In a 3-part monthly series, Monastic Sinh Nghiem from New Hamlet, Plum Village, will share about her inspiration to become a monastic, insights she gained while traveling in Cambodia before she became a monastic, and romance and true love.
Part I: Why I Decided to Become a Monastic
The medical system in our society is a model that works in certain situations of crisis, but when I wanted to help people to deal with their suffering at the roots, I found that what I had learnt at school and the work context was somehow very limiting for me, my clients, and the people I worked with.
Before becoming a monastic, I found my life was missing something. I had all that I had wanted, a good career, enough money to live comfortably, even travel to see the world. I had good parents, extended family support, and friends who really cared about me and my well-being. I was healthy and thought I had found my “soul mate”, someone who shared the same life values and spirituality, someone who I thought really understood me and shared similar aspirations in life. But yet I felt an underlying unhappiness that would not go away. I saw that even though I had what I thought were ideal situations for happiness, but there was still so much suffering and difficulties that I could not resolve, and did not know how to resolve.
I was working as a psychologist with people suffering from serious mental illnesses. The medical system in our society is a model that works to some extent and in certain situations of crisis, but when I wanted to help people to deal with their suffering at the roots, I found that what I had learnt at school and the work context was somehow very limiting for me, my clients, and the people I worked with. What I could do for people seemed like putting band-aid on huge deep wounds that wouldn’t heal. Sometimes I struggled to deal with my own life challenges and pain, let alone know how to help people with suffering that seem much more difficult than my own. I didn’t feel inspired to apply the methods that I’d learnt at school to my personal situation because I thought they were designed for people with difficulties and problems, not for me who was meant to be the professional who had it all worked out.
Maybe I was too young, too naïve and eager to help without the wisdom of experience, but professionally, that was the state of mind that led me to search for something else. I studied psychology academically, but I found that it didn’t touch me or transform me in any way. If I was not inspired to use it for myself to handle the blockages in my own mind, then how can I convince others to use it to transform their deep suffering? I found that the many wonderful neatly packaged theories that I’d learnt in school could not easily and cleanly be applied to the complex and difficult realities that I was facing with “clients.” In the relatively short time that I was working in the “helping profession”, I feel so grateful to my “clients” who were actually my teachers. They taught me so much about life and the bottomless pit of suffering and of despairing loneliness. They taught me about how to be kind and just listen without judgment, without criticism. They showed me compassion and the human spirit. Their lessons still remain and touch me deeply, which is more than I can say of my memories for any theories learnt at school.
I remember one lesson on deep listening, which a big-hearted Maori woman with chronic schizophrenia had taught. She came for an appointment, and as she sat down I was eagerly preparing my head with all sorts of key questions or areas of exploration that could potentially hit the spot and open doors for her. She waited for me to settle down, and after hearing me say a few meaningless things she blurted out, “Just shut up and listen!” I was so surprised by the abruptness and straight forwardness of her advice that all my thoughts and ideas vanished! Her words were like the wise sword of Manjushri with the compassionate heart of Avalokiteshvara. I got it! Just listen with an open presence, you don’t have to do anything.
I saw that if I suffered and didn’t know how to transform my suffering, I can make those around me suffer, and if they also didn’t know how to take care of their emotions and pain, it affected me too.
Secondly, but no less, was the friendship and support of my work colleagues. They provided the sense of community, and together we rode through the choppy waters of our polluted, rat-race society where the main aim is to get ahead careless of who or what gets damaged along the way. We did our best to help those hurt and alienated by society, but we too had to protect ourselves by taking refuge in our families, and if we were lucky we had other sources of support for our spirit too. Without a community of caring colleagues, and good structural support our work would have been unbearable.
My short work experience showed me that our family and background can have such lasting and profound impact on our life, so I decided to study Family therapy. This made a lot of sense because we cannot help but affect others, and likewise others influence us with their ideas and way of life. Our suffering and happiness is inextricably linked with our loved ones, the closest people to us, our friends and colleagues. I saw that if I suffered and didn’t know how to transform my suffering, I can make those around me suffer, and if they also didn’t know how to take care of their emotions and pain, it affected me too. My loved ones are precisely the people whom I least want to hurt and burden! This could only mean one thing – that I must first learn how to manage and deal with my own difficulties and suffering. When I am peaceful and happy enough then I have something to offer to those whom I care about.
