How the Viet Wake Up Retreat Helped to Reconnect With My Roots
By Thien Kim Truong
Tram is enjoying Magnolia Grove Monastery, and the dog that followed her and a monastic sister back to the monastery on their walk.
During a trip to visit to one of Thay’s monasteries, Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, I became really good friends with a soon-to-be long-term resident called Tram from Wake Up Little Saigon. We roomed together during my stay, and I got to know her better. I found her story extremely inspiring, especially how her first Viet Wake Up retreat and encounter with the monastics had changed her life drastically. I asked if I could interview her about her experience at the Viet Wake Up retreat to share with friends around the world. Here it is below.
TK: When did you first hear about Viet Wake Up?
Tram: Through my counsellor; he emailed me the website. He’s very involved in the Vietnamese community by teaching young adults to meditate instead of giving them medication for their mental illness. I had a mental illness: depression. I told him that when I meditated, my legs started to hurt and ache. So I joked around with him and told him my best meditation position is horizontal, which is basically lying down when I sleep (laughing).
He told me there was this retreat coming up. But the whole time, I was very hesitant. I kept making up excuses like “It looks like it’s going to rain” and “I don’t know anyone.” The main thing was that I didn’t know anyone, so you’re afraid to go. You feel like what if you don’t get along with people there and you’re just going to be like a loner. But going through depression, it pushed me to want to go out on my own because I felt there was no loss in it. I felt like no one really understood what I was going through, so I figured this was some time alone for myself to learn something new.
TK: What was it about the retreat that got you “hooked”?
Tram: I came late to the retreat but when I came, they were doing the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We were reading the text, and my group was doing the Third Mindfulness Training: True Love. Out of all the trainings, this was like stabbing a knife into your chest like “Here have some more pain” (laughing). When Sister D was facilitating and saying that this a space where you can open up your heart and speak freely, I felt I was at a point where I had nothing to hold back. The training says you should be in a relationship where your family and friends should know about it and stuff like that. Nobody knew about my relationship I was in at the time. Also with the Fifth Mindfulness Training, I was drinking a lot because I was so depressed about my relationship that ended. I consumed so much alcohol because I didn’t want to be with the reality.
How would you describe your overall experience at the retreat?
Tram:I felt light. I felt very heavy driving to the retreat. It was very dark, foggy, cold, and rainy. But when I was done with the retreat and drove home, I felt very light, rejuvenated, and happy with the anticipation to tell my family about the experience that I went through. I was very excited about what I learned.
Tram and friends in Memphis airport getting picked up by the monastics to start her 6-month residency at Magnolia Grove Monastery after attending her first Viet Wake Up retreat in 2015.
What was your impression of the monastics when you first met them?
Tram: I thought they were very peaceful and….. intimidating (both laughing) because you’re always told or taught that they are a certain way. Even when they walk or talk, they’re so proper. When you’re near them, you feel you have to always know what’s going on. It’s like being the A+ student (laughing). After a while, you see that the practice is what’s making them strong.
TK: Was there a particular moment from the retreat that stayed in your heart when you think about the retreat?
Tram: Yes, watching the brothers and sisters singing. Since I did not know the lyrics, I saw myself smile when I sung them.
TK: How did the retreat help you reconnect with your roots, ancestors and culture?
Tram:My parents never pushed us to be traditional. They expect us to be respectful to our elders and such. But when it comes to knowing about the history and the culture, I never cared for it. Now I’m more interested in learning how to speak Vietnamese better or how to sing Vietnamese songs. There’s so much that I didn’t care for, and now I feel so interested in them.
I think what makes gives me pride in being Vietnamese and what’s common in our sharings when I attend Viet Wake Up is that we care so much about our family. Every single time I sit-in somewhere, it’s like “I want to make my parents proud,” “I don’t want to disappoint them,” and “I want to change myself so that my parents don’t suffer.” Not every culture has that, but for us we know that our country and our people have gone through so much; our parents have gone through so much and sacrificed so much to give us what we have today; we have gratitude for it, and I’m slowly coming back to that as I’m finding my roots.
Tram practicing with Wake Up Little Saigon in California
TK: One last question: what would you say to people who are considering going to the retreat, who have never been and are feeling hesitant?
Tram: Just go. Just do it. You have nothing to lose. You have everything to gain. It’s not even gaining things like material things, but it’s just gaining yourself again. Learning who you are. I think a lot of people lose sight of that and of who they are, because they’re just being what society is telling them to be. Or they’re just walking around like sleepwalking. They’re doing things, but what’s the reason to do what they’re doing.
I think what all the brothers and sisters have said in their talks: you’re the most precious thing that you have. At the end, it’s just you. You’re the only one with your thoughts so why not take care of that—to nourish it so you can have the best life for yourself. If you have that, anything’s possible. You can have anything in the world, because everything will look more beautiful. It’s all in your head and your thoughts.
How Mindfulness Changed My Life
By Marilyn Tran
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.
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.”
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 struggle to attend this year’s . 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 others and myself 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.