“This is what we teach, this is what we practice”: Recording “Walking Meditation” with Nguyen Anh-Huong, for Many Voices

Last week I was in the studio with David Frenette, recording a program on Centering Prayer Meditations. David lives in Boulder, and so when some expected and unexpected situations arose during our recording, we had lots of options if we needed them, which we mostly didn’t.

It’s actually not uncommon to be recording when something unexpected happens. I found myself in one of those unexpected situations in Fairfax, Virginia in 2006, when I’d booked three days in a local studio to record Nguyen Anh-Huong for a book and CD on walking meditation. Her uncle, Thich Nhat Hanh, would contribute a video interview and a demonstration of walking meditation on an accompanying DVD.

When she was 18 years old, Anh-Huong arrived in the U.S. as a Vietnamese boat refugee. A year later, she founded the Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam, a non-profit organization that helps to provide food, shelter, and schooling for orphans and poor children. Educated in the U.S., she worked as a biochemist until 1993. In 1992, Anh-Huong and her husband Thu became two of the first students ordained as dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh. She and Thu pledged the rest of their lives to their work as the cofounders and co-primary teachers at the Mindfulness Practice Center in Fairfax.

We met in the studio on the first morning of recording. I prefer to meet a new author for dinner the night before a recording, but Anh-Huong is a busy woman. She and her husband were runningthe Mindfulness Practice Center, and she was a traditional Vietnamese wife, as well as the primary caregiver for their then pre-teen son. She was also the legal guardian for her mother, who did not speak English and lived with them as well.

In person, Anh-Huong was small and deferential, and everyone made themselves small and deferential in return. The tattooed studio engineer even bowed to her when she admired his technical expertise, which she called “electrical magic.” I stayed out of her way, and even her husband—who was shorter than I am and still towered above her—followed a polite distance behind her.

It took some time to get her settled on a cushion on the floor of the studio. It turned out that the only spot where I could see her from the control room while she was sitting on the floor was in the farthest corner of the room, where there wasn’t enough light for her to read her notes. But tech guys love a challenge, and soon her notes were safely but complicatedly bathed in light.

Then, knowing that every shift of her body was going to be audible, we covered her cushion with a flannel blanket. And I had questions about the physical challenge of sitting unsupported on the floor for up to 60 minutes at a time. If she was going to be moving around, I’d rather use a lapel mic, even though it wouldn’t get as good a sound. “But,” Anh-Huong insisted, “this is how I teach. I can talk for as long as two hours at a time like this.”

Anh-Houng is soft-spoken and she was a little intimidated by the microphone, so it took longer than usual to find the right microphone and get it in the right position. By the time we were ready to record, it was already early afternoon, so I suggested we begin with something easy, like one of the guided meditations.

Until I hit “Record” with a first-time author, I have no idea what to expect, but starting with a guided meditation also played to Anh-Huong’s strengths. There was genuine compassion and concern audible in her warmly accented voice. She even spoke a little bent over, like a mother trying to soothe a sickly child in her lap.

Then, after she finished the first meditation, she did just as I taught her—she waited for a moment after her last word, then shifted in her seat, coughed to clear her throat, took a sip of green tea, replaced the cup, turned the page of her notes, took a deep breath, waited a moment and then began the next guided meditation without losing focus or her sense of presence—and I could feel myself relax. It was going to be alright. She was going to be great.

The first day is always the hardest for a new author. You can describe the process in great detail, but no one can really imagine what it’s actually like or prepare for it properly until they have some experience in the studio. That’s why I sometimes call an early halt on a successful first day’s recording when things are going better than expected. At first, they’re often disappointed, but most of my first-time authors don’t realize how exhausted they are until they’re back in their rooms and the adrenaline wears off. And when it does, they’ll begin preparing for the next day’s recording, and when they do they’ll be imagining themselves talking into a microphone in the studio. That’s when the most useful preparation occurs.

So, I called it a day and they agreed to relax for the night, have a good meal, do something fun, reward themselves, celebrate the day. I reminded them that three hours ago they had never done anything like this and now I’m telling them that they can go home early. “And it couldn’t have gone better! And remember,” I laughed, “in your second language!” And we high-fived and waved goodbye and drove off in opposite directions.

In the morning I got a phone call from Thu. Anh-Huong’s mother had been admitted to the hospital the night before, and Anh-Huong is her mother’s translator and legal guardian, so she was at her side until very late. There was no need to worry as it appeared to be a false alarm, and her mother was resting comfortably and was only admitted for observation, but Anh-Huong did not get to bed until after 4 am. Thu was calling to ask if they could arrive at the studio a little later, like 10 am or maybe 10:30?

“But that’s not enough time. She needs to sleep. We’re not in a hurry. We can start much later.”

“We have it all arranged already. Anh-Huong is sleeping while I make this call. Our mother is safe and well taken care of, and I will assist her when Anh-Huong is in the studio, so she will not be alone for more than an hour or two. I will get our son ready for school and will pick him up when he gets out of school. I will have breakfast ready and Anh-Huong will eat it in the car on the way to the studio. I will take a nap later today when she comes home following the recording.”

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We don’t need to record this morning. We have another whole day in the studio and we can get the studio to stay open late tonight, I’m sure. Anh-Huong will be worried about her mother, she needs to sleep, we won’t get a good recording today. Let’s agree to postpone today’s recording until things clear up.”

“But,” Thu said. “our mother is fine. She is comfortable. Anh-Huong will be disappointed if she cannot record today. She is ready. All she needs is additional hour or two of sleep and she will be fine.”

“Thu, I feel very good about yesterday’s recording but I don’t feel good about today’s recording at all. There’s new information that we didn’t have when we made our plans up out of thin air. If we knew that Anh-Huong’s mother was going to be admitted to the hospital last night, we wouldn’t have scheduled a 10:30 or 11:00 am recording. I think we have more options than you realize, and most of them are better than postponing this morning’s recording by an hour or two. I need to insist here. It doesn’t matter when we record. But we need Anh-Huong at her best.”

“But this is what we teach, this is what we practice. Situations like these are opportunities to practice what we preach about embracing whatever happens with equanimity. This is not unusual for us. If we thought it was more important for Anh-Hung to be with her mother, we would insist upon it. But Anh-Huong very much wants to record today. It will be a refuge for her. Teaching these practices is exactly what she needs to do.”

Even I didn’t know what I was going to say next. “Okay, but with one condition. I don’t want to see you until noon or even one, after she wakes up on her own and has eaten. That’ll give us plenty of time for what we need to get done today. Just give me a call when you’re leaving and I’ll meet you at the studio. And no eating in the car. Okay?”

We were in the studio by 11:30. First, Anh-Huong insisted on explaining and apologizing for her lateness, even though it was against my wishes that she was there at all. Then, when her apology was over, her demeanor changed completely and she was all business. She settled in her spot and quietly awaited direction. On the second morning, the crew goes through set-up and testing in one tenth the time, and almost too quickly we were ready to record.

During the sound-check, trying to find the sweet spot we had the day before, Anh-Huong sounded tired and subdued and my heart sank. But when she settled into the day’s first guided meditation, I closed my eyes and felt the same relief I’d felt the day before. But today I could hear even more than the compassionate voice of a mother trying to soothe a sickly child, I could also hear the voice of a loving daughter who understands what is going on and is translating for her frightened mother the instructions she will need when it’s time to let go.

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