By Harsaran Bir Kaur Pandey
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.
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 traits and habits. She asked us to actively take on their virtues, and shed their shortcomings.
We stood straight, and focussed on our first root – our blood family. Sister Khong softly said, “Feel your mother and father, grandparents and other ancestors alive in you. Feel your mother reborn in you when she was young and vibrant. Feel the freshness of her skin on your skin, your eyes shining the light of love and support in your mother’s eyes, and feel her love, care and generosity. Feel your father young, dynamic, alive in you, feel him running in your veins, the dynamism, vitality, his talent born in your every cell. Feel that your smart brain is because you have his brain in yours. Your aspiration to do great things reflects his aspiration to greatness.” Similarly, we recalled our grandparents and other ancestors.
Then we lay down on the abdomen, hugging the earth and recalling their negative habits poured these on the earth to absorb. Standing up we said: “I am not a tiny being; I am all of these beings, who are in me. I have their strength in me.”
Next we remembered our land ancestors and recalled that land and all those people – the good things and the bad. Uphold the good, and pour the terrible things that the land ancestors have done, into the earth.
The third step was to remember your spiritual ancestors, those who have influenced your spiritual being, your religion, and your teachers, those who have made you profound. Uphold the good; pour out any negative actions or traits onto the earth.
A final step was to think of those who have harmed you, personally or as a citizen of the earth. Hug the earth and send them love and kindness – because the only way to dissipate their hate, anger and wish to terrorise others is through love and kindness.
Practice of this was recommended for 21 days.
This is an exercise about improving inter-personal relationships and resolving conflict. We are often victims of wrong perceptions. To keep communication alive with those we share our lives, we should help each other to be free from wrong perceptions, which can be at the root of fear, anger, jealousy and despair. Without reconciliation, we cannot deepen our understanding and can only cause more suffering. We need to regularly renew our relationship with those we love – this is for couples, parents and children, families, and colleagues and staff. We need to better understand each other for which we need to talk to each other and to listen deeply to each other.
We need to practise deep listening with compassion. We need to begin by listening to our own sufferings, and then only can we listen to another’s suffering. We must learn to water only the positive seeds by being mindful and acknowledge the good, the talents in ourselves and in the other person and not the negative seeds.
In ‘Beginning anew exercise’, there are three steps. The monk invited a couple to the stage, or a parent and child. Eventually two couples and a mother and daughter participated in a public demonstration of beginning anew.
Each person makes three points to cover the following, and then the other person does the same. Each speaks with compassion while the other offers deep listening.
• The first step is to say something to the partner, which recognises the good qualities in the other person. The speaker has to be honest and not just make up these points.
• The second step is to express regret for things the speaker has done or said that might have caused pain. This is an act of humility and requires that we let go our pain and our pride.
• The third step is to talk about your own suffering and hurt and to ask for help. This is done mindfully, spoken gently in a manner such that the other person is willing to listen and receive our words. Since misperceptions are the basis of all strife, it is possible the other person does not know how hurt we feel, and if we keep a socially correct face and yet are angry within, the hurt can only grow. We ask the other person to help us to understand why he has spoken or acted as he has, to cause us so much pain.
We watched in pin drop silence and deep emotion as each of the pairs held a flower in their hand and gently addressed their partner. Finally, each pair was asked to stand and do a hugging meditation. With every breath, each recognised that they were embracing their loved one. With the next breath, the person says to herself/himself: “One day he/she will no longer be here with me. I am happy that I am holding him/her now and can fully give my love.”
Thay reminded us that the sorrows of age, ill-health, loss of things and people we love and finally our own death is inevitable. The only counter to such sorrow is to live each moment fully and with compassion, so that when we lose any of these gifts, there are no regrets.
Over the five days, Thay and his companions offered many nuggets of wisdom:
The need for mindful consumption: Thay reminded us that all that we consume with our senses, could be toxic. Too much violence on television, too much dehumanising or negativity in the news programmes or news magazines, conversations that pour out negativity and hate, all of these are toxic and can leave layers of residue. Thay said that one of the reasons for so much negative action in the world is because so many of us are constantly consuming toxic materials. Just as every additional glass of alcohol reduces the person’s goodness and intentions, similarly every toxic input stays with us for several days – the visual images, the resonance of the spoken word, the residue of nihilism, all accumulate into fear, anger and despair. This leads to terrorism in the world, violence in the home and streets and too often, the despair leads to suicide – particularly in the young who haven’t been taught to withstand strong emotions.
Learning to handle painful feelings and suffering: Do not magnify the pain – mindfulness can help you keep it in the right proportion. Mindfulness recognises the energy of anger, fear and despair as they are generated and with every in-breath and out-breath you can deal with it.
We can strengthen our roots: with deep yogic breathing, with trying to move our stress and anger from our head, down to the abdomen by exercising deep breathing, hand on abdomen, feeling each breath going in and out. In 10 to 15 minutes, you can feel the emotion reduced in dimension. However, at the same time we have to reduce our exposure to further and continuous assault of our senses by mindful consumption. I suddenly became conscious of the amount of blood and gore I was watching in some of the TV programmes and now frequently switch off the box.
On death: Thay teaches that although we believe that before birth we were no one and that after death we cease to exist, in fact, ‘birth and death are both processes of continuation. Our true nature is ‘no birth and no death’; from something, you can never become nothing. The nature of life – nothing is going to die – will continue in one form or other. So death does not end a person, they are still there in the new manifestation.
Like the cloud – it never ends, but changes to water, or snow, sleet or vapour.
Through mindful breathing you can be enlightened, because you know then you are alive. Enlightenment should be a daily thing and with enlightenment, we can change our karma. Enlightenment does not need a special day or a gestation period. Mindfulness brings enlightenment, moment to moment, and this is the art of living. With enlightenment, we can bring positive change.
For me, the most important lessons are to live mindfully, and to give myself ‘free time’ every day (free from the phone, TV, conversation, people) to renew myself, by mindful walking, meditating, healing and sustaining myself.
Neera Varma who is on the spiritual path found the retreat very useful, as the principles are very basic, simple yet deep and practical. She feels she can practice these right away with positive results. According to her, “The most beautiful thing that Thay said was if you are lost in a jungle and you see the “North Star” and get an idea of direction, you don’t have to reach “North Star”, you have to go in that direction to get out of the jungle. So this practice is (about)the direction, start walking in the right direction to get on track, to get in touch and to stay in touch.”
At the conclusion of the retreat, we did not want Thay to go. The Sangha members started to sing:
“No coming, no going,
No after, no before
I hold you close to me
I release you to be so free
Because I am in you and you are in me.”
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