Beginning Anew to Love

by Monastic Sister Sinh Nghiem

Sister Sinh Nghiem and the teens during the 2016 Summer Retreat Teenagers programme

Dear Wake Uppers,

For over 30 years, I have gone around in circles, trying to find true love and happiness without much success. I have experienced highs of excitement and fallen into depths of confusion and darkness because I did not know how to love truly and the art of enjoying simple things in life. I want to share with you my personal journey so far in learning true love with the hope that you can draw something from it and avoid some unnecessary heartaches that can prevent you from experiencing true love and happiness. We live in a society so well equipped with countless ways of communication and connecting, but we still have not been able to fill that void inside or know how to handle feelings of loneliness and disconnection.

My experiences both in childhood and later in intimate relationships (as a lay person) have created many wounds because I was very confused about love and sex. As a child, I was molested by an older teenage boy who did not know how to manage his sexual energy. In my naïve childhood mind, the seed of trust was compromised on two levels in relation to males and towards my parents because I did not know how to reconcile the strong emotions of anger towards them for not being there to protect and embrace me. I cut myself off from my parents’ love, and decided that I would take care of myself and not rely on them emotionally anymore. This also entailed my search outside of myself for a love resembling the unconditional love that I had disconnected from. As I reflect on my past relationships, I can see that I always tried to look for this kind of understanding and compassion for the little wounded child inside. This endeavor always failed because it came from the wrong view that others could heal her when in fact, she needed to allow healing to take place by reconciling with her parents and reconnecting herself to the treasure trove of love from her parents that has always been available for her.

In my blood family there was suffering related to fidelity and jealousy, both with my parents and my grandparents. As their continuation, I have inherited these seeds of craving and suffering which I did not recognize, and hence did not know how to transform them. Then growing up in a society where there is too much emphasis on satisfying sensual and sexual pleasure—as if it were the aim of our life—I could not avoid forming distorted views about love and sex. There seems to be so much “empty sex” in our society that very often left feelings of emptiness and disconnection even though I had relationships with people who were genuinely nice, educated, or even people who have a spiritual practice. At the beginning, there was the novel excitement and joy of being together, but after some time, this sense of disconnection and physical discomfort would arise again.

When I reflect on my past relationships, I see that many were formed based on attraction which was fleeting or alternatively, the attraction came from the unfulfilled need to love or be loved and accepted.

Unaware of my wrong ideas and their consequences, I also learnt how to use sexual energy to manipulate and control, believing this to be a right to express feminine power in this age of sexual freedom with mutual non-commitment. I lived in this way with not enough care and consideration about how others might feel. When I reflect on my past relationships, I see that many were formed based on attraction which was fleeting or alternatively, and the attraction came from the unfulfilled need to love and/or be loved and accepted. I see that my motivation for being in them was all about me: what I needed, what I wanted, what would suit my future expectations for starting a family; or that I didn’t want to be alone, that I just wanted to have a bit of ‘fun’, that I didn’t want to be seen as a “loser”, unwanted, or end up as a spinster. If I am honest, I would say that I never knew how to love truly in any of my past relationships. I am sorry to all those kind people who were in relationship with me! Sorry for not knowing how to take care of my own suffering and hence made you suffer, too.

By the age of 30, I thought I had—through a process of intelligent progressive selection—narrowed down the most important qualities I wanted in a partner to ensure a good long-term commitment until we were both toothless old bags sitting beside each other reminiscing about our past. But again, I found that my difficulties and suffering revolved around some similar patterns of jealousy, possessiveness, or just overall disconnection and feelings of emptiness, boredom, or dissatisfaction within myself, and with romantic relationships in general—like a sour after taste when you’ve had a very sweet dessert. With divorce rates higher than 50%, I didn’t have much hope of having a happy and lasting relationship. I looked for intimacy in another, but I ended up feeling more lost and disconnected within myself than before.

It must be something inside that prevented me from having the happiness and fulfillment that I yearned for in relationships because no matter whom I was with, I still encountered similar problems. So I decided to stop doing things the conventional way and took some time out of the relationship scene in order to look deeply inside myself. I quit my job and booked a three-month winter retreat in Plum Village. After experiencing the joys of community life, the peace and happiness of the mindfulness practices in daily life, and increased understanding about myself, the option of an alternative career and lifestyle became increasingly attractive. I became a nun on a quest to learn true love! (trumpets blowing vivaciously!…)

It seems ironic that I only begin to discover how to love truly after I became celibate, but that is what is happening. I am still learning about true love, because to love truly is an ongoing practice (not only a feeling) to make one’s heart grow wider and more inclusive. In this process, I’ve found that the first step in learning true love is to know how to treat and care for my body and mind with respect and kindness.

