By Mick McEvoy in February 2020
I can see clearly that I was happy before I came to Plum Village three years ago. I had good friends and good connections with family, and a good livelihood—I had a simple life. But big blocks of pain were inside of me. I wasn’t as aware of them as I should have been. I think the big transformation is actually learning to love myself, and it’s an ongoing journey.
I think it’s common these days (not just for women, but especially for women) for people in our cultures to have a hard time with the idea of our body image. It’s tied with our sexuality. I’m gay. I like the word “queer”—an all-encompassing, broader term—so I don’t have to limit myself. In the past, I had loving relationships with both women and men. However, when I looked deeply, I still had difficulties accepting my sexuality. I probably would’ve continued the inner work of learning to love myself if I were living back in Belfast. But coming to Plum Village, taking the space to not be in relationship, and having this time for myself was a catalyst for personal growth. This space helped me dive deeply inward, at times.
I went through a long process before acknowledging that I was queer and thinking that this was okay.
I went through a long process before acknowledging that I was queer and thinking that this was okay. I shared with my family, friends, and workmates that I’m gay. Nonetheless, I had a deeply rooted internal homophobia that I think was transmitted from the wider culture I grew up in; sadly, probably even from wider family and friends. I thought I was cool with being gay. But often I caught myself making mildly homophobic jokes or even using the word “gay” as a negative term.
Now I’m learning to love myself and to meet friends with whom I can share deeply. Sometimes I can go to these friends and cry. This helps me heal. I recognise the deep sadness of missed long-term romantic opportunities with guys who loved me; I pushed them away because I wasn’t comfortable with my own sexuality. I’m learning to befriend myself and my own identity. It’s a deep healing.
Back then, I wasn’t ready for a relationship because I still carried these scars and this trauma; they’re still there, but they’re healing. In the gay community, especially for gay men, there is a belief that only big muscly guys are beautiful. It’s obviously the same in the media for women—shallow and superficial. I suffered from not loving my own body.
I like many attributes about myself. I can be social and can connect to people. Still, this lack of body confidence can be deeply entrenched. It took me probably two years to talk about this in Dharma sharing. Once I said it, though, it was very liberating. I was not in love with my physical body at that time.
I’ve progressed a long way along the path to recognise this. I came from a conservative culture that sent the message that our bodies needed to be covered; we didn’t speak about our bodies; and shame existed about the physical body, sex, and sexuality. As a result, my sexual energy and desire were tied into my body.
I’m learning to share with lay and monastic friends that my body has treated me well throughout my life: I’ve never had to be in hospital for surgery, I’m healthy and physically well, my teeth are my own, my eyesight is still good, and I can hear well. This is amazing. I’m starting to love myself again. This self-love gives me confidence to go out and begin connecting with someone in a loving, noble way. I can take this openness of communication into a sexual relationship.
In the past, my conception of true love was completely off: there was limited checking in with the other person, limited expressing gratitude for my partner and limited accepting of responsibility for my actions. Now I have learned how valuable our Beginning Anew practice can be. I am excited and nervous about venturing into the journey of a long-term romantic relationship again.
I read Thay’s book Fear during my healing process. In it, Thay describes how we’re all born with original fear and original desire. The original fear was that we would be left alone: as a very young child or baby, we would be taken away from our mother. We depended on her for shelter, nourishment, and life. Without her, we wouldn’t have survived childhood. We seek that kind of care, whether it comes from our mother, a romantic partnership, or even our community. Thay says that loneliness is the ill-being of our time.
My experience of loneliness has led to craving for a romantic relationship. In Plum Village, I have benefited so much from community life. Sometimes it’s been challenging to share a bedroom. But I’m so appreciative of waking up in the morning and being surrounded by people who are candid, caring, and loving. They are here for themselves and for others. There’s a physical and spiritual community of friends and loved ones, lay and monastic. This community is built through the small interactions of sitting and sharing our food together three times a day. It includes all of our practices, such as coming together for a Day of Mindfulness.
I have a fear of losing that community connection and of not finding that partner, especially when it’s something I’ve expressed as a volition.
I have the aspiration to live in a community. I don’t want to be in my own house or apartment, particularly in the long run. I have some friends who aren’t Plum Village practitioners, but they’re spiritual people. Some are Quakers; some are Christian; some are Buddhist. They want to create an ecological village while bringing a spiritual element to that endeavour.
Regarding community building, one of our monastic brothers who’s from Italy, Brother Phap Bieu, shared that as we all live, practice, and serve in community together, it can be useful to practice with the mind of “non-self confidence.” Brother Phap Bieu shared this before the beginning of the Summer Retreat [in 2018], which he called the “season of service.” The Summer Retreat is a time when hundreds of families and children come to stay with us in Plum Village.
As community members, we are all engaged in service, and the practice is to contemplate the mind of non-self confidence. We develop a confidence that the friends with whom we live in community will work hard to take care of their responsibilities for the community. If we all trust each other to serve, to contribute, and to trust our non-self, then together we manifest a beautiful village and beautiful experiences for the guests who come to join us on retreat—throughout the whole year, not just in the summer. This idea is from the Buddhist practice of non-self, from the Heart Sutra: we inter-are; we are all connected; everything depends on everything else. Thay applied those concepts in the development of Plum Village. When I learned the concepts, they were revolutionary for me.
As Happy Farmers, our service is cultivating organic food for the community, cultivating a space for the practice to thrive on the farm, and cultivating a space of refuge for visitors and all the beings that dwell on the land there. Practicing non-self confidence, I am confident that my friends, sisters, and brothers are doing the same. Everyone in Plum Village is doing amazing things. Some people organise the children’s program, which is a massive undertaking. Others cook meals for a thousand people every day. People constantly bring friends back and forth to the train stations and airports. Others prepare the meditation halls, where brothers and sisters give Dharma talks. And on and on, together as one community.
Confidence in non-self is something that has stuck with me. Each year, we welcome a new team to the Happy Farm. I share with them before the start of the season of service during the Summer Retreat that confidence in non-self means we don’t have to do anything on our own. Rather, all that happens is done by the community. I will practice this daily: I don’t have to do anything on my own. This perspective helps with pride and ego, whether it’s in one’s livelihood, in community, or even in relationships. If there are at least two people, then I don’t have to do it on my own.