Flowers in the Dark is a new audio series on the Plum Village App. In it, mindfulness teacher Sister Dang Nghiem kindly offers short episodes on guided mindfulness practices. Content draws on her latest book, Flowers in the Dark – Reclaiming Your Power to Heal Trauma through Mindfulness (2021), a deeply thoughtful guide to healing trauma with mindfulness practice. By bringing together her lived experience as a survivor, a certified MD, and an ordained Buddhist teacher, she offers a body-based, practical approach to healing from the most difficult and painful life experiences.
The Five Strengths of applied Zen Buddhism, which underpin the sister’s teachings, are accessible and deeply compassionate practices for healing trauma. These practices are backed up by modern neuroscientific research, and can be used by anyone suffering from trauma to experience relief.
Below, you can read the book’s preface, where Sister Dang Nghiem introduces the reader to her inspirations, and to the practices subsequently discussed in greater detail.
Look, my love, look at the innumerable flowers and leaves.
Look, my love, look at yourself,
Your wonderful manifestations are all these.
The spring is coming, from the heart of the winter.
The inspiration to write this book came to me at the end of a retreat I had taught in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2017. The organizers invited my monastic sisters and me to come to a garden behind their church to see the evening primroses bloom that night. Admittedly, I was not enthusiastic at the prospect since I was already quite tired after a long day at the retreat. Out of a sense of gratitude to our hosts, I still showed up.
At eight o’clock, about ten of us gathered in the church garden around the long stems of a tall, slender plant covered in drying, wilted yellow flowers. A friend of mine began to pluck away these old flowers, so that the new blossoms, indicated by tightly furled, spike-like buds, would be more visible to us. I stood politely, quiet and patient for what seemed like an interminable length of time. It began to get dark. Nothing seemed to happen. Suddenly, although there was no wind, the entire plant began to vibrate and tremble before us. Lo and behold, a flower bud suddenly and forcefully burst open, the petals unfolding one by one and then all at once, simultaneously, right in front of my eyes. This entire process took place within the space of a breath!
My mouth fell open and tears began streaming down my cheeks. As a somewhat poetic-minded lover of literature, I had often talked about flowers bursting into bloom; I had sung songs about them, written poetry about them, and mentioned them in Dharma talks, cleverly using the metaphor to make my points. Yet in that moment, on that day in front of this evening primrose plant, I woke up to the fact that I had never directly experienced how a flower actually blooms! Seeing these delicate yellow flowers spring open in the darkness awoke in me the realization that healing from trauma—recovering from painful experiences so that we can flourish and grow—is both simple and miraculous, a process that will unfold naturally, when enough of the right conditions are present.
For thirty years of my life, I had seen myself as a victim, isolated in my suffering. The facts of my upbringing and life story are now known—I’ve written about them in a memoir and frequently mentioned them in public talks, and I recount some parts in this book as well. Less well known are the steps I’ve taken since I took refuge as a Buddhist nun, to heal from my past of childhood sexual abuse. When I ordained as a nun in 2000, I learned from my beloved teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, a teaching that I have found to be invaluable in my healing process: the “inner child” within us. “Thay,” as his students address him
(an affectionate word for “teacher” in Vietnamese) says,
In each of us, there is a young, suffering child. We have all had times of difficulty as children, and many of us have experienced trauma. To protect and defend ourselves against future suffering, we often try to forget those painful times. Every time we’re in touch with the experience of suffering, we believe we can’t bear it, and so we stuff our feelings and memories deep down in our unconscious mind. It may be that we haven’t dared to face this child for many decades.
Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a practice of saying hello and talking to our inner child. Combined with mindfulness training, the steady schedule, and the peaceful monastery ambiance, this practice slowly brought me back to life. The inner child practice Thich Nhat Hanh teaches is just one exercise among many in a holistic system of activities his tradition offers to the world for transforming pain and suffering—and generating peace and joy.
After the severe trauma I had undergone, I was able to connect with myself and heal by practicing mindfulness. Over the years, as I became a Dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, known as the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, many young people have come to me for counseling and I have taught them the same practices and walked together with them, privileged to witness their healing. You don’t have to take monastic vows to benefit from mindfulness; you can start to benefit right away, wherever you are.
Thich Nhat Hanh has taught,
“The only way for you to transform the pain as a victim of sexual abuse is to become a bodhisattva. You take a vow to aspire to protect individuals, couples, families, and children from sexual abuse. In this way, you become a bodhisattva. And when the bodhisattva energy is in you, the suffering of being a victim of sexual abuse will begin to dissolve.”
A bodhisattva is an ideal of a person who not only becomes enlightened for themselves, but also for others; they are an embodiment of compassion. Of course, not everyone who was abused will aspire to become a bodhisattva or even a spiritually oriented person, but this teaching can help anyone to take a step on a path of compassion, starting with self-compassion toward their inner child and radiating outward in their speech, thoughts, and actions toward others. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words gave me the strength and inspiration to live my life as a healer.
