonely, because there was no one I could reach out to. And I felt I had to do my duty at the very moment where I felt I had no resources in me. And they called my name and I got up on the stage. And I just told the truth. I just said I’m feeling terrible this morning and feeling worthless, I’ve had a really difficult time. I’m feeling I don’t have the capacity, I don’t know what I even to say to you. I feel overwhelmed. And then I realized that actually that’s what everyone was feeling about climate change and that everyone in the audience at some level was feeling this sense of, I’m not doing enough, I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy enough to make a difference. And so I just then shared it as this was what I was feeling and also put it in the context of the whole climate movement. And at the end of it, so many people came up to me and said that was so meaningful and so vulnerable to have shared that. And it was a real lesson for me about that sometimes when you suffer… when you’re suffering from real loneliness is to also reach out and to be vulnerable and to share and to allow the love and support of other people to come in.


Wow. So, brother, let’s talk about the practices, because here we are, we’re talking about times in our life, you as a monastic, me when I was sort of in two periods of my life. Actually, both when we were young and then older, thinking of the practices of actually there are so many people in the world who are suffering from loneliness. And I was reading an article in the New York Times today and it said, 50% of all men in America don’t have a single friend, they have no one they feel they can reach out to. And as you said a bit earlier, that we’re in a time of what’s supposed to be great connection, we’re all connected, and that connection often is very surface and actually is leading to more disconnection. So let’s talk a little bit about Plum Village tradition and the Buddha’s teachings and how they can help us if we’re feeling the sense of separation.


