By Harsaran Bir Kaur Pandey December 2008 The author attends a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh to learn his teachings firsthand and finds that mindfulness is the key which can unlock many doors to our mind Thich Nhat Hanh, also affectionately called ‘Thay’ (pronounced ‘Thai’) is one of the world’s most popular and respected teachers of the Buddhist Zen tradition. He is of Vietnamese origin, but has lived in exile in France for over 30 years. The horrors of the Vietnam war made a deep impression on him, and resulted in the formation of the movement he calls ‘Engaged Buddhism’ – which is about using Buddhist practice to bring about social change. Thay founded Plum Village, a retreat centre near Paris, where he works as a peace activist, poet, writer and teacher. His message – to live with mindfulness and compassion. Thay is a prolific writer and has written over a hundred books, many of which are translated into English. Some of the popular titles include Being Peace, Peace is Every Step, and The Miracle of Mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh holds a global appeal because of the simplicity of his teachings. He is known widely for the practice of mindfulness, which is the theme of his current visit to India. When I got the chance to attend a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, I jumped at the opportunity. I had read a couple of books authored by him, Breathe, for you are alive and The Long Road turns to Joy. I must admit I had been puzzled by their simplicity, and was keen to listen to him in person and to learn from him. For five days, about 400 Delhiites gathered at a ‘mindfulness retreat’ personally guided by Thay. Even at the age of 84, Thay radiates peace and calm and demonstrates a liveliness and vitality of mind and body. There were many things that made a deep impact on me, and have awakened me to myself, and I would like to share these experiences. There were many simple truths, stated simply and yet demonstrated to hold the power of eternal truths. The most important lesson that I learnt was the importance of being mindful and how to achieve it. According to Thay, “Mindfulness is at once simple and profound. It is an art. In the practice of mindfulness, we nurture the ability to see deeply into the nature of things and people, and the fruits are insight, understanding and love.” Thay taught that it is not necessary to become Buddhist. People can retain their own faith and belief. What is important is to aspire to become a ‘Buddha’, or to achieve self-realisation, and become aware of one’s own self and living. For this, the practice of mindfulness is a tool for everybody in our everyday living, especially useful in these troubled times. Thich Nhat HanhWe don’t have to wait for outer gifts and achievements to bring in happiness. All we need to do is to live mindfully, and becomeaware of the many gifts we already have. A key learning was that any individual could practice mindfulness. The amount of sadness, happiness, anger, fear and pain we feel is in our control. It is through practising mindfulness that we can bring calm and peace to our lives. How to describe mindfulness? According to a backgrounder from the Ahimsa Trust, that was instrumental in arranging Thay’s India visit, “Mindfulness is the practice of stopping and becoming aware of what we are thinking and doing. It is the energy of being awake to the present moment. The more mindful we are of our thoughts, speech and actions, the more our level of concentration increases. We are then able to develop insight into the nature of our own suffering and that of others. “The first function of mindfulness is to recognise what is there, positive or negative. The second function of mindfulness is to embrace it and to get deeply in touch with it. The third function is to understand how feelings such as fear and anger are created. This will result in the understanding that anything has the power to heal.” Thay’s teaching reminded us that most of us live life absentmindedly, our minds scattered between several different things at the same time. His lesson was to focus on the present moment, to be fully and totally in the present moment, in everything we do, and to connect our body with the mind. The simplest meditation suddenly became the most powerful. Mindfulness of breathing: There is no mantra needed for this. This meditation is to follow one’s breath. Focus on your in-breath and notice, “I am breathing in”, and when breathing out, notice, “I am breathing out.” Deepen this – while breathing in and out, follow the breath all the way in and out, be aware of your body and be fully relaxed as you breathe. Thay said that at their centre in Plum Village in France they have timed a bell to go off every 15 minutes – and every time the bell rings, everyone stops, and takes three deep breaths in and