From monk and nun to man and wife, Michael Ciborski on the spiritual journey he has taken with his high-school sweetheart, and on their small but growing sangha.
Sixteen years ago the dharma quietly slipped into my morning tea. With each sip its purpose strengthened, and with great consequence. It turned me from a quest for fame and recognition, knelt me down before the altar of monastic life and then, that curious drink, walked me back out into the world. Now, with wife, children and a few good spiritual friends, I find myself on an amazing adventure: growing a lay practice community and education center, responding directly, I believe, to the deep need of our times.
On my twenty-first birthday my next door neighbor gave me a gift. It was a copy of Peace Is Every Step by the Vietnamese monk, my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). This book, a non-religious guide to meditation and awakened living left me starry eyed in wonder. In its depth and simplicity it expressed what was in my heart. Life is a miracle unfolding here and now. Why be bound by the heavy cords of the past or to be lost in anxiety for what might happen in the future? And when it’s not so easy, embrace your pain with love and without judgment. From this place of peace look deeply into your life and see that the whole cosmos smiles when your own eyes smile. I read more. I studied more. I began to put it into practice.
Suddenly, I was experiencing a vivid inner landscape that had previously eluded me. Not surprisingly I began to question my vocation as a rock and roller in northern California. Between work as a rehab counselor and rehearsals with the band I sought opportunities to practice sitting and walking meditation in the quiet of the forest. The first buds on my little tree of practice began to sprout; less stress, more patience, and a new sense of meaning and purpose.
My time in California ended quickly and reunited me with Fern, my high-school sweetheart. We got engaged and we began an awkward attempt to bring practice into our lives, often frustrated, yet persistent, for we sensed change and growth.
Fern and I knew that our joy and our work in life would be that of building intentional spiritual communities. We understood how the suffering of the poor and deprived, the endangered species, and the clear-cut forest resulted from patterns of over-consumption and individualism in modern society. In community building we saw an opportunity to approach these issues with clarity and compassion—a way to be the change we longed for. But without much strength of our own, we needed support and training. This led us to Plum Village, Thay’s monastery and practice center in southwest France where we stayed for almost nine years.
In Plum Village, our love for each other was transformed. We had twisted ourselves up in a double helix of dreams, habits and attachments and all of it started to unwind. I began to realize that much of what I called “love” for Fern was really a set of behaviors designed to protect me from my own fear of being hurt, of being left alone. But love isn’t about needing something from someone—security, comfort, sex, even basic connection. True love, I was learning, is about being there for the other, understanding and supporting them.
After a year in Plum Village, Fern asked me a question: “What do think about me becoming a nun?” Everything stopped. Fear arose. But I knew that as long as I didn’t let go, I would always be loving for the benefit of myself, and not because I really cared for her dreams and aspirations. As presence and understanding began to fill the empty space in my heart, I was able to embrace my fear and find the answer: “I will support you without judgment, resentment and anger. I will honor our love in whatever form it takes. I ask nothing for myself.”
Free from my attachments I found the aspiration for a fully committed life of practice growing strong in me as well. Joyfully we agreed, and in late June of 1996, under a full moon, Fern and I formally released our engagement and the “specialness” of our relationship. We joined the monastic community as novice nun and novice monk and became spiritual sister and brother.
I lived and practiced with the brothers of Plum Village for seven years. We trained in the practice of mindfulness day in and day out. We used our collective energy to organize retreats for thousands of people. We traveled the world to support our teacher as he shared the dharma. We dove deep into the multi-dimensional practice required to maintain harmony in a growing community. This truly demanding process stripped away our pride and we soaked in the dharma, allowing our perceptions of self and other to wash away. Walking the beautiful paths of oak and ivy with steps of freedom and peace, the door cracked open to a birthless and deathless reality.
Plum Village is an amazing place and it seemed as if I could never be happier. Then, in my seventh year, in order to continue maturing as a monk and offer my service unconditionally to the community, I was prompted from within to release the next layer of self, my personal aspirations.
I had a powerful wish to live in accord with my ecological values and awareness. I wanted to practice closely with families and children. I longed to celebrate the mystical festivals of my heritage—festivals like Advent, Easter, St John’s, and Michelmas. All of this joined as a growing desire to serve, live and practice with everyday ordinary people.
I did not want my aspirations to interfere with monastic life. But I also didn’t want to let go of them and so a question formed: How could the depth of the continuous community practice I knew in the monastery be creatively transformed into a lay community experience?
The pull was strong. I looked carefully to be sure I wasn’t reacting out of frustration or resentment toward the community and it was clear I loved my brothers and sisters more than ever. I decided to leave.
Leaving was a painful and difficult experience. I was walking away from my spiritual brothers and sisters, to whom I was closer in many ways than genetic siblings. Our love, friendship, and practice had carried us through so much. When the time came to share my departure with my teacher, Thay did not lay the burden of that moment upon me. Smiling quietly, he offered a parting gift—a calligraphy that read “no coming no going”.
That year Fern also left the monastery and, when we encountered each other, we knew immediately our relationship would continue. We would also continue our practice of building spiritual community, only now as a family, as lay practitioners. Thus began MorningSun, a small but growing mindfulness community and education center in Southern New Hampshire.
During the past few years, as MorningSun has begun to take shape, I have been humbled with gratitude for what the dharma has brought to my life. In a community of practice, with each gentle step, each quiet breath of return, we heal and nourish each other, and our collective energy becomes an offering of renewal to the world.
Drawing from practices we learned in Plum Village, our life and programs in MorningSun are based on spiritual fulfillment and togetherness. Through this we embrace the great unrest in the heart of our society. For without the spiritual fulfillment of presence, our own and that of our family and friends, we exhaust ourselves and the Earth, running from one thing to another, grasping for something to consume—food, entertainment, a lover. And without harmonious relationships, trust and respect for each other, we are at odds with our inter-being nature, pushing our own agenda at the cost of others, and our misunderstandings easily escalate into hatred and violence. As families, communities, as a global society, we cannot be sustained without the practice of togetherness. Ultimately, I do not believe the transformation of society can occur through legislation, accords, and agreements alone, but through the practice of individuals and groups to be at peace in their own hearts and find meaning in work that serves the integrity of the whole organism; people, animals, plants, and the Earth.
Two-and-a-half years after we left the monastery, Fern and I, with our one-year old son, had the opportunity to meet Thay and the monastic community again. We were joyfully overwhelmed to find that the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood had held firm. Thay was supportive of our efforts to establish a center of practice and urged us to nourish and protect our relationship while living out in the world. We sat with him and listened while he shared his experience of the difficulty caused by our departure from the community. We finished our tea and, as he smiled and played with our baby boy, he offered: “The past has gone. What happened has happened. The question now is going forward, how to maintain harmony between us.”