Practice From the Heart – Plum Village
Every afternoon we met in “dharma groups” to share our experiences of the retreat and ask any questions. On the last day I asked what the difference is when Thay talks about happiness, joy and pleasure. I was told, gently but clearly, by the nun leading our group that it was only language and I should not get hung up on it.
But the problem is that I have to write in language. At least I think I do? I find myself going back to feminist writers such as Helene Cixous who have explored different ways of using language to write about embodied subjectivity. But I’m dredging this up from the back of a long line of academic memories.
I can’t say everything and I definitely can’t do Thay’s teaching justice. So I’m just going to share my understanding of a few pieces of teaching about happiness from the week – and then say something about my experience of trying to apply those ideas.
In the retreat, Thay taught us that we all have the potential to manifest 51 mental formations, some of which are wholesome, some unwholesome and some neutral. These include formations such as anger, jealousy, joy, happiness and mindfulness. We have seeds for each of these formations inside our consciousness and, because nothing can survive without nourishment, we have to find ways to water the seeds that we want to grow. For example, meditation waters our seed of mindfulness and mindfulness shows us that the seed of happiness is available in the present moment. At least I think that is right?
However, Buddhism also teaches that everything is impermanent. Mental formations, just like everything in the world, are in a constant state of change and flow. In this state of impermanence non-attachment is vital. We can water seed of happiness and enjoy the fruits of that seed, but should know that happiness too will pass and suffering is inevitable.
And indeed the two are inseparable, because happiness and suffering are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have one without the other and therefore we should neither become attached to either nor run away from either. The practice is simply to notice and observe our mental formations. The process of transforming suffering requires us to examine it deeply and honestly and mindfully rather than running away from it. You have to have a lot of mud to grow a lot of lotus flowers.
Coming out of the retreat has been an interesting experience to observe. At first I felt enveloped by a bubble of mindfulness which made my re-entry into Bangkok quite surreal. On the day after we finished I sat for over an hour in a busy skytrain station writing my diary, deeply aware of but wholly unaffected by the rushing people all around me. I came up to Chiang Mai to spend some time with new and old friends and because I felt like it would be good to nurture the energy and learning of the last week.
But actually the ‘real world’ is still difficult. The things that caused me to suffer two weeks ago still cause me to suffer. I do have things to do and so do other people and change happens in small spiralling steps. I’ve experienced a different way of being in the world, now I’m trying to work out what that means and how it integrates into me – and I’m trying to do that at the same time as a moving to Laos and preparing to start my fieldwork.
So I am holding in my mind what Thay said that when we don’t know what to do, breathing mindfully in the moment is always the right thing to do. That is the practice.