three breaths out, – to pause and to be with one’s self. We need to do this several times a day, to bring us to mindfulness. I liked Thay’s statement, “With training we can cultivate a habit of being happy – as there is so much to enjoy. We don’t have to wait for outer gifts and achievements to bring in happiness. All we need to do is to live mindfully, and become aware of the many gifts we already have.” We have eyes to see the beautiful blue sky, the glorious colours of the sunrise, the flowers, and the birds. Yet we rarely have time to be in the moment and notice these wonderful things, or to be mindful of the gift of sight. We hear the voice of the beloved, the chirping of the birds, the harmony of music, the gurgling of streams, and the laughter of a child. Yet we rarely have time to be in the moment and enjoy these, or be mindful of the gift of hearing, which many are denied. Thay also said that when you are not present in the moment, you are not truly alive. You are merely carrying around your body and moving from point to point. Thay reminded us of the importance of strengthening ourselves, our roots, to build a strong trunk able to withstand the buffets of storms, strong emotions, or loss. He showed us the ways to strengthen ourselves. A simple way is to breathe strongly through the belly (as in yoga). Hold your hand on your belly and just breathe in and breathe out. Do this when your mind is in turmoil. This helps to bring the turmoil from the head to the belly, is calming, and strengthens the person. Seems too simple? Try it. The walking meditation was an important learning in mindfulness. Thay led the walks and reminded us that we need to connect our footstep and our breathing. We tried internally chanting, “I have arrived (with every in-breath) and ‘I am here” (with every out-breath). Mindful walking meant we become aware of every time our foot touches the earth. It is about ceasing to rush from point to point and enjoying the journey. (Equally, mindful driving would mean being aware of every moment and not getting angry at the red light but using the pause to do mindful breathing in and out, to strengthen ourselves). The location of the retreat, Teen Murti House, had a historic resonance. This is where for 17 years Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru lived and he must have walked down these paths, looked at the same trees, and heard the bird song. We were close to nature here. In the evenings we savoured the dew-soaked lawns, the full moon, the smell of the earthy incense keeping the mosquitoes at bay; and in the afternoons, we experienced meditating and discussing with dharma groups in the dappled sunshine under majestic trees, many of which had been standing as sentinels for decades. Our walking meditation was a magical experience – several hundreds following Thay’s footsteps, walking slowly and mindfully in deep, silent enjoyment of the moment. I must admit that on the first night during the walking meditation, I allowed my fear of the dark to overshadow my enthusiasm. I kept my shoes on and trod carefully, mindful but not relaxed. On the second evening, I walked at my own pace, barefoot, soaking in the early dew on the grass, fully absorbed in the moment, wrapped in the joy of walking, breathing and being totally one with the environment. Eating meditation: Tea time and lunch time were devoted to eating meditation. Led by the monks and the nuns, each of us ate mindfully. We would look at the item of food, smell it and bite into it joyfully, and chew slowly with full attention. The clay ‘kulhar’ (cup) was held in both hands as we sipped slowly and tasted the tea. The highlight was the ‘apple meditation’. Participants reported the joy of smelling and tasting the apple as they bit into it. One gentleman was reminded of his honeymoon in the mountains 20 years ago, when he and wife ate fresh apples off the trees, another reported that while she did not normally like apples, in the exercise, she had discovered a great liking as she bit into the apple. Thay says, “By being mindful you can bring in moments of joy many times into your life, each day, because so many conditions of happiness are available to each of us.” Two other practices that I found particularly powerful were the ‘Touching the earth meditation’ and the ‘Beginning anew exercise’. Sister Chan Khong, one of the senior-most nuns who has worked with Thay since she was a young girl, led the ‘Touching the earth meditation’. A session of deep meditation under the trees preceded the earth meditation. Sister Khong reminded us that each of us carries, in every cell of our body, our mother, our father, our grandparents and all our forefathers. We are them and they are alive in us. We carry their strengths, their virtues and gifts, but we also carry their negative trai
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