So I would say the core teachings of Buddhism and Plum Village is learning to come home to oneself, because we are so dispersed in our daily life, our minds, our projects, our thoughts, our actions, our focus, we’re so dispersed and we are being pushed by our experiences, our past, our feelings, and it drives us into many directions. And therefore, we also cultivate a sense of emptiness, and this is not Buddhist teaching on emptiness, the emptiness here is… there’s a big void in us that we try to cover up. And like you said, today, even though we say that social media helps us connect but it’s only connecting us very superficially. And the kind of grasping that has been born from it is attention, but this is not right attention, this is attention to feel worthy, too few seen, to view heard. And people are willing to do so many things just to get attention. And behind the screen, behind the image, when the screen is turned off, we still have to come back to ourself. The true friend that we have that we learn to connect to is truly ourself. And our practice in our tradition, the first home that we can identify it is our mindful inbreath and mindful outbreath. In my orientation, I always guide and I always invite people in the retreat to learn to be a friend with your breath, because that breath accompanies you to the west, to the east, to the north, to the south, inside, outside. As long as you are there, that breath will be with you. And the more you are connected to the breath, the more you learn to guide your mind home to your body, then you have a chance to cultivate your mind. You can identify what are the images that are always manifesting in your thoughts, what are the energies that are always circulating within the present moment, and how is it connected to your daily life? So our teaching, the first wing of meditation, is just learning to stop, learning to be home with oneself, because that’s where life is. For us, the Buddha said, the past has already gone, the future is not yet there. The only moment where life is truly, truly, truly happening, it is the present moment. That is our home, the present moment. But the present moment is a continuous stream that is present, but we are not there most of the time and is so easily for us to be distracted, especially if we live in a big city. The noise, the lights, the screens of advertisement is always grasping us and telling us to do that, get that, that is happiness. And we’re being baited, we’re being hooked. And so therefore we are learning to run after something. And the Buddha’s teaching, he has a sutra which is going to sound funny because it sounds like it’s contradicting our theme, but the title of the sutra is The Better Way to Live Alone. Right? So you can misunderstand his teaching. And there was a monk during the Buddha’s time, it is recorded that he misunderstood the Buddhist teaching and everything he did, he did alone. The monks were saying, Hey, the Buddha instructed us to go as a community down to the the villages, to go for alms together. And he said, No, I want to do it alone. And then in meditation, the monks would sit together, he would always isolate himself and sit alone. And what I love about learning about the sutra was that during the Buddha’s time, you can see how real and human the monks and nuns were with the Buddha. So there were some monks were quite upset with the behavior of this monk, and they felt, this is not how you practice. So what did they do? They went in to tell, so they all went to the Buddha. And can you imagine this like an enlightened teacher, you know, someone who is like, well, maybe the Buddha didn’t know that he would become such a teacher 2600 years later, but his students would come up to him and said, Buddha, teacher, one of your student, he won’t join us in meditation. He won’t join us in Dharma discussion. He won’t walk with us to the village. And I can only imagine what the Buddha was thinking, oh my gosh, I’ve been teaching them for so long and they’re still behaving like this. So as a teacher, though, the Buddha was so compassionate. So the Buddha calls him up, calls up this monk and as the monk sat, I’ve heard reports from your Dharma brother, that your idea of practicing is to isolate yourself and not to be one with the community, with your groups of monks and nuns. And he said, Yes, because I am practicing to draw apart, to be alone. And then the Buddha offered the teachings, said, Ah, you have misunderstood my teaching. When I say there is an art to live alone, it means that we are not carried away by the winds of the world. And these winds are the desire, these winds are the self, I want to gain something for myself, all of these temptations that are coming at us as well as I am not being carried away by my emotions, by my feelings, and by my wrong actions. So I learned to come home in order to take care of that within myself and to create an island where I can take refuge in, and that island is a practice. So when we are being swept away by our thoughts about the past, how we were in the past, and you can daydream about it, you can go down this rabbit hole and start to procrastinate. Oh, my gosh, what have I been doing? Why am I not like that anymore? So the Buddha teaches very clearly so that you are being swept away by the past. And then he goes on, and this is if you are being swept away by the future, that you are always thinking how you will become in the future, what you will gain, and then you start to plan and you lose yourself in the here and now, then you are lost. And even in the present moment, you can be swept away by the present moment, by you think you’re here, but you’re going in circles about your stories. We all have stories. I’ve done this myself. We all have stories that we like to retell about maybe our suffering, especially when it comes to suffering, I like to retell. I like to retell and go on about it because there’s something tempting when it comes to suffering, maybe because I identify so much with it. And we get lost even in our suffering. And if we’re not applying the teachings in the present moment then we are being swept away by the present moment. And so this sutra has become a foundation for our practice of the four establishment of mindfulness, how to take care of our body, how to take care of our mental formations and etc., etc.. And so in the teachings of Plum Village, mindfulness becomes our foundation of learning to come home in every minute, every action. The meditation hall is not the only place of practice. But even when we are cooking for our community, we can see it as a task, but we can be truly at home in the present moment, as we are cutting the carrot, we can be in touch with the wonders of the carrot to see that… what a miracle it is to have carrots to cut for the community. And in a few hours, I’m going to be able to enjoy the taste, and that is going to nourish me. So you start to, as an individual, you start to feel that you are not alone. We have the thought and the view that being together is being with humans. But in our practice, we start to learn that being together it’s also with nature, it’s also with the conditions that are around you. Thay would teach us every morning to be grateful for one thing. Thay would say, even when you wake up and you see the sunrise, be grateful for that. You’re not alone. The sunrise is there for you. And the sun is going to penetrate, give you vitamin D, give you happiness. So suddenly you start to have, suddenly you start to see that, ah, my relationship to everything is also offering to make me feel whole. So we can keep going, but, you know, I would like to give you an umbrella of this practice.


So Sister Jina, Brother Phap Huu talked about the Buddha’s teachings of coming home to oneself. What does that meant in your life?


Maybe I’ll start by saying what keeps me from coming home to myself in a lot of what Brother Phap Huu was saying. I notice when I am concerned about the past and I keep on getting lost in the past, it is because of a regret. Usually I’ve done something, I’ve said something, or I’ve not done something not said something, something that I regret has to do with the past. And then I take some time to look into the situation and to see really what were all the conditions that were there, outside of me, as well as inside of me that made me respond or act or say the way I did. And then when I see, aha, it is because of all these causes and conditions that I reacted as I did then I have understanding for myself. And there can be compassion for myself. And for the future, when […[ Draws, you know, an anxiety, because I don’t know what’s going to happen, then I know through the practice the future will become the present, and in the present I can know what’s happening. So then I really go and focus on dwelling in the present moment. And when I find my mind going off to the future, I say, Now come back. I’m here now. I can see what’s happening now and I know how to respond. So this, you know, anxiety and this regret, in my life of practice I’m aware of those states of mind and to know what to do with it, you know? Have compassion and bring it to the present moment and see clearly what I can do now.


Thank you, sister. And you’ve been several decades in the practice and working on Buddhist teachings and incorporating them into your life and gaining insights from them. And I’m just wondering, what is the feeling for you of being at home? How would you describe that?