The first time I came to Plum Village I stayed for the 3-month winter retreat. I gave up work and did the retreat just for myself. When I practiced with the community and focused on using the practices of mindfulness to transform myself, I found that I was able to help people naturally, effortlessly, and without even knowing or intending to do so. This became apparent during our practices of sharing from our hearts and deep listening with each other, and by the energy of lightness, joy and peace at the end of the retreat (which I rarely, if ever, saw during my time as a counsellor). Most of the time I felt so helpless and out of my depths while hearing about how people suffered from years of abuse of all kinds, or to see how cycles of abuse, violence and suffering continue from one generation to the next. I felt I had to build up a wall in order to protect myself from the overwhelming suffering I was witness to, but doing so I felt disconnected and indifferent, which are also states that I did not want to get into.
Maybe I was not a very good or experienced counsellor, but I think it has a lot to do with living and practicing as a community where you can generate a collective energy of kindness that embraces everyone’s differences. I feel that the monastic life context at Plum Village allows me to do the mindfulness practices for myself, to nourish the positive, healing and beautiful elements in and around me, as well as generate a wholesome, compassionate and joyful environment for others to come and take refuge in. I feel the mindfulness practices as a lifestyle (not a tool to be used only at times of difficulties) empowers people, and re-connects them to their own ability to understand, heal and transform.
This is a major shift from how I used to think, work and live. How free it is not to be the professional, to see my clients simply as human beings like me with the same wish to be happy and peaceful, and it is a very rewarding practice to see my colleagues as my sisters and brothers and to care for them as I would care for my own family. Working in a supportive community means that at times when I’m feeling tired and down, I can take a back seat and look after myself while my sisters go forward to be at the “frontline.” We are like a colony of bees where one type of bee does a particular task while other types of bees take care of other jobs. Together we work in harmony and co-create sweetness for every being to enjoy.
Working in a supportive community means that at times when I’m feeling tired and down, I can take a back seat and look after myself while my sisters go forward to be at the “frontline.”
What I learn and practice at Plum Village is a lifestyle – a way of living that is wholesome and has the capacity to bring about transformation and healing. I found that the simple things I do in life, like walking, eating, sitting, doing house chores, even drinking tea can be healing because they help me to learn to enjoy the simple things in life again. It’s not the task itself, but how I do these daily tasks that makes the difference. I learnt how to do things with presence of mind and with lightness, ease. I learn how to look deeply at the conditions of my life in order to cultivate understanding, love and happiness. All of the mindfulness practices help me to see myself more clearly, and to manage the emotions and swirls of thinking (Non-Stop Thinking radio station) in my head.
I hope one day these simple practices such as eating meditation, sitting to enjoy one’s breathing, walking meditation, and deep relaxation can be “evidence-based” enough to be included in treatment plans for anyone seeking healing from mental or physical illnesses, or even for anyone seeking a more natural and wholesome lifestyle in this virtually self consuming world we live in today. I feel the mindfulness practices and community life empowers me and inspires those who come to tap into their inner resources for healing and transformation.
Being in a supportive environment where you can be yourself while practicing with likeminded friends are both important for personal growth.
Living in community is a lifestyle that is inherent in us because our ancestors lived and survived to this day like that. In the same way, being in a supportive environment where you can be yourself while practicing with likeminded friends are both important for personal growth, helping me to see my weaknesses and “blind spots”, as well as for co-creating a safe and peaceful refuge for others. Community life allows me to share my joys and be embraced when I’m suffering, but it also helps me to understand that I cannot rely on others solely for my own happiness. I realise that others are not fully responsible for my happiness or lack of it. I can generate joy and happiness or peace in different situations, pleasant or unpleasant – it’s a matter of practice. This lifestyle – Thầy calls it the art of mindful living was a big motivator for me to become ordained – to commit my time and energy to practicing this way of living, and to be with others who share similar aspirations.
It was for my own sanity, peace and happiness, and to help others do the same.
Click here to read about Sister Sinh Nghiem’s reconnection with her family and the practice of “Beginning Anew.”