Brother Minh Niệm shares his wisdom on the beauty of making mistakes, loving ourselves by saying no, and healing perfectionism through creativity.
25 minute read (and worth every second!)
We sat down with Brother Minh Niệm (Br. Mindfulness) to talk about ancestry and what he inherited from his parents and ancestors. If you have ever identified as a perfectionist or as someone who allows ‘chronic responsibility’ to get in the way of saying no, then allow our Brother’s words to sink deeply into the garden of your heart. Brother Minh Niệm reminds us to make mistakes, get our hands dirty, and dive into things we’re curious about.
If you have found yourself struggling, striving for a goal, or needing to have things a certain way…you may find peace in this interview.
Br. Minh Niệm shares his wisdom on the beauty of making mistakes, loving ourselves by saying no, and healing perfectionism through painting and drawing. You can read or listen to the full interview below.
Why is ancestry important to you?
BR. MINH NIEM: “It’s an interesting question for me, because I think for most of my life, it really wasn’t. I didn’t think about it. Not for any particular reason. It wasn’t in my view.
It wasn’t really until I came here that I started to look into that question of ancestry and who are my ancestors and what does that mean to me and why is it important.
And I think the entry point into that for me was this practice. We do earth touchings in the morning after sitting meditation. Every morning I would touch the earth and I would contemplate my blood ancestors, my family, my spiritual ancestors and the land ancestors. And that was a point of real deep looking for me– what did that mean to have ancestors.
At this point of my practice, ancestry is a door to seeing myself more clearly.
In our culture, [specifically] American culture, there is this philosophy that says you are an individual and you are supposed to stand alone and be this independent figure in the world.
And there are some good parts to that, but it can also be lonely and alienating.
And what I have come to through this way of practicing, of looking at my ancestors, not just my blood ancestors, but looking at this whole stream of ancestors, is that I am not alone.
I am so much greater than an individual.
All these things that I think of as me, they all come from somewhere. All the wholesome qualities that I might like to hold up and be very happy about and all the unwholesome qualities, they all come from this very deep stream.
I have found that that way of looking, that kind of practice is very freeing. In some sense, it removes some pressure to be this individual.
I am not an individual. I am a whole stream.
At this point, I feel very deeply in touch with this practice of taking refuge in my ancestors.
Whenever I am going to do something in the sangha that feels difficult, or anything where I am put out in front where everybody is looking at me, I find some way to take refuge before I go and do that thing.
When I do the morning chant for the sangha and the whole sangha is in sitting meditation, before I go and do the chant, I touch the earth and I ask permission of my ancestors to give the chant.
And I ask them to support me and to be there.
When I give the chant in the morning, I don’t give the chant. My ancestors give the chant.
I am just here. I am just part of the flow. And I find that to be very freeing. It is not all on me and it is not all about me. And that is what is important about that to me.
What are some of the gifts and traits that you have received from your parents?
BR. MINH NIEM: “I think I have been very lucky. I received a lot of really good things from my parents.
One thing that jumps out at me right away, something that I think has been really important in my life, is that my parents always emphasized that it was okay to make mistakes.
That has been so helpful for me throughout the years because I see the way that I learn is through making many, many mistakes. And with my parents, there has always been this openness and this embrace.
At many points throughout my life I was in some sort of difficult period and things were not going the way I would wish, I would take a wrong turn somewhere, and it was always that knowing that…
mistakes are not an obstacle, they are an opportunity.
That is how I get to grow, that is how I get to learn. And here in the sangha I feel it is still the same for me. Having that permission to make mistakes that I get from my parents, that it is okay and that it is an opportunity, helps me a lot in my practice.
Because in my practice I make mistakes for sure. I have difficulties.
And when I have difficulties I come back to the idea that I have had difficulties before and I know it is going to be okay because on the other side of this difficulty there is something for me to learn.
I think my parents were teaching me no mud, no lotus without using the words. They were saying, the mud is okay, the mud is good.
