This article was written for and firstly published by Wake Up International: a community of young mindfulness practitioners from around the world inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the spring of 2015, I received a sign of magic. I came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and while listening to one of his Dharma talks, it suddenly felt as if a thousand butterflies started to fly around me. The air literally started to vibrate. A deep feeling of joy took over me. I was sure the Plum Village tradition had something in store for me, but I could not have predicted the big adventure that was awaiting me. All the dear friends I was about to meet, the lessons I would learn, and deep transformations I would undergo.
When I had just graduated from high school, I did not want to have anything to do with Buddhism. There was no need for a spiritual practice. The emphasis on suffering and how to deal with it in Buddhist texts I read made me sigh. I thought that life was not full of suffering, and there were lots of fun adventures and beautiful nature to be explored.
However, years into my university study, the spiritual practice saved my life. My personal suffering had spilled over and could not be ignored anymore. I had crashed with burnout and feelings of depression. Too much stress, never ending deadlines and too many things on at the same time. Feeling responsible for all of the suffering of the world except for my own, and not taking enough rest tore me apart. I felt disconnected in every way—disconnected from the natural world for sitting inside and staring at screens nearly every day, disconnected from others living in an individualist society, and disconnected from my inner world and emotions in a world in which we are taught to pay more attention to our outer appearance rather than looking inward.
Tears streamed down my face while driving to the EIAB in Germany from all around despair and not feeling that life was worthy of living. But things were about to change for me, slowly but steadily.
Mindfulness and meditation helped me to rediscover how to live. I practiced walking slowly, paying attention to my breathing, inhaling and exhaling deep breaths, and truly enjoying delicious, healthy food, chewing slowly and appreciating every bite. While sitting on a meditation cushion during one of the sessions, I felt waves of energy from the music sung by the choir coming straight towards me and merging with me. It was so special. I could feel the music and their vibrations of healing and compassion. I felt that I was held like a small baby at last, allowed to rest.
On my last day at the EIAB, we held a tea ceremony in the forest. We sat in a circle in perfect silence with cookies and chocolate being passed around, and the sounds of birds and the smell of fresh air surrounding us. The monks played the flute, and I teared up from its beauty. This simple moment—the tea, the trees, the music and the sweet people who kept me company—was all I needed. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
The upcoming retreats had more amazing moments in store for me. Doing ritual before dinner, being surrounded with beautiful friends, the French summer sky, and the abundant and nourishing food. We watched the stars, sang songs, laughed, and cuddled up like small children under blankets while being read a beautiful children’s story.
I made deep and soulful friendships at every retreat I attended. Special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, were celebrated together without alcohol and with a lot of love. Summer came, and I spent a month as a farm intern in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village. Being outside all day, putting my hands in the soil, learning about the plants that produce our vegetables, growing rich foods to feed the community and reconnecting to the Earth nourished me deeply. We harvested and walked only fifty meters to bring fresh organic vegetables to the kitchen to be cooked later. The realization that a total lack of pesticides, carbon emission by transport or plastics used for packaging in my food production would actually manifest in my life made me feel so relieved. My hope for a more ecological and interconnected living is starting to become real. The joy!
The mindfulness practice and loving community helped make life beautiful again. It put me in deeper connection with the natural world, as well as much closer to others by sharing from the heart and opening our inner worlds to each other. My health started to improve by living more natural rhythms of rest and rejuvenation rather than constant productivity and stress.
I feel safer in this world by having a container of practices and knowledge on how to deal with the light and dark parts of life. I know how to cultivate joy and how to deal with suffering better. I have become aware that I should not avoid ‘negative’ or painful feelings, but I also need to not drown in sorrow. I have become more aware of what is going on inside of me, and I take better care of my stored pain and trauma. Sharing circles have helped me to become a better listener and speaker. The techniques I learned guide me in my daily life, especially when things are not going well.
I feel blessed having met new friends who accept me for the full being I am. My fellow retreatants and friends know me better than people who have known me for a long time. It is amazing to know that during the darkest period of my adult life so far, magic forces have conspired to take me to a much better place. What seemed like crisis at first was only a station on my journey to deeper transformation, wisdom, and more soulful living. It brought me back to myself and helped me find my spiritual family. I am so grateful for the thousands of butterflies who came into my life on a Spring day in Amsterdam and for the intuition that guided me on this journey which keeps unfolding more beautifully. Remember that when times are rough, we might just be on our way to somewhere far more beautiful.
Joanna is a 27-year-old woman from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She currently stays in India to explore and deepen knowledge of spirituality and ecology. She writes at inthisreality.wordpress.com
Find out more through “Wake Up International: Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a healthy & compassionate society” and Plum Village.