In 1999 everything was falling in on me. The promises of a brave new world for modern women yawned empty. I was being left behind in the corporate race, elbowed aside for questioning. I entered relationships with Dr Jekylls, only to wind up grieving over their transformation into Dr Hydes. Scattered family members kept in less and less contact. Even philanthropic associations I’d joined, including a meditation group, were disbanding due to ignominious financial conflicts. I was disenchanted with life and rendered cynical about the worthwhileness of any values.
From four unrelated sources within several weeks, unsolicited information about a man called Thich Nhat Hanh was fed to me. A Buddhist monk and teacher who hailed from Vietnam, he headed up a community in France called Plum Village where guests could stay at certain times of the year. Since my procrastination for whatever reasons in nesting down meant that I could either end up alone or imposed somewhere short of a hearty welcome for Christmas, my interest was piqued enough to book a place, pack a case and fly to Bordeaux. Between dawn rising, hours of sitting meditation and silence, household chores and cramped living conditions, I grimaced inwardly at first over the privations of taken-for-granted liberties. But something happened.
Nearly every week-day I spent there, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to the congregation for over an hour. His voice and his gaze touched hearts while children played quietly at his feet. He had suffered. As a young monk in his home country, after invigorating his order with modes of artistic expression and introducing social engagement practices to Buddhism, the Vietnam war broke out, pitting brother against brother. He tried to arrange to help each side, rescuing bodies dead and alive from the rivers and restoring bombed towns, but the extent of the relentless damage called for an extraordinary deed. He left to seek international support, touring Europe and America, where Martin Luther King Junior nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. His government exiled him for standing up, only permitting him to return in 2005.
In prison, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” Once released, Wilde campaigned for prison reforms to prevent institutionalised abuses he witnessed inside. That’s what I learned that winter: to breath, smile and care, whichever side of the bars I landed, as long as I live.My Story: Standing Up