The mud is what you are going to grow out of.
So don’t get angry at the mud. Just see how you can use that to move forward.
There is another trait of my parents that I treasure very highly, which is that they are very kind people, both in their own way. In my parents there is a lot of deep caring.
I remember when I was growing up I would go with my dad to the grocery store. And when I went with my dad to the grocery store, we would buy the groceries but it seemed like not the point because my dad would go to every employee in the grocery store and he knew everyone on a first name basis.
And that was his opportunity to go around and check in on people and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing? How are things? Are you okay?’
And not in a surface level sort of way but in this very deep way; he really tries to practice to love everyone.
My mom is the same. My mom is an expert builder of harmony.
She has this way of taking people who have different backgrounds and different objectives and pulling them together in a way to build stuff, to build teams…I don’t know that she thinks about it as building community but that is what she does.
My mom is a community builder and she does it very naturally and skillfully.
One of the things that was really unique in my upbringing was conversation at the dinner table, where we brought up questions like: what’s going on with people and how can we help facilitate more harmony? How can we bring more kindness into people’s lives? How can we do these sorts of things?
And I see that that has infused itself in my life. I think I am here in large part because that is the way I grew up. Those were the priorities in my house.
And there is one other big thing – my parents both found Thay quite early on and they introduced me to Thay at a pretty young age.
It is not just that they introduced me to the practice and to Thay but that they had the wisdom to do it in such a way where it was never being pushed on me.
The first time we came, they said, “hey we are going to go to this monastery and we are going to see this monk and he is going to give a talk, do you want to come?”
And I just said yes and I came. And that was here in this hall in 2004.
I don’t know what the talk was about because it was in Vietnamese and the translation system broke which was very funny for me because later as a monastic I worked the sound system so I know how hard it is to get that translation system to work. [laughs]
But I just remember Thay’s energy and it made such a big impact on me. And for the rest of my life, any time I am having some sort of difficulty I come back to that experience.
My parents taught me that there is a refuge. They are a refuge for me but also the sangha is a refuge for me.
Their openness and lack of pushing. Their idea that everybody figures it out in their own time. These qualities have been so important for my life and the way I interact with other people because we all go through difficulties and we all need space to figure out those difficulties.
You cannot really help people when you are trying to get to an outcome. You have to just plant seeds; plant good seeds and let them sprout wherever they may.
I think it is that kind of openness that I get from my parents that I feel so grateful for. That is just such a blessing in my life.
If someone grew up in an environment where mistakes were not okay, what would you tell them?
BR. MINH NIEM: “In that kind of environment, there are reasons why for some people there is this feeling that mistakes are not okay. There are reasons why they pass those down onto their children.
My parents, the reason why it was so important for them to transmit to me that it was okay to make mistakes was because they grew up in an environment where it was not okay to make mistakes.
It is because their parents were also going through things that were very difficult and in some cases very dangerous.
I think if you are in that sort of environment and somebody is telling you it is not okay to make mistakes, one part of it is to, if you can, to have some understanding of this person that is giving you this message.
They are also a stream. They have ancestors and those ancestors went through stuff. They are just doing their best. This feeling that you cannot make mistakes, comes from somewhere. It comes from a place of very deep suffering.
Sometimes people cannot see the way out of that suffering. It is so deeply ingrained over generations.
The idea that it is okay to make mistakes is unfathomable. When I practice with this, I think about my grandparents and their parents and the things that they went through. I know that is very difficult. I have compassion for them. I know that when I can practice in this way, when I can say it is okay, it is not just okay for me, it is okay for them too.
They did not have the freedom and the space to make mistakes. Maybe if they made mistakes, there were really real consequences. Bad things would happen. But I am in a safe place. I can make mistakes. When I let myself transform that feeling, because that is still in me, I still feel that fear from my ancestors. But I get to transform it. That is very beautiful. I know I am taking care of that for them.