First of all, I’d say my experience of coming home and dwelling in the present moment when I’ve been distracted by something or caught into something that expresses itself physically as a sinking feeling in the body. You’ve been out in town or whatever, you come home and you go, Ahh.


Mmm. Yeah.


You know…


I want to do the same.


Yes. And that feeling of in the body, I’m home, I’m back in the present moment then is very precious to have that. And it is about letting go. What’s past is past. I can learn something from the past. And our teacher Thay, so compassionate, and would say, at least he said to me at least once, it’s not that Thay doesn’t want us never to make a mistake, do something unskillful or whatever, but Thay would like us to learn something from our mistakes and I thought, ah, okay. But first I have to accept a mistake. Yeah. But Thay accepted and said, learn something from it, and I still remember that, and it’s still something I keep coming back again and again in order not to get caught and be stuck in a regret or be stuck in an anxiety. So we speak a lot nowadays about self-compassion, and I thought, how do I do this? And then that’s how I remembered this teaching by Thay, and that’s it. Learn something from it, and then compassion can be there.


And sister, I coach a number of people and what keeps coming up is when I ask people about how they look after themselves, they talk about, oh, well, that’s just being self-absorbed, and actually, I’m much more curious about other people and I’m much more interested in what other people’s perspectives are, almost as though there’s a block to looking inside. And of course, the name of this podcast is The Way Out Is In, what do you think of people’s fears about actually looking inside themselves as opposed to this idea of, I’ll find the answers outside myself?


The fears of looking inside. You would have to ask them. Let’s explore this together. A too high expectation of ourselves that maybe has been handed down to us from someone in our life, parents, teachers, society, and that we start believing that we have to be exactly as that picture, which I’m not quite sure what it’s anybody who would get anywhere near that picture. Great beings, some of whom we know very, very well, Thay, Ghandi, I don’t know, many, many people in the world, still many people I see, I think there are many more people than we know of who have that great compassion. Yes, like I said, an image that’s been shown or handed to us that you’re supposed to be like this and not like that in order instead of telling us, No, like have a direction you want to go into. Yeah? And the direction and the going is important. The arrriving is something that happens by itself. We don’t need to worry about that as long as we know the direction and we go.


Thank you, sister. Brother Phap Huu, you mentioned earlier about the void. And again, in my own personal experience and with people I work with, there’s an often expressed fear of entering the void as that if I look at myself and my own life, that actually I will fall into this dark place and I will, you know, in one sense, die in there that I won’t be able to manage it. And the void is also, in the true sense, also a place of infinite possibility that when you actually are prepared to dive and jump into the void, actually, we don’t die, but we actually find that we can be sort of reborn in some form, we can find new answers, new possibilities. And I’m just wondering, you mentioned about the void, what do you think is people’s essential fear of leaping into the void? And how can this sort of Buddhist practice help people to take the risk? Because there is a risk, isn’t there, of going inside? Because people fear what they’ll find. Might be too horrible, that they won’t be able to handle it. How can the teachings of Thay, and Plum Village, and the Buddha help people to find the courage to look in?


