Q&A with Jeanine Cogan, PhD, co-editor of “Tears Become Rain: Stories of Transformation and Healing Inspired by Thích Nhât Hanh”
What is Tears Become Rain about and why did you write it?
As my co-editor Mary likes to say, “Tears Become Rain is a book about hope.” It’s a series of stories where 32 authors from 16 different countries each go on a hero’s journey, reaching deep within themselves to find the light in moments of darkness. Each contributor describes the journey of life smacking them down and, through the spiritual wisdom of renowned Zen teacher, Thích Nhât Hanh, they find a way to get back up.
The idea for this book came to me in 2019 when I had the desire to honor Thích Nhât Hanh and give back to his worldwide meditation community for all the compassion and love I received from them over the years. For example, in 2009 when I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter Nicole, I went to the Plum Village retreat center in France for a three-week meditation retreat. While I’d been vegetarian for years, I didn’t realize that Plum Village had gone vegan. My first response was apprehension that I wouldn’t get enough protein for the baby. Without uttering a word to anyone people began giving me bags of nuts, smiling beautifully as they placed them in my hands without words. When I was walking across the green meadow enjoying the blue skies and sunflowers, a nun gently swinging in a hammock saw me approach, got up and summoned me to lie down.
Those examples of simple acts of joyful generosity were not just saved for me as the pregnant woman, they were available to everyone. These overtures of empathy and compassion were present at every retreat I attended over the years and is one of the gifts of Thích Nhât Hanh’s legacy. I wanted to thank him and thank the Plum Village community. Mary and I are so grateful!
The book shows how 32 mindfulness practitioners around the world reflect on encountering the extraordinary teachings of Zen Master Thích Nhât Hanh. Some of the contributors were direct students of Thích Nhât Hanh. What was it like working directly with him? What was he like? Did he ever have moments when he didn’t seem like he was practicing mindfulness perfectly? If so, how did he respond to those moments?
One of my favorite moments with Thích Nhât Hanh was when I was on retreat and I sat right close to him for his lecture. He was doing this one in Vietnamese so they offered simultaneous translation, where we each had a headset and would hear the English translation while Thay, which means beloved teacher, talked. It turned out that my headset didn’t work and there was no opportunity to change it now that he’d started to teach. So I just put the headset down and absorbed his presence. That was by far his most powerful teaching. He was grounded, calm and fully engaged. He had an ease in his concentration that brought a sense of confidence.
How can we integrate mindfulness in our lives when we are feeling emotionally dysregulated and/or we are prone to experience strong emotions?
Great question. So first I want to put in a plug for meditating. A regular mindfulness meditation practice, where you dedicate time to conscious breathing daily, or a few times a week, will support you in holding strong emotions when they arise. That is one of the best reasons for committing to a dedicated practice. When my mom died in January 2021, it was mainly my meditation time that prevented me from being swept away by grief and loss.
A number of our contributors write beautifully about how to do this. For example, when Katie Sheen from the U.K. in her story “Phew! What a Wonderful Colon I Have!” goes in for her routine colonoscopy and it takes a turn she wasn’t anticipating, she uses mindfulness to keep herself from being overwhelmed with fear.
“I close my eyes and find my attention automatically searching out the sensations of breathing within my body, looking for comfort, for that peaceful core of inner strength that has been gradually building over years of practice with the Plum Village Sangha.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. . .
In the midst of strong emotion, my breathing is safe and familiar. The slight pause between the out breath and the in breath is always a peaceful place that remains secure, even when I feel adrenalin rising and emotions beginning to surge.
I notice shock, a kind of nothing feeling, an emotional pause between life before and life after this moment.
Breathing in, I am aware of my feeling of shock.
Breathing out, I take care of my feeling of shock.”
And so Katie continues, working with all the various emotions that come up for her. Notice how she didn’t try to change the emotions. She’s simply taking care of them. This means she’s breathing and holding them without judgement.
Thích Nhât Hanh describes a strong emotion coming up like a crying baby. We have to cradle and soothe the crying baby. When we do that, then we’ll be okay. We can handle whatever arises by holding it with mindfulness. This is what Katie did. And there’s no magic to it. We can all do the same.
And Katie got through this experience and her treatment and is living happily cancer free.
What are some challenges of practicing mindfulness and how can we overcome those challenges in a fast-paced and fear-based world?
Mindfulness, which is being focused on one thing and only one thing at a time, is the antidote to our busy multi-tasking, Instagram, texting-filled frenzied lives. When we are fully present with one thing, that feels good. Multi-tasking actually doesn’t. According to research, multi-tasking makes people feel drained and as if they haven’t done any one thing well at the end of the day. Doing something with your full presence, whether that be eating, walking, drinking a cup of tea or petting your dog, will nourish you. As Thích Nhât Hanh has said, the miracle isn’t walking on water. The miracle is walking on the earth and knowing you are walking on the earth.
If you want more joy and ease in your life, practice mindful consumption. Turn off the news. Our bodies are under siege with the 24-7 news cycle as we’re not physiologically designed to constantly take in so much human trauma. Our bodies are being overwhelmed with stress hormones that undermine our bodies functioning optimally. So turning it off is preventing illness. You have control over what you consume, so why ingest such toxins? If everyone did this one simple act there would be immediate peace.
Many of the contributors write about how mindfulness helped them after tragic or traumatic events such as facing death, a traumatic past as a refugee, facing racism and a toxic workplace. How can we practice mindfulness during these events? And how can mindfulness help us deal with these types of events that are often outside of our control?
Great question. My best answer is to suggest everyone read the stories in Tears Become Rain as each author shares wisdom for how to face the challenges of life.
The only thing we have control over is how we respond to what life throws us. We have control over our minds — even though many people don’t take that power. Mindfulness helps us to see our wild and crazy thoughts and to know they’re mostly not true. Mindfulness also allows us to not believe our thoughts or get swept away by them. We can watch our thoughts as if they are clouds in the sky. They come and they go. So we create space between the thought and any action. And in that space is conscious choice.
I found out yesterday a friend of mine is in the hospital with an aggressive case of the shingles. A group of us are in text communication. I’m holding my friend in my heart by sending her wishes of healing and ease (metta meditation) but I’m not fueling my anxious fearful thoughts. Since there are so many possible futures, why run ahead and think the worst one will happen? I am consciously interrupting the habit of fear, noticing the thought and then shifting to a healing thought and sending her ease.
What are some of the benefits of mindfulness?
Hundreds of studies have documented the positive physical and mental health benefits of meditation including decreased anxiety, depression, stress, loneliness, binge behavior and emotional eating. Meditation also enhances self-esteem, self-awareness, focus and clarity, memory, sleep, the immune system and compassion towards self and others.
One of the biggest benefits for me is that meditation lightens my mood. I’m easier to be around and enjoy everything more fully after I’ve meditated.
Jeanine Cogan, Ph.D. is a mindfulness meditation teacher and executive consultant. As a student of Thích Nhât Hanh since 1996, she is committed to introducing mindfulness and meditation to others. Jeanine also earned a PhD in social psychology. Jeanine has edited two other books and many articles published in academic journals. Learn more at www.tearsbecomerain.org.