On the first night of my seven-year-old daughter Alexandra’s first Buddhist retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh smiled and looked into her eyes as few adults ever look at children. Although he sat very still on a stage, the Vietnamese teacher seemed to bow to her inwardly, offering her his full presence and inviting her to be who she really is.
Alexandra threw her jacket over her head.
“Children look like flowers,” said the man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967. His voice was soft and bittersweet. “Their faces look like flowers, their eyes, their ears . . .”
Surrounded by scores of monks and nuns who had traveled with him from Plum Village, the French monastic community that has been his home since his peace activism caused his exile from Vietnam, he lifted his eyes from the little flower who was huddled, hiding her face, in the front row. Before him sat 1,200 people who had gathered in a vast white tent on the wooded campus of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in upstate New York. Thay, as he is affectionately known, had convened us for a five-day retreat dedicated to cultivating mindfulness through practices such as sitting meditation, walking, and sharing silent meals.
As the Master talked about the “freshness,” or openness and sensitivity of children, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way Alexandra was ducking for cover. He extolled freshness as one of the qualities that each of us possesses in our essence, our Buddha-nature. Alexandra, shrouded in nylon, was reminding me that true freshness isn’t limited to those moments when we feel happily and playfully open. It often means feeling raw and vulnerable. I wondered if it had been a mistake to bring her here, to risk exposing her to the way we really are.
During the retreat, children and adults came together during different parts of the day. In addition to sharing meals and a daily mindfulness walk, the children clustered at the front of the stage for the first twenty minutes of Thay’s dharma talks, which he carefully framed in simple, poetic images that children could remember. I brought Alexandra hoping that contact with Buddhist practice would stimulate her imagination and awaken her own wisdom. I thought she could be inspired by the various techniques Thay described, such as listening to the sound of a bell that can call us back to “our true home.”
“My true home is in Brooklyn,” Alexandra whispered. She had peeled off her covering and lay stretched out on the floor with her head in my lap, jittering her foot to convey how bored and impatient she was. On the first night, most of the other children nearby were sitting cross-legged, quietly, and listening with what seemed to me preternatural attention. Alexandra was muttering to herself and writhing around on the floor like a big, unhappy baby. I wondered if she had some mild form of autism that had escaped detection.
Seventy-three-year-old Thich Nhat Hanh was sitting directly above me, embodying a mountainlike stability and compassion. A monk on the stage winked at Alexandra, and a pretty young nun dimpled up in a fit of silent giggles. The people around me were friendly and relaxed. I felt like a terrible mother to be judging and comparing my daughter in these gentle conditions. It was almost as if the spirit of nonjudgmental acceptance that surrounded me was triggering a perverse reaction, drawing out my darkest, meanest thoughts. I felt like a vampire who had stepped out into the sunlight.
As we made our way back to our little cabin, the power went out all over the Omega campus. And a light turned on inside Alexandra. We stopped on the path, unsure which way to turn. I had left the flashlights behind. Alexandra took charge.
“Let’s go back to the visitor’s office,” she said, leading the way. A kindly man on the Omega staff gave Alexandra a candle and walked us to our cabin.
“You knew just what to do,” I said as I tucked Alexandra into bed. “That was good thinking.”
“I hated to think of you wandering around in the dark,” she said, beaming in the candlelight.
The next day Alexandra asked, “Mommy, is Thich Nhat Hanh a man? Like, does he have a penis?”
Yes, I offered, he was an ordinary man but he was a monk. That meant that he lived for the happiness of others, so he might seem different. My answer felt vague and wimpy, not as real as the question.
The following day in the dining hall, I discovered how deeply traveling with your own pint-size Zen master makes you feel aware of yourself, and how apart. The majority of the people there were moving about with a kind of underwater grace, practicing silence. We parents struggled with the task of filling trays and settling children while trying to remember to stop and breathe consciously when the mindfulness bell sounded.
Alexandra and I sat at a table in the dining hall, facing a table decorated with pumpkins.
I whispered to her that we were supposed to try eating silently together.
“This is not my experiment,” Alexandra reminded me. “I don’t want to do it, because I have a question.”
“What’s your question, Alexandra?”
“Is a pumpkin a fruit or a vegetable?”
“Why are you being so mean? Aren’t you supposed to be happy?”
The interconnection of all phenomena is a constant theme of Thich Nhat Hanh’s. He speaks often of “interbeing,” the actual state of reality that, once recognized, nurtures compassion and empathy. As people ate in silence around us, I remembered an incident that had happened several weeks earlier. Alexandra was going through a phase of pondering how she was related to the first person who ever lived and to all other people.
“Every living being is connected,” I had told her as I was putting her to bed one night. “The whole universe is alive and what you put out in the world is what you get back. If you put out love and kindness, you tend to get love and kindness in return.”
Alexandra and I had decided to put the little purple bike with training wheels that she had outgrown down on the street for someone to take. She crayoned a sign that read, “Whoever takes this bike, please enjoy it, love Alexandra.”
