8 min read

Understanding is Love (holiday edition)

Image of a sunset over water with sparse clouds above
Sunset in Prince Edward County, Ontario Canada. Photo by Robert Walsh, 2022.

I wasn’t planning on posting again in 2022, but then I watched this live-streamed Christmas Eve dharma talk by Sister Chân Đức in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village, France. Thirty minutes into it, I texted a PV friend to see if she was watching live too:

You watching Chan Duc live? Sooooo good. She’s so freaking happy. It’s the cutest.”

Sister Chân Đức’s joy was infectious. She was calm and poised in her delivery, and at the same time there was this twinkle in her eye. It pulled me in.

Sister Chân Đức is a senior teacher in the Plum Village tradition. She began practicing with Thich Nhat Hann in 1986 and was the first Western European woman ordained as a nun by Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy for short). She has a gentle and firm way of teaching, and like Thầy, she is a constant reminder to come home to our mindful breathing and mindful steps.

The first 20–25 minutes of this talk really struck a chord in me. I’ll speak to some key points and share some of my personal stories that, I hope, will inspire others to reflect on themselves. At the end of this post, I’ll offer a meditation exercise that I use daily to apply some of the concepts from her talk.

Love during the holidays

In the spirit of the winter holidays, the theme of her talk was love and understanding. She spoke about Thầy’s teaching “understanding is love” and the opposite/equivalent statement that, “hatred is ignorance”. It was a beautiful way to invite us to reflect both on our personal lives and the state of the world.

She inspired me to look into my relationship with myself, my partner, my friends, and my family – asking, do I truly understand myself and the other person? She also brought to light the roots of war and the reality that a lack of understanding of others can be a potent ingredient for anger, hatred, and war.

Our perceptions are never 100% correct

To introduce the concept of understanding from the Buddhist perspective, Chân Đức discussed the reality that our perceptions are never 100% accurate. We always see through some kind of lens. She said that we might be 10%, sometimes 50-60%, rarely 80-90% and never 100% correct.

This is the human flaw

This reminds me of a practice that Brother Pháp Hữu often discusses in The Way Out Is In. The practice of recognizing, especially when I have a strong opinion, that:

I am partially right

How many times have you been absolutely sure about something, only to find out later that you were missing a piece of the puzzle? I’m sure we have all had this experience.

I remember a time when I was absolutely sure that adding salt to water made it boil faster. I have no idea where I got the idea, maybe my mother, perhaps a TV show, who knows. One day, many years ago at a family gathering, my younger cousin and I, for some reason, got onto the topic, and she informed me that salt does not have an effect on the speed of water boiling. Without really thinking, I insisted that it did. We both thought we were right. Eventually, her dad (my uncle, an engineer) intervened and confirmed that salt doesn’t have an effect on boiling water. As I wrote this, I decided to google the question and discovered that the answer isn’t as simple as we thought. It really depends on how salty the water is – if you made it really salty, it may, in fact, boil faster.

So, we were all partially right.

Thích Nhất Hạnh has a concept called “multiple truths” in which we accept that it is possible that more than one thing is true at the same time. Sister Chân Đức used the example of two individuals she met in Plum Village during a retreat: a conservative Rabbi and a Palestinian activist, both from the West Bank. They both believed that their respective groups had a God given right to the land and were each struck by the fact that the other’s view was so similar to their own, although from opposite sides of a conflict. Both spoke a “truth” from their perspective.

Understanding is Love

Chân Đức recounted that Thầy has taught us many many times that to truly love, we have to understand. Without truly understanding someone, how can we possibly love them? We may simply love an idea/perception of the person that we have in our mind. We can also switch it around and say that to truly understand, love has to be present. Without loving kindness and compassion, it is not true understanding from the Buddhist perspective.

Chân Đức invited us to ask during the winter holidays: do I truly understand my loved ones? We can also ask, do I truly understand myself?

I can learn to understand myself better

I’ve been seeing lately that I have a lot to learn about myself. I don’t fully understand why certain habits continue to drive me, or how to transform them. For example, sometimes I react much stronger to a conversation with my wife than the topic warrants on its own. I don’t always know fully why or where a certain reaction has come from (although I am learning). I’m not sure if I need to fully understand, but often with a bit of understanding, difficulty within myself eases and changes. It is a practice.

Chân Đức connected some dots in a way that helped to calm this question in me.

She said that if we know that our perceptions are never 100% correct, then we know that this is true of our perceptions of ourselves. She asks: if I don’t fully understand myself, is it possible to truly love myself?

Do I understand my body, my feelings, my perceptions, my mental formations, and my consciousness?

She followed this with a smile and said:

If I can understand myself, I can love myself better.

Better is the key word here.

This felt so optimistic. I felt like she was giving me permission to not fully understand myself and encouragement to practice developing understanding so that I can love myself better.