I think the first practice would be to take care of our wellness. Just like before surgery, we have to be healthy enough to enter, to open up the wound. So normally, the first practices that I was instructed, as well as I learned from retreats, and then becoming a monk, we are taught to learn to identify real happiness in our daily life. And happiness is a very big word, but in the Zen tradition and in Plum Village, Thay talks about happiness as something so simple as having a cup of tea, feeling the warmth, seeing companions, seeing I’m not alone, and start to train the mind that I have goodness inside of me, I have happiness inside of me, I have joy inside of me, I have peace inside of me. I can touch that, even though it’s not long lasting. But peace is available. So the first steps and the first attention and awareness that we are taught to identify is the goodness in life, inside of us and around us. And what’s very interesting is very easy to have gratitude for things outside of us. It always takes a little bit more effort to have gratitude to oneself. And that depends, of course, on every individual. But I remember we did this circle and we asked people to be grateful for themselves. And the first person said, Oh, man, that’s so hard. And it took her a good minute or two to really identify one thing that she can publicly say. That I’m grateful for, that I allow myself to spend time with the lavender and the butterfly. I remember the sharing and that image was very clear for me. And so learning to see the goodness that we have, that is the first practice. And then when we have stillness, very naturally, we will start to identify the emptiness or the suffering, we can say. And suffering can be loneliness, suffering can be just feeling lack of being seen. And all of this, there’s a layer of being loved, right? So this is my own realization. And all of us, our upbringing has a big impact on this void. Some it is very deep. Some is very shallow. But if it is not cared for it can develop, right? So when I look at my journey, when I look into the void, I hear the suffering of my parents. I can still vividly remember my parents arguing and crying over not having enough how to take care of us in Canada, not knowing the language. And so that suffering, as a child, I have blocked it. I have blocked it out of my mind consciousness. It’s in my store consciousness. But I don’t like to visit that experience. And the more that we allow all of these experiences to be in the basement, but not being cared for, it creates a deeper and deeper sense of lack of connection, a lack of love for ourselves as well as for others. And so coming home to oneself and looking at that black hole, we can call it like that, we meet the past and the present, and we also may meet the future. If we’re not taking care of ourselves, we will be exactly like that. And the fear of it is really just seeing ourselves in the mirror and then knowing how much we’re holding. And so sometimes it is so overwhelming, that’s why we want to turn that channel off in our mind, so we turn on a television or we turn on a show, even music, or looking for food. Right? We have this craving inside, too. If there’s a void in the mind, then we can also feel in the body, so we drown ourselves in consumption, and that’s why alcohol is so popular and the industry of alcohol is so strong and rich and it becomes such a culture also. We find ways to just not visit that place in us. And why Zen meditation can be challenging is because it offers a silence, and that silence also allows noise to manifest. And when I say noise here, it’s the internal noise, whether it is our our experience, now the language of trauma, it can be in our body, it can be a story that we have experienced, and it will come up as a noise and it can react in many different ways, bring up anxiety, etc., etc.. And so all of this experience, negative experience, if we don’t know how to transform it, then we will never meet ourselves and give ourselves an opportunity to transform and to grow. And so there is a link in our practice here is when you meet suffering though you see it as an opportunity, you see it as an opportunity to know yourself, you show up for yourself. We always say show up for people, show up for this, show for that, but Zen, we learn to show up for ourselves. And our quality of showing up will have a very big impact on connecting with people. And I’ve been Thay’s attendant, and Thay is not like someone who speaks a lot. He’s actually very quiet, but he’s a very good speaker when it comes to the Dharma talks and interviews and so on, but around Thay there is a lot of silence. But the way he shows up for drinking tea, the way he shows up for his attendant, communication is very clear. And that kind of presence is an investment that we can offer ourselves to be at home for ourselves. So we learn to create new habits of how we show up for ourselves. That is mindfulness. We show up on a cushion, but we can show up at a table, with our loved ones. And sometimes, from time to time, when we eat meals together with Thay, Thay would say, Look at each other, my students. Simple as that. And then we’re all waiting for, like, a deep teaching. Thay says, No, that’s it. Please, continue eating. But sometimes we get even so lost in our practice or in that present moment, and Thay, he has this very funny side of him or quirky side, and Thay would say, Thay would ask one of his student, What moment is this? And the right answer would be, This is a happy moment. So sometimes we just need to be reminded to show up for ourselves. Only can we show up for ourselves can we truly show up for others.


Brother, what that brings up for me is, you know, as we started off this conversation where I talked about feelings of… that I felt I was worthless and that I had nothing to offer, that I was always dependent on other people to mirror my existence. And it was a long process of self-discovery, but there came a point where I learned to like myself. And then it took another couple of years before I could say I love myself. But when I was able to say I loved myself, my whole life changed because it was like I was then able to offer something to people rather than try to take something from people. And Thay talks about, isn’t it, that if your bowl is empty or half full, you can’t really give anything, but if it’s naturally overflowing, then you can’t help but offer to people, and it becomes a… and our last podcast was about generosity, and I realized that was just a reframing of my mind to say I’m worthless to I’m worthy, and as soon as I recognized, but I had to deeply recognize in myself that I was worthy, and when I reached that point in my life, I was able to say, actually, I want to be here to support other people and I want to help other people to find this place in themselves. So I deeply sort of resonate to what you’re saying and that sense of it’s only when we come back to ourselves, which is the teachings that… and we really heal ourselves to the extent we can, that we then can go out into the world. And Thich Nhat Hanh talks about that a lot, doesn’t he? When we come back to ourselves from that place of centeredness and presence, we can connect to another person. And then he talks about and then we can connect to society, because, of course, as we’ve been talking about, the whole problem is that everyone’s feeling, so many people are feeling lonely. And that we have this sort of society, but actually it’s full of problems, full of mental health problems, full of suicide, it’s full of addiction, it’s full of extraction. And actually, if we don’t start to find these places in ourselves, then we remain part of the problem. Sister, is there anything you would like to add?


