Mary Paterson was forty years old when her father died and felt suddenly destabilized and adrift by the loss. Paterson’s response to this life crisis was to embark on a pilgrimage to Plum Village, the retreat of Nobel Prize-nominated Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The Monks and Me (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2012) chronicles her 40-day journey arriving at the conclusion that it is important to always find a home within ourselves. Mindful breathing and remembering The Four Noble Truths helps Paterson find peace among distractions in this excerpt taken from the introduction.
Think of all the things you do with your body. Earlier today I did a little weeding in the garden greenhouse in which the nuns grow organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. This is one of the many working meditations that visitors are asked to partake in while staying at the monastery. At dinner, I relished the spinach and arugula leaves from that very garden. After a few too many butter croissants in Paris prior to my pilgrimage, even after just one day of eating nutrient-dense meals, I feel lightness in my body and renewed clarity in my mind.
The food we put into our bodies influences our mind and impacts our health. That is why, here at Plum Village, careful attention is paid to the quality of all meals. Too much sugar, like sickly sweet donuts, and we see everything through a curtain of fog; too much spice (watch the chilies!), and we can’t concentrate during meditation; overeating makes us sleepy. Everything we ingest affects us in some way. There is something else—the wrong type of food can produce deep tension inside our bodies. It is difficult to come back to the island that is yourself if that island is full of pain. Who wants to visit an abode of suffering?
Relishing these wholesome culinary delights today, I wonder why I don’t have the discipline to consistently eat well at home. Salt and vinegar potato chips make my muscles hurt—like they are crying out for real nutrition. In just twenty-four hours, being at the monastery has awakened me to my own misery. I realize now that I slip in and out of treating my body with the respect it deserves.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that the physical tension existing in our bodies is “a kind of suffering.” Pain will eventually cause illness unless we have an effective technique to release that pressure on a regular basis. “We should always try to be compassionate toward ourselves, then we will understand how to reduce the pain we carry within.” Thây speaks of taking refuge within our self, of going home to ourselves through the act of mindful breathing. This conscious breath technique, which the Buddha counseled as a prescription to rid ourselves of our suffering, unifies our mind and body so that we become established in the here and now. I take the first of many silent vows: “I’m determined to remember to breathe mindfully.”
So who is the Buddha? Who is this being who has influenced countless people, not to mention Thich Nhat Hanh?
The enlightened Being we now call the Buddha was once a man named Siddhartha Gautama who lived in India over 2,500 years ago. This young man was a seeker. He wanted to understand the nature of existence and human life. After six years of intense practice with several renowned spiritual teachers, Siddhartha sat under a Boddhi tree and vowed not to stand up until he was enlightened. He sat all night; then as the morning star arose, he had a breakthrough that filled him with understanding and love. He became enlightened. After enjoying his realization for forty-nine days, the Buddha walked to Deer Park in Sarnath and joined five of his fellow ascetics. As Thich Nhat Hanh recounts in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, the Buddha then proclaimed some version of the following teaching: “I have seen deeply that nothing can be by itself alone, that everything has to inter-be with everything else. I have also seen that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening.”
The Buddha then taught The Four Noble Truths:
1. There is the existence of suffering.
2. There is the making of suffering.
3. There is a way out of that suffering.
4. There is a specific path to restore well-being called The Noble Eightfold Path.
“Wherever the Noble Eightfold Path is practiced, joy, peace and insight are there.”
Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes that this Noble Path of Eight Limbs—Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration—are of the nature of inter-being. The Zen master notes that “each limb contains all the other seven.”
Since I am here to apply the Buddha’s teachings, and now that I am gratefully lying in my warm bed, I ponder that frustrating, albeit minor, upset of my inaugural monastic shower. I was distressingly tired, wet, and cold. This was evidence of The First Noble Truth—I was suffering. That’s pretty straightforward. My aversion to the lack of water was The Second Noble Truth—that is, there was a reason I was suffering and that reason was I hated being freezing cold and wet! But there are always choices. Faced with no water in the shower, I could either have fought that reality or accepted my circumstances. The fact that I understood through mindfulness that it was possible to reduce my discomfort proves The Third Noble Truth—there was a way out of suffering. Then, choosing to concentrate on my moving breath brought some relief from my frustration, as well as some insight. I knew my discomfort was impermanent. Nothing lasts—no pain, no pleasure. My concentrated breathing brought me back to the island that is myself, where many resources and insights exist. In this case, the recognition of the simple truth that no water in a shower is a very minor upset. There is a freedom in recognizing when you have absolutely no control in a situation. Acceptance is entirely liberating, as is resolve. My frustration was instantly cut in half. I touched The Fourth Noble Truth, the path that restored my well-being.
Today I glimpsed the immense possibilities of mindfulness. “I can see that coming back to the island that is myself, this taking refuge within, is empowering and liberating,” I muse. But I wonder if I will be able to go there when a more difficult situation arises. That is the real question.
The Buddha did not say that everything is suffering as many interpret his teachings to mean. Thich Nhat Hanh said that the main aim of the Buddha was to transform suffering. “You must find the ill-being within yourself and then transform it.”
The water in my shower eventually came back on, the black spider crawled away, and I happily rinsed off the soap suds. When we relax, things have a way of turning out.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Monks and Me: How 40 Days in Thich Nhat Hanh’s French Monastery Guided Me Home, by Mary Paterson, published by Hampton Roads Publishing, 2012.