On a sunny summer afternoon at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, our Wake Up Correspondent there sat down with Nhu-Mai Nguyen, musician, meditator, massage therapist and co-founder of Wake Up Austin, to talk about life.
How did you first hear about Wake Up?
My very first ever encounter with Wake Up was my very first encounter with the practice in general. It was a Wake Up retreat at Deer Park. It is interesting how I ended up there: I have a cousin who lives in San Diego. One day my family and I visited her, and she took us to Deer Park for a day of mindfulness and then I came back to Texas and I forgot all about it. And then in college I wanted to explore different religions. I explored Christianity for some time, because my roommates were Christian missionaries.
But then I wanted to explore Buddhism. So I asked my mom about it, and she reminded me of that visit to Deer Park and told me to go there for a retreat. And I followed my mom’s advice. I was surprised, she was really supportive of that exploration. Later she was not as supportive when she realised how much into it I would be (laughs). So I researched it online and I signed up for the very next retreat that I could go to, which was a Wake Up retreat, the very first Wake Up retreat in Deer Park in spring 2009.
How did this retreat inspire you to continue down this path?
It was the general feeling that it gave me. My life was really stressful at that time. I had just moved to a new place. I had just trained for and ran a triathlon the weekend before. That was really intense for me physically. And I just had finals (from university) and had food poisoning on the flight to Deer Park. So I really wanted to feel settled. And when we were driving up Deer Park I saw the signs in the parking lot saying “I have arrived, I am home”.
That was such a relief. And then the next day we sang the song “I have arrived, I am home” and I just started crying. It was very powerful to me. I felt I truly was were I was meant to be.
That was five years ago. Are there habit energies in your life that you been able to transform in those five years?
Yeah, so many…but they are still there (laughs). One would be how I relate to my work. I learned to work co-operatively in a team. I had the habit of taking charge, not caring what other people think, as long as they get the job done. I have learned to really see other people as human beings and make harmony and happiness a priority. The other habit is how I relate to men. I have a habit of going to men to seek validation and attention. To find my worthiness in men.
Being with the Sangha helped me transform that habit…because what is so beautiful about the Sangha is that I can act my natural self – the beautiful parts and the not so beautiful parts – and still be embraced completely for who I am. And that is very healing. I have been able to be more aware of those habits and do things that are healthy for myself and others. I am just more aware of the things that make me truly happy.
Has the practice influenced your relationship with your family and friends?
Yes. They are a lot deeper. I see my parents as human beings now. Especially in Asian culture it is very easy to see them as the hierarchy of a family and to feel you have to honour their reputation. So there is this distance between the child and the parent. I have to act a certain formal way among them and I cannot tell them certain things about myself. Now I can see that they are human beings like I am, I can see their suffering and I also have a lot more desire to be close to them.
I know just how much I depend on them and how much their happiness makes me happy and vice versa. And so now I can tell my mom about things like my love life. I never used do that. It is surprising how much she is interested in it (laughs). So my relationship with my family is a lot closer. And also a lot scarier, because I am sharing with them how much the practice means to me. I am scared that they will not understand me and think I am crazy. I am scared of being rejected.
Sometimes they do have a lot of questions, but they always accept it. And so it allows me to be more embraced by my family as I always felt a little distance from them. The same things with my friends, I feel like I am being more genuine with my friends.
Have you had any friends whom you have known since before 2009 who have been interested in practicing?
Yeah, one of my friends. I share with her my practice. I share with her how I would respond in certain situations she is in. We have real dharma discussions, we just do not call it dharma discussions. She has been to Sangha one time, and she is into the practice, but it is not really a formal thing. She doesn’t do sitting meditation, has never been to a retreat or anything like that. But that does not make me sad or feel separate from her. I am happy I can still connect with her in a deep way, even though there is no form attached to it.
What is the most fun about being a facilitator in your Sangha?
The most fun is when you let other people facilitate (laughs). Other people can have such awesome ideas that I would have never thought of myself. So lately I have been inviting Sangha members to do activities, pose discussion topics and so on. One Sangha member came up with staring meditation. You sit in front of another person and stare into their eyes for a couple of minutes. That was really intense and also really fun, because it is sort of a laughing contest too (laughs). I think the most fun part of being a facilitator is letting go of what Sangha is supposed to look like and allowing members to contribute. So my favourite part of facilitating is not facilitating (laughs).
Is there any dream or vision you have for Wake Up?
I don’t know. I have never really thought of that. I have the idea of continuing Wake Up tours to all parts of the world, and even a little exchange program too, people from the US visiting sanghas in South America for instance and vice versa.
A fun question, since we are nearing the end of this interview. What is the last song you have listened to?
Justin Timberlake – What goes around (laughs). As I consider myself a musician, I have been asking myself lately what makes a song “mindful”. It is not an easy question. A song does not have to be just about happiness to be mindful. It is not just about “happy go lucky” themes. I think a song has to be about the truth.
There are some deep feelings we need to express like anger, heartache, and despair. How do we truthfully express these dark emotions, but not let it be destructive to ourselves and others? So as I was thinking about this, I was doing some research on different artists. I always liked Justin Timberlake so I started listening to some of his music again (laughs).
How would you describe Wake Up to someone who has never heard of it before?
Wake Up is a community of young adults, who want to live healthy lives and share that with each other. And it is not hard to be part of this and to help create the Wake Up energy. We just have to be willing to share a part of ourselves, the deepest part of ourselves. It’s a simple thing even though it might be scary at first. Sometimes people feel a bit uncomfortable singing, dancing, expressing their joy and happiness, because there is this idea that we will not be accepted for this. But when we realize that being ourselves and sharing those parts of ourselves is the greatest gift we can offer, it becomes something very beautiful.
I love this, thank you Nhu-Mai and Brandon! Love to you from Northern CA. Thank you for sharing about your experiences with vulnerability and clarity.