Buddhist Nun, Su Co Vi Nghiem (Sister Vi), conducts mindful meditation sessions at Nomad Yoga every Sunday commencing at 8.30am. On the last Sunday of the month the session is extended to the entire morning and mindfulness is practised while eating, drinking, walking and relaxing. Su Co Vi is a specialist in mindful meditation, a Buddhist approach that now seems to be sweeping the world in myriad manifestations in secular form.
Mindfulness in the West
In the West mindfulness has become an industry, an antidote to stress, a partner to CBT, and a salve for corporate pressure, financial woes and alienation. If you google mindfulness and visit a few sites, pop-ups won’t be far away offering salvation. Studies and statistical surveys sprout by the barrow load with statements like ‘people who practice mindfulness are more likely to fight obesity successfully’ or ‘people who practice mindfulness are less likely to have stress during pregnancy’.
Mindfulness is the new emotional panacea with the evergreen capitalist rider: ‘What price can you put on happiness?’ No-one is going to tell you to get off the money-making treadmill or identify it as the core source of your woes. Nor will they suggest that your whole lifestyle is the root of your problems. But by extracting a tenet of the Buddhist tradition in isolation they will suggest you take the ‘mindfulness pill’ (for a very reasonable price) and focus just on the here and now for a while to improve your mental well-being before you enter the fray once more.
What is Mindfulness?
The Buddhist practice of mindful meditation is a way of paring back, down to the nitty gritty of the immediate present. A way of shedding the past and blocking the desire to speculate on the future. The key tool is your breathing; latch onto that and little else. Ultimately, with practice, it is a tool that assists you to connect with the pain in your unconscious (to use the Western term) and heal yourself, and somehow it’s more than that because Buddhists teach that everything is interconnected in ways we don’t realize.
But words can only take you so far with many Eastern traditions and mindfulness is no exception. It’s better understood by doing it so the best I can do here is try and put you in the room with me.
Mindful Meditation with Su Co Vi
Su Co Vi sits in the lotus position and smiling warmly she smooths her robes and makes minute adjustments here and there until she feels totally comfortable. She runs her hands across her shaved scalp and waits patiently until everyone is in position. Most are in the lotus position with their wrists resting gently on their knees, palms upturned. Others sit more loosely and one is lying down. I, alone, sit on a chair with my feet raised on a sausage-shaped cushion for maximum comfort (infamously I failed the ‘rest position’ at yoga when I tried it, sitting or kneeling on the floor has always been beyond me).
The experienced ones have already closed their eyes and started to focus on their breathing. Su Co Vi invites the rest of us to close our eyes. To begin, she establishes a rhythm for our breathing. ‘Breathing in … breathing out’ in about 8-10 second cycles. Once the rhythm is established a small bowl is struck – a gong amidst her soothing singing.
In the darkness I also hear the birdsong nearby and the rumble of the odd truck or motorbike on the front road. I hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind and the others occasionally shifting position. Most of all I hear my breathing which is now in rhythm and much longer and deeper than normal. I focus on it as best I can. Occasionally my mind wanders into daydreams and I try and turn this off. ‘Breathing in … breathing out. Breathing in … breathing out.’
Su Co Vi has not spoken for some time. We are in the groove to the best of our abilities. Yes, we are concentrating, but we are relaxed at the same time. Suddenly Su Co Vi is back with us again, ‘I am aware of my whole body … I release tension in my whole body’.
Silence once again follows as we continue to practice mindfulness.
Because I’m a little deaf I sit next to Su Co Vi so I can hear her gentle speech without straining. I’m surprised when my eyes blink open for a moment and she is no longer there. I close my eyes and some time later (I have lost my ability to track time) her voice emerges once more from her spot next to me.
Next we follow each other on the short path around the room, one very deliberate step at a time in sync with the rhythm of our breathing. We focus on our feet as they touch the floor. ‘Think of your feet as kissing Mother Earth’ Su Co Vi says poignantly. Walking meditation is a new one for me. Su Co Vi says it’s especially effective at quelling negative feelings like anger and anxiety.
Later, sutras are read where Buddha is passing on his knowledge about mindfulness to his disciples before we make our farewells.
Where to Now?
I’m as green as can be when it comes to meditation and yoga. No way I can sit on the floor as I said above. For me yoga is excruciatingly painful even before I start. But I’ve read Buddhist philosophy a little over the years and it has always had a calming effect and left me more content than I normally am. From this highly inductive standpoint I’ve decided that most of us are out of balance in some way or another. I’m pretty sure of that, and I’m not sure about very much at all. Not very scientific, I know.
Is the practice of mindful meditation a path of genuine benefit? I don’t really know because I’m still there at the barrier taking the ‘mindfulness pill’ to stabilise and calm me. And, like most of us, I’m too easily seduced by the promise of material comfort. I know that fear, stress, anxiety and even anger attend this. But to be honest, I think that the bulk of us are playing this ‘money game’ for the buzz as well.
But just maybe, if I keep at this mindfulness thing, I may begin to approach all things mindfully, not just Sunday mornings. Instead of an occasional shot in the arm, mindfulness may become more a way of being. Something has changed, this is what I want now.
Meditation and mindfulness are, like playing a musical instruments, something you need to practice. Where might this lead over months, over years? For Buddhists, meditation leads to a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and the elimination of misperceptions born from what has been. It may also diminish anxiety and limit speculation about what is yet to come. We will be rewarded if we can let go of our cravings and desires and stop our endless inner conversations. Stillness is the aim.
Buddhists also teach that if we learn to embrace our ‘suffering’ (a very broad term in their tradition that stretches from minor disquiet to intense anger and pain) then we will see what it really is and see how it can instruct us. We hear further that when we are ready to accept our suffering, paradoxically it won’t bother us anymore. Indeed, it’s not until we gain an understanding of suffering (and develop compassion for others through it) that true happiness is possible.
In contrast to the Buddhist tradition, Western psychotherapy is dominated by the idea of an extremely individuated self and these days mindfulness in the West is being marketed by snake oil salesmen promising to cure every malady under the sun in a misguided celebration of vanity, greed, desire and individuality. For Buddhists, this is in itself a big part of the problem. For them, it’s not until we can practice no-self, that we’ll be able to go beyond the questions that make people suffer so much.
It seems to me that the inherent wisdom of the practice of no-self rings very true with the potency and clarity of a great epiphany. And, when it comes to happiness, the practice of meditation may well uncover some profound understanding.
But it’s not going to happen in a weekend nor probably even in a year for most of us. Nor is it likely to gather much momentum at the outset, in my case, without the simple clarity and wisdom Su Co Vi brings to me on Sundays.
At this stage I’m still very much a Westerner and I suspect my mindful meditation is merely an escape from the everyday world, a still place where I feel protected from the negatives that abound everywhere, inside and out. An ostrich with its head in the sand. According to the tradition, this is not meditating at all and it won’t be until I learn to embrace my suffering, my inner pain if you like, that I will be meditating to good effect.
Well, one step at a time. Hopefully, next time the intermittent bursts of birdsong won’t prove to be a distraction that kickstarts my thinking into thousands of ego-led musical memories and aspirations. Maybe next time I’ll manage to sit on the floor for a while for the first time in years conscious of nothing other than the natural light that pours into the wonderful space at Nomad Yoga dancing on my closed eyelids. ‘Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in … breathing out, I know I’m breathing out …’.
When: Sundays 8.30am
Add: 6 Le Hong Phong Street
Tel: +84 (0)90 7 48 91 29