By Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
Our joy, peace and happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, and negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness
We often feel pushed to do what we do not want to do, to say what we do not want to say. This energy is called ‘negative habit energy’. It is important that we recognize that energy in us. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this, or say that, we will damage our relationship. Yet we still say it or do it. Why? Because it’s stronger than we are, we say. That is why the practice aims at liberation from that habit energy.
In the Present
We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the here and the now. We are not capable of being free, in order to touch life deeply in this very moment. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible now, that they may be possible in the future. That is why you take all your energies to run there.
The Buddha said: “Don’t get caught in the past, because the past is gone. Don’t get upset about the future, because the future is not yet here. There is only one moment for you to be alive, and that is the present moment. Go back to the present moment and live this moment deeply, and you’ll be free.”
The Buddha said: drsta dharma sukha vihari—living happily in the present moment is the practice. How to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in our previous lives. Stop running, stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first you have to recognize that there is such an energy in yourself that is always pushing.
Yesterday I had breakfast with two novice monks. I said to them: “Do you think there is something more wonderful than just sitting together and having our breakfast?” One novice offered me a broad smile. He understood, not only my statement but the reality that happiness was real, because we were capable of being together, recognizing the true presence of each other. But many of us, while having our breakfast, are not really there. We have a lot of projects, worries, anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.
The Buddha is always sitting on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus. Your body and your mind together, you are free from all worries, regrets, anger. Though each of us during sitting meditation has a cushion, the cushion can be hell or heaven. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower. Sitting is not like hard labor; it is the enjoyment of stability, peace, of dwelling in the present moment.
Energy for Transformation
Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend on our practice of recognizing and transforming habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, and negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of energy that helps us be aware of what is going on. Therefore, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I will take good care of you.” In recognizing it as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight it, because that habit energy is you, and you should not fight yourself.
You have to generate the energy of mindfulness, which is also you, to do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognise it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and just embrace that negative energy. After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed, to manifest later. You have to be alert.
Every time negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will lose a little of its strength. The same is true for other mental formations: fear, anguish, anxiety, and despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time a seed is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If we don’t know how to take care of it, it will push us to do or say things that will damage us and the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness, to recognize it, to embrace it, is the practice. And the practice should be done in a tender, nonviolent way.
Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To meditate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield, the right fighting the wrong, the positive fighting the negative. Based on the insight of non-duality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mindfulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child; it always brings a positive effect.
The lower part of our consciousness is the ‘store’ consciousness. The upper part is mind consciousness. In the soil of the store consciousness, many seeds are stored, positive and negative. Every time a seed is touched or watered, it will manifest in the mind consciousness as a zone of energy.
People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow and anguish to overwhelm them. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. It’s okay to suffer, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and consciousness there are positive elements that we can call on to protect ourselves and take good care of the negative things manifesting in us.
What we usually do is call on the seed of mindfulness to manifest also as a zone of energy. This energy has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving suffering, calming and also transforming. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small.
Living in Awareness
Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water, and you know you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. When you breathe in, and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing. You don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness. That is most important in a Buddhist practice centre: you do everything mindfully, because you need that energy for your transformation and healing.
For those of us who practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store consciousness becomes very strong; and any time we call on it for help, it will be ready, just like the mother who, although working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when it cries. So our mindfulness is there so that we may recognize, because mindfulness is defined first of all as the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment.
I walk mindfully, I make steps mindfully, and I know that I am making mindful steps. I am concentrated in the walking. Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentration. If you are concentrated, life is deep, and you can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You live deeply each moment of your daily life, and mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.
I’d like to define mindfulness as the practice of being there, body and mind united. You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and space of your appointment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life, which is serious. So learning how to go back to the present moment, to be fully present, is the beginning of meditation. When you contemplate the rising moon, if you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the moon is not for you. If you know mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body, and you can make yourself fully present and alive. Now the moon will be for you.
Mindfulness helps your stopping to be realized. You stop running because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy. And when you touch something beautiful, with mindfulness, it becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. There are elements within us and around us that have not gone wrong. And the first task of meditators is to be able to recognize these positive elements, because they have the power of nourishing and healing.
If you are a psychotherapist, you might like to try this: instead of talking about what goes wrong, you invite your client to think of what does not. Before a surgery, a doctor will see whether that person has enough strength to withstand surgery. If the person is too weak, the doctor will try to strengthen him first. We do the same thing here. If that person suffers so much, we should not begin by talking about what is wrong.
Our body and our consciousness are like a garden: there may be many trees dying, but that does not mean the whole garden is dead. Maybe many trees are still vigorous, beautiful. That is why you should not allow the negative to overwhelm. Mindfulness is the energy we generate, and first of all we want that energy to help us get in touch with the positive things—joy and happiness.
In the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, six of the 16 exercises of mindful breathing are to help us contact the positive aspects of life. That is why meditation can be described as nourishment. We can use every moment of our daily lives to generate more energy of mindfulness.
In Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hanh’s community), you will see that people in the kitchen are practicing. That group knows that it is possible to make cooking into a practice, and the motivation is love, and willingness to practice. Before starting, they offer incense, and do some chanting, so that they will remember that the whole process is a practice. They don’t talk. They have to communicate to coordinate the work, but they do it mindfully.
