Editor’s note: Sister Ocean is a Canadian nun ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition. She practices in France and blogs about mindfulness practice in daily life on Buddhistdoor International.
Living in a community is a great way to really practice mindfulness. A community can offer much-needed support, many sources of joy and plenty of frustration to “keep it real.” There is nowhere to hide in a community and no better way to see oneself clearly. I have been drawn to community life for a very long time. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I feel so grateful for all that I’m learning.
One thing that I’m learning by living in community is that every time a problem arises, it’s all about me. I may think that the problem is about someone else’s behaviour or an unjust situation, or the weather… but it’s always about me. Or rather, when something bothers me, the reason I feel irritated or upset is because of my internal condition. It has very little to do with the outside world or the other person.
I am currently responsible for organizing the transportation for the community, which involves collecting and handing out keys. Last week we had a cold night and the next morning, everything was covered in frost, including the windshields of the vans. As I was about to bring out the keys, a little bit late, one of the drivers came to my room and said, “Where’s the key? I need to warm up the car! You should put the keys out at breakfast time. It’s too late now…” Her tone was not kind but her words were true. I should have brought the keys out at breakfast time. I had everything ready the night before but I forgot to bring them along with me in the early morning and this was the first chance that I’d found to get them because of other responsibilities. I saw that she was feeling stressed by the thought of being late and there was no point in explaining or justifying myself. I just said, “Yes,” and handed her the key. In that moment I was busy but calm. I felt sorry to have caused her to feel stressed. I knew that I couldn’t have done any better given the circumstances and that I would do my best to not repeat this in the future. On this day, her suffering didn’t cause me to suffer too because I was already stable.
A week later I was feeling very worn-down. On our rest day I had gotten up early to practice chi gong with some other sisters. We normally practice the chi gong in silence but the usual leader wasn’t there. A discussion arose about how to practice. I wanted to practice more quickly and another sister wanted to practice more slowly. It was quite simple but I was already feeling overwhelmed so even that small conversation was too much for me. I moved to another corner to practice by myself but I kept hearing the comments of the other sister running through my head. I felt criticized, and then judgemental in response. By the time I had finished my chi gong and a long sit, I started to settle down. After breakfast I saw another sister who’d gotten very upset too. In an instant, it was all so clear – her perceptions were the source of her suffering and her perceptions were wrong. And my perceptions had been the source of my suffering, and my perceptions were wrong! I silently laughed to myself and could finally let go.
I’ve also noticed that every time I feel someone else isn’t practicing very well and I really want to say something – that they’re being too critical, too needy of praise, too harsh – every time I’ve felt this urge build up in me, the same insight arises. I need to be less critical, less needy of praise, less harsh. There is one sister who has a lot of anger in her. When she’s angry even a simple, “What’s the matter?” can result in the anger coming my way. After this happened a number of times, I felt attacked and upset. I knew that this sister suffers a lot from her anger and that she’s already doing her best to transform it. I didn’t want to add judgement or blame to the mix so I had to practice to let go of my own anger regarding her anger! One day she came by, full of frustration. As she burst out, I saw that she was suffering and that was it I didn’t need to say anything. The next week in a sharing circle, she reflected on her anger, seeing everything I had wanted to say to her. Since she had come to it herself, it was much deeper than I could have said. I was amazed. The same has happened with other people and other issues. When it comes to other people’s growth, it’s not about me.
I do this to myself so many times. Every time I think that I’ve really seen through wrong perceptions and found an inner balance, another illusion jumps out to block the light. But with practice, it gets easier and easier to say, “Hello wrong perception! I see you!” and to let it go. It’s like a dance teacher once taught me. Balance isn’t about finding the one right spot, but constantly adjusting to stay close enough to centre. That also sums up my practice.Of course many people do things that are harmful, offensive and cruel every day. And my presence, steady or reactive, does affect others. But if I suffer, it is because of my inner state. I don’t quite know how it all works but I see that it’s true. A great teacher could give a talk about non-self, impermanence, suffering, nirvana or another beautiful and complex topic. All I know is that whenever I feel I have a problem outside of myself, it’s really all about me and that’s enough.