If you can, look deeply and have understanding. It is not about you. When somebody is telling you it is not okay, it is not about you. It is because they also grew up in that situation.
I think the other thing is, you have to practice to love yourself. That environment where mistakes are not okay is an environment where nothing is ever good enough. When that is the message, it is very hard to take care of yourself and to love yourself.
You are always trying to achieve your way out or to make everything safe, or to check off all the boxes, or whatever it is. The thing that is lacking is love for yourself. It has to start there.
When you love and you understand yourself, then you are able to love and understand your parents, or whoever it is. Then you can love and understand your ancestors. But it has got to come here first.
If [love is] not here, it is not anywhere. Not that that makes it easy. It doesn’t make it easy. But I think that is it. That is the way.
You have got to start by loving yourself.”
Are there any other difficulties or challenges that you have especially been grappling with lately?
BR. MINH NHIEM: “Yes, there are always challenges. There are always things I am grappling with. One that is pretty consistent comes from the same place; that fear of the need to get everything right. My parents both got that in different ways. But I first noticed this in myself. And then when I noticed it in myself, I saw very clearly that it is in my parents. And I see where this comes from.
I think of it as – we have a problem with chronic responsibility.
When you have this fear about getting everything right, when there is this thing coming from your ancestors, we are not getting stuff right, it is dangerous. You make sure to get everything right. And my parents are the most responsible people in the world.
They always show up, they always show up on time, they are always prepared, they have always got everything in order. They are on it. And I have also got that in me.
And one of the things that has taken me some time to learn and that I am still practicing with, is sometimes these traits that we have, we see that this is good, I am a very responsible person. Out there in the world, it is very desirable. That gets you jobs, that makes you money. It is a source of pride.
But when you look really deeply, you see some of these traits actually come from a place of very deep suffering.
It has been a practice for me to see that a lot of the time, my tendency towards responsibility in the community is coming from this place of trying to take care of that fear. Not knowing how to take care of it. The responsibility is a way to stay safe.
Having projects and always looking into the future and seeing what is going to go wrong, how is it going to go wrong, and how can I plan for it…that it is actually this way of trying to create some sense of security. It does not help.
It does not help because you are never going to plan your way out of everything.
You can not create safety really that way. You can create a sense of safety, but you are always seeking.
So when I see in myself this need to take on whatever the task is, or to take care of people, or I am thinking about what is going to happen next, and I am planning ahead and all of these things…it is because I am still trying to create some sense of safety in this way.
And it is very subtle. It is difficult for me to take a step back and say, actually I need to not do these things. Because it is coming from the wrong place.
Something I am learning to practice within the sangha is, I have all these skills and it is great, but I am trying to deploy these skills when I am doing them from a place of security.
And when I am really just helping people, because the opportunity is there, because I can.
But when I see that I am actually coming from the seat of fear and I want to deploy my skills because it makes me feel more secure, then I have to say no.
That is something I am working with, which I find very challenging to work with, is saying no. Because when I say no, all these things come up.
There is the, ‘something is going to go wrong, something bad is going to happen if I say no.’ But also, ‘what are people going to think about me?’ Is anybody going to love me and care about me if I say no? If I do not show up to everything, if I do not do all the stuff all the time, if I say no, what will happen to me?’
That is something I have been working with for a while, but it is very alive in me.
What has been beautiful for me in the sangha is, actually I see my siblings want me to say no.
There is this fear that everybody is going to not love me if I do not do all the things, but it is just me. They love me anyway. They love me for who I am. It is not about the things that I do.
I see that I do not care about myself as much as I care about other people. I put myself second a lot. And so I am trying to care for myself the way other people care about me.
And that has been very fruitful for me because many people are just telling me to slow down. It is okay. I can trust that love is still going to be there.
And letting myself feel it, letting myself touch that care…that helps me a lot, but it comes up everyday. Everyday working with these feelings and finding security in myself and letting myself feel secure, not having it be about the things that I do.
I have other difficulties too, but I do not know how much time you have. I could go on for a long time.”
