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Sister Healer: Sister Dang Nghiem

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Last Updated: 07/06/2015 10:29 am
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ANNIE INTERNICOLA
  • Annie Internicola

When Sister Dang Nghiem came to the United States at 16 after a troubled childhood in post-war Vietnam, her grandmother sent her off with three instructions: She should get a good education, raise her younger brother to be a good person, and then become a nun so that she could transcend her suffering and help others do the same. The first two came naturally, but she was a bit flummoxed by the nun part of the equation. It wasn't until after "Sister D" earned college and medical school degrees and began practicing as an MD that the path to the third goal unfolded. For years, she'd suffered the traumatic aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse by her uncle. When her partner, John, died suddenly, she knew she had to change her life; she gave up medicine and moved to Plum Village monastery in southwest France. Ordained as a Buddhist nun by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2000, she is now actively carrying out her grandmother's last injunction.

Sister D's story and dharma teachings leap to life in her books Healing: A Woman's Journey from Doctor to Nun (Parallax, 2010) and Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing Body and Spirit (Parallax, 2015). With joy and humor she explores the interplay between Western and Eastern medicine, the nature of interbeing, and her trials with neuro-Lyme disease. During a Miracle of Mindfulness Tour in which 75 fellow monks and nuns will visit Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Hill, she will help lead a Mindfulness Retreat (August 31–September 5) and "Day of Mindfulness" (September 6). Sister D spoke to me by phone from Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi.

You've lived through sexual abuse, life-changing loss, and a severe chronic illness. Yet you say that we always have a chance to create a beautiful past. How does this work?

Usually when we think about the past we yearn for it or regret over it, and we suffer because of that yearning or regret. But when we learn to live deeply in the present moment with kindness, with love, then this present moment becomes the past that has that kindness, that love. You see this moment in which you and I are talking? In half an hour it will become the past. With mindfulness practice, we are able to actively build a past that's not something we regret over or yearn for, but something that we create by living this very moment. It's very proactive.

Also, we know that the past is not gone, really. Whatever we do, however we think or are in this moment, it reflects the past. The past is right in the present moment. If there are wounds, we don't need a time machine to go back and change things; we can heal our wounds in the present moment. If you've been abused, hurt in some way, you heal the wound by the way you say things to yourself, positively, and by the way you do things for yourself and for others, with more kindness, affection, and forgiveness. When you heal in the present moment, the past is healed. It's something very concrete that we can do. Many people don't realize that.

How is mindfulness good medicine?

A cultivated mind brings a lot of happiness and peace. An uncultivated mind brings chaos and disorder—it moves in the direction of entropy. The Buddhist practice is all focused in the mind; we take care of the mind, because the mind will produce speech and bodily reactions. So we take a moment to be more aware of our body. For instance, here [at the monastery], when we hear the sound of the activity bell or the sound of the phone ringing, we take a moment to breathe in and breathe out, to smile and relax. If you do that for a few days you recognize how much tension you carry in your body. It becomes so "normal" for us that we think that's the way it is. But really we should take a moment to slow down, breathe, and listen to the body—to recognize there's so much stress and tension and a lot of pain that's going on chronically.

In the last four and a half years with chronic Lyme disease, I have not taken one painkiller. I sit down or lie down and breathe with it, instead of being so scared of it. Whatever you give to your body, it becomes addicted in that way. Every time I have pain, I do that and it passes. I've learned to be there for my disease. Instead of being afraid or trying to defeat it, I've learned to live in harmony with it. It's not easy every day, but it would be almost impossible without the practice that I have.

There's a lot of new science about the benefits of meditation, but it's a struggle for many people to start or maintain a practice. Can mindfulness help?

When you think of meditation, you think of sitting on a cushion, and people think it's unrealistic these days or exotic, only for spiritual people. But when you look at meditation, there are two main elements, just like a bird with two wings—one is stopping, and the other is looking. Stopping means stopping the mind from running back to the past or towards the future. It's being in the here and now, just as it is. Looking means looking into what is, and to understand its roots and causes so you know how to go forward with it.

