By Sister Annabel Laity in January 2000
Before I came to Plum Village I had been practicing in India with the Tibetans, a meditation called tonglen. In this practice, when you breathe in, you take all the suffering of the world on yourself and when you breathe out, you breathe out all your joy for the sake of the world. I was ill while I was in India. When I first became sick, my teachers told me that it would be very good to meditate in order to breathe in all the suffering and breathe out all my joy. In fact, I did not have any joy to breathe out. However deeply I looked, I could not find it. Although this meditation helped me concentrate on my breathing and grow accustomed to bringing my mind back to my breath, the part about suffering and joy was not very useful. When I was well again, I met another teacher and explained my difficulty. He said, "Why do you bother to distinguish between suffering and joy? The two are the same." That put me in a little more difficult place, because I did not really understand what this meant.
When I came to Plum Village, Thay asked me, "What have you been practicing?" I said, "I've been trying to practice to see that suffering and joy are the same thing." Thay looked at me with compassion and said, "I think that you need to come back to yourself and nourish the joy in yourself. I do not think you have enough happiness to do that kind of meditation." Then every day, Thay would ask me, "Are you happy?" And I had to look deeply to see whether I was happy. I saw that if I can't say "yes," then I am not a very happy person. Although the seeds of happiness were in my consciousness, they had not been watered for a long time and therefore were not manifesting. Thay said, "Please do the kind of meditation that nourishes you, and when you are properly nourished with joy and happiness, you will be able to breathe out your joy and help other people." I had to do that kind of meditation for three or four years. I concentrated on nourishing the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. In my sitting and walking meditation, I could not breathe in all the suffering anymore, but I could breathe in the compassion of my teacher and myself for my own suffering. When I felt nourished by my teacher's compassion and my compassion for myself, I could breathe out joy.
I practiced mouth yoga diligently. Mouth yoga is the practice of the half smile. I made myself smile every half hour, whether there was anything to smile about or not. It was a revelation to me. Everything I thought was so important no longer seemed important at all. I lived in the practice center, and every day the practice center penetrated me imperceptibly, just as when you walk in the mist and imperceptibly your clothes become wet. Our habit energies of sadness and despair are strong and they do not vanish overnight. They gradually cease to manifest with so much strength, and they give more space to the seeds of joy.
One morning I sat on my bed to drink a cup of hot water. That is sitting meditation, because while you are sitting, you are mindful and concentrated. Outside you could still see the stars, but it was beginning to grow light. Unintentionally I began to experience my ignorance. I felt as if I were walking through veils of mist. As I passed through one veil, I encountered another. However I knew that the sun was there too, although I could not see it. Wisdom and ignorance were present together. I knew that awakening can happen at any moment, in any place. You only have to practice and awakening is there. Habit energies can be overcome now by the practice of being truly there in the present moment. At that moment I was awakened about my ignorance. I knew and felt my ignorance and wrong perceptions deeply. So awakening was not the absence of ignorance, but awareness of the nature of ignorance.
The sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness includes some exercises on mindfulness of the body. One exercise that helps us feel less lonely and cut off is the meditation on the four elements. In the Chinese version, there are six elements; in the Pali, there are four. Those elements are earth, water, fire, and air. (The Chinese version adds space and consciousness.) The Buddha says that all these elements are in your body; they are the basic constituents of your body. And you should meditate first to see those different elements supporting your body. Then, you meditate to see those four elements working to support life everywhere, not just your body. Gradually, you see the oneness of your own life and the life of everything around you, so that you are not afraid to die. You know that those elements which support this little body support all others' bodies and somehow, there isn't such a thing as death because the elements continue to support life anyway. This is a very beautiful meditation.
You begin by saying, "Breathing in, I see the earth element in me." Certain things in you are more solid than liquid—your bones, nails, tendons, excrement, flesh. Here you can see the earth element.
If you touch with your mindfulness everything in your body that is quite firm, then you are touching the earth element in you. And then, breathing out, "I smile to the earth element in me." Next, "Breathing in, I see the water element in me." And everything liquid in your body is the water element in you—your urine, your blood, your saliva, your perspiration. There is a lot of water in every part of your body. You are seventy percent water. And then, you see the water element outside of you—the rain, the sea—and you feel the oneness of all life.
You may decide, "Today I will just do the meditation on the earth element." And throughout the day, you are aware of the earth element in you and the earth element all around you. You base your concentration on the earth element for the whole day. Another day, you can meditate on the water element. When you're walking, you feel the water in your body and the water around you. Focusing on the air element, you see that the air in your body and the air outside are one. Of course the air is another thing which loves us and which is so essential for our lives. When we get caught up in worrying about unnecessary things, we can always look up and see that the air is there allowing us to breathe, and we know that there is nothing to worry about. Especially if we're in a beautiful place where the air is good, we can feel supported by the air outside of us as we feel it coming into our lungs.
If I were to write out of my experience the recipe for nourishing happiness, I should write:
To nourish happiness, smile often; walk and breathe in mindfulness many times every day in order to touch the present moment deeply; have a kind teacher and spiritual friends living with you or near you so that you can visit them often; read or listen to beautiful and meaningful teachings which you can put into practice straight away; and have the beauty of nature, its sights and sounds, penetrate you daily.