Aimless understanding

I’m reminded of the buddhist philosophical concept of aimlessness (that is part of the Three Doors of Liberation). If I can let go of a goal/end point (an aim) that I am striving for and accept myself as I am, then I can proceed with more ease. Sounds simple, right?

As I’ve pointed to in earlier posts, I think that many of us have parts of ourselves that we might not love as much as other parts. For example, I can be hard on myself when I notice my strong habit of avoiding difficult feelings. I might fall into watching TV or distracting myself when I’m stressed. Over the years, I have observed that this avoidance can result in feelings building up as tension in my body. I lived for many years with chronic low back pain in my 20s. If there is anything that training/working as a physiotherapist in a publicly funded chronic pain clinic in a hospital in Toronto (in my early 30s) taught me, this habit played a role in my chronic aches and pains. The mind and body are not separate.

I often crave to be an expert in understanding and transforming emotions. I might think that I want to reach the “end goal” of negative feelings having no effect on me. While practicing developing my ability to handle strong emotions is a wonderful intention, if I think of this as an end goal that needs to be perfect, it is unachievable. Much like the end goal of having zero low back pain for someone who has had it for many years. Having a goal we are attached to can be a barrier to transformation. With these goals, it can become easy to be our own harshest critics.

A more skillful way of thinking about it would be to think of the North Star – we don’t expect to reach the destination of the North Star, but it can be a guide along the way.

Learning to understand and love our patterns

I’ve been learning to understand my pattern of avoidance/resistance, and I’ve been learning to offer that part of me kindness, compassion, and love.

As I’ve been practicing with this, I’ve noticed subtle changes in myself. I might still have a 1st reaction of frustration with myself, but I am quicker to shift to kindness than I was 6 months ago. I am able to offer myself more space, and with that, I can calm strong emotions much more effectively. All of this is much easier to do when I let go of the goal of never having that 1st reaction in the first place. Aimlessness is key.

I am learning to love myself. I’m learning to love the habit energy of avoidance that is a part of me, that served me well for so many years when I was young, despite not being the most helpful now. When I notice it driving my actions, I try to bathe it in kind awareness. I know that it comes up for a reason and I allow that part of me to express itself, but not to drive me. I allow space for it to be there, and by shining my awareness on it, it changes.

Just like sun on a snowy field, it may not appear at first glance that any changes are happening, but slowly the snow melts away.

By observing, allowing, and accepting the habits that inevitably manifest, understanding is possible.

As I continue to learn to understand myself, I learn to love myself better. Thanks, Sister Chân Đức.

Applied practice: the joy of morning meditation

Every morning I try to set aside some time to be with myself, some time to learn to understand myself. Wherever I am, once I wake up, I sit down somewhere, close my eyes, and practice coming home to myself. I start by following my in and out breath and when I’m ready, I shift my attention to my body, feelings, and thoughts. I might go through them in a sequential order, or I might simply open up my attention to my inner experience. As I do this, I remind myself to infuse my attention with love. The part of me that is paying attention is smiling to the part of me that is being paid attention to. It’s a time to smile with myself.

By smiling with my inner world, I practice the opposite of avoiding/resisting myself discussed above. I practice embracing myself with compassionate and loving awareness. I might sit like this anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes in the morning. For me, this is a way of arriving home within.

This is a practice of tending to my inner landscape.

Sometimes, if I feel I’m a bit tight on time, I simply infuse every bodily action in my morning with this energy – sitting up, making my bed, taking my first steps of the day, brushing my teeth, etc. I find that it is a bit easier to be mindful and present with myself while sitting still, but it doesn’t have to be that. I can practice this on the go and apply the same concepts during my daily activities.

Building a foundation for the day to come

When I start my day by caring for and coming home to myself, I build a solid foundation for the rest of my day.

I think of it similarly to starting my day with exercise. When I do a strength training or aerobic exercise session off the top of the day, I feel so satisfied the rest of the day, knowing that I have already taken care of my body. I can feel like I have already lived part of my day according to some of my deepest values (e.g. caring for my health).

Morning meditation cares for my mental fitness in the same way that morning physical activity cares for my physical fitness.

Loving Myself

I have an intention to learn to love myself better every morning. When I practice this regularly, I notice my capacity for understanding and loving my partner, my friends, and my family grows.

It’s like RuPaul says:

If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?

The dharma talk discussed in this post was given by Sister Chân Đức on Dec 25, 2022 in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village, France. It was delivered to the monastic and lay community of practitioners present at the monastery in the hall, and it was live-streamed on the Plum Village YouTube channel. There are plenty of other Dharma talks on the Plum Village YouTube channel, and there are other upcoming live-streams. I knew this specific talk was scheduled because of an instagram post by @plumvillagefrance.

Wishing you well as you transition into the new year.

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