Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. With wholehearted practice comes inspiration, but sooner or later we will also encounter fear. For all we know, when we get to the horizon, we are going to drop off the edge of the world. —Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
We walk, slowly, slowly, in the glorious Rocky Mountain sunshine—breathe in, two steps, breathe out, two steps. I’m the one in the middle who’s weeping.
We are walking behind Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who leads us in walking meditation. In his dharma talk this morning, speaking in his sweet soft Vietnamese-accented voice, Thich Nhat Hanh invited people to come to Plum Village to live and practice. My heart stopped.
September, 2003. For years I have dreamed of returning to Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery in southwestern France where I first met Thay (as we respectfully call Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning teacher and pronounced ‘tie’). Thirteen years ago, in 1990, I went to Plum Village for the first and only time, for three life-changing weeks during the summer retreat. Life has taken me down a long and sinuous road since then, and I have only recently returned to the practice of Buddhist meditation. Here I am, at this five-day retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, and on day three Thay has just invited us, all eight hundred of us including me, to come and live at Plum Village.
What hits me like a blow to the gut as we walk in slow mindful steps is that moving to Plum Village would mean giving up everything: my house, my friends, my mother and sister, my three cats and my beloved dog Serafina. I would have to give up my dream of someday being somebody, a writer and teacher on the international scene, a grand and beautiful vision that I’ve never quite been able to manifest. But someday, I’ve told myself for decades, if I work hard enough… Suddenly, as we walk, I realize that if I follow my dream of moving to Plum Village that would be the end of my father’s hopes, my mother’s ambition, my dream of fulfillment and success.
I burst into tears.
I really really want to go to Plum Village. I’m tired. I’m fifty years old, tired of the daily grind of going to a corporate job, keeping a pretty house, struggling to make a difference in a world that’s just getting crazier and scarier. I yearn to go back to France where I grew up; I was happy there as a child. Most of all, I want to follow this teacher, this Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lost everything in the war forty years ago and who’s here now, in America, teaching us about love and forgiveness and compassion. I want the peace of mind and beauty of heart I see in the smiles of his monks and nuns. I long for a life of service. What I don’t even admit to myself is that I want a true home—and what better home than the lush green hills of the Dordogne, the centuries-old stone farmhouses of the monastery, the spiritual community of practitioners from all over the world?
In this moment, however, surrounded by fellow practitioners under the Colorado sun, all I can see is what I’d be giving up. I’ve been working toward my vision all these years, in my own stumbling way.
Life has a funny way of catching us broadside. Not two weeks after that retreat in the Rocky Mountains I was laid off from my job as a technical writer. Within six months I did give up everything, figuratively speaking—I put my stuff in storage, rented out my house, placed my cats and my dog with friends for the summer, cashed in part of my retirement savings—and I did move to Plum Village. In the process, I became all those things that I had dreamed of for myself. It was one miracle after another. There’s a delicious irony that seems to be part of the spiritual path; as Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Did I say something about life dishing out irony? I did move to Plum Village, for two months, but I did not stay and no, I did not become a nun. Plum Village is not paradise and one of its imperfections is that they don’t allow dogs. And I am seriously hopelessly attached to my dog Serafina. All my life I wanted a dog, but it was one dog disaster after another. Until this fuzzy black mutt—with her long nose and little pointy ears, her fluffy tail and big happy smile—came into my life ten years ago.
In spite of repeated suggestions from some of the nuns who became my dear friends, I was not willing to permanently give up my dog. Give up my dreams, yes, but not my dog. So it was that my love for Serafina set in motion everything that came to pass, my year of miracles.
Everything I dreamed of, everything I gave up to move to Plum Village, came to me when I let go of wanting it, came to me by grace.
Fear may be the root cause of all our afflictions—anger, hatred, greed and their effects: violence, poverty, war, addiction, and much illness. Fear kept me running in circles for years, from one career to another, from city to city, from one unhappy love affair to another. I believe those circles were in fact spirals, taking me ever closer to my goal. God’s love seems like a humongous fishing reel, pulling us in, but in fact we never left the heart of God. We only need to remember who we really are—remembering again and again, waking up over and over.
God has strange ways of reaching us and if it’s a dog that teaches love, so be it. Love pulls us forward; our only job is to let go of our fears, bit by bit. By following my love of Serafina, I watched my dreams come true.
Love will always take us where we want to go, whether it’s love of God or love of a dog.