I am honored to have been among the group of people gathered at The Beacon Theater in New York on Friday night to hear Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh speak about mindfulness, peace, compassion, joy and happiness, and how to achieve it in everyday life. The following day he led a group of people in a day of mindfulness, including a mindfulness peace walk around a busy New York City block to prove that mindfulness and peace can be found anywhere, at any time.
When I first entered the theater on Friday night, a screen showed an artwork of calligraphy done by Thich Nhat Hanh with the words, “Peace in oneself, Peace in the world,” and as the audience awaited his arrival, followers of his led the group in the practice of mindfulness mediation.
Once he arrived, the monks on stage sang and chanted in a way that not only brought you into the present moment, but relaxed every part of your body and mind. Before they began, Thich Nhat Hanh told the audience “the collective energy of mindfulness generated by the chanting will penetrate every cell in our body, and we will feel the stress, anger and pain in our heart relieved.” In essence, the monks created in the audience, what each of us can create in any moment we chose to practice mindfulness.
“I view humanity as a garden and each of us a flower,” said Hanh. “To me, peace and compassion are the two most beautiful flowers to contemplate. We do have the seeds of compassion and peace within us and if we know how . . . we can cause them to grow and bring forth flowers.”
The way to grow these seeds is through mindfulness, he explained, which brings us into the present moment – the here and now – and can be done during any activity, whether simply breathing, walking or even drinking a cup of tea.
“The past is already gone and the future is not here yet. With mindfulness, we can find peace and happiness in the present moment,” he said. “We have a tendency to run back to the past or go to the future – that brings suffering. Practice mindfulness to avoid the pull of the past and the future.”
By staying in the present moment, becoming aware of each step we take, how we hold a cup in our hand as we drink our tea, or the toothbrush as we brush our teeth, we can realize there are many conditions for us to be happy about in the present moment, including the fact that we are alive. And in doing so, we can connect to God or source.
“Peace, joy and happiness should be looked for in the present moment,” he said. “To me the kingdom of God is not an abstract idea. We can touch it not only with our mind, but also our hand and body. It is in the here and now, and by giving in to the present moment that we can touch the kingdom.”
He told the audience, God is available 24 hours a day. The question we must ask ourselves is, are we available to the kingdom of God?
“You need to bring yourself into the here and now, the present. It takes one breath, or one step and you are in the kingdom,” he explained.
However, he cautioned for people not to look to the present moment in hopes of avoiding all suffering. “The kingdom is not a place without suffering. Suffering is a very big part of building the kingdom,” he said, explaining that most people are afraid of suffering and spend so much time trying to run away from it when the truth is, suffering is needed.
“Without the mud, there cannot be a lotus flower. Without suffering, we cannot find compassion and happiness,” he said. “My definition of the kingdom is a place where there is understanding and compassion – it is with suffering. Just as there is no lotus flower without mud, there is no understanding without suffering.”
It is by suffering that we are given the chance to develop compassion and offer it to others, he explained. Suffering and pain cause us to grow and gain understanding, not only of ourselves, but of others. And once we can understand and recognize the pain of others, compassion can arise within us.
In talking about the world at large, Hanh explained there is more suffering than is needed because the problem is many have not yet learned from their suffering because they continue to fear it.
“People are afraid of suffering. We try to cover up our suffering with consumption. We turn on the television. We pick up the telephone and talk. We go to the Internet. We pick up a novel to read. We do everything not to be in touch with our suffering, and we bring more suffering, hate and anger because many of the items we consume are toxic. We watch the news, we read an article and by consuming these every day, we make the problems worse.”
However, the energy of mindfulness can help us take care of our pain and suffering. We can embrace our suffering in the same way a mother embraces her newborn baby when it begins to cry, he explained. She may not know what is wrong with the baby, but once she embraces it, it usually brings some relief. The same is true with our own suffering. We may not know the source of our pain or sorrow, but by embracing it with mindfulness, we can find some relief, he noted.
“With mindfulness we have a boat, and we don’t sink in the river of suffering,” said Hanh.
A person can learn how to use “the garbage in the garden,” or the suffering in his or her life “to create compost to nourish the flowers in the garden,” he said, noting we should not be afraid of the fear, the despair or the garbage in us. “You can handle the garbage in a way that it can make compost and nourish the garden. A good practitioner can handle the garbage, the afflictions, and turn it into a flower.”
Transformation is possible, said Hanh, explaining the Buddha is not a God, but a human being, and that every man and woman has the seeds of mindfulness inside of them that in time becomes a Buddha.
In order to nourish these seeds, there is the need for a spiritual practice, whether through mindfulness, meditation or prayer, which allows us to “go home to ourselves.” He explained mindfulness can help us be in the present moment and understand what is going on in our minds, our bodies and our consciousness.
To begin to practice, he suggested the first step to mindful breathing as follows:
Breathing in, say silently to yourself, “I know this is my in breath.” Breathing out, say silently to yourself, “I know this is my out breath.”
In doing this, we can learn to abandon the past and the future. There is no struggle to breathe in and out because breathing comes naturally, he said. “You can enjoy your in breath and out breath and you don’t have to make any effort. You can do it on the bus, driving a car, sitting in the grass or watering the vegetable garden. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something – mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of tooth brushing. Our breath brings our mind back to our body and our body and mind become one.”
The following day, Hanh led a full workshop, including a walking meditation on the streets of New York City, but he explained we can walk with mindfulness at any time. “Try slow walking when you are alone – breathe in and pay attention to your in breath, and as you take one step, say silently, “I have arrived,” meaning you have arrived in the here and now.
“You can enter the kingdom of God with one step,” he said.
With one step, or one breath, we can enter the present moment. We can be grateful for a heart that beats, for eyes that allow us to see the beauty surrounding us, and for the breath that keeps us alive. No matter how much we collect or how wealthy and famous we are – we can realize we possess life, which Hanh believes is the greatest miracle of all.
Founder, Publisher, Editorial Director
Elevated Existence Magazine