In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation has asked several inspiring lay Plum Village women to share about their work and stories in the practice.
May we all find inspiration in the work of these community members and teachers, who have offered innumerable gifts to the world.
“Everyday, I have a mindfulness practice of gazing at the sky, looking up. When I do, in that moment, no matter what is happening in my life, I remember how beautiful the world is and how fragile, like passing clouds. I want everyone to experience that beauty. In that moment, I feel incredibly grateful to be alive. I feel grateful for my parents, my family, friends, and teachers; I feel happy, and I want to share this with others.”
Riddled with overwhelm, fear, anger, and anxiety from her high-pressure career as a lawyer-lobbyist, in 1995, Valerie Brown began studying mindfulness in the Plum Village tradition with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Through the practice of mindfulness, of looking deeply into her tightly held beliefs and actions and with the support of the Plum Village community, she joined the Order of Interbeing in 2003. Gradually, she embraced her fear and anger, with transformative love and compassion. This shift from the ‘inside’ led to shifts on the ‘outside’, in her work, relationships, leadership, values, and life direction.
Today, Valerie is a Dharma teacher (True Sangha Power) engaged in human-scale, heart-centered work with diverse leaders and teams in educational institutions and nonprofits to foster trustworthy, compassionate, and authentic connections. She is an ARISE sangha member and a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
“I have been living with stage 4 metastatic cancer for 11 years, and because I have followed Thay’s directions for retraining my mind, I have spent very few minutes in fear and speculation. I have been able to focus on what is wonderful in the present moment and enjoy all of the wonders of life. To me that is true empowerment. Through teaching and mentoring many people, it is a joy to witness the transformation and healing that take place and to see Thay continuing so beautifully.”
Joanne has been a student of Thay’s for many years. She received Lamp Transmission from him in 2003, and is the guiding teacher for the seven Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness. She offers retreats and Days of Mindfulness for groups throughout the Northeast. She is deeply grateful to Thay for showing us how to transform and heal. She feels that the Dharma is the greatest gift she has ever received and her greatest joy is to be able to share it with others.
“What motivates me in the practice is the possibility of coming home in each moment, no matter where I am. Coming home is returning again and again to the breath, to stillness that soothes my heart and lets my mind rest, especially in difficult moments. Often, insight arises as if from an unknown spring. I can remember my aspirations for gentleness and love, the nature of interbeing. I can see again the delight of the birds building nests outside, feel the joy of harmony in my relationships, and can touch the roots of my suffering without getting caught. These little insights, trickling in over many days in many different streams, strengthen my faith in practice and give me the resolve to continue.”
Melanie is currently living and practicing in Israel/Palestine. She aspires to start a trade school for Palestinian young people in Bethlehem, starting with a coding academy for twenty students that begins in March. With her friend and teacher, Joann Rosen, she is also facilitating resilience trainings based on body awareness for twenty women in Haifa, Israel; in March, they will begin workshops in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. In her life, Melanie has deep aspirations to live in beloved community, to work in peacebuilding, and to walk the path of a dharma teacher (starting with becoming an OI aspirant this year).
Kaira Jewel Lingo
"The primary fruits (and edge!) of my practice recently have to do with realizing that saying 'no' to something is saying 'yes' to something else. It is freeing to understand that when I say 'no'--even to wonderful and supportive teaching opportunities--I am saying 'yes' to the importance of resting and nourishing myself so that I can really be there for myself and others over tfhe long haul. This is a deep practice of trusting, letting go and knowing that I am always held by something larger and very trustworthy. I can live from a place of ease and gratitude rather than fear and worry."
After growing up internationally in a residential spiritual community Kaira Jewel Lingo began practicing mindfulness in 1997. She ordained as a nun with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1999 at the age of 25 and was in robes for 15 years. She is now a lay Dharma Teacher based in Sri Lanka, leading retreats in the U.S. and internationally, offering mindfulness programs for families, educators and youth in schools, artists, activists, people of color, as well as individual spiritual mentoring. Visit kairajewel.com to learn more.
“Being a woman in the historical dimension is one of my frames on the universe and has set some unique steps on my path toward awakening. These include body image and eating disorder challenges, motherhood, and three decades as someone's wife (with all that conjures.) My practice (thanks to our beloved and brilliant Thay and generations of ancestors) is a walking stick keeping me stable on the rocks, and I am equally grateful for the stick and for the uneven rocks.”
Annie discovered this path by reading "The Miracle of Mindfulness" in the mid-1990's. Thay's book screamed, "TRUTH!" So, she attended her first retreat, at Omega Institute, in 1999, with her four children in tow-- Maddie, nine years-old, Hanna and Sara, each seven-years-old, and Charlie, who was six. Since then, she has gone on lots more retreats with Thay and the monastics, founded and led a mindfulness-based yoga studio, taught many mindfulness courses, there and elsewhere, wrote a book for Parallax Press ("Things I Did When I Was Hangry: Navigating a Peaceful Relationship with Food"), got exhausted, left the studio, and now lives mostly in the Blue Ridge mountains, blogging (www.rawmindfulness.com), writing, making videos, maintaining sangha (www.openingheartmindfulness.org) organizing social justice webinars (www.Making-Visible.com), transforming her own internalized biases (a lifelong project) and working with many others to open the DC-area sanghas up to more racial, ethnic, and gendered inclusivity and equity.
“When I came back to visit my mom, in the back of my mind I still carried that disconnect from previous visits and worried that my internal formations about all the harsh things my mom said when I was a child might still put a distance between us. This time I saw how thin she was and I promptly gave her a nice head and body massage. Seeing her relaxed and melted wordlessly between my hands, I couldn’t be happier. Compassion healed us so naturally and deeply.”
Building community is an art and a commitment. In the past two years, many valuable lessons in skillful connection and right livelihood have arrived as My learns by doing and is nourished by each Sugarplum sangha’s monthly retreat, Day of Mindfulness and daily practice with a residential sangha. She finally understands three years later Brother Phap Dung’s dharma talk about what it means to stick around and to put diligent efforts into building community one day at a time. My also appreciates the clear wisdom of the animal-plant-rock-water sangha all around, her curious bunnies Arahato and Woosley, and loves to interpret Thay’s Vietnamese dharma talks to her partner Jonathan Borella.
Thank you, dear sisters, for your inspiring community work, generous hearts, and commitment to loving deeply. A lotus for you from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation Family, and our larger Plum Village Community.