Category Archives: Personal Story

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Me

Happiness, the End of Suffering, and Recovery

Forty-six. That’s not so old — young in fact. He and I are both 46, with young children, and in a long term relationship. We both got sober very young and then maintained that sobriety for many years. Mr. Hoffman made it 23-years, and I’m about to reach my 25th year. This is where the story diverges into disbelief, tragedy, and sadness. Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead from a drug overdose in his own house and a needle in his arm.

How does this happen? Why am I still here and he’s dead? These are the questions on my mind today.

What is clear to me is that success, fame, and fortune do not equal happiness and recovery. Further, many men and women in their forties die everyday. Many probably die from alcohol or drugs. We can’t really blame the heroin, though it is gnarly and deadly, because we know that the drug is just a symptom of a deeper suffering, a deeper sadness, and an inability to cope with reality.

Here’s what I know about happiness, the end of suffering, and recovery.

Continue reading

A New OI Aspirant

0000042_be-beautiful-be-yourselfAs I walked with the Sangha through the Oak Grove at Deer Park last summer I heard myself say, “I am a good wife.”  I was startled and happy to hear that spontaneous belief.  For years, when I became irritated, impatient, or outright angry with my husband, I would say to myself, “What a lousy wife I am. He didn’t deserve that.  I was feeling bad about myself and took it out on him. Why does he stay married to me?”  It wasn’t that I had said or done anything really awful, and I knew that my own suffering was  the cause of my feelings and  behavior. Later that day, while listening to the Dharma Talk, I realized that the time was right for me to become an Order of Interbeing aspirant.  Enough of my own suffering had been transformed that I could aspire to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in order to  build on my practice experiences and further transform my suffering. The source of my faith and enthusiasm for practicing mindfulness is the experience of transformation I have seen in my own life and the relief and joy that comes with transformation.  Before I started to practice in 2007, I acted in ways that were petty, vindictive, mean spirited, or judgmental. Each time, I would chastise myself  and vow to be a kinder, better person, but nothing changed.  What I didn’t see was the direct connection between my behavior and my own big melting pot of internal suffering.  I did see that feeling anxious and insecure about myself was the common antecedent to the behaviors that I wanted to change in myself.   But I didn’t know how to become less anxious and more secure.  I felt hopeless to change what I didn’t like in myself.

After a year or so of practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, I began to notice that I was less likely to act in ways that hurt others.  I was more patient and accepting of others.  Since I hadn’t done anything to directly change myself, I realized that the changes must be related to my daily sitting practice and from faithfully attending Sangha every week.  This was a stunning realization.  I realized that I didn’t have to try to change, but rather I could keep practicing and noticing my thoughts and feelings as I had been doing.  I decided to stop trying to purposefully change and just keep sitting.  What a relief! Continue reading

Replanting A “Forest of Interbeing”: Spiritual Community As Food

light-forestSeveral months ago, four young friends living in three different countries embarked on a journey together to replant a deforested rainforest in the south of Mexico. The “Forest of Interbeing” project includes the purchasing of 9 hectres of land, roughly 900 acres, in Los Tuxtlas region, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Formerly home to several varieties of trees, shrubs, and endangered wildlife. Now only 20% of this bio-diverse land remains, deforested for the production of meat through cattle grazing. What we have discovered in the process of creating this project is that replanting forests takes a whole community.

Our teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, talks of the Four Nutriments. The Four elements needed for life. These are Edible Food, Sense Impressions, Volition, and Consciousness. Community is also a kind of food. Community brings together many beings across genders, ethnicity, spiritual beliefs, sexual orientations, race, abilities, socio-economic status, and languages, to find where we meet. At the center of these differences is actually a common need for connection, love, and understanding. Continue reading

The End of Suffering

Happiness, the End of Suffering, and Recovery

Forty-six. That’s not so old – young in fact. He and I are both 46, with young children, and in a long term relationship. We both got sober very young and then maintained that sobriety for many years. Mr. Hoffman made it 23-years, and I’m about to reach my 25th year. This is where the story diverges into disbelief, tragedy, and sadness. Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead from a drug overdose in his own house and a needle in his arm.

How does this happen? Why am I still here and he’s dead? These are the questions on my mind today.

What is clear to me is that success, fame, and fortune do not equal happiness and recovery. Further, many men and women in their forties die everyday. Many probably die from alcohol or drugs. We can’t really blame the heroin, though it is gnarly and deadly, because we know that the drug is just a symptom of a deeper suffering, a deeper sadness, and an inability to cope with reality.

Here’s what I know about happiness, the end of suffering, and recovery.

First, it’s an inside job whereby we need to know ourselves. This takes many years of effort by talking, writing, and looking very deeply inside at who we are as people. It also involves a great deal of love and forgiveness towards ourselves and others. It may involve seeing our parents and ancestors as part of who we are today. This isn’t easy work and I’m sure that Mr. Hoffman did some this work over the years.