Mindfulness is meditation; it has both elements of stopping and looking. When you're walking and you're aware that you're walking, your mind is in the present moment. Because you're aware that you're walking, you realize that you're still healthy—maybe you have a health condition, but in this moment, you can walk. With mindfulness you can practice meditation throughout the day. When you learn to be aware of your body, you also become more aware of your feelings, thoughts, and perceptions; you become more sensitive. Things will arise. You will hear yourself thinking negatively or remembering something in the past. And then you simply breathe and relax that thought or perception. You learn to be there for what is.

You write about the importance of not pushing pain away but being with it, with love and compassion.

If we become blind to our suffering, then when it comes up it's like a tsunami. It's overwhelming and we're swept away by it. But if you learn to be mindful you will see your suffering in bits and chunks. When a painful thought arises, you have your mindful breath and you can relax your body with a smile. You allow yourself to take a moment, and your body and mind can relax. When you take care of it in small doses, suffering becomes manageable. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. If you have a mind, a body, then you will have painful thoughts and perceptions. Are you willing to suffer over it? That's optional.

Happiness is a practice, peace is a practice. Suffering is a practice too—we practice it very diligently! We allow our thoughts to rewind and repeat themselves. We allow ourselves to think negatively about ourselves and others. It becomes a habit, and that's why suffering perpetuates itself. But if you think of everything as a practice, then you see that you have a choice. You see that the other way hasn't worked out very well. Then you say, okay, I'll cultivate joy a little more.

Loving speech, you suggest, is very healing. Not just a naïve notion, it, too, has science on its side.

Yes. When I went to India and worked with children there, I asked them, what is the percentage of water that makes up your body weight? The children said 65 or 75 percent. Then I told them about the Japanese scientist [Masaru Emoto] who wrote about the hidden messages in water. When he had water in a petri dish and spoke harshly over it, the water couldn't form crystals at all—it was very broken. When he spoke kindly over the water, it formed very beautiful crystals. He took photographs of them. So I asked the children, if your body is 70 percent water, then how would you like to speak to your body? They said things like, "I love you so!" Another child said, "You are stupendous!" It's wonderful to reach children in that way, to raise their awareness.

If you say something harsh to yourself or to somebody, then immediately you release stress hormones; negative speech causes a stress response in our body. If we do this many times a day, day after day, we'll be unhappy and sicker. With positive speech, we'll release serotonin, oxytocin—hormones for positive feelings. The way we think, speak, and touch our body directly affects the course of our illness. As a doctor, I never put two and two together. It takes a spiritual life. These are the insights I have learned from the Buddha, from my teacher [Thich Nhat Hanh], but also from my own practice. It helps me to cope with whatever comes, including my disease.

Mind-body dualism is a very Western mode of thinking. Why do so many medical doctors overlook the connection between mind and body?

I think it's because Western medicine is so young; as you grow older, you have a broader view. In Eastern medicine you learn to see everything as a whole, interconnected. We have psychosomatic illnesses and they're very real. I talked in [my new] book about women in Cambodia [in the time of the Khmer Rouge] who went blind because they watched their children and husbands being torn, being killed right in front of them. There was nothing wrong with their eyes or their optic nerves, but they couldn't see. More or less all of our illnesses can be worsened by psychological factors; and if you have a mental illness, a physical illness can worsen it. The body and mind are very connected. I think Western medicine has begun to be more aware of that. I talk a lot in the book about interbeing, which is a practice of acknowledging the interconnectedness of our body and mind, and of how we affect each other. We think of ourselves as separate, but we're not. We "inter-are."

Are we moving toward a better place with modern medicine?

Mindfulness is now implemented more and more in medicine, and offers concrete practices that professionals can use to help their patients. Many doctors have come to practice with us. In 2013 we went to Harvard Medical School and there were 1,000 people [in attendance]; we did walking meditation on the street, we had mindful meals. We have retreats for health-care professionals in our home monastery. More and more doctors and health-care professionals are becoming aware of the practice and doing their best to implement it in their lives and share it with their patients. I'm very optimistic about it.

Learn about the Miracle of Mindfulness Tour and Blue Cliff Monastery events at Tnhtour.org and Bluecliffmonastery.org.

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