To know that innately we have great powers, and that we can cultivate them in our daily lives, is truly empowering. I’d like to share with you Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on the Three Powers—the most potent antidote to the feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, uncertainty, vulnerability, and confusion that many of us are suffering from.
The first power is the power of understanding. In 2001, a 12-year-old girl came to our Plum Village Practice Center in France. Her father was an alcoholic and gave her drinks from the time she was 6 years old. Every time he drank, he gave her a glass. He had many physical and mental problems, and didn’t go to work at all. Her mother had to work hard to take care of the entire family. Growing up, this girl was angry at her father for drinking and not working, and she was angry at her mother for not standing up for herself.
When she turned 11, she joined a gang. One night she got very drunk, and when she woke up, she found herself naked—she had been raped. She came to us feeling broken in so many different ways. One day one of the sisters looked at her palms and said to her, “You know, I think you will die when you are 17, and you will die a violent death.” I was taking care of her during her stay at our monastery, so she ran to the room we shared, crying and recounting to me what had happened. I held her really tight, and I cried with her. I thought quietly to myself that the sister was right. If this girl continued to live this way, she would have a violent death at a young age. It was a moment when I literally could foresee her destiny.
In Buddhism, seeing a person’s destiny is understood as a miraculous power. However, by examining our own actions, habits, and personality, we can gain the capacity to look at someone and know what will become of them. If you drink every day, you’ll most likely become an alcoholic, right? And what will your marriage or relationship be? Most likely dysfunctional. And what will your children be? Most likely neglected or abused. We can tell a person’s destiny if we just stop and look. This is the power of understanding.
I held her for a long time and then I said, “My child, you’ll be OK, because now you know the path. You know how to practice and how to take care of yourself. You’ve learned about sitting meditation, so you can sit each day with your wounded inner child. When you have strong feelings, you can do walking meditation to embrace your sadness, your anger. You know how to be there for yourself, so you can change your destiny.” Thankfully, she practiced all this, and she didn’t die at 17. She’s about to turn 34, and she comes to visit me at the monastery every so often. Her parents didn’t change much, but she changed herself and thus her destiny.
What we choose every moment will affect our habits, our personality, and our destiny. Therefore, we must choose with awareness, with understanding and love, so we can care for ourselves better.
The second power is the power of love. The need to love and to be loved is real and present in every one of us, but sometimes we get confused about what it really means. I know a woman who in her late 70s rented out her house and moved in with her boyfriend. She was sure she had found “the man,” and she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Yet after only a few months she left to go back to her own house. It turned out she’d woken up one morning, and when she saw that her boyfriend didn’t have his dentures in, she thought, “Oh my god, he’s so ugly! I thought I was ugly!” So even at her age, she was taken in by her idea of love.
In Vietnamese, the word for “soulmate” is tri ky, and it means “one who remembers, knows, and masters oneself.” A soulmate is a person who remembers and knows their body, who can take care of and master their feelings and thoughts. Isn’t that revelatory? Even if someone loves us sincerely, if we don’t know how to be our own soulmate, we won’t be able to believe in the love that person is offering because we ourselves don’t know what love is.
Before I became a nun, this happened to me over and over again. I was hungry for love. My parents had passed away when I was a child, and during the short years that I lived with my mother, she was so physically and verbally abusive that when she disappeared, I was simply happy she was gone. All my life, I was always looking for someone to love me. After I became a nun I gradually realized what I was doing, and I have learned to be my own soulmate. Now I recognize this hunger in others, especially in young people who grow up without a stable home. Without consistent love from our parents or caregivers, we grow up craving that love. We crave it so badly that we throw ourselves out there. Love me. See me. Take me. Enslave me, even! We are so desperate that we’ll do anything to be accepted, even if our heart is broken again and again. But if we can learn that a soulmate is one who remembers themself, we learn to take care and not put ourselves through such painful experiences. We learn to respect our bodies, to choose where we want to be, who we want to be with, and what we want to do with our lives.
When we are our own soulmate, naturally we become a soulmate to other people.
It is a great happiness and freedom to be our own soulmate. We don’t have to compare ourselves with anyone. When we are our own soulmate, naturally we become a soulmate to other people. We are each the product of infinite conditions stemming from our parents, our ancestors, from society, education. Still, we are beautiful and whole just the way we are. Even though there’s suffering in our families, in society, in us, we can help create change. We can choose actions that are mindful, that are positive, that are wholesome. If we look at our parents and realize we don’t want to be like them—if we do nothing differently, then we will be like them, or worse. However, if we’re aware of what they do, and we use mindfulness practices to transform those habits in us, then we will change our own destiny. In that way, we are also kind to our parents. Now I’m older than my mother was when she passed away. I was kind to my mother because I was living a life of peace, of love, of healing. I helped many people. My mother wasn’t able to do that. She struggled to survive while causing a lot of pain to herself, to me, to her family. I changed all that for her. My mother has been liberated inside of me.
So when you have strong feelings, sit with them. That’s to be a soulmate. Be a soulmate to yourself—even to your bad habits. Say to them, Hello, my bad habits! Smile to them. You don’t have to reject them. Simply acknowledge them by their true names and embrace them with your mindful breathing. I know you’re there. You’re part of me. I’ll take good care of you. Please help me. Then you’ll have self-acceptance, self-embrace, self-love. As long as you still reject yourself, you cannot be happy. If you embrace and accept, then you can always take better care of yourself.
The third power is the power of healing, of transforming our suffering and bringing healing to ourselves. We can have many degrees, lots of money, and a high position in society, and yet we can feel so insecure and impoverished. It’s never enough! In Buddhism, there’s a teaching, “Know that you are enough.” In Chinese, the character for “enough” includes a head, a body, an arm, and two feet. Isn’t that amazing? Please remember this Chinese character when you say, “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m no good. I’m different. I’m weird. I don’t deserve a place in this world.” Ask yourself, “Do I still have my head? Do I still have a body, two arms (or one arm, even), and two legs?” Then you have enough. You are more than enough!
There’s a wonderful Japanese art called kintsugi. When pottery breaks, kintsugi is the art of mending it with lacquer mixed with gold dust, which means that the breaks are actually accentuated. They become more prominent, unique, and beautiful. In all of our lives there’s a certain brokenness, a certain pain. Instead of rejecting those parts of ourselves or our lives, we use a kind of kintsugi to mend them. We use mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking, in order to embrace what is. We sit quietly, being our own soulmate. In this way, those broken pieces aren’t wasted or thrown away. Instead, they’re held together with love, with respect, with dignity.
When you’re going through a difficult moment, come back to your breath, do walking meditation, sit with yourself. Be present. Be still. Be kind. That’s gold. Actually, you’re more precious than gold. Remember that you are precious and powerful, and to be your own soulmate is the greatest happiness and freedom!
Adapted from a dharma talk titled Be Your Own Soulmate at plumvillage.org.