Second, it takes daily effort and training my mind to touch the seeds of joy and happiness that exist within me and around me. For those involved in a 12-step program, they call this “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our “ spiritual” condition.” In my Buddhist practice it means that I can be fully present each moment of daily life. This can be accomplished with meditation, awareness of our breathing, stopping and seeing there are many conditions of happiness. Again, this isn’t necessarily easy work but the alternatives are pretty bleak.

My practice today is about being present for myself and for others. In doing so I can stay alive and see my happiness and face my suffering. This means I have to be willing to stop and observe my feelings as they come and as they go; both the positive ones and the negative ones.

I feel joy that I am alive, sober, and present for my family.
I feel deep sadness for the partner and children of Mr. Hoffman.
I feel anger that this continues to happen to people.
I feel frustration that so many don’t understand the deep suffering of an addict.

All these feelings co-exist within me and will eventually disappear. This is my practice?—?observing and taking care of the feelings. In fact, suffering is part of happiness and happiness is part of suffering. They are the mud and the lotus. The trick is to not let the suffering overwhelm us and bring us to despair.

Third, walking through our suffering doesn’t need to be done alone. Having others in our life to support and guide us are key; teachers and mentors who can guide and support us. For those in a 12-step program, there are meetings and sponsors. In the Buddhist community it is called a sangha, a place of refuge that can offer joy and happiness to our practice and our journey on the path.

We all have suffering. These three things – knowing ourselves, daily practice of cultivating joy, and being in community – can be applied to anyones life regardless of addiction/non-addiction, wealth/poverty, success/failure or fame/obscurity. No doubt Mr. Hoffman was able to practice some of these things but in the end we have his untimely death as he let despair win.

Today I am taking a few moments to be grateful and to also send my energy of healing to the children of Mr. Hoffman. May the end of his suffering and his healing awaken within them.

Originally posted on Medium and misc.joy

Shifting Weight

Leave the tender moment alone.
-Billy Joel.

The way to use life is to do nothing through acting.
The way to use life is to do everything through being.
-Lao Tzu

I had noticed her as I walked by the room on the way to see my patient. Jeans, sneakers and flannel shirt curled up on the bed cuddling against what I assume was her sick husband. Despite the tubes and lines, they made space to be near one another.

After awhile, I was out by the nurses station waiting for my primary nurse when she came down the corridor slowly, in a daze. “Are you a doctor?” she asked me. “No, I’m a nursing student…” She looked at me and gazed away, “I don’t know how you all do this every day.” Her lower chin quivered and her eyes grew wet. Perhaps it was something about how ill he was, how hard it was, how overwhelming, unrelenting, and lonely she was. And by extension how hard it must be for us too. I mumbled something about it being different when the patient is not a family member or loved one. She stood there. Here eyes were dark pools in a face that was bearing the sinking that comes with suffering. I felt like putting my arm around her and comforting her, but I did not, aware of my boundaries. I did not know her needs or her situation. Still, she stood there. As often happens in a moment where ‘doing something’ competes with the ‘practice of being’, a response came to me out of the space of that moment. I tapped my shoulder and upper arm, “Here. Lean here”, and she accepted my invitation and leant her shoulder against me as I stood there unknowing. We stood there for a moment side by side. Whatever she carried shifted weight, and she breathed out a sigh and took a deep breath, and stood on her own. She nodded her head and said “thank you.”, and sniffled. “Maybe some Kleenex would help” and I looked around for some for her to blow her nose or wipe her eyes. “Surely this place must have some Kleenex”, I said. But there was none to be seen anywhere.

When Next I Spill My Tea

The morning in June, 2002, that I was going to be ordained in the Order of Interbeing, I was doing walking meditation after breakfast. I was staying at Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, in France, where the ceremony was going to be held. Because people who were staying in the other hamlets had to travel, on foot from Lower Hamlet, and by bus from New Hamlet, to reach Upper Hamlet for the ceremony, I had quite a bit of time after breakfast and before the ceremony started. So I was doing walking meditation on a oval path in Upper Hamlet that goes around the lotus pond and by the dharma hall.

As I walked, I reflected on how I came to be there at Plum Village to be ordained in the Order. As I reflected, I realized that I would not have found my way to SnowFlower and to Thay if it were not for my ex-wife. As some of you know, my relationship with my ex-wife, particularly since our divorce, has been difficult at best. But if it had not been for my divorce, and the suffering and loneliness that created, I would not have found my way to my local Sangha and started going to retreats with Thay and would not be walking there that morning. So even though I often thought of my marriage to my ex-wife as a horrible mistake, without that mistake I would not be having this blessing. Continue reading

Movies and the Trainings

I became a member of the Order of Interbeing in 1991.  At first, I was intimidated with some of the Mindfulness Trainings because I thought some of them seemed dogmatic.  But the longer I have been a member and study the trainings, the more I have learned their wisdom and depth.