I’ve found that the first step in learning true love is to know how to treat and care for my body and mind with respect and kindness.

The first step in learning to care for my mind is to be aware of my sensory impressions and how they can create wrong views. I can see more clearly now that my suffering has come from wrong views about men, distorted views about myself and my body, and deluded views about sex, love, and relationships. Growing up surrounded by information technology, I think my wrong views are also a reflection of society’s views because the media is one of the most significant element in conditioning my views about relationships. As an example, I remember the film Jerry Maguire and how that was such a big hit in the 90’s. In that movie, there was a line by the main female role where she said to Jerry: “You had me at hello,” or “You complete me.” It was so romantic at the time, but now when I still remember those lines, I think that she’s looking for suffering because to depend so much on someone or something external to complete you, in effect, you are disempowered when it comes to your own happiness and well-being.

There have been countless other movies where I’ve seen that after a few dates, or even after one date, a couple already sleeps together! Or there are so many songs with lyrics about sex, so much so that it is considered abnormal if you don’t sleep with your partner, whether or not there is love involved, and much less consideration of how long you have known that person (understanding that person seems to be an obsolete criteria these days.) The body seems to be just like an ’empty’ machine for pleasure. Dating seems to be all about sensory impression and attractiveness, and there are numberless ways to embellish and optimise one’s appearance for the most effective “catch”—clothes, cosmetics, plastic surgery, diet, etc. We spend so much time and money, make so much effort, and go through great discomfort or pain for the price of physical beauty to look other than we do. It is then no surprise that I rarely felt comfortable in my own skin! This conditioning begins in our teenage years through the media, our family, and our peers.

I grew up consuming computerised, air-brushed images of perfected beauty—women who were tall, skinny with curves in just the right places, flawless “natural” complexion. I could not accept my body since I was a teenager; at times I even despised it. Why did I always feel inadequate after looking through women’s magazine or fashion magazines when it was meant to support my well-being and happiness to be a woman? I did not buy these magazines on a regular basis, but everywhere, from street billboards to shopping malls to TV and Internet, one is constantly being “force-fed” with these “standards” of a cool self-image and lifestyle of consumption. It is very damaging because it created a lot of hatred for my own body, non-acceptance of my situation, and no chance for happiness in the present moment because there is always something to buy in order to be happy, to be cool. I could never be fully comfortable and truly connect with another person because of this complex about my body, even if the other could accept me as I was.

After being a nun and living in an environment free of these harmful sensory impressions for seven years, I am still working on healing these conditioned views about my body, and practicing day by day to transform habitual ways of relating to others that is not motivated by attraction and manipulation.

This non-acceptance of myself was so ingrained that until now, after being a nun and living in an environment free of these harmful sensory impressions for seven years, I am still working on healing these conditioned views about my body, and practicing day by day to transform habitual ways of relating to others that is not motivated by attraction and manipulation. I am learning to treat my body with respect and kindness by being aware of what I eat, getting enough sleep and relaxation, and learning to manage stress and strong emotions with mindful breathing and walking meditation. Being surrounded by a lot of nature has been very healing as Mother Earth accepts everything. Whether you are a beautiful flower or a distorted and sick leaf, you are still a wonderful creation of Mother Earth. The flower does not compare and disparage the leaf, and the leaf, in its own capacity, will still provide nutrients to the flower and the tree.

Only after I had removed myself from my conventional environment and allowed myself to experience an alternative—an environment free of these conventional stimuli—that I was able to see more clearly the effects of conditioning on my behavior and daily choices of what I consume for the health and well being of my body and mind. Life in current high tech society is like being in a gushing river. You only experience being swept away, bobbing up and down uncontrollably, sometimes gasping for air and just getting a glimpse of the blue sky. But if you can manage to extract yourself from this torrent and sit on the shore, then you can see that peace and ease is possible, that the blue sky and green trees are so beautiful, that the stars in the sacred night are miracles that we all belong to.

