How a Buddhist monk with a PhD in Psychology combines Eastern and Western philosophies to find inner peace

Illustration of Dr. Quyen Ho
Dr. Quyen Ho
Illustration credit: Roy Scott

Graduate students are no strangers to stress. In fact, a 2012 study by University of California, Berkeley researchers showed that 45% of graduate students reported having an emotional or stress-related problem in the past year.

Although students can’t make the stresses of life disappear, they can control how they react to them. For Dr. Quyen Ho ’17, a Buddhist monk living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who earned a PhD in Psychology from Walden, the solution may be found by looking inside. Since arriving in the U.S. from a small Vietnamese village in 1994, Ho has dedicated his life to helping others find peace and happiness through mindfulness meditation.

“Mindfulness meditation is a technique through which an individual becomes aware of his or her thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations in the moment without judgment and without reaction,” explains Ho, known to his students as “Thay,” which means spiritual teacher in Vietnamese. “Everyone can practice it.”

Through his studies, Ho seeks to bring Eastern and Western philosophies into harmony. “Modern society makes it very challenging for most people to look inward into themselves,” he says. “I believe people who have a chance to practice mindfulness meditation can achieve a balance between the inner life and outer life.”

After leading a meditation therapy group at a local substance abuse treatment center, Ho was inspired to focus his dissertation on the practice of mindfulness meditation by substance-dependent individuals. “The more they practice and reflect on themselves, the more they see that the value of their lives does not depend on their feelings, emotions, and perceptions. It is more than that. They find the real meaning of their lives through looking beyond the challenges they have been experiencing,” he says.

“Based on their self-reported accounts, they gained more inner peace, self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-regulation. That’s improving their coping skills,” Ho continues. “The more they practice, the more they benefit.”

Ho leads groups of 60 to 75 people in meditation each week at the Baton Rouge Tam Bao Temple, but incorporating mindfulness into day-to-day routines can be much simpler.

He says that normal moments in each day, such as driving or eating lunch, can be opportunities for reflection. “I call it informal meditation, informal mindfulness,” Ho says. “In daily life, whenever you’re doing something, be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. For example, when you’re eating, just focus on enjoying what you eat. Put your cell phone away. Put your book away. Turn off the television. Just be with yourself.”

Ho uses mindfulness to cope with stresses in his own life, whether completing assignments on time as a student or dealing with unexpected duties as a monk. “We have to learn how to accept stress at a reasonable level. I don’t expect zero stress—that’s unrealistic,” he says.

But when thoughts of his dissertation made him feel overwhelmed, he says, “I would take a deep breath, smile, and maintain positive thinking despite how challenging it was, thinking, ‘I will finish this dissertation research at the right time.’”

His unique background has allowed him—as a spiritual leader, therapist, and teacher—to help others find inner peace. “I have the opportunity to contribute to the community,” Ho says. “On a personal level, I want to set a good example for my nephews and nieces as well as for the next generation to invest more energy and time into their education. If they focus on themselves, they may discover amazing potential.”

— Rebecca Kirkman

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