Everything Is a Gift by Jennifer Vanbooven
by Mark Chmiel
Jennifer Vanbooven is in my Comparative Religion and Culture class, and wrote this response to the documentary, Walk with Me, about life at Plum Village. I am happy to share it here.
Kaley and I watched a movie called Walk with Me on Netflix. Walk with Me is a religious documentary that was released in 2017, so fairly recent, that provides an insightful glimpse into a monastic community that practices the art of mindfulness alongside the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. The Buddhists involved in this community have given up all of their possessions and wholesomely committed themselves to a life of celibacy; their ultimate goals in becoming members of this Buddhist circle are to transform their sufferings. The film captures the day to day routines of monastic life and mindfulness exercises while also demonstrating the influences such a life has on the individual monks. Overall, watching the movie gave me some fresh and positive outlooks on the Buddhist way of life and motivation to incorporate certain mindfulness practices into my own life.
Towards the beginning of the film, things started out slow by showing the simplest daily activities of the monks in the community. In watching how the Buddhists went about their daily lives, I noticed that when it was time for them to sit down for a meal, they would eat in complete silence aside from the clanging of their plates. As well as eating their meals surrounded by one another with no verbal communication, it stood out to me how each one of them took very small and slow bites, savoring each bit of food set out on their tables. At first, the silence and slowness of their feasting sessions seemed very strange and uncomfortable to me, but the more I observed the behavior the more appreciation and understanding I came to have for it. Watching how the Buddhist monks ate their meals was a surprise in comparing it to American culture. As Americans, we almost always use food gatherings as a time to socialize with one another and stuff our faces until we can’t eat one more bite. After getting a glimpse of how the Buddhist community went about their meal times, I now see the American way of approaching food gatherings in a more negative light. American life is so scatter-brained, so fast paced, and very much unappreciative in many ways, and the way we eat directly portrays that. The average American can probably put down a half pound burger and a plate of fries in 10 to 15 minutes, while on the other hand, a Buddhist monk can make a small bowl of soup last for 20 or 30 minutes. Of course, it’s not just about making the food last, it’s about eating the food in a mindful way in which you can truly appreciate and experience each bite you take. The Buddhists displayed what it really meant to be entirely immersed in the present moment in order to recognize the full worth of the smallest things we usually take for granted in life. Eating in silence isn’t weird but rather beautiful in the sense that one can focus in on the gift of food and have a new awareness of how each bite satisfies one’s taste buds and fulfills the emptiness in the stomach. Americans should admire and attempt to simulate the Buddhist way of approaching meals, most of our disquieted minds don’t even come close to realizing how lucky we are to have a plate full of food in front of us.
Throughout the movie, I also noticed that many of the Buddhist monks or monks to be became very emotional during religious gatherings or other public settings. Kaley agreed and mentioned in our discussion that she noticed some of the monks appearing as they did not want to really be there. Some of the monks would look distressed in their facial expressions, others would form tears in their eyes, and many times there would be strong weeping during song or other parts of ceremony. None of these emotions were frowned upon by others; the other monks did not look at the unsettled ones and cast looks of disapproval. In the midst of individuals becoming emotional, most of the other monks either carried on in their own beings or lightly comforted the upset ones without question. Although looks of sadness and crying are usually perceived as negative, I believe these sorrowful emotions of the monks were actually overwhelming happiness. I think that in these moments of compete emotional outpour, the monks were experiencing a sort of epiphany, an overpowering realization of their existence. I thought that these emotional moments were beautiful, and in observance of all these emotions, it occurred to me how constrained we keep our emotions in American society. Why do Americans tend to see the expression of sad emotions as shameful? Why is it stressed in American society that it is not always okay to expose ourselves in the ways that we truly feel? Keeping our emotions bottled up inside, especially those of strong angst or true bliss, is in no way healthy or natural. Restricting our feelings from being expressed by our outer being is like trying to fight hunger, the hunger is not going to go away until we feed ourselves something. Our emotions are not going to be relieved or at ease until we let them out through the physical body. We are human, we are made to laugh, cry, smile, get angry, we are created in a way that allows us to feel everything in truly extraordinary ways, which should be appreciated rather than abashed.
Although I had little relation or connection in watching the movie “Walk with Me” and observing the mindful practices of the Buddhist monks, overall, the film inspired me to approach my daily life in more conscious manners. One specific important message from the movie really stuck with me and caused me to reevaluate the way in which I live my life, and that message is “happiness is here and now.” I feel that I, and many of us in modern day society, are always looking to our pasts in hope of reliving happy moments or to our futures in hope for a more fulfilling existence. Why do we fool ourselves by doing this? If we don’t make the most of the present, one day we are all going to look back on our lives and ask ourselves where our heads were at, why we were never happy. We will never feel satisfied or truly be able to say we are happy if we are always searching for another happy moment that has no place in our present beings. We will never be able to experience real happiness until we drop our worries about the past and the future and live for the best of what we have in this very moment. We can’t always know where we are going in life and how things are going to turn out, and we have to accept that that is perfectly okay. If we open our eyes we will find that happiness can be found in the simplest of moments in life, everything is a gift.