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Shambhala Sun | January 2012
You'll find this article on page 38 of the magazine.

Awakening My Heart

The Sun’s ANDREA MILLER attends a transformational six-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh.

The War Memorial Gym is a sea of eight hundred prone people. When I finally find an empty patch of floor, I unfurl my yoga mat. Then I lie down on top of it, covering myself with the itchy yellow blanket I carted here from my dorm room.

This is the evening of the first full day of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Awakening the Heart Retreat, held in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. According to the schedule, we’ll be practicing total relaxation and touching the earth. I don’t know what touching the earth is, but I don’t give it much thought. My mind has latched onto the pleasant promise of total relaxation. And it is pleasant. Sister Chan Khong, who has worked closely with Thich Nhat Hanh for over fifty years, assures us that if we feel like sleeping, we don’t need to resist. Instead, we can enjoy drifting off and later waking up refreshed. She guides us in breathing, releasing, and taking notice of the wonders of our bodies—the hard work of our hearts, livers, intestines. Then she breaks into soothing song.

When the bell finally rings and Sister Chan Khong moves on to touching the earth, I am deeply relaxed. She explains that we all have three roots: blood (or genetic) ancestors, environment (or land) ancestors, and spiritual ancestors. They are the sources of our strength and goodness, but they also plant the seeds of our pain and negative patterns. We’re going to concentrate on the good seeds that are in us from each of our roots, then we’re going to acknowledge the negative seeds. Then we’re going to touch the earth by touching the floor with our forehead, and we’re going to let this negativity go—let it go into the earth. Sister Chan Khong also explains that she is going to talk about different situations and maybe they won’t all apply to us, but we can use what she’s saying as a jumping off point to think about our own lives.

We begin with our blood ancestors—first our mother. My own relationship with my mom is remarkably uncomplicated; she is a true friend and has been supportive of me all my life. So I don’t relate when Sister Chan Khong talks about the challenges of having a critical, complaining mother. But when she tells us to imagine our mother when she was young, and to think about her vulnerability and her pain, I start crying instantly. It’s like Sister Chan Khong has pressed a button I didn’t know I had. I’m picturing my mother at age fourteen, when she lost her little brother in an accident. She washed his blood off the porch, she told me once, and she felt like she was washing him down the drain.

On the wall opposite me hangs the gym’s scoreboard, flanked by the stylized heads of two thunderbirds. I close my eyes to them and let my tears drip to the pink foaminess of my yoga mat.

Then Sister Chan Khong tells us to think of our father.

Over breakfast when I was eleven, I asked my dad if he believed in ghosts. “See this coffeepot,” he said, holding it up to the morning light. “I believe in this coffeepot because I can see it. I don’t believe in what I can’t see.”

I bit into a corner of toast with jam. “So you think that when we die, that’s it?”

“Not at all,” he said. “We live on through our children.”

I squinted at my father, still in his bathrobe, and decided that living on through our children was just a fancy-schmancy way of saying that when you’re dead, you’re dead. This was a no-frills belief I couldn’t share, because I believed in most everything else—heaven and God, reincarnation and astral plains, ghosts, astrology, and psychic powers. With its many mysterious layers, my eleven-year-old world was both thrilling and terrifying. Attics held untold possibility; I slept with blankets over my head; I went to fortune-tellers. Be it palm readings, tea leaves, or tarot cards, witchy middle-aged women in slippers predicted great things for me. What they never predicted was doubt.

Yet after I left eleven behind — after years had gone by — my beliefs came to look more and more like Dad’s. Pragmatic. Evidence-based. I was my father’s daughter.

“You cannot take your father out of you; you cannot take your mother out of you,” Thich Nhat Hanh says during a dharma talk in the War Memorial Gym. “You are a continuation of your father; you are a continuation of your mother. In fact, your father is both inside and outside. The father inside is younger, and you carry the inside father into the future.”

Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as Thay) is up on the stage, along with pots of orchids. This, the first part of his talk, is dedicated to the children who are on the retreat, and they’re sitting on the floor directly in front of the stage. I’m on the floor too, but further back, and behind me there are people on chairs.

“Bring a grain of corn home, plant it in a small pot, and remember to water it every day.” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “Then when the grain of corn has become a young plant of corn of two or three leaves, ask the plant this question: My dear little plant of corn, do you remember the time when you were a tiny seed?”

Thay’s smile is wide as he gives the children these instructions, and this gets everyone else smiling too—both children and adults. “If you listen very carefully, you can hear the answer,” he says. “The young plant of corn will say something like: ‘Me? A tiny seed? I don’t believe it!’” A brown-robed Zen master cracking a silly joke—this gets people giggling. 

The young plant of corn has been there for only two weeks,” says Thay, “but it has already forgotten that it was a seed, a tiny seed of corn, so you have to help the plant to remember. Tell it something like this: ‘My dear little plant of corn, it’s me who planted the grain of corn in this pot and who has watered it every day. You came from that seed.’ Maybe in the beginning the plant doesn’t believe you, but be patient and it will accept that it was once a seed.”

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