She had been full of anticipation. The next morning she bolted out of bed and ran to the window.
“Mommy, my bike is gone!” she’d said, as radiant as on Christmas morning. “Somebody took my bike!”
The concept of the web of life was alive and breathing that morning. But by the end of the day, not surprisingly, she had moved past the shimmering magic and was applying the cause-and-effect practicality of a kid.
“So when do I get something back?” she asked.
David Dimmack, a longtime student of Thay’s, was the volunteer in charge of the children’s program on the retreat. He taught the kids the “Flower Fresh” song, the theme song of the Community of Mindful Living. At the beginning of a dharma talk one morning, they all got up on the stage together and sang to Thich Nhat Hanh and the rest of the sangha.
“Breathing in, breathing out,” sang Dimmack and the children.
“I am blooming like a flower, I am fresh as the dew.
“I am solid as a mountain, I am firm as the earth. I am free.”
When I stood in the back of the tent, watching the children on stage, it was impossible for me not to compare it to Sunday school.
Dimmack has called the songs “entrainment,” matter-of-factly acknowledging that sometimes teaching just comes down to presenting ideas in a way that gently and gradually makes an impression, like water wearing away rock. At the same time, though, he emphasized that there was a constant creative tension in the children’s program between teaching and allowing, between imposing structure and letting the kids be.
Mark Vette, another student of Thay’s, works as an animal psychologist and lives on a ranch in New Zealand. Vette had the inspired idea of teaching the kids to use dowsing rods made of bent coat hangers and pendulums made of little pieces of wood.
“Here’s the dowsing prayer,” he said to the group of us gathered on a big meadow in the center of the campus. “May I let go of the things that are known and embrace the things that are unknown.” After the kids tired of looking for water and chasing each other (“Lead me to a dork!”), many of them settled down to find their place of “inner power.” (The kids liked the word “power” better than “peace.”)
“Pendulums and dowsing rods seemed to be a perfect way to introduce them to their own intuitive sense,” said Vette, a sandy-haired, athletic man who by the end of the week had completely captured my daughter’s heart. “In the bush, these things work because we really already know where that lost animal is or where north is. And the kids can use it in the same way to learn to meditate, to find their center or their true home.”
One day, during walking meditation, I began to get an inkling of what it is to find my true home. Every day the children, who left the dharma talk after the first twenty or thirty minutes, were invited to meet up with Thich Nhat Hanh and the grown-up students as they flowed out of the dharma hall to walk toward the lake. On one beautiful azure day in late October, those of us who were with the children watched Thich Nhat Hanh walking toward us from the dharma tent, leading his multitude: 1,200 tall Americans dressed in bright Polartek colors following a small figure in brown.
No sooner had Alexandra and several other children joined to walk up front with Thay than she split off to scamper to the top of a leaf-carpeted hill.
“I’m going to roll down this hill!” she shouted to another girl. “Come on!”
It actually awed me that she was so unselfconscious about shattering the silence. Alexandra rolled down the hill, sounding like a bear crashing through the forest.
I dropped my head and trudged along. Suddenly, I noticed Thich Nhat Hanh gliding along, like a mountain on rails, almost next to me. His face looked calm and fresh, while mine ached like a clenched fist. Alex had raced ahead to the water’s edge, where she stood waving and smiling at me. I felt a pang of love for her and really experienced how the voice of my heart was being drowned out by a welter of negative thoughts that seemed to come from somewhere in my brain that didn’t even feel organic— more like a robot, a split-off part of me mechanically repeating bits of old programming.
Aware as I now felt, I was haranguing myself that really good mothers didn’t get swamped by nasty reactions. Good mothers, my mind chided, were capable of unconditional love.
The bell calling for mindfulness sounded. I knelt down in the warm sand. The bell rang again, and a third time. I picked up my head to see an old man’s hand gently stroking a familiar head of thick ash-blond hair. Thich Nhat Hanh and my daughter were sitting side by side. It slowly dawned on me that it was Alexandra who had just rung the bell calling the rest of us back to our true homes. Thay had been inspired to pick Alexandra, the loudest kid there that particular day, to sound, or “invite,” the bell that called everyone else to silence.
At that moment, the ideal of unconditional love seemed nothing but a brittle concept, a fetter. I felt I finally comprehended what Thich Nhat Hanh meant when he said that acceptance is understanding and understanding is love.
“I was throwing sand and I looked up and he was looking at me,” she explained later. “He was kind of smiling. He waved for me to come over and sit by him. He didn’t say anything, he just showed me how to ring the bell.”
Back in Brooklyn, as Alexandra and I slipped back into our daily routines, I wondered from time to time what effect, if any, a week of mindfulness training might have. Then, one night many months later, I was fuming about some frustration.
“Breathe, Mommy,” said Alexandra. “Just relax and breathe and return to your true home.”