Mindfulness as a Healing Practice | Omega

Buddhist nun Sister Dang Nghiem (affectionately known as Sister D) explains how mindfulness—the practice of paying attention to ourselves with loving care—is a form of medicine.

Omega: Why is mindfulness so important for our times?

Sister D: When I was in my second year of medical school, I had to make the decision whether to do a four-year program or a five-year program. I was stressing out about it, and in a dream I saw a lot of people on bicycles just plunging down a hill. I stopped at the top of the hill and recognized that there was a little girl sitting on my handlebars. I realized that if I were to plunge down the hill, that girl would fly off the handlebars and die, so I stopped. I didn’t go down the hill. 

I was not a Buddhist practitioner yet at the time. Yet, that dream came to me. I understood that if I were to plunge down that hill, something in me would die. It helped me to make the decision to do a five-year program, just like that. I didn’t hesitate anymore.

Now, as a practitioner, I realize the wisdom in me was speaking to me. You have an inner child. You have a life that is very precious, and you have to take care of yourself. We are so used to being busy that even when we have time to rest, we cannot rest. On vacation, we cannot really be on vacation—we still make many plans, we go to many places and do many things because we are restless. These are our deeply ingrained habit energies.

To listen to our body and to see how tense it is, to listen to our breathing and to see how shallow, pressured, and suffocating it might be, is to have more compassion toward ourselves. To see that what I have at this moment is enough and I can spend a little time to sit quietly with myself and sip a cup of coffee or lemonade, or be with my loved one—those things are so simple, but they bring a lot of peace and joy.

If I were a doctor right now, I would make a whole lot more money, but I would be a lot busier and I would suffer a lot more. Now I just have a few outfits, but I am more at peace with myself and I help a lot more people.

If you realize that you have enough, wherever you are in your life, then you can relax and enjoy it a little more. Our work is the means, not the end to our lives. We’re not born to work; we are born to live and discover.

To benefit from mindfulness you must learn to live mindfully. For example, you can follow your breathing every time the phone rings. Take a moment to stop speaking, stop thinking, stop moving around, and just follow your in-breath and out-breath just three times. When you train yourself to stop and rest throughout the day, you touch peace. You see the benefits right away.

Omega: How is using mindfulness as medicine different from our Western approach to medicine?

Sister D: I trained as a Western medical doctor, and I see that there’s a schism in our attitude toward the body and the mind. Western medicine sees the body and mind as different and mostly treats the body—you come with physical symptoms and you get medication that addresses those physical symptoms. Eastern medicine sees that body and mind are one, that they reflect each other. For example, we might see that stress can manifest as a skin problem or as cancer, depression, or anxiety disorder.

When you practice mindfulness you are aware of the body first because the body is most easily perceived—you can feel your breathing and hear, see, smell, taste, and touch it. Getting to know your breathing is getting to know your mind, because when you’re angry or sad or at peace or at ease you breathe differently. As you get to know your state of mind, you can stay with your breath and watch as your breathing becomes calmer, and then your mind becomes calmer.

Omega: You have said time is not a healer. What do you mean by that?

Sister D: When I first came to practice as a nun, our teacher told me that for my healing I need three ingredients: time, practice, and love. Time is one factor, but it alone doesn’t heal.

Even if time has passed, you can find yourself reliving past trauma or abuse. Or you may find yourself perpetuating the patterns of trauma or abuse with your own thoughts, speech, and actions. It is not uncommon for people to become angrier or more bitter, nervous, or skeptical over time.

But when we have a spiritual practice such as mindfulness, we learn to be aware of our habit energies, of our patterns. We breathe with them, we relax them, we listen to them, and we learn to change our behavior, our way of thinking and speaking. The practice helps us to transform and to heal our mind, which is at the root of our problems.

The element of love is also very important. When we learn to love and be there for ourselves, we become capable of receiving love from others. Love is always there, even the trees are showing us love by giving us oxygen and creating a peaceful landscape. Nature loves us. Our loved ones love us. But sometimes when we suffer we close ourselves down and we’re not open to that love.

In Buddhism we have the image of a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost has a needle-like throat and can’t swallow much, so its big belly remains empty and it is always wanting. Our practice is to learn to open up our throat and not be a hungry ghost. We practice not running away from love, or ourselves, but letting go of the suffering and sadness and opening up and receiving love.

Omega: How are things like love, forgiveness, compassion, and openness related to healing? How does this work? 

Sister D: In our practice we learn to be our own soul mate. In Vietnamese, my native language, soul mate is "tri kỷ." Tri means to remember, to know, to master. Kỷ means oneself. So a soul mate is one who remembers, knows, and masters herself/himself. Indeed, as we practice mindfulness, we become aware of our karmas, which are actions of our body, speech and mind. Awareness brings about true understanding, transformation, and healing. Thus, mindfulness helps us master our behaviors, speech, thoughts, feelings, and other mental states.

In order to be our own soul mate, we must invest in the spiritual dimension in our life. We learn to practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, deep relaxation, loving speech, etc. throughout the day. Thus, we practice being attentive to our body, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings—to be there with them, not to be swept away by them, and not to run away from them—to just be there for them with equanimity, calm, and ease. When you learn to be a soul mate to yourself, you recognize many habit energies and self-destructive patterns, and you learn to forgive yourself.

In college I wrote a poem and in it I said, “Help me to forgive myself.” I didn’t really understand it, but the wisdom in me spoke to me that way. Later I saw that while I was no longer a victim, I was a perpetrator, and I needed the most forgiveness from myself, not others. When you learn to forgive yourself for having imposed all this suffering on yourself, then you learn to be more open to yourself, to love, and you can do that for others naturally.

We can become addicted to our suffering, both psychologically and physiologically. We can carry stress and tension unknowingly for so many years that they become a part of us. Before, when I was sad, I would not talk to my partner and I’d just listen to sad music.

I would push him away or I would think he didn’t understand or he didn’t care. In that way I was feeding my suffering. I was curling up with my own suffering and causing it to become a severe depression. That’s addiction.

To embrace ourselves with love, compassion, patience, and forgiveness means we no longer push our suffering away or get lost in it. We no longer feed our suffering in our daily life with skewed and destructive thoughts, speech, and bodily actions. Then we heal.

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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