A former female cardiologist expert gave up medicine to become a monk. Today she leads retreats on meditation, health, and happiness.
French of Vietnamese origin, at 35 he has ordained a monk with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Nine years later, Phap Lieu assures that he never regretted abandoning his cardiologist career because as a monk he can offer much deeper help. It is what you are looking for with the series of retreats on mindfulness, health, and happiness that take place these days in several world cities. It can also be a meditation for beginners who are just new and starting.
What led you to abandon medicine to become a monk?
Many think that you must first have a successful career, a family, a house, etc. and leave the spiritual part of your life for when you retire. But I did not want to leave happiness for later, and I was not sure that my career could bring me happiness. So I preferred to learn the practice of happiness in the monastery. For myself and for others.
As a doctor, however, he surely had a good chance of helping people.
My father was a doctor. He was able to help many people, it is true, but at the end of his life I think he still had a lot of suffering inside. It could not transform.
So I think there is something incomplete, wrong, in this way of helping people when you cannot be happy yourself.
As a doctor, when a patient comes to your office you help him repair his body, improve his physical pain. But if, when the patient returns home, he resumes his normal habits of consuming and relating to his family, it doesn’t really help much. As a monk, I can offer much deeper help.
Does this mean that you don’t miss the practice of medicine?
No! Especially when I meet doctors, most of them so unhappy. They may have a lot of money and social prestige, but they are always busy, with no time to dedicate to their family. As a monk, I have time for myself and others. These meditation and health retreats are a way to practice mind and body medicine.
What is the relationship between meditation and health?
Health is of the body and of the mind, they are the same thing. To take care of the body we need to return to it. In our daily life, we occupy the mind with our projects and concerns and do not just go down to our bodies. Meditation involves first returning to the body.
Meditation is not just sitting. It covers all our daily activities. Many people believe that meditating is emptying the mind, but the practice of observing the breath carefully involves returning to the body. Breathing is the bridge between body and mind.
What is your idea of a healthy person?
For me, health is harmony. Harmony in your body and in your mind. Meditation helps to recover it.
How to achieve that harmony?
Having time to return to ourselves is the first step. Each family should have a “breathing room” to spend 15 or 20 minutes in the morning when they get up or at night, before going to bed, following the rhythm of breathing, and returning to oneself.
The idea is to bring meditation into everyday life. To the workplace, to the family. You meditate when you prepare breakfast, you wash the dishes … you follow your breath whenever you can.
This is advice that is not heard in the doctor’s office.
Doctors face a lot of suffering and a lot of bureaucracy. Between the worries and the lack of time, they find it very difficult to have a happy family life. And of course, they don’t know how to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, in medical schools, there are no classes to learn how to take care of oneself.
As a monk and cardiologist, what is your advice for good heart health?
The word heart means in Vietnamese the same as mind. The health of my mind is that of my heart, and vice versa. An important practice is to learn to open your heart. To develop a great heart capable of embracing both weaknesses and virtues.
In his retreats, he highlights the importance of nutrition.
We are what we eat. If we introduce toxins into our bodies, it will be very difficult to cultivate health. To avoid it, and to avoid toxins in mother earth, our way of consuming has a lot to do with the spiritual path. We recommend consuming foods that bring peace to ourselves and to the earth in moderation.
We recommend eating less meat, organic food, and, if possible, gardening because working it is also meditation. It is very healthy to sink your hands into the ground.
Western medicine hardly contemplates the possibility of self-healing.
What is your opinion about it?
If you are fully conscious and present in your body it is possible to direct the energy and help the sore or sick area to relax deeply. Relaxation can go deeper and deeper, from the first layer of muscles to the different organs. Thus you create the conditions for the energy to flow unhindered, and you develop your capacity for self-healing. Western medicine is still not paying attention to this.
Today I have a low day. What is your advice?
Mindfulness practice helps us be aware of it. This is the first step. The second is to accept it. And, the third, understand that nothing is permanent. After the low moment, the high will come. And so on.
Here are other foods that go well with energy and good humor.
Whole grains: highly recommended source of energy because its carbohydrates slowly transform into glucose. They contain a lot of fiber.
Rye bread: for its high content of vitamin B, the absence of which is related to a bad mood.
Oatmeal: a highly energetic cereal with a high amount of vitamins B6 and B5, the lack of which is related to mood changes, headaches, and fatigue.
Lentils: a source of protein and iron. The lack of the latter, very widespread, produces apathy, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
Avocado: with five nutrients beneficial for mood.
Egg: ideal food for the brain due to its high content of vitamins B12 and zinc.
Spinach and other dark green leaves: high magnesium content. Its absence is related to cramps, difficulty relaxing muscles, and insomnia.
Lettuce: contains folic acid. Its absence is related to fatigue or irritability.
Red peppers: they contain a large number of B vitamins, essential for the nervous system.
Seitan: vegetable meat made from wheat gluten does not provide fats or cholesterol, unlike animal meat, but it does contain many proteins and vitamins from group B.