Sunday, February 14, 2010


The reason I was first drawn to following a mindfulness practice in the tradition of Plum Village (see sidebar) was the first Thich Nhat Hahn book I ever read.  In French it's simply called "La Colère" (Anger) and the cover shows a picture of a very cranky-looking Buddhist monk.  In English the title is "Anger:  Wisdom for Cooling the Flames," which aptly describes the book's main message:  we need to take care of our anger, understand it,  and let it cool down before we enter into communication with others.

I bought the book in a Tibetan Buddhist center in Lyon that I went to a few times, but never felt quite comfortable in - too ceremonial and religious-feeling, plus not particularly welcoming.  I was drawn to the book by its title and unusual cover (how often do we see images of unsmiling Buddhists, after all?), because I was feeling a bit like that monk looked - pretty darn pissed.

I've long struggled with anger issues, though I may come across as perfectly nice and sweet to most people who meet me (though once they find out I'm a Scorpio they get a little more worried).  I'm not necessarily quick to anger, but once I get going, those flames burn hot, steady, and long.  I was quite proficient in the silent treatment back in high school (as a few former friends may remember), as well as being a champion grudge-holder and extremely slow to forgive.  I've mellowed out over the years, and I'm more conscious of the excesses I am capable of.  But the depth and breath of my anger is a big part of what drew me to mindfulness practice, since my occasional fits of fury have created, and continue to create a great deal of suffering in my life. 

I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's book to anyone who struggles with conflict whatsoever, but won't give you a review of its contents here.  Suffice it to say that I found his wisdom inspirational and priceless, so much so that I decided to participate in a week-long retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn's monastic community in Western France.  I went during a particularly difficult time in my romantic relationship, when I was seething with resentment and not sure if I could continue on with my partner.  I knew the rage was just festering within me and I had to let it go instead of projecting it all onto kevin, but I just couldn't do that work on my own. And since my anger was a huge trigger for kevin's anger, we kept ending up in a painfully vicious cycle.  So I went to Plum Village to breathe and 'find myself' and learn to let go. 

Within minutes of my arrival it began to snow, and all of sudden dozens of young Vietnamese nuns came rushing out into the falling flakes, giggling and squealing in utter ecstasy.  Thich Nhat Hahn is orginally from Vietnam, and he invites young men and women from his home country to come live in his monastic community in France.  For these women it was the first time they had ever seen snow, and their joy was unbounded. 

I had arrived at Plum Village with a heavy heart, but the delight in these young women's faces as they ran around throwing their first snowballs would have rubbed off on even the darkest of souls.  I was suddenly filled with wonder at the beauty of the soft snowfall, something which I always take for granted given that I have lived in many cold climates over the years.  And I realized how easy it is to forget to see the beauty around us, just because we've seen it so many times before.

The nun's joyous energy was infectious, and as I stood peacefully basking in the sound of laughter all around me, I felt lighter and happier than I had in a long time.  The first person I wanted to share that feeling with was Kevin, as my resentment towards him had completely faded while I was busy being blissful.  Funny how joy and anger just can't seem to share the same space.  So I called him, told him I loved him, and spent the next week working on my breathing, learning how to be present, and simply enjoying the presence of the nuns, who are just about the smiliest people I've met in my life. 

My week in Plum Village was transforming, because I became vibrantly aware that I was choosing happiness or suffering at any given moment.  When I chose to be touched by the nuns' joy, there was no place for anger anymore.  And when I chose anger, there was no more room for joy.  All too often I made choices (albeit unconsciously) that created suffering for myself and those around me, rather than choosing to be joyful.  Realizing that this was a choice was extremely empowering, because it meant I could make different choices with happier results.

Of course, in real life it's not as easy to choose joy all the time.  The benefits of Plum Village lasted about a month or two, but without a strong mindfulness practice, it's all too easy to fall back into old patterns.  That's why my bi-weekly meditation session with my Plum Village sangha is so important to me.  When I can't go I find it more difficult to make the right choices, since it's hard for me to meditate on my own. So the first trimester of my pregnancy was doubly difficult, since in addition to my constant nausea I was too exhausted for my group's evening meditations.

Anger is particularly present for me at the moment, since I got into a big fight with kevin this past week.  My mindfulness practice has been suffering of late, and I haven't been taking care of myself in general.  Last week in particular I hadn't had time to relax at all over the weekend because my mother-in-law was visiting, and things just ended up exploding once she left. 

It's tempting to beat myself up over this and to tell myself that I have a terrible practice and that I suck at being mindful.  I KNOW that I need to let myself cool down, perhaps even more than most people because of my grudge-holding tendencies.  But against my better judgment I lashed out at kevin the other day, and while he was able to withstand my attacks for a moment, eventually his own anger took hold. That's the bad news.  

The good news is that we fight much less often than before, the peaks don't get quite as high, and the drama doesn't last quite as long.  While I'd love to eliminate the fights completely, I don't think that's realistic anytime soon given my stormy scorpio nature; and perhaps that shouldn't even be the goal.  But there has been immense progress, and when things go badly it's a wake-up call to take better care of myself.  While I used to see fights as a failure, I'm trying to notice instead how far I've come, and how well my mindfulness practice actually works - when I do it.

