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.
We began our 3-month winter retreat (a version of the traditional rains retreat) in mid-November. I decided to focus on taking care of my physical health, which I’ve been struggling with since I ordained. Sometimes I make ambitious resolutions that don’t last for long. This past autumn I focused on accepting what I don’t like in myself, putting less pressure on myself to change and practicing to see myself more clearly. While this could have been a helpful practice, I didn’t go deep enough. I saw that what seemed like acceptance was really masking old habits with new names. I often found myself feeling tired and agitated and tense from lack of exercise and too many sweet treats. One day I was reflecting on this and felt quite frustrated with the situation. In tears, I said, “I’m just not strong enough to do it!” – that is, to get up early to exercise and to practice moderation in eating. Hearing myself say this out loud somehow woke me up to see that the problem laid in my thinking and not my actions.
So I set a focus for the winter retreat – to join the new 5am chi gong group, to take walks after lunch whenever possible and to cut out foods that dull my body and mind (with a few holiday exceptions for moderation!). From the outset it still looked like another set of goals but I realized that my real focus was to make peaceful inner change. Where I normally went from one extreme of trying too hard and feeling trapped to another extreme of letting go completely and feeling helpless, my true winter retreat focus became to cultivate kind, gentle determination.
Already I am learning so much. Honestly, the first 4 days of getting up at 4:30am felt awful. I almost gave up. Then I remembered that the first few days of fasting can feel awful, but then it passes. And after a few more days I began to enjoy getting up extra-early. I see that exercising with others really motivates me to get out of bed so I’m sticking with the group rather than trying to “do it on my own.” There’s no need to make this any harder on myself!
With the habits around eating I see that two main aspects are essential for change. The first is to really recognize, experience and enjoy the freedom of non-craving. For me, this means taking time to enjoy how happy and light I feel when I can look at chocolate or cake and not feel compelled to eat it all at once. It’s so easy to skip this but now that I’m paying more careful attention to the whole experience, the physical sensations of non-craving – spaciousness, clarity and ease – are often more enjoyable than the object of craving itself. And they have no side effects! Where everyone knows the pleasures promised from fulfilling a craving, we often forget how good the freedom of non-craving feels.
The other aspect is of course practicing being present with craving itself. I thought that I could already do this but the past month has shown me that I’ve barely begun. I could recognize the physical sensations of craving for a few moments but after that I still pushed it away, distracted myself, judged myself or followed it. Often the chocolate ended up in my mouth, not so much to enjoy the chocolate but because the agitation of wanting the chocolate was too much to bear. But this is not about denial. Happiness, ease and wellbeing are essential for opening the heart, clearing the mind and cultivating insight. When our actions are truly about enjoying, there is no rushing or distraction.
Yes, staying present with craving is uncomfortable – that’s why we don’t like doing it! When we can know the difference between sensations of craving – tightness, dullness and agitation – and sensations of enjoyment – stability, lightness and ease – it’s gets easier and the joy of non-craving has a better chance to express itself. The more I practice, the more I see how quickly craving can change. Even remembering the possibility of staying present brings release. The more I let myself relax into the tension and laugh at the situation, the easier it is to see this is merely something that arises and passes, like all phenomena. And when I feel rushed, busy, tired and worried, I forget. Perhaps I’m not the only one? It’s easy to explain, sometimes easy to do and often I miss it completely. And as with all things, with practice it gets easier.
The first few weeks of retreat were easy, fruitful and encouraging. As Christmas and New Year’s took over with celebration and busy-ness, the old habits came right back. So I’ve come back to my aspiration to “cultivate a kind, gentle determination.” Determination to let go of self-judgement. Determination to recognize that this strength is already here. Determination to begin again, as many times as needed. I don’t know where any of this will go in terms of actions and habits. Just knowing that I’ve been capable of doing something I had labelled “impossible” is already a great success. Perhaps the best part of the practice is knowing that more gentleness and kindness in my life also brings more gentleness and kindness into the world. Just being on this path is such a gift. Thank you Buddha.