What is something that people do not know about you or might be surprised to hear about you?
BR MINH NIEM:
“I always feel like this is kind of a difficult question for me. I am sort of an open book, very kind of plain, simple life kind of person.
But I guess one thing that people might not know, might be kind of surprising, is when I was a kid, I was kind of shy. I was very happy to take care of myself and be by myself.
I loved people, but I was very content on my own. And I loved to read. My greatest happiness was to just sit down and read all day.
Other kids growing up, they do something they’re not supposed to do and their punishment is that ‘you can’t go play with your friends. You’ve got to stay inside.’
It never worked on me. My parents could not punish me in that way. There was nothing they could take away from me because I was very content to just hang by myself very easily. In my household, the way my parents figured out the thing they could make me do that I didn’t want to do…
If I did something wrong, my punishment was I had to go make friends with the neighbor’s kids. [laughs]
Oh yeah, that worked on me.
It is funny now because I’ve spent most of my adult life learning how to communicate and learning how to talk to people and how to be in front of groups. I can do all of these things.
But inside of me is still that little kid who just wants to sit down and read a book. I’m very happy that way. It seems to surprise people when they hear that because otherwise I’m very outgoing. Whatever the sangha is doing, wherever people are, I want to be where people are.
I love people. I love to be included. I love to build community. It is my joy. But inside of me is still that kid who just wants to hang out and do my own thing sometimes.”
We’d love to hear more about your creative endeavors with painting and music; what’s been creatively inspiring you lately?
BR. MINH NIEM:
“I came to creative endeavors kind of a little bit later than most people. I started drawing and painting when I was like 24, 25, and I actually came to it as a way to kind of confront something that I was scared of.
It was a way of working with those perfectionist seeds. It was a way of letting myself be okay with making mistakes, but I had no intention of being artistic.
And when I first started, I thought of myself as this very analytically kind of rigorous sort of person. That was how my mind worked. That was what I thought I was.
I thought I was that person who would pick all the things apart and put them back together and be very logical and love puzzles and things like that.
And what I have found in art is that there’s this whole other part of myself that just needs creativity and needs to be intuitive, not logical, but intuitive.
That is healing for me and that gives me balance. When I’m not creating, I don’t have balance in my life. I get too far into the end of planning.
So when I’m doing stuff like sound or the science retreat, those are things that really touch those seeds of rigorous analytical step-by-step.
And those are the very things that actually inspire me to go and be creative and that help to see that if I don’t do the creative things, if I don’t sit down and draw and paint and whatever else, I can’t do the planning things. I can’t do these other things because I get out of balance.
I don’t know how to explain it, but something is lost.
Lately I have been drawing and painting a lot, but I don’t start off with a goal. I don’t have a point that inspires me. I’ll be sitting there, and I’ll just feel like I need this right now. I can feel it moving through my body, this sort of creative influence, and I don’t know what I’m going to create. I have no idea.
I can feel it in my hands, and I just need to sit down, and I just need to start scribbling and sketching and see what happens, and sometimes things manifest.
What is so important about my creative process is that I don’t have a goal, that I’m not laying out a bunch of steps.
And then sometimes after I’ve been playing around with some stuff, I’ll look at something, some idea that has been sort of coming up, and I’ll decide I want to create like a finished version of this.
And then I’ll plan it out a little bit and figure out what it might need to look like in the end.
This painting I brought, that’s from our outing to the Redwoods this year, and I just had a photo of this view from when we were there.
It’s on the Smith River, and I had a bunch of photos, and it was in one of these moments where I just felt suddenly like I needed to create. The only reason I was doing that one was because I liked the curve of the river and the way the trees silhouetted against the sky.
And that was it, and I didn’t know what was going to happen with that, and I drew it probably four times before I decided, okay, this is actually something I want to paint. And it just kind of happened, and it happened very quickly and organically because it was all intuitive.
