Lessons In Healing After Loss
Zen Lessons On Healing After Loss
When she left her career as a medical doctor, Sister Dang Nghiem, MD, a Zen Buddhist nun and disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh, learned the true meaning of healing
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a meditation room at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York State, Sister Dang Nghiem, 45, has the enviable air of a person who can (and does) sit still for hours on end without fidgeting. It's not just because she wears the obvious markers of a monastic Buddhist life—the shorn hair, the brown robes. It's that Sister D has a kind of radiant inner calm that you can only imagine she was born with. Except she wasn't.
Fourteen years ago, Sister D barely even meditated. She answered to the name Huynh Thi Ngoc Huong and was a family physician who lived with her partner, John, in San Francisco. She'd known since she was a little girl that she wanted to dedicate her life to helping others. So after emigrating from Vietnam to the United States when she was 16, and then graduating from the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School, she seemed, on the face of things, to have it all: a best friend and lover in John; a prestigious job. It was a long, long way from where she'd come.
She was born in 1968 in Central Vietnam during the height of the war to a Vietnamese woman who was in and out of her life. She never knew who her father was but was told he was a US soldier. For much of her childhood, Sister D had to fend for herself, facing verbal, physical, and sexual abuse from relatives, though she took solace in her grandmother, whom she adored.
Her grandmother wanted Sister D and her younger brother to be the first in their family to go to college, and in 1985—because of a stipulation in the Amerasian Immigration Act allowing children of US and Vietnamese citizens to apply for American citizenship—she moved the children into foster care in the United States. By the time Sister D started medical school, she and her brother had been shuffled through five different foster homes.
In September 1999, Sister D was officially an MD. The circumstances of her life bore no resemblance to those of her troubled youth, but the feelings, the depression she'd struggled with since childhood, still dogged her. She'd
been pushing John away, steeling herself from him when the sadness hit, which was often. Just before her 31st birthday, John suggested they take a trip to the coast to celebrate. She told him she wanted to be alone, so he took the trip solo. A couple of days later, on the morning of her birthday, Sister D was on call at the hospital when she got word that John had drowned. That was her last day as a doctor.
The pain of John's sudden death was unbearable, and it forced her to look inward. "When the healer is not healed," Sister D says now, "when she is wounded herself, she cannot really care for others."
If she was going to be able to help other people, she thought, first she would have to face her own difficult past: "All my life I thought that if I became very successful, if I found a loving partner, then that would make up for everything I lost or never had as a child. But I wasn't happy, because I didn't know how to handle my past."
Just weeks before John's death, Sister D had attended a 5-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known and respected Zen master. In her memoir, Sister D recounts how John first introduced her to the concept of mindfulness—of living in the present moment through meditation and by focusing on the breath. She'd absorbed some of that by being around John, but after this immersion with Nhat Hanh, something shifted inside her. "It showed me that there are concrete practices," she says. "There is a path, there is a way of life that I can practice, and it can help heal me." So while she would not return to her job as a doctor, she decided to focus, at least for a little while, on healing herself and others by learning and teaching mindfulness. She packed up her life and moved to Nhat Hanh's Plum Village monastery in Southern France.
That was 14 years ago. She now resides at Blue Cliff, another of the Zen master's centers. "I stopped being a doctor, but I continue to be a physician—I just don't prescribe drugs," she says. "And to anyone who comes to me, I transmit my whole energy of mindfulness. Now the healer, the healed, and the healing process are not three separate entities."
Here's what else she knows now.
Published December 2013, Prevention