A New Practitioner Sprouts in Plum Village
By Susan Hadler
I stepped off the train and waited. A woman in a long brown dress walked slowly towards me. She was smiling and she stopped in front of me. I was about to extend my hand when she brought her hands together in front of her chest and bowed. Worries fled. I smiled, brought my hands together and bowed. The nun's unhurried walk, her smile and bow live in me even as I write this from my room in the heart of Washington, DC, a city beleaguered by death, grief and fear in the wake of September 11th.
Plum Village was a nursery and I was a thirsty sprout, drinking in the freedom to stop and to be quiet. I learned freedom of a kind I never imagined could exist in a community. This new freedom comes from the place deep in the earth of being where the seed cracks open and roots and life begin. It is a place of inner space. Uncrowded. It seems to be nurtured by emptying rather than by filling, by weeding and pruning and watering with rest and attentiveness. I am trying to nurture this tender new plant that grew from the soil of living with the nuns of Plum Village and learning new ways of being with others and with myself.
I learned from the sisters that cultivating inner space is primary and important work. This was revolutionary for me. Previously, I had learned to respond indiscriminately and fill myself with others' emotional needs. I thought this was noble, even though I was often exhausted and unable to enjoy life. At Plum Village I learned to preserve inner space even in the presence of others; when I am with you, I am there for you, but I am still rooted in my own still center of space and peace. That place of space and peace is the tender new sprout I am learning to take care of. It means I can walk slowly and smile and bow even when you are upset, even when I am upset. This freedom seems to come from a place of security that is available all the time, even now when my city is threatened by biological terrorism. When I am rooted there, I feel almost childlike in my ease with living. Then I know the ultimate is everywhere. The ultimate is here.
I felt the roots of the new freedom grow during working meditation in Plum Village when a friend reminded me to enjoy the sea green leaves of the bamboo I was hacking off while pruning the forest. Growth continued when another friend taught me to hug the apples we were sorting, even the wrinkled, soft ones, instead of tossing them rapidly into boxes. Working slowly and attending to the task was new for me. I have always tried to work as quickly as possible and finish work before relaxing. But work was seldom finished. Often I did six things at once - cooking, cleaning, eating, laundry, talking on the phone, listening to the radio. In order to avoid the uncomfortable period of restlessness and withdrawal involved in slowing down, relaxing often took the form of more stimulation—movies, novels, and events. The little plant that began to grow in the quiet soil of Plum Village enjoyed the calm and clarity that came into my mind and body as I began to slow down and wake up. I noticed the new growth springing up outside my window as well as within.
Amazingly there was no competition in Plum Village for knowing the most, singing the best or even for working the hardest! That one surprised me. I had been trained to believe hard work was a virtue. After a few days of volunteering for everything and feeling confused when I wasn't rewarded for my 'virtuous' behavior, I began to understand that things other than hard work are valued in Plum Village, things that promote peace. I learned to value things like walking slowly, stopping to enjoy the fields and forests, singing in a circle, gathering to eat ice cream after a special working meditation, talking to the flowers and the sky, listening to the rain and watching the sunset through the orchard, and sharing stories and poems during tea meditations. Even rest is valued. Rushing and exhausting oneself are definitely not valued, even when one is trying to be helpful or useful. My little sprout thrived in the simplicity of Plum Village where space existed around each thing, like the space surrounding the flowers in the Meditation Hall.
My new freedom to enjoy living was tested when terrorism struck the USA. Anger and fear rose up in this country like a mighty unending storm. I was overwhelmed and struggled to breathe. Sometimes I forgot my little plant and when I sat to meditate, I felt tight aching shoulders and tiredness, symptoms of fear. When I was with friends, the talk was full of grief and rage and panic, discussions of causes and solutions. Voices boomed, threatened and clashed. Many of us rushed to help and to prepare for more attacks.
In the midst of fear, I've learned the meaning of refuge. Sitting with the Sangha here in Washington, D.C., I have found a place of peace where people walk slowly and smile and bow and sit in silence together and listen to each other, fertile soil for plants to flower. One afternoon in early October, a rainy windy fall day, I joined the Capitol Hill Mindfulness Community and the Committee on Mindful Politics for a silent walking meditation, an effort "to help Congress cultivate peace within themselves and in doing so, help to create peace in the world." I approached the Capitol full of anxiety and sadness. It was the day anthrax was discovered in the Capitol.
After the opening circle, we held hands and walked slowly toward the Capitol. Breathing in, breathing out. I looked up at the dark clouds swirling over the Capitol. There in front of the white dome, I saw an image of Thay. He was wearing his familiar brown jacket and long scarf. He was walking with us slowly, hand in hand. He was smiling. I lost my fear then and entered that country I found in Plum Village where the dark clouds of anger and fear and grief evaporate and space is endless. Bright yellow leaves twirled and danced with the wind as they fell around us . We stopped. We smiled. We bowed.
Susan Hadler practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.
Drawing by Wietske