I was first formally introduced to mindfulness in my third year university class in Positive Psychology. The course itself was a rich and enthralling exploration into what made a human life great – one aimed towards happiness and fulfillment. Topics ranged from personal growth, awe, flow states and gratitude. It was a refreshing change from learning about disease-states and the mentality of how to fix and repair.
At the start of one of our classes, my professor shared his own personal experience with meditation. He warned of the difficult memories, emotions and feelings that it awoken, that it was best to start under the guidance of someone with experience. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, that sounds powerful! I need try that for myself.”
My childhood was riddled with challenges and difficulties typical of a child growing up in an immigrant household. There were constant conflicts between wanting to live in accordance to Western ideals (as I witnessed in society around me) versus meeting my parents’ expectations of abiding to the Eastern code of conduct.
I often experienced loneliness as the only student of Asian descent for most of my elementary schooling. Although on the surface I had many friends, deep down I always felt like an outsider. Even in Vietnamese Saturday classes I did not feel comfortable. In addition to the cultural dilemma, there was internal family strife that I felt was unique to my own.
I didn’t think that the other kids would understand my particular challenges. Therefore, I hardly spoke about the problems at home to my friends or teachers. Worst of all, I couldn’t talk to my parents.
I recall many occasions where I would sit on the floor in my bedroom, curled up, knees to my chest, crying to myself, and doing my best to keep quiet because I didn’t want anyone to know. Each time, my heart ached and I felt a deep emptiness inside. This was the only way I knew how to deal with my anger, frustration, shame, and sadness.
Something Had to Change
It was not until I was in my final year of Naturopathic medical education that I decided I had face my inner demons once and for all. As an intern seeing patients for the first time, I quickly realized that most chronic physical ailments stemmed from deep underlying mental or emotional causes. Insomnia, digestive issues, body aches – you name it. If physiological imbalances are corrected for but the condition persists, well then, there must be a deeper root cause.
I knew I could not help my patients until I could help them address their mental and emotional battles. I also knew that I could only take my patients as far as I have taken myself. That meant, I had to sort through my emotional baggage first before I could help anyone else sort through theirs.
I took many routes. I picked up books, saw my school counselor, and began meditating on my own. Finally, in the late winter of last year, I saw a post on Facebook promoting a meditation retreat. The event was called Viet Wake Up, and it was aimed at teaching mindfulness and meditation to Vietnamese youth.
I signed up.
I did not have many expectations, except that I wanted to dedicate the weekend to no one else but myself.
On the first day, after registering and placing my belongings in my room, I walked up the stairs to the main gathering hall and lined up for the first meal (of many) that I would eat in silence during the retreat. It was an unfamiliar feeling. I was always so used to eating in a hurry! Yet somehow, it was comforting, calming, and even joyful.
I thought to myself, “I am so glad I am doing this. This is exactly what I need right now.”
What is Mindfulness?
Quite simply, it is the attunement to the present moment. It is calmly observing what is happening inside and outside of us, without judgment. It is the acknowledgement and acceptance of our current feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, without getting involved in them. It is freedom from past regrets and future anxieties. It is being fully awoken.
Indeed, as my professor warned, engaging in a weekend of mindfulness and meditation stirred a lot of emotions, old hurts, and fears. I cried during a small circle sharing, I cried during my intimate talk with one of the monastics, I cried during the group meditation first thing in the morning on the final day.
I needed the release, and since there was no judgment, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. I was able to cleanse myself of old energies that were buried deep inside. And unless released, these never go away. They remain; ready to be triggered by the next fight, disappointment or heartbreak. Or they are pushed so far out of consciousness that they wreak havoc instead on the physical bodily systems.
I gained so much from that weekend. I learned to find the peaceful place within myself, to be comfortable in silence, and the power in forgiveness and letting go.
I invite anyone who is currently struggling with any type of inner battle to attend this year’s Viet Wake Up Retreat. Our lives are so punctured by stress and “busyness”. Once in a while, we all need peace and quiet. Not only from our hectic schedules, but also from our very own minds, which have been clouded by years of constant anxieties, resentments and fears.
This retreat was the catalyst for my transformation away from an angry, fearful and lonely Marilyn, towards a Marilyn that is more open, loving, and free.
My practice in mindfulness and kindness towards myself and others continues daily. Life is funny in that it always presents itself with new challenges. One thing is for sure: I am now more prepared than ever to face these challenges. I simply need to attune myself to the present moment, acknowledge whatever thoughts and emotions that arise, breathe, and then eventually, let go…
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I feel better already.
For more information about the retreat, please visit Viet Wake Up Toronto’s Eventbrite page. Wake Up is an active global community of young people, aged 18-35, practicing the living art of mindfulness. Practitioners come together to practice mindfulness in order to take care of themselves, nourish happiness and contribute to building a healthier and a more compassionate society. Viet Wake Up is a branch of this network.