Trying to think. Self-love, self-compassion. Self-compassion is what we hear a lot about. So I looked in that also. How can I create self-compassion, compassion for myself? And it came to me, if I understand how things come to be, then I understand and I can have compassion. So if I say something or do something that I realize Ah, this was hurtful for the person who I was saying it to or what I did. And I take time to look at myself and I have to understand exactly my situation at that moment. Yeah? And what was happening for me. How did that feel? How were my connections with other people? And what were all the elements that made me the way I was, the way I acted at that moment? So all the kind of non situation elements of the situation. Does that make sense? Yeah? Then I think, Oh, if I look at all those conditions inside of me, around me, the way I acted, it was the only way I could. If one of these conditions would have been different, I would have acted differently. And then I learned something from that, and I had self-compassion. We speak so much about self-compassion, but it doesn’t just come. But seeing all the causes and conditions that brought about my action, then there’s insight of non-self. And every action has non-self action elements. Yes? You understand what I mean? So I always come back to that. Okay. What are the non-self elements of this situation? And then I understand, okay. And then I can see where I could have acted differently. And I say, Okay I’ve learned something from this here, now. Now I see this element I could have done differently. And that I find very important, to come to the place of compassion for ourselves and see, okay, that here I learned something. Where’s the lesson I have to learn out of this situation? And then, you know, we go on through life a little bit richer. Inside. Put it that way.


Thank you, sister.


Yeah, and I just want to add from what Sister Jina shared, is learning to forgive oneself from our actions, we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to do something that we were not proud of, and that adds to the void. And meeting that experience, and sometimes shame is good. Thay talks about shame in a way it has a double, double-edged knife. Sometimes it’s very supportive, and sometimes is very destructive. And sometimes we can look at our previous actions and say, Wow, I was foolish back then, and therefore I behave like that. But thanks to that, I will change because I saw the suffering. And so we also have to forgive ourselves, and this forgiving is a journey also, because when we forgive ourselves, we may be also be forgiving our ancestors, our parents that have inflicted suffering to us, our society that has inflicted suffering to us. And so this forgiving oneself also has another layer that is unseen, is that we’re learning to meet the other conditions, and forgiving, and recognizing it, embracing it and transforming it and letting it go. And when we say let go, it doesn’t mean it’s not there anymore, but we’re not attached to it anymore because we, as a practitioner, we want to learn to be more free because freedom is an element of self-love also. And we speak a lot about the self, but we have to understand the interbeing of the self and the non-self. So when I’ve learned to live with so many brothers and sisters, learning to see them for who they are it’s a very deep practice. And if you don’t see them who they are, you will never be connected and you will always feel lonely. And that’s why we always say the Buddha has always taught us that when we practice true love, we accept their beauty, and we accept their imperfectness, their imperfections. And that connection also allows the other person to accept themself. And so, as a practitioner, learning to come home to oneself, we’re also learning to support others, come home to themselves, then we have more presence that we can connect and be with each other. And we also have to learn to recognize and support each other when we are lonely. Sometimes I’ve done this myself, and it’s a fault, and something that I can say I was shameful of. When I see someone not happy, for example, as a practitioner, as a monk, I said, Oh, don’t be so sad. The sun is still up, you know? And then you act as pressure to them to learn to be full. But as a practitioner I also see them oh, they are experiencing some suffering. And offering them love, but with space. And there are ways in our trainings that we have to learn just letting them know that I know you suffer and I am here for you, and that’s it. Maybe you don’t need me, but if you ever do, please know that I see you, you know? And I think this is also the practice of loving oneself and compassion how it can multiply our capacity to connect and to love others more. So when we say love in oneself is not actually an act of selfishness, it’s an act of caring, and having the capacity to then offer our true love to others. There’s many ways of love. I can buy you something, Jo. What do you want for Christmas?


I got my list with me actually.