Dietitians say, “You are what you eat.” I think the same thing can be said of our mind. What we think and what pushes us to behave, including our habits, are largely dependent on what we consume through sensory impression that leave us with a perception of something. If we keep consuming images, sounds, and ideas (through conversations) that reinforce these perceptions, they can become a view that is ingrained in our consciousness. They become our reality. All of this process is happening in a very subtle way so that we are not aware of our changing views and perceptions. If our view is wrong or distorted, then this becomes the foundation for all the actions that bring about harm and suffering. I am not blaming the media and society for my suffering. What I am trying to say is we can be more aware of how our sensory impressions can impact on our mind on a daily basis and be intelligently selective of what we consume, so that we can protect our mind and body. Like a branch of white orchid that will become purple if we soak it in water with purple dye. What kind of nutriment or colour do we want to feed the flower that we are?

We can be more aware of how our sensory impressions can impact on our mind on a daily basis and be intelligently selective of what we consume so that we can protect our mind and body.

I have experienced for myself that by living more simply with fewer sensory stimuli and learning again to enjoy and find a sense of wonder in the simple things in life, I am re-setting my priorities in the right direction. We often take the simple things for granted like taking a walk in a beautiful sunset on our own, enjoying the moonlight as it creates wonderful patterns on the ground through the branches and leaves of trees, and savouring the delicious colours of autumn leaves with our beloved on a Sunday afternoon. The daily things we do can be the very thing that our spirit needs when our mind is united with our body, when we are really present for the moment, anchored by our mindful breathing. Mother Earth provides us with so many miracles, but only if we stop to receive and be healed, be transformed by her. Otherwise, we remain destitute and continue to run around searching when we already have precious jewels within our hands.

During our summer retreats in Plum Village, we have a teens program. Last year in working in the teens program, I felt so much pain hearing stories of how much young people hate their body and feel the need to cover their perceived ugliness with lots of make-up, or they think that they can only be attractive when they dress sexily, or be accepted or loved when they agree to have sexual relations. Underage drinking, using drugs, and having sex have become a source of unfortunate peer pressure that happen to teenagers before they have sufficiently developed the emotional and mental capacity to deal with such things. When I see this reality, I understand why young people only know empty sex without ever touching true love and why they suffer because of this superficial level of happiness. How can we help young people to have more realistic views about beauty, love, and sex which are kind, respectful, and loving as well as views that can nourish and develop our true self?

In our daily practice we have a gatha (a short poem) to recite every time we look into the mirror:

“Awareness is a mirror
Reflecting the four elements
Beauty is a heart that generates love
And a mind that is open.”

When there is love, kindness, and openness in our hearts, people will find us naturally attractive and will be drawn to us without any need of cosmetic or charisma. Conversely, if we are a famous supermodel with the most beautiful clothing and make-up, but we look down on others or think we know it all, then others will not enjoying being in our presence. This is well reflected in a quote by Roald Dahl: “If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams, and you will always look lovely.” The more we can practice seeing beauty and being beautiful in this way, we will inspire others to do the same and only by a collective consciousness can we transform the harmful trends in society.

Last summer, I attended the Wake Up Earth retreat in Plum Village and experienced deep healing and understanding of my relationship to men. Over the past seven years, I have been working on healing my childhood wound, and I think I have made good progress. During the retreat, I saw a brother being moved to tears by a sharing by Christiana Figueres. It touched me somehow to see him being moved by the same thing that I was moved by. It dawned on me that on a subconscious level, I had felt a huge separation between me and men. I realised that all these years, there has always been an underlying view of men almost as animals who were only interested in or motivated by sex. Maybe even worse than animals because at least animals have their mating seasons when they are sexually active, whereas humans do it all year round and whenever the moment felt like it. It was not like I’ve never seen a man moved to tears, but at that moment, something hit the mark inside!

Like in the game “Minesweeper,” the right square was clicked upon, and a corner of my mind became clear and spacious, revealing the black spiky “mine” of wrong views about men that had been causing me to treat men with disrespect or as objects of my games of attraction. Otherwise, I would keep an indifferent distance or labeled them as “beyond comprehension.” After the retreat when I had a chance to talk to this brother, he also shared with me that this retreat was particularly important for him in his progress of looking deeply and transforming his challenges in dealing with sexual energy and relationship with women.

