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I’ll admit, I struggled as we sat silent through every meal, washed hundreds of dishes as a form of meditation, and shared our deepest fears and insecurities with a group of strangers.
I had been itching to visit Plum Village, a sacred meditation and mindfulness center located in the southwest countryside of France, since 2013 when I read FEAR, a thought-provoking book by the monastery’s renowned founder, Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (who’s now 94 years old). In it, he writes:
“When we suppress our fearful thoughts, they continue to fester in the dark. We are driven to consume (food, alcohol, movies, etc.) in an attempt to forget and keep those thoughts from surfacing in our conscious mind. Running away from our fear ultimately makes us suffer and makes others suffer, and our fear only grows stronger.”
I was afraid of a lot of things. I was suffering in a lot of ways. I suddenly lost two close family members in a matter of weeks and was feeling more afraid of life than a second grader shrieking through a Freddy Krueger movie.
On top of that, I was feeling anxious and uncertain about everything else – my career, my relationships, my ability to accept who I am, why I was having so much social anxiety. I had anxiety about having anxiety.
I wanted to know more about dealing with fear. I wanted to know more about finding peace. I wanted to know what he knew.
So, in July of 2016, I finally took that trip to France – alone. I made the trek from Los Angeles to Thénac for a week-long meditation retreat at Plum Village.
We were exposed to generations of Buddhist wisdom in just one week, yet four specific lessons stuck with me most and have become a fundamental skeleton of well-being back home in Los Angeles.
1. AM I FEEDING THE SEEDS OF HAPPINESS OR UNHAPPINESS?
I had been drinking a lot, smoking weed a lot, and taking a lot of ADD pills before this retreat. I was rarely exercising or eating well and barely reaching for the spiritual material that used to bring so much light and ease into my world. I felt like shit about myself.
I was subconsciously feeding the seeds of my unhappiness.
When I eat well, I feel good. When I exercise, I feel vibrant. When I handle my responsibilities, I feel accomplished. When I’m spiritually active, I feel growth. When I’m connected to others, I feel love. When I’m pursuing projects that I’m passionate about, I feel purpose. When I’m rested and cleared headed, I feel amazing.
These are the seeds of happiness.
Deep inside we know when we’re on track with our happiness recipe or off track. We know when we’re doing what we’re supposed to or not. The way we feel about ourselves is mirrored in that.
This is the base for everything else.
2. ALLOW YOUR SUFFERING (BUT DON’T STAY THERE)
A woman at the monastery shared a story of having her purse stolen in Paris a week prior to the retreat. She’s a longtime Buddhist and exuded the kind of gentle, wise energy that comes from living such a path. But she was pissed. In one of our daily group shares, she talked about the importance of acknowledging what she felt and not holding back the tears and rage that came from such a violation.
There’s no denying that an incident like that will cause your emotions to spike. And that was her point: It’s important not to deny those feelings.
Her most important point: But don’t stay there.
Feel what you feel, validate those emotions. They’re real for you. Just don’t stay there. That’s where emotional energy clogs us up – we don’t release it. We have to feel it in order to release it.
Obviously, this point applies on a case by case basis and it all depends on what you’re going through. Having your purse stolen versus your husband leaving you for your best friend is very different. Sometimes it takes more time to get through what we’re feeling. It doesn’t help to rush the process or brush it under the rug.
That only causes more suffering.
3. LEARN THE LESSON AND LET IT GO
A young monk at the village said to me: “Listen to the lessons, take them in, and then let them go. The seed has been planted.”
Sometimes I get so in my head about implementing a new spiritual lesson that the thing that was intended to bring me peace ends up bringing me anxiety instead.
When I keep reminding myself of an idea or lesson over and over, micro-managing my thoughts and actions in comparison to it, it ends up working against me. It ends up causing me to suffer.
“Am I doing it? Am I doing?” I’d ask myself, harassingly. “I’m not doing it!”
It’s certainly important to stay mindful of ourselves when trying to live a new practice and standard, just don’t dwell on it or beat yourself up over it.
If an avenue for peace is causing you to feel anxious, worried, uptight or bad about yourself, it’s time to do something else.
4. DEEP LISTENING IS THE KEY
I have a problem with really listening. I’m always 10 steps ahead of life in my head. But when I chill out and really listen, that’s when I connect on a whole different level.
Oprah Winfrey once said: “Every single person you ever will meet… they want to know, ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’ We all want to know that what we do, and what we say, and who we are, matters. We want to be validated.”
We validate people by giving them our full attention and fully hearing them. This is especially important in a serious discussion or argument. Even if it’s hard to hear or you don’t agree.
Deep listening while in an argument is being willing to hear another without being 10 steps ahead of them in your mind, creating a defense plan or chalking it up as crap.
If someone has a bone to pick with you, hear them out. It can be almost instinctual to jump into defense mode or point the finger back. That only makes it worse. Looking at ourselves is where the real work is. It’s where the real growth is. It’s where our power to create change is.
This is how we save relationships. This is how we avoid drawn out tit-for-tat arguments. This is how we solve issues before they turn into major happiness-sucking dramas.
Now take all of that and let it go.
These lessons stuck with me because I needed them. I still do. Maybe you do, too. Maybe you don’t.
The truth is, I’m still afraid and I still suffer. As long as I’m human, that will never change. I’ve learned though that it doesn’t have to be so bad or as prolonged either. If I tune in to myself once in a while, reflect on my actions, listen to people and let crap go, I’m already 50% better off than I was before.