One example is in the Fifth Mindfulness Training which reads in part “We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, and any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.”  I love movies!  So when I see a new movie that looks good, I usually watch it. Usually the movie gives clues about the theme and where the plot is going.  Sometimes the movie leads to scenes of violence or cruelty.  I have realized that movies like this damage my spirit and make me feel awful about myself and the world.  I don’t want to feel this way!

So, I have learned that the Mindfulness Trainings are more than trainings.  They are also guidelines to protect us from unhealthy practices and thoughts.  Now when I sense that a movie will be unhealthy, I can easily decide to avoid it.

In my sangha, members read out loud the Mindfulness Trainings on a regular schedule.  I have noticed that the trainings speak to me in different ways from time to time.  Some trainings have a deeper impact on me at a different time than they did some months go.  Clearly the words did not change over the months, so I must have changed!  In a similar way, we may crave certain foods for their vitamins or tastes at one time and not care  about them at another time.

As the years have gone by and my awareness of the trainings have deepened, I more easily note when people around me are unaware of certain of the behaviors that the trainings speak to.  When certain people get angry and yell at another person, because of my awareness of the trainings, those people become my teachers.  I have begun to thank them silently for helping me understand the mindfulness training Number Six.

For the past three years, I have lived in a small retirement community in Philadelphia.  It is common that residents and staff share information about each other and developments in the community.  Sometimes I have seen this information sharing becomes hurtful when it is inaccurate and misleading.  This is when I have been grateful for a statement in The Ninth Mindfulness Training: “We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure.”  The training helps me reconsider statements I might say.  The longer I am a member of the Order of Mindfulness, the more grateful I am of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

Stepping into Freedom: Savoring Life

I really had no expectations of this retreat (October 2011 at Blue Cliff Monastery), except to participate in the OI ordination ceremony, and to spend five days with Thay and 1000 of his brothers and sisters.  But of course, I found that they were my brothers and sisters too, my sangha also.  It was wonderful to be with my FCM OI friends John and Bill and Barb and Chris and Mary and Martina, and of course with my lifetime heart companion Nancy – I knew that would be so.  But I also took my place as one cell in a larger sangha body, the Plum Village – Blue Cliff – Deer Park – FCM – everywhere sangha that has grown around Thay and his teaching.

Nancy and I camped at Blue Cliff, in a tent village with hundreds of others, in simple, silent harmony. How beautiful to see many dozens of colorful tents grouped naturally together, each with just enough space around it, without fuss or clutter.  When we rose in the early mornings the only noise to be heard was the unzipping of tent doors as we made our way in ones and twos under the bright stars to the great Dharma Hall. Continue reading

The Fertile Soil of Ireland

Setting my feet on the Path of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings standing on the fertile soil of Ireland. 

Winter storm,
Into the sea,
Snow dissolves silently.

In the Plum Village tradition there are wonderful, mindful paths of practice laid out for lay people. These are the Two Promises for children, the 5 Mindfulness Trainings for all, and the 14 Mindfulness Trainings for Thay’s Order of Interbeing (OI). The Promises and Trainings are Dharma doors through which one may enter formally by a transmission ceremony supported by monastic or lay Dharma teachers, one’s sangha and the wider community.

Some time after I received the transmission of the 5 Mindfulness Trainings I noticed that my commitment to training and practicing in their direction became more solid. I had found the public commitment and the support of the community during the ceremony both helpful and joyful. Reading and studying the trainings after the transmission ceremony created a deeper path of practice for me. Continue reading

Words from a Young OI Member

I was 28 years old when I joined the Order of Interbeing in 2007.  I didn’t feel ready at the time to join the OI ranks of brown jackets and not much has changed for me in that regard, I still don’t feel qualified 5 years later, whatever qualified means.  And on retreats I still struggle to wear the brown jacket, concerned it will set me apart from other sangha friends on the path.  So why did I join the Order?  Why am I on this path?  Have you ever been walking in the woods and come to a fork in the trail and decided which way to go based on what simply felt like the right direction?  It was like that for me.  Sometimes the answer doesn’t have to be clear in order to take a step on the path.  All I knew for sure is that I enjoyed the practice and wanted to be of service to others.  And that really was enough. 

Becoming an OI member isn’t about having a perfect practice or mastering sutras and recitations, it isn’t about having knowledge that others don’t or gaining status and high rankings, it’s about seeing where our particular skill-set shines and offering that to others.  You can’t build a house with only one tool just as you can’t build a community of practice with only one practitioner.    

For me, joining the Order at a younger age has been a wonderful practice in stepping up and saying, “Yes!”  Yes, I can do this, yes I want to commit myself to this beautiful tradition, yes I have a lot to offer.  To embrace ourselves fully just as we are with authenticity is of great value to to the world.  When we embrace ourselves we embrace others.  And when we embrace others we embrace ourselves.  Being a part of the OI brotherhood and sisterhood is about embracing.  Embracing the practice, ourselves and one another.  
Nicole is a member of Be Here Now Sangha in Missoula, MT