There was no judgment of it. All the mistakes are okay. I just do it for me, I’m not doing it for anyone else. And then it just manifests.
Something that does inspire me in the sangha is when I get to have conversations with other siblings or lay people who are coming in who are also doing art for the same reasons, coming from a similar mindset, because for many people, to do art this way is very healing.
It gives you a freedom that otherwise you don’t get.
Many of us live in this world that is very rigidly scheduled, and you’ve got to do all the things, and they’ve all got to be on time, and you spend all day writing emails or whatever it is.
To be able to sit down, like when you paint in this way, that part of your mind that is always thinking, the conversational part of your mind, it just goes quiet.
It just goes quiet, and you’re working through a different avenue. And I think the best thing about it is it gives you rest. This part of the brain that is always thinking, Thay called it a radio nonstop thinking, radio NST, and it’s always running.
And one of the first times I learned what it was like to have that quiet down was when I was painting. It’s a meditative experience in and of itself, because that part of your mind is tired. It needs a rest. You’ve got to give it a rest.
And that other part of your mind that’s intuitive and just wants to create, it wants to build, it wants to have this joy, you’ve got to let it do its thing.”
For someone who wants to start painting or creating, but they just can’t seem to access that intuitive, creative part, how does the practice support you in that?
BR. MINH NIEM:
“I don’t know what it would be for everyone else, but I can tell you what it was for me. What was blocking me was my own idea of myself in a lot of ways.
A lot of people who, especially when it comes to drawing, but I think this applies to a lot of artistic endeavors for the first time, look at what other people do, what other people create, and the thinking that comes up is, I am not like that.
‘I cannot do that. And if I cannot do it like that, then I am a failure. I am not that kind of person.’
I think a place where we often get caught is when we think of ourselves as a certain kind of person. ‘I am the kind of person that does XYZ. I am not the kind of person that does ABC.’
And that was what it was for me.
I thought I was not the kind of person who did art. I was the kind of person who did math and built things.
And that was who I was.
When I looked at people who created these really beautiful things that I felt very in touch with, because I sat down, and my first attempt didn’t look like that, I said, ‘I am a failure. I am not that kind of person.’
And I was very lucky; I had a teacher, who I told, ‘I’m coming because I have this terrible fear about drawing and that it’s going to be awful, and I’m awful.’
And he said, ‘it’s okay. We’re going to work through it.’
It took weeks; it helps to have somebody who supports you.
It isn’t about creating some masterpiece. It’s about loving yourself and taking care of yourself and nourishing joy in yourself.
It’s the same way we practice with everything else here. You do it because there’s joy there.
You do it because there’s healing there, because there’s transformation there. Not because you’re going to be the next Picasso or something.
It doesn’t matter.
You do it because it brings joy.
Sometimes people will ask you, why do you go to sitting in the morning? Why are you a monastic? Why do you do these things?
You can give a really long answer, but the simple answer is we do it because we like it.
That’s it. We like it. It works for us. It makes us happy. It helps us get through the difficulties in life.
If somebody is reading this and they’re thinking, how do I get past this block? How do I get past this fear?
I would say, ‘why do you want to do this?’ ‘who do you want to be?’
If you want to be joyful and you want to have happiness in your life, you’ve got to be kind to yourself.
You’ve got to let go of that voice that says you’re this and this is all you’ll ever be.
You’ve got to go and not be afraid of making mistakes. Tell yourself it’s okay.
When that first one is not so good, you just do another one and then another one and then another one and then someday you’re going to look at it and be like, this is actually pretty cool.
You’ve just got to be kind to yourself. There’s no other way.”
[END OF INTERVIEW]
Remember: it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; focus on doing what you love simply because it brings you joy. Allow yourself the grace of making mistakes and let go of the need to “get it right.”
Br. Minh Niệm’s parents had sown the seeds of kindness and compassion for making mistakes. And with that seed, comes a garden of allowance and trial and error that allows him to be more human.
We invite you to plant these seeds of kindness and compassion in your own heart.