My journey into mindful living began in childhood and accelerated in the face of loss.
Buddha statues, bowls of aromatic pho noodle soup and incense wafting into the air. These are the sights and smells of my mindful childhood. I grew up with a Vietnamese Buddhist mother and an American psychologist father. My hybrid Buddhist/Christian upbringing was one rich with acceptance and altruism — lessons that propelled me onto the path of becoming a mindfulness-based psychotherapist.
The experience of witnessing my mother meditating at our ancestral shrine daily, the hypnotic chanting of Buddhist monks at her temple in Arlington, VA and the love-driven sermons at my father’s Presbyterian church made up the mindful fabric of my childhood. But I had no idea that during the first year of graduate school, my mindful awakening would be thrust into overdrive.
That call that we all dread, happened. I received word that my beautiful, vibrant 57-year-old mother suffered a sudden and fatal stroke.
My life transformed in an instant.
When we’re young, and we think about the existence of our parents, we often possess an unconscious belief that nothing will ever happen to them. Ever. This news shook the foundation of my being.
In the days and months of shock following her death, it was as if the world had slowed. I remember the fall foliage to be more vibrant than ever…as if the trees were on fire, swirling with red, yellow and orange. The experience of emotional presence had unfolded more intensely than ever before. The present moment sadness awakened my heart to new sensations within the soul — a cascading pain of human loss.
As my mind tried to make sense of this sudden tragedy, I felt the insatiable drive to journey inward. It felt like the only path to travel and the sole option. About a month after her death, I came to the yoga mat…a place where I’d learn to return home to myself…over and over through the practice of mindful awareness. It was as if the seeds of meditation and mindfulness that my mom had planted throughout my life were being watered through the tears of my suffering as I mourned her physical death.
My Vietnamese mother gave me countless gifts. Each step I walk upon this earth, she is there, embodied within me. Her courage to journey to the US solo in 1975, her teachings of Buddhism and meditation, her tiger-mom- determination to manifest abundance, the unwavering compassion she held for all beings. These were the heart-centered energies I came home to on the mat while I journeyed through each yoga and meditation session…often staining my mat with tears. In these tearful moment, I began to embrace the sadness as an honoring, but more profoundly, as an awakening to the richness of human existence.
It was on the mat when I remembered the wisdom of mindfulness philosophy: Because we’re humans living on this earth, we suffer.
Indeed, none of us are exempt from this profound human suffering. Perhaps your family has been touched by cancer, or you’ve lost a child, or you’ve had a life-threatening health scare, or a precious person in your life has died. These are the stories and circumstances that touch us all as humans.
But if we’re awake to our lives, we can begin to see the truth that our strength stems from the source of our suffering. Author and activist, Parker Palmer writes, “In order to be whole, we must be able to say we are both made of darkness and light.” Instead of turning away from the grief, I practiced the art of turning toward it through yoga and meditation. Here, as I explored the inner landscape, I sensed that I was made of more than my grief and loss…and that the most vibrant inner light radiated from the depths of my darkness.
It’s been over 10 years since my mother’s spirit left her body. Since then, I’ve awakened to the mindfulness teachings of physical death and of a realm beyond the material world. And actually, our capacity to be mindfully present to the pain or loss that arises is directly correlated with our ability to experience life’s in-the-moment beauty and joy.
My message to you is this:
We are all here connected through the heart of humanity. One of the few truths of existence is that all things are always breaking up, coming together and transforming. Embrace suffering as an opportunity for transformation and alchemical personal awakening. Our tears are shed to honor the love in our hearts. These human bodies that house our souls will only exist for a finite amount of time on this earth so how do you wish to live? Now is the time to create a life you truly desire. So inward, onward, and outward we go into the experiences that can only be traveled by this body, this heart, this mind. Commit to the courage to turn inward, to journey inward is our highest calling.
In the words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”