Taking to the Road With an Open Heart: Adventures in Mindfulness and Self-Compassion in Vietnam

Something inside me said “Go!” So I did. I went to Vietnam in the Spring of 2018 with an international delegation of like-minded people with two objectives: firstly, to bring the Mindful Self-Compassion, MSC program to Vietnam and make the program more accessible to the locals; and secondly to enable Vietnam to self-sustain MSC programs in the future. We would ultimately achieve these objectives with our Vietnamese partners and the generosity of people from all over the world.

The non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion’s Vietnamese partners is a group of educators and professionals committed to deepening mindfulness and bringing self-compassion to Vietnam. The other people, mostly from the west, joined us to participate in the MSC program for themselves and to sponsor Vietnamese people who could not otherwise afford to participate. Each participant from the west made it possible for up to four local Vietnamese people to participate.

I knew this was going to be a chance for real adventure and deep intercultural exchange, so with an open mind and open heart, the adventure began and continues.

The Adventure Begins

On our first pioneering trip we landed in Ho Chi Minh City airport, and from the moment we deplaned, I felt as though I was being greeted by the whole of Vietnam. What a fanfare! So many people to greet their loved ones. I got caught up in the celebration and felt so welcomed. The energy was palpable.

I got checked in to my hotel, settled in, then could not wait to venture out onto the streets where I encountered more lively energy. The city was bustling with movement, lights, people, thousands of scooters, and not many cars. Action.

I learned quickly that one has to get in the groove of this wild, alive, vibrating place, or you’ll get left by the wayside.

People from all over the world convened for this Mindful Self-Compassion adventure in Vietnam. Together we explored the city before the MSC program commenced. We roamed, visited museums, exhibits, temples and best of all, we got the opportunity to hear from the people themselves of their personal history, their trials, and their triumphs. This was the start of life-long friendships and bonds. An up-close encounter with our shared truths.

We had the incredible opportunity to experience a homemade lunch in the home of a family of four generations. I had conversations in English, a little Vietnamese, drawings and lots of hand gestures with a six-year-old boy who took me under his wing. I learned from the little boy’s grandmother, who passionately expressed her perspective of life in Vietnam and her pain of having lived through so much.

Feeling immersed in this faraway world, I gave further thought to why so many people in Asia have become disconnected from some of their own ancient wisdom traditions, teachings and way of life. I have suspected, it is due, at least in part, to Western ways of living influencing the east. Being in Ho Chi Minh City, I witnessed this to be true. Sleek buildings, housing commercial interests crowd out and suppress the natural tendencies, values, and age-old ways of the people. Families, friends, and colleagues struggle to maintain a sense of interconnection as the forces of materialism erode the glue of interdependence. There is positive evidence of the economic growth that has certainly helped and supported the population. But in the growth process, some of what the people held so precious has been lost — or at least lies dormant.

Happily, there are seeds of wisdom and compassion that are being nurtured in Vietnam, and I am honored to be a part of this re-awakening. The people, sowing these seeds, welcomed us wholeheartedly.

The MSC Experience

The MSC program in Vietnam evolved into an experience that exceeded expectations. Engaging in the MSC program in this context opened growth and connection in profound and unexpected ways. People explored their inner landscape in a safe, supportive way, learning together how to apply skills to nurture their inner resources and strengthen clarity. As for the Vietnamese participants, I witnessed the beginnings of them tapping into their capacity to be kinder to themselves without feeling that this was selfish or that this behavior was contrary to their cultural norm of serving others.

This experience for them was the beginning of discovery into how self-love can actually make us more powerfully caring, giving and connected to others.

Ironically, the MSC experience seemed to serve as a back door to enhancing what the Vietnamese culture already values, namely, “interbeing,” the term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. “Interbeing” describes the interconnection of all things.

For the western participants, I witnessed something similar.

Interestingly this belief that it is selfish or wrong to truly appreciate and care for ourselves cuts across many cultures worldwide. I sensed the beginnings of freedom from those present from this limiting mindset.

I delighted in people from all over the world looking at themselves and each other with a kind of innocent recognition:

“Hey! We all struggle with this limitation and what if it is not even true?”

There was an almost gleeful, mischievous energy in moments of little rebels: “Hey! Maybe we don’t need this? Dare we collectively let it go? There is power in numbers. We are not alone!” I still smile inside at these fierce internal freedom fighters.

Taking in the Culture

After attending the MSC Program, we had a few glorious days to explore more of Vietnam. Jumping on buses and boats, we ventured into the streets and waterways. We took a boat ride up the Mekong Delta and stayed the night in a beautiful homestead. There we had a hands-on lesson in cooking our own Vietnamese meal, enjoyed traditional Vietnamese music, singing, and dancing. We took a wonderful bike ride around the island and a canoe ride in the Mekong Delta, all the while donning our wide-brimmed traditional hats.

The food throughout the trip was fascinating, creative, colorful and delicious.

Some of us then went on to another adventure in Cambodia to take in more history, food and sites.

The Vietnamese adventure was a life-changing experience for me. Getting to immerse in compassion for ourselves and others — and doing it in a diverse world setting — was a gift. My encounters with the Vietnamese people were warm and alive, and I so enjoyed their willingness to connect and exchange stories, their history, and their healing.

Hope and Healing

There is a merciful and graceful kindness that lives in the hearts of humans all over the world. No matter what hurts, divisions and misunderstandings have transpired there is a freshness in our capacity to come together and heal. I experienced this with the people in Vietnam:

Despite their history with America and the Vietnam war, which, by the way, they call the “American War,” there was an open-hearted willingness to connect in new ways. I was willing to bear witness to their pain and to their truth with the belief that healing, kindness, and connection could emerge. And it did.

Rumi said: “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

I look forward to going back and doing it again. My next trip there will be co-teaching the MSC program with CMSC Executive Director Steve Hickman in March 2019 and supporting the two newly trained Vietnamese teachers of MSC. They will be assisting in teaching the program, thereby strengthening their ability to teach the program themselves in Vietnam.

Like engaging again with a good novel, film, piece of art or classic teaching, I trust that I will continue to learn new things and deepen my appreciation of MSC, Vietnam and simply being human.

When we wander the globe with compassionate awareness, we can discover things we didn’t know we were looking for. It can turn our assumptions upside down and leave us with the belief that there is hope in this world.

This is the wonder! This is the awe! This is the adventure!

Consider joining me in 2020 and read more about the project here.

Learn More About Upcoming Global MSC Intensives

Find out how you can join CMSC to take the Mindful Self-Compassion program in Hoh Chi Minh, Vietnam or Nairobi, Kenya in 2020. Learn more about these upcoming events as or register using the links below. Or contact us HERE with any additional inquiries about Globally Engaged MSC intensives. 

Information: Vietnam, Spring 2020

Information: Kenya, 9-16 Feb 2020

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