Another unexpected moment of healing during this retreat occurred when a male retreatant shared about how all the men practiced the Touching of the Earth in relation to sexual energy. There was something in his being that touched me, but I could not describe it. Perhaps he was deeply moved by that practice, or he had had some deep insight or transformation while they had the men’s practices without the women. I felt somehow healed by his practice of humility and the collective practice of many men who were also moved by this powerful practice of touching the Earth. It was like a beginning anew, an invitation to renew one’s views about sexual energy. This was a powerful confirmation of inter-being. When we practice to heal ourselves, we heal others at the same time. When we entrust fully our being in the direction of healing, loving kindness, and compassion, we can create ripples that affect so many in profound and unexpected ways.

I think as a society, we hurt each other so much by our wrong views about gender. We think we know what men and women want, but do we really know? We hurt each other by our wrong views about sex, which creates so much misunderstanding about love and suffering in our relationships. In the last Dharma sharing session of the retreat, I shared my past wounds and this insight with my group. I thanked the guys for practicing so well and apologised for having wrong views about them. I could not see their spirituality and their sacredness. Deep down, I could not see them as beautiful beings worthy of respect and reverence. The tears came flooding my eyes as they washed away my wrong views. I felt I was healing my perceptions about men. I could begin anew to practice relating to men in a neutral and unsexualised way, and to see them as they truly are. In healing my past wounds and wrong views, I am also transforming the negative habitual ways I relate to men.

On the last evening of the Wake Up Earth retreat, we had a music/performance Be-in with the theme of Protecting Mother Earth. The last item was a Chant de la Terre (the Earth Chant.) I thought it would be a slow and peaceful end to the evening, but as the band members were setting up, they requested the sound system to turn up the volume of the music instruments and even asked for some volunteer dancers! Almost everyone flocked down and covered the whole stage. Sister Phu Nghiem, one of the MCs, had to ask people to sit back down because the band members could no longer be seen at all. Somewhat reluctantly, some returned to their seats, but others, who saw that the stage was actually open space towards the back, stayed on.

As the band started playing, the jiving beat of the song gave everyone itchy feet again. Soon enough, all around the stage people were happily and freely moving in rhythms of harmony. Brother Phap Luu, the other MC, said, “Welcome to Club Plum Village!” Looking on contentedly, I felt as if I was at home and we were having a family party. One could react negatively and say indignantly, “How could such a thing happen in a Buddhist monastery!” But I was very glad because this experience was solid proof to these young people that one could have such “clean” organic fun without alcohol, drugs, and sex! It was possible because throughout the week, we had spent time reflecting and understanding ourselves and had time getting to know others in an environment that fostered kindness, compassion, and understanding.

It is amazing and beautiful when you can be your true self and connect to another human being without any pretenses or any masks.

I am discovering more about true love than ever before when I have a chance to live in an environment that is not full of sexual craving and live a lifestyle of wholesome natural consumption from edible foods to sense impressions (free from so much violence, drama, information overflow.) And living with like-minded people who have good aspirations to love and be kind to all beings really helps me to consolidate my practice of true love. It is amazing and beautiful when you can be your true self and connect to another human being without any pretenses or any masks. When I practice not to grasp onto others’ goodness nor shun their weaknesses, it is also a parallel process of knowing how to deal with my own negative and positive qualities. It is humbling, and it nurtures the virtue of patience within myself. It is so freeing when you can connect with someone with love and care for them, and just want the best for them without expectations. It is possible to experience profound happiness, peace, and joy in someone’s presence without any physical contact.

I really want to encourage young people to take some time to find out what true love is for yourself before you jump into a relationship. First, give yourself sufficient time to learn how to understand and take care of your happiness, your suffering, and learn how to care for and respect your body and mind. You can make time to sit quietly on your own everyday to see what is happening inside, to calm yourself, or to be open to any inspirations that lie deep inside, obstructed by daily busy-ness and preoccupations. Alternatively, you can spend a week or more in a retreat in an environment that can help you to calm your body and mind, and with practices that foster your ability to look deeply inside yourself. Only then you will be in a better place to relate to another in a free and loving way. Your relationships to yourself and to others, whether sexual or asexual, will be fulfilling, uplifting and inspiring.

Click here to read Monastic Sister Sinh Nghiem’s journey to become a monastic and click here to read about her insights she gained from traveling to Cambodia as a former lay practitioner.

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