From time to time I will go to the kitchen, and if I see someone doing something like cutting carrots, I will stop and contemplate, and look. I will stay there for a number of seconds, breathing in and breathing out, and my presence is sometimes helpful. That person might be losing himself in thinking, but with me standing there, he will come back to mindful carrot cutting. Sometimes I may ask: “My dear friend, what are you doing?” Usually the person will look up and smile, and that is enough. Because they know that my question does not necessitate an answer. And if you were to say: “I am cutting carrots,” that would be the worst answer, because I see you cutting carrots. My question is: “Are you enjoying it as a practice?” So the presence of a dharma brother or sister is to help you go back to the here and the now and enjoy your practice of being mindful.
While you do these things, you realize stopping. While cutting the carrot, please don’t try to think of the dharma talk, just cut the carrot in the best way that you can, becoming one with the carrot, with the cutting. Live deeply that moment of carrot cutting. It is as important as sitting meditation, or giving a dharma talk. If you can cultivate concentration, and if you can get the insight you need to liberate yourself from suffering, that is because you know how to cut your carrots.
One thing at a time, do it deeply. There are many wonders of life available in the here and the now, and without mindfulness we would not know how to profit from them. It is like my eyes. Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes. That is an exercise: mindfulness of eyes, smiling to eyes. When you embrace your eyes with your mindfulness you recognize that you have eyes, still in good condition. You need only to open them to enter the paradise of colors and forms.
Sit on the grass and just open your eyes. The blue sky is for you. The white clouds are for you, the trees, the children, the grass, and the loving face of your beloved one. We may think that everything in us goes wrong, but that is not true. There are millions of things in us that have not gone wrong, yet we only place our attention on what goes wrong. That is not wisdom.
The orange is sweet. If you eat the orange in forgetfulness, being caught in your anxiety and sorrow, the orange is not really there. But if you bring your mind and body back together, produce your true presence, and begin to peel the orange, you will see that the orange is a miracle. I have conducted orange meditation sessions where we spent half an hour just eating an orange. And if you can bring the elements of stability and freedom and concentration into it, then eating an orange is a wonderful thing to do. It may be the most important thing to do with your life.
Peel the orange. Smell it. Look at the orange to see the orange blossoms, and the rain and the sun that have gone through the orange blossoms. The orange tree has taken several months to bring this wonder to you. If you don’t have mindfulness, the orange is not something precious; you are not really there, so the orange is not really there. When you are truly there, fully alive, you will become a miracle yourself. In fact, you are no less than a miracle. To be alive, to be still alive, and to be there, is the greatest miracle. But without mindfulness we cannot touch that miracle, and we continue to complain. If you are there, the orange will be there too, and the contact between the two brings true life. Just put a section of the orange into your mouth, close your mouth mindfully, and with mindfulness feel the juice coming out of the orange. Do you have the time to do so? What are you using your time for? Are we using our time to live, or to worry or make plans?
So mindfulness is the energy that helps us to be really there, to touch the wonders of life, for our nourishment and healing. Of course, there are negative things. If you look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come about how that pain has come to be. Insight always liberates us, and there will be no insight if there is no mindfulness and concentration. Every time we embrace our pain with mindfulness, we can bring relief to ourselves.
The more you are mindful, the wonders of life will continue to unfold, to reveal themselves to you. Your enjoyment will grow. That beautiful sunrise, that full moon, that orange, all these things will reveal themselves to you fully if you are truly present, truly alive. As for the negative elements, you don’t have to know the nature of your pain in the beginning. You only have to recognize their existence. You identify and just produce the energy of mindfulness and embrace it. Stay with it, attend to it with all your tenderness, and take good care of your suffering. Don’t try to run away. You run away because you are afraid. You are afraid because you have nothing to protect you and help you. If you know how to enjoy your practice, then the energy of mindfulness in you is strong enough to embrace and recognize that pain.
You also have your sangha, brothers and sisters in the dharma, to support you. If you know that during your suffering, you already have a friend capable of understanding sitting close to you, you will feel much better. You will feel as though you can stand your suffering, you can look at it, you can embrace it, because your friend’s energy, his stability, his freedom are elements that can help you to be a little bit more stable and freer.
I would now like to offer you an exercise of mindful walking. You practice stopping while you are walking. You have never allowed yourself to rest, to relax, and go deeply into your daily life. Learning how to walk is what you can do now.
Walking in walking meditation is just to enjoy walking. Walking and not arriving, that is the technique. Every step brings you home to the here and the now. Your true home is the here and the now, because only in this moment can life be possible. You know where to go; and every in-breath, every out-breath, every step you make should bring you back to that address. Taking one in-breath, one out-breath, you make two beautiful steps, and with every step you say, ‘I have arrived’. That should not be a statement but a practice. You have to arrive in the here and the now, and make a strong determination to stop and not to run anymore. That is why with one in-breath you practice: “I have arrived, I have arrived”… and please don’t just make the statement, you have to really arrive.
Bring all your attention down to the soles of your feet and touch the earth as though you kiss the earth with your feet. Walk as though you imprint your solidity, your freedom, and your peace on the earth. We have to reclaim our liberty. Liberty, emancipation, vimukti, that is the practice—to free ourselves from that negative habit energy.
I have arrived, I am home. Make the Buddha’s insight your own. You are awake; you get the enlightenment that life is available only in the here and the now. That is why you have made a strong determination to go home, which is in the here and the now. Only that insight can help you stop running. You practice arriving with every step you make.
Extracted from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village.
Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist. He conducts retreats on mindful living and is author of books such as Being Peace and Old Path, White Clouds. He lives in Plum Village, a monastic community in France, where he teaches, writes, gardens, and works for refugees worldwide. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 for his peace efforts during the Vietnam War.
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