“If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that when the truth comes and knocks on our door, we won’t want to let it in.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
“As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never
learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find
I hope you are well and riding the waves of change with some amount of ease and equanimity. This past weekend, several sangha members and I attended a retreat titled Bringing Mindful Speech to Life offered by Plum Village tradition dharma teacher and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) trainer Peggy Smith. The retreat combined Plum Village practices of mindful sitting, walking, and eating with NVC training. For many of us, this training really rocked our world. We learned that we are communicating in a system grounded in right and wrong thinking, based on blaming, punishing, and manipulation to get our needs met. Waking up to recognize our compliance in this systemic enactment of violence was a shock. We saw examples of how our habitual responses to suffering, even ones we thought of as mindful, or compassionate, actually blocked the necessary empathetic resonance that allows true compassion to take place.
After the retreat, many participants left feeling both exquisitely grateful and exquisitely confused about how to practice right speech. Some may have been discouraged and wondered how to begin after having these entrenched societal patterns hard-wired into our brains after twenty or fifty years of communicating. If only wanting to change meant change would happen. The truth of changing habits is that it takes time, diligence, and lots of determination.
When we first begin to make a change in our lives, whether its conscious speech, awareness of our bodily responses or watching the judging mind, we introduce the mental suggestion to take note…and we do. We may find ourselves horrified at how many times during the day we fall into blaming others for our emotional response, or how often we think of Chinese food, sex, a new car, or give out our diagnoses and judgments of others as if they’re the truth. Pema Chödrön tells us that at the beginning of changing patterns we will see our habits all the time repeating with glaring consistency and vigor. We can start to believe that we are deeply flawed and incapable of change. But Pema tells us that seeing our habits is actually good news. It’s not that we are more judgmental, greedy, or mean-spirited than we ever were, it’s the fact that we are so sensitized to our actions. We have woken up to our formerly unconscious habit patterns.
One way to re-frame this thinking is to celebrate the times we catch ourselves in our old ways of thinking, speaking, and responding because this is our first step towards freedom—noticing. Buddhist monk, Anam Thubten, considers this step so essential he writes in No Self, No Problem: Awakening to Our True Nature, that each time we catch our minds wandering during meditation instead of lamenting and feeling despondent at how bad a meditator we are, we should celebrate and give ourselves a piece of chocolate. The noticing and returning the mind to the goal, whatever the goal is—staying present in meditation, or giving our self warm accompaniment when we feel the familiar shield of defense and the desire to retaliate—that is the very movement that creates the new habit of change.
This is a shift to compassion and changing two habits at the same time. When you find yourself messing up and doing the thing you don’t want to do, judging and responding from a place of fear and lack, yelling, or eating that piece of cheesecake, give yourself a reward of self-compassion for paying attention and gently return to what you do want to do. You can offer yourself Peggy Smith’s simple “of course.” Thich Nhat Hanh uses the phrase, “Darling, I am here for you,” or you can try out “I care about this.” Experiment and find which words comfort and soothe the nervous system that tries so hard to keep us safe and happy. Of course, we fall into habits and repeat behavior. Of course, we do what we know best. It is hard work to change. Giving ourselves the gift of open-hearted acceptance can make changing habits a gentler and comforting process that leads to our greater freedom and connection with all beings.
May we all trust our light,