At Plum Village we talked about how it's so much easier to feel happy and peaceful in the context of a meditation retreat, and how so many people are tempted by monastic life for that reason.  But the real challenge is remaining happy and peaceful in normal hectic life and in relationships with people who may not practice mindfulness themselves.  That's the true work, and it is indeed hard work.  Retreats help to give us strength to face the outside world, but ultimately it's up to us to wake up every day and make the best choices we can.  This past week I made the choice to remain stuck in my anger and lash out at kevin, but then I also made the choice to let it go much faster than I would have a year ago.   Knowing that I'm going to be a parent soon is all the more motivation to make sure I continue with and try to deepen my practice, so that I can be as present as possible with my child and provide him/her with as peaceful a context as possible (all the while trying to forgive myself when I stray from perfection...).

I've always found it ironic that my middle name is Joy given that anger has been such a defining emotion in my life.  My mother tells me she gave me the name because she was so happy at my birth.  However I spent a long time feeling like the universe was playing a bit of a cruel joke on me, since I seemed doomed instead to unhappiness - in large part self-inflicted because of my own anger.  But I'm starting to redefine my relationship to this name, and to see Joy as my birthright, or my path in life - a guiding light of sorts.  And above all as I choice I can make each and every day.  

Monday, February 1, 2010


I haven't been sleeping well lately, perhaps because of the pregnancy, but most likely because of a long-standing difficulty turning off my brain at night.  Now matter how tired I am when I get into bed, the minute my head hits the pillow, it's like a switch gets turned on that I just can't turn back off. 

Normally I have the most trouble sleeping when there is something on my mind or I'm stressed out.  But the insomnia, while recurring, usually comes and goes as issues pop up in  my life.  Lately, however, it's been almost every night, which is in sharp contrast to my first trimester when just about all I did was sleep - with no trouble whatsoever.  So it's a big shift, and all the more frustrating because I otherwise feel so much better than before.  Now I'm tired not from the pregnancy, but from the not sleeping.  And while some insomnia is to be expected given my complicated relationship with sleep, and the fact that I obviously have lots on my mind planning for baby, it's still difficult to deal with.  

I lie in bed for hours almost every night, trying everything possible to sleep (except herbal tea, since I can't drink it now for some odd pregnant reason).  I've tried essential oils, sleep balm, even yoga; nothing doing.  My brain just won't shut down.  I've even been doing the buddhist version of counting sheep:  Count each inhale and exhale up to the number 10, starting over each time a thought interrupts.  I don't think I've ever made it to 10, and not because I've fallen asleep.  Yep, those darn thoughts just take over completely.  And eventually I just get angry.

I can't sleep and I'm frustrated that I can't sleep so I toss and turn and feel annoyed at myself and then the anger just builds as sleep further eludes me.  So I wake up both exhausted and really pissed off.  Not a great way to start the day. 

In desperation I started looking through some pregnancy books for guidance, and eventually came across some wise words from Sheila Kitzinger*:  "The stillness of the middle of the night provides a marvelous opportunity for practicing relaxation and breathing techniques and for getting in touch with the baby." 

Funny, but despite all my efforts to be more mindful in daytime, I never thought of using those moments of insomnia as an opportunity to connect with the little one.  Seems obvious now, but reading that was a huge revelation.  

So when the thoughts started to come the other night, I focused instead on my body, my belly, my breath.  I redirected the stream of thoughts to the baby who is still so tiny that I can't even feel him/her moving yet, which is perhaps why it didn't occur to me before to spend that time connecting.  

And a surprising thing happened:  a gentle wave of gratitude just washed over me, sudden and unbidden.  As I thought about the baby I just started feeling thankful for the amazing gift of life growing inside of me.  As I looked over at Kevin resting peacefully beside me, instead of feeling resentful at his perpetual ease with sleep (or his snores), I felt grateful for his presence in my life, our choice to create this child together, and what a wondeful father I knew he would be.  And then I felt grateful for my warm bed, my cozy apartment, the relative material comforts I enjoy when so many others are sleeping out in the cold, or homeless in Haiti. And so on. 

And it's strange because at other moments when I've purposefully tried to be thankful, the gratitude often got corrupted by guilt over my privilege and I usually ended up feeling worse.  But the other night was different:  my heart was full of thanks and appreciation for the simple blessings that I suddenly became aware of as I laid wide-awake, breathing in the quiet darkness.  

I'm wondering if that means I can't force gratitude, as much as I feel I should be thankful at certain moments.  Maybe I just need to soften enough to let the gratitude in when it feels welcome, when it has the space to express itself fully and freely.   And the idea that I can use this insomniac time to do something healthier than getting angry is in itself a gift.  I don't know if I fall asleep sooner (though I suspect I do), but I wake up a lot happier. 

I think it's also a good lesson for when the baby comes, since everyone says that new parents don't sleep.  Well, if the insomnia continues, it's good training for what comes later.  And even if I do manage to start sleeping normally again, I think the idea of being present during a time of unwelcome wakefulness is crucial.  Just as I realized that I can choose to be angry about the insomnia, or use that time more peacefully-productively, I hope that I'll be able to appreciate those moments when the baby wakes me as a gift rather than a burden (at least some of the time!). 

Who knows what I'll be capable of in 6 months, but in the meantime it gives me something to work on when I can't sleep at night!

*from "The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth" (Knopf 2004).