But I only get forty euros a month, so please keep it under…


I’ll take the 40 euros.


Right. So what we’ve learned is also how to gift ourselves presence each day.


Brother, I just want to just come back to one point you just raised because I thought it’s really important, about not trying to make other people happy and not trying to prove to other people that they can be happy. And what it brought to my mind was I had a very close friend, I still have a close friend, and I was in a workshop with him. This was probably 20 years ago now, and he was feeling suicidal, and he stood up and he was sharing the suffering he was in. And I remember I stood up and I said, but, I’ll make up a name, but Paul, you know, how can you be feeling that? You’re such a wonderful person, you’re so kind, you’re so warm, you’re so thoughtful, you are so this and that. And the facilitator stopped me and said, How do you think Paul’s feeling now by you telling him how wonderful he is? All he’s feeling is even worse about himself. What he needs is for you just to be there with him in this dark place, not to try and pull him out of it. Because if you try and pull people out of their suffering, then actually you can actually make it much worse and make it more difficult for them. So thank you for raising that, because I think if people are suffering, be with them in their suffering, recognize your own suffering in what they’re going through. Don’t try and make it better, because often when you try to make it better for someone, you’re actually blocking your own pain. I wanted to ask a question, because this recording will be published during the holidays, and I can’t remember who said it, but someone said, if you think you’re enlightened, go and spend a week with your family at Christmas. So I just want to ask for those people who are listening, who are dreading going to family get-together, who feel that actually, and especially in these polarized times where it might be that the relatives they’re visiting might be sort of completely different politics. It might be that you don’t feel part of the family. It might be you feel a duty to go, but actually you’re hating every minute. What is your suggestion of how when you arrive at your family get-together, and this, of course, is not just related to Christmas or the New Year, can be any time you’re with people that you really don’t want to be with, but as responsibility or duty, you’re there, what is the best way to be present during those difficult times? Sister Jina, any thoughts of how can one be present in a place with people where actually all you want to do is run screaming from the room?


Well, I would look at my mind because it’s all happening in my mind, it’s nothing to do with the people who are there. It’s my reaction to the situation that is making me feel this and not the situation itself. Other people in the room are very, very happy to be there. So. And by going back to myself and back to my breathing, what I’m doing, I am breaking the contact, if you like, with the…


The suffering of…


the suffering of other people, and therefore not nourishing this feeling in me and making it bigger and bigger so I can come back to myself. And since I have cut it off from the source, it will calm down. I will be calmer. I can see the situation, and I can see that everybody is as they are because of causes and conditions. And I am as I am because of causes and conditions. And who am I to judge other people? What are their dreams? What are their hopes? What are their fears? And so I think the issue is not the other people, it’s inside of me, and that’s good because I can do something about it.


Beautiful. Anything? Any… I mean, that pretty much tells the story. Thank you, sister. But what else would you say?