In recent years, looking back at my journal entries as a young woman, I saw that even before meeting Thich Nhat Hanh, I had been able to name and acknowledge the “wounded child” inside me. In my journals and poems, I had written of my deep yearning to heal myself from my childhood pain and to protect young people from abuse. The wisdom and the aspiration had always been there, in the midst of suffering, but I simply did not know then how to realize them in this life, in each and every moment. Within each wounded child is a bodhisattva waiting for sufficient conditions to bloom.
Everyone suffering from trauma also has within them the capacity to heal, but they may not know it, and they may have obstacles to accessing their inner wisdom. In a culture of silence and shame, we survivors of sexual abuse may find it impossible to speak or even think about it, due to denial within the family or community. It takes a lot of courage for survivors to start on the path of healing and finally face our trauma. The reality is that it can be a long journey to find the resources we need to fully recover. The criminal justice system can address only limited aspects of individual and community healing, and assault victims frequently find such procedures retraumatizing. Professional therapy and counseling are needed as well, but access is not always easy. However, at a deep level we can always tap into our own embodied wisdom through practicing mindfulness in our daily lives, which brings about the deepest transformation and healing.
In this book, I wish to share the practices I have found most helpful on the journey to healing. We will see how mindfulness practice provides a bridge to our inner wisdom and calms the mind and nervous system. We will come to know our inner child and befriend them. These practices are helpful not only for survivors of childhood trauma, but for anyone troubled by trauma of any kind. We will look at some of the physiological and psychological aspects of trauma, as it is vital to understand how trauma affects our body, mind, and memory, and what we Buddhists call our “store consciousness” and “habit energy”—what psychologists call our subconscious mind.
In Buddhist psychology, we often talk about the Five Faculties, which with practice develop into the Five Strengths—trust, energy or diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and insight or wisdom. Of these factors, mindfulness is the foundation. In the central part of this book, we will look at how we can bring the Five Strengths into our everyday lives to help us on the path of healing. I will offer teachings for trauma survivors on these deep sources of inner empowerment. In addition to the basic Plum Village practices of mindful breathing, sitting, walking, and eating, I will invite you to explore the Five Strengths through some simple body-based meditations.
The Five Strengths work in sequence: trusting in ourselves and the healing process empowers us to take action, which in turn makes it possible to be mindful. Mindfulness leads to deep concentration, which
gives rise to profound insight or wisdom, which frees us from the past. Wisdom is the greatest power of all. It guides and sustains us through even the most difficult times by giving us the right view and the skill to
work through challenging circumstances in a way that fosters joy and freedom.
The Five Strengths are powerful friends on the path because they are the antidotes to their opposites. Trust heals doubt; diligence or energy transforms depression and apathy; mindfulness subdues impulsiveness and recklessness; concentration dispels distraction and avoidance; and insight or wisdom removes fear and hatred. As you develop the Five Strengths, even moderately, your mind begins to be freed from negative energies, and compassion and understanding can flourish. You find more peace in your life, and you learn to avoid chaos and drama.
The Five Strengths are one of several sets of qualities that Buddhist psychology offers as a holistic system for awakening, which we can intentionally cultivate to free ourselves from suffering. As an invitation to explore further, we’ll look at how the five main Buddhist precepts support healing from trauma, as expressed in the Plum Village tradition’s Five Mindfulness Trainings—Reverence for Life, True Happiness, True Love, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, and Nourishment and Healing. You do not have to become a Buddhist to benefit from these trainings. In fact, people from many faiths or no faith at all can follow them, because Buddhism, at its root, is not a religion, but a practical approach to the art of living. Thich Nhat Hanh would often say, “Buddhism is not a religion but a practice.”
Through this book, I hope you will gain an understanding of how mindfulness can be a powerful source of energy for your healing process. It is my deep wish that those suffering from post-traumatic stress, particularly survivors of sexual abuse like myself, have access to as many resources as possible. The practice of meditation is not meant to be a substitute for therapy with trained professionals, but if followed correctly, this path transforms suffering into true peace, happiness, and freedom. For myself, I have found that walking this path has helped me when other approaches could not. After all, as the example of the Buddha and two and a half millennia of practice demonstrate, if we follow the path wholeheartedly, with proper guidance, it can lead us to complete freedom from every type of suffering.
Mindfulness is a miracle because it enables us to behold ourselves and our lives as if we are witnessing the blossoming of a flower for the very first time. This sense of awe and wonder can help us heal past trauma and renew our life, moment to moment, in the most truthful, beautiful, and wholesome way. It is in this spirit that I am about to share with you the path to healing trauma that many beloved friends and I have personally traveled. May my telling of our experiences help you give voice to your experiences. May our transformation and healing be your own inspiration and realization.
SISTER DANG NGHIEM
DEER PARK MONASTERY, OCTOBER 2020
➛ To listen to the audio version of the guided practices from the book, go to the Flowers in the Dark folder under the Meditations category on the Plum Village App, or on the app’s YouTube channel. Two new practices will be published on the app each week, so watch this space.
➛To read the book, please visit the Parallax website.