Learn to be flexible. That’s a very good mindset to have, being flexible, learning to be open. So there was only one time in my life I was allowed to go. I was at home for Christmas because I tore my ACL playing football with the brothers and I had to do physiotherapy for a very extended amount of time, and the conditions were for me to be in Canada. And it was my first Christmas at home after I don’t know how long… 12 years? And just like many friends, the holidays is the biggest family reunion. And I’m going to show up, and I know there’s going to be meat, there’s going to be alcohol, there’s going to be karaoke, Vietnamese families love karaoke. And I’m going to meet also a new generation of children that were born within my extended family, so I get to meet them for the first time. And I had some expectations and then I had some wish, whatever that may be, but I always remembered this this line that I was taught as a monk. When you go home just learn to be a son, learn to be a brother, learn to be a sister, learn to be a loving family member rather than learn to show up like I’m a monk, you need to adapt to me. And then it’s about me, me, me, and me. And while my hours with the family reunion, I was very skillful. So as someone who is not very interested in politics at that time, I didn’t want to talk about Vietnam, and then business, because I don’t have anything connected to that. And so, as someone who did want to establish some connection to my relatives who I have not seen for years, you can always find questions that taps into who they are. And I remember one relative who I talked to, she said, wow, this is the first time somebody actually asked me how I am doing, not about what do you think about Bitcoin and the fall of FTX, for example. Right? And then a lot of us we’re gonna find topics of the world to discuss about how to avoid talking about each other. So my way was to be very skillful not to tap into deep if they’re not ready. But there’s always a channel that we can actually tune into to know more about each other. And with my uncles and aunts, I want to hear more about their childhood, you know. I would say, you know, uncle number seven, I haven’t seen you for so long. Like, when you were young, that dream you had, like, is it coming true now? For example. And then I was very flexible with all the kids. So we had, it was when the We just came out, there’s a Nintendo console and GarageBand. Was a huge thing. And in my precepts, I’m not supposed to play video games, but this is the only way I’m going to connect to these seven, 12, 13, 15 year old. I dive right in. I’m like, Let me help playing the guitar, for example. And it was the most joyful time and it was the rarest time that I was able to be an uncle for many of them. And time flies, and, as a monk, I don’t have so many opportunity to be home. And now some of them are in high school, but they always remember how flexible I was as a monk. And they said how cool I was because I was able to blend in and be with them. And they didn’t feel judged. And they all know what a monk is. We have to bow to him, you have to be respectful and everything. And I could have held that image, and I think our connection would have been totally disconnected. But I was able to let go a little bit of myself, but not losing myself. Right? So I do have boundaries and I think all of us, we can have boundaries for our happiness. If there is a discussion that is not nourishing, I think we can be skillful and to excuse ourselves, but not doing it in a manner that belittles the other folks, that other family members, or friends. So it’s all about communication and body language. And what is very important is the mind, what Sister Jina talked about how do we come back to ourselves, and are we judging that person so harshly or do we just see them, that’s their capacity, that’s their limit. And we don’t need to say that, we just see them for who they are. Yeah. And meet them there.


So one question I have is that Thay’s teaching is all about interbeing. In fact, he coined the phrase interbeing, which now is sort of a very mainstream idea, that everything is interconnected, that you cannot look at anything in isolation from anything and everything else. So it feels a bit bizarre when you stand right back to think that people feel lonely, that people feel isolated when in fact they are part of this extraordinary web of life. And I’m just wondering whether there are sort of daily practices or other ways, apart from… because you’ve talked about coming back to the breath, you’ve talked about cause and conditions, appreciating the sunshine, so those are ways of connecting, but are there any other practices that Thay has developed or from the Buddha’s time that really help people to connect to this sense of everything, so that the loneliness would just, in a sense, dissipate. Brother Phap Huu, is there an exercise that could, or exercises, or practices that could support people?


So one practice that is more formal, but it’s a very deep and profound practice in Buddhism is touching the earth. And when we touch the earth, we humble ourselves, so it’s a movement of like bowing down, like our forehead, our arms, our legs, our whole body is in the ground. And it’s a very humbling action because usually men we think we’re the best, or humans, I don’t want to say just men, but humans. We think we are the boss of everything. But this practice of touching the earth is a practice of humbling ourselves. And there’s a meditation that we would recite before we touch the earth, or even in the action of touching the earth. So normally we would join our palms representing mind and body united. Then we bring it to our forehead. And there’s two meanings. The first meaning that is connected to the practice of roots is that we know that our self cannot be by itself, it is through our whole ancestry. So in Vietnamese culture, we always say that our ancestors are kept on our head. So when we bring our palms to our forehead, it’s like we’re inviting our blood and spiritual ancestors to be with us. And then down to the heart level, and we see the oneness of different lineages, the past coming into the present. And then we bow down and we open our hands to express our intention of being open. And our teacher has put together the practices of the five touchings of the earth, as well as the three touchings of the earth, the three touchings of the earth. And the texts are very profound, very beautiful. It’s connected to seeing us with the land, it’s one of the texts, seeing us with our ancestors, the beauty and the un-beauty, seeing it all here and then making a vow in this present moment to transform for them, to be the change for the world. And so that is one element. And, of course, a more day-to-day practice that we can do is walking meditation. And, you know, really being connected to the sounds, the smell, the earth. We have practice of tree hugging and it may be weird in a public park, but you know what? Hey, you’re alive. That tree is there. I’ve seen brothers, you know, really practice tree hugging. I remember when we went to the Sequoia forests in California, and Thay invited all the monks and nuns. And it was about like, I don’t know, 12 or 15 of us all hugging in order to connect the full circle around a tree. And we just spent three deep inbreaths and outbreaths and in that moment I personally felt very little, and I felt as part of this magnificent cosmos and I feel, wow, thank you, gratitude manifested as well as connection, roots, that the tree is nourishing me, but I can also nourish the tree. So I feel that all of us can find something very simple that makes us connected. When we eat, we usually take a moment to join our palms and just offer a gratitude. That is also a practice of feeling one with everything that is supporting us.


Brother Phap Huu, Sister Jina, thank you so much for this and also for anyone who’s listening to this, who is feeling lonely and especially at this time of year. And we send our hearts out to you and hope that this conversation has brought some balm to your lives and that over this period of days and weeks, that you find a sense of peace, a sense of calm, a sense of rootedness, and a sense of love and gratitude for yourself. And brother, as is our tradition, we often end recordings with a short guided meditation. So if you are happy to bring us back to our center and bring us back home.


Of course. And dear friends, wherever you may be, if you’re sitting on a bus, sitting on a train, going for a jog, going for a walk, or you’re cleaning your house, if you just allow yourself to take a moment to pause, you can stand very still, or you can find a bench or sit on your sofa and just allow yourself to settle. Feel the weight of the body sinking onto Mother Earth. And connect to your inbreath. As you breathe in, notice your inbreath. As you breathe out, notice your outbreath. Inbreath, outbreath. And as you breathe in, you take full advantage of that inbreath, you are one with it. As you breathe out, you fully dwell with your outbreath. Deep inbreath. Slow outbreath. And as we establish our mindfulness of breathing, we are coming home to our body. The mind is home in the body. So you can feel your body. If there’s any tension, just released the tension. In, aware of body. Breathing out, I relax my whole body. How wonderful it is to have a body, to feel. Breathing out, breathing in, and breathing out. I am loving my body. I offer myself some love in this moment, some care. As I breathe in, may I be peaceful and light in my body, and in my mind. And breathing out, allow peace to be present. At home with myself, I offer myself an aspiration. May I be safe and free from accidents, may I truly be mindful of my body, of my actions in daily life. Care for it as it has been caring for you. May I be free from anger, unwholesome states of mind, fear and worry. May I know how to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and compassion. Breathing in, I embrace myself. Breathing out, I offer myself compassion. I accept my past, my present, and I am caring for my future. Breathing in, may I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. Breathing out, just knowing that I am alive, everything is possible. I know I have the ability to touch happiness inside of me and around me. I practiced to offer joy to myself even if it is just a smile. Breathing in, may I learn how to nourish myself with joy each day. Breathing out, this very moment is a joyful moment. Breathing in, I accept myself. Breathing out, I smile to myself. Breathing in, I embrace myself, my family, my society. Breathing out, I offer my love, understanding, and compassion. Myself, my family, society. Dear friends, you are enough. Thank you so much for practicing with us.


Thank you, Brother Phap Huu. And also given this is the end of the year, it’s a good opportunity to show our deep appreciation of all the people who support this podcast and make it possible to reach you, our dear listeners. So I wanted to thank Joe, who is one of the editors of the podcast. Anca, who does all the shownotes and gets this on all the platforms. Cata, who is sitting with us, who is the creator of the Plum Village App, which I am sure many of you love, and has been an enormous supporter of this series. And also Clay from Outrage and Optimism, who is our other co-producer who has again been an amazing support. And also Outrage and Optimism, Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac, who have given us enormous support and resources. Again, without them, I don’t think this podcast would exist. And also for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, which has provided us the finances and resources. Okay, so this is a community and it might be that Phap Huu and I sort of front it, but without many other people it would not be possible. And if you’d like to support the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation and to ensure that this podcast continue and also to support the greater community and all the monasteries around the world, than I’m sure that will be greatly appreciated. Have a wonderful end to 2022 and we will see you in 2023.


And I just also want to say thank you to all of the listeners, because it has been two years of the podcast and we have received a lot of wonderful feedback. And all of the sharing is just to know that we are a part of your meditation, we are a part of your weekends or weekdays. It really, really warms our hearts, and it also motivates us to continue to come together and offer sharings and invite brothers and sisters and friends around the world to also be part of the podcast. So you are also a part of the podcast. Thank you so much.


And finally, finally, we got to the end. Hurray!




Finally, if you enjoyed this recording, then you can find another 42 on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, other platforms that carry podcasts, and also our very own Plum Village App.


Thank you.


Thank you.


Thank you. Thank you.


Yeah. Cozy. Super cozy.


The way out is in.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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