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« The Four Foundations of Mindfulness | Main | A Questioning Life »
Tuesday
Nov122013

The Miracle of Everyday Mindfulness

Sarah Marshall

When we practice mindfulness in our daily lives, says Thich Nhat Hanh, we open to the wonders of life and allow the world to heal and nourish us.

Everyone has the seed of suffering inside. Sometimes it slumbers in the depths of our consciousness and sometimes it manifests as a very noticeable energy. When suffering manifests, it’s difficult to feel joy or happiness. The practice of conscious breathing and mindful walking or mindful sitting can help us handle the suffering inside. Our suffering is not only our own suffering. It carries within it the suffering of our father, our mother, and the many ancestors who have transmitted it to us.

Our suffering also reflects the suffering of our people, our country, our society, and our world. When we understand the nature and roots of our suffering, then compassion and love can arise. We go home to ourselves and get in touch with the suffering inside. Practicing conscious breathing, we generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration. These are the energies with which we can recognize and embrace our suffering. If we don’t have the energy of mindfulness, the suffering may overwhelm us. But if we breathe in and out and allow our body to be relaxed, we can generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration, and with that energy we can embrace our suffering and hold it tenderly.

My dear suffering, I know you are there in me. I am here to take care of you.

Suffering and Happiness Inter-Are

There are people who wish to find a place where there is no suffering, like heaven, the Pure Land of the Buddha, or the kingdom of God. We may think that “up there” there is no suffering; there is only happiness. But when we look deeply we see that suffering and happiness inter-are, just as the mud and the lotus interpenetrate each other. A lotus can only grow in mud. If there were no mud, there would be no lotus flower. There’s a very close connection between suffering and happiness, just as there is between mud and lotus. Real happiness is possible when we have the right view of suffering and happiness. It’s the same as front and back, right and left. The right cannot exist without the left; the left cannot exist without the right. Happiness cannot exist without suffering.

Happiness is made of non-happiness elements, just as the flower is made of non-flower elements. When you look at the flower, you see non-flower elements like sunlight, rain, earth—all of the elements that have come together to help the flower to manifest. If we were to remove any of those non-flower elements, there would no longer be a flower. Happiness is a kind of flower. If you look deeply into happiness, you see non-happiness elements, including suffering. Suffering plays a very important role in happiness.

When we live mindfully, we try to live in such a way that we can generate the energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight throughout the day. These are the energies that bring us happiness and the clarity that we call right view. When we have right view, we’re able to practice right thinking. Right thinking is based on right view; it’s thinking that’s characterized by nondiscrimination and nonduality. According to right view, there can be no happiness without suffering. Our thinking can make us suffer, but it can also make us free. We need right thinking to help us stop our suffering.

If there is a group of people living in the same environment, some may be happy and others unhappy. There are those among us who have the ability to appreciate the presence of the sun and get in touch with the trees, the fog, and all of the wonders of life that are around and inside us. But there are some people who don’t have the ability to get in touch with these wonderful things. They only see suffering. The conditions of their lives are exactly the same as those of the people who are happy, so why are some people happy and others not? The answer is that the one who is happy has right view. The other is suffering because he doesn’t have right view, so his thinking is not right thinking. Suffering is relative. Something that causes one person to suffer may not cause another person to suffer.

Being Fully Present in the Body

With the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking, we bring our mind back to our body. When the body and mind are together, we can establish ourselves in the here and now and get in touch with life and all of its wonders. We may say to ourselves, “Breathing in, I am aware that my body is here.” Breathing in, coming back to the body, and getting in touch with the body is already mindfulness—mindfulness that my body is here and that it is a wonder.

Our feelings, emotions, and perceptions often feel like they’re overwhelming our bodies and minds. Mindfulness helps us get in touch with all of these things that are going on. Body, feelings, and perceptions are objects of our mindfulness. There are many other beautiful things inside and around us that we can also make the objects of our mindfulness. Every morning when we wake up, we can breathe in and get in touch with the miracle that is life. There are things that are wonderful, that can heal and nourish us. Mindfulness puts us in touch with those things. That is the first function of mindfulness: it brings us joy and happiness.

Too Much Thinking

Thinking can be productive and good. But most of the time, our thinking is not productive. Our thoughts pull us away from the here and now. It’s only in the here and now that we can encounter real life and be in touch with our body and the other wonders of life. When we get lost in our thinking, we’re not there for life. It’s very important to learn how to stop all of that unproductive thinking. It doesn’t mean that thinking is inherently bad, because in fact thinking can be good. But so much of our thinking causes sorrow, fear, or anger to arise. We need to learn to stop thinking in order to begin to feel. If you can feel the presence of your body and the wonders of life that are available in the here and now, you can get the nourishment and healing you need— from the sunshine, the fresh air, the beautiful trees, your lungs, your in-breath and out-breath.

As you breathe in, you become aware once again that you have a body. There’s a kind of happy reunion between mind and body. It may take only a few seconds for you to become anchored back home, in the here and now. We have to be in the here and now in order to truly live our life. The past is no longer with us and the future is not yet here; only in the present moment are the wonders of life available. The secret of meditation is to bring the mind home to the body and be in the here and now. It’s very simple. Stopping the thinking will help tremendously.

Mindfulness, Concentration, and Insight

When you’re practicing mindfulness of body, your body becomes the only object of your mindfulness.

Breathing in, I know my body is there. Breathing out, I know my body is there.

When mindfulness is strong and focused like that, concentration is born. The object of your concentration in this case is your body. When mindfulness and concentration are powerful enough, you can make a breakthrough into reality; you get insight and realization, and you discover things. Mindfulness, or smrti in Sanskrit, is the first energy. Mindfulness brings about concentration, samadhi, the second energy; and together mindfulness and concentration bring insight, prajna.

To meditate means to generate these three kinds of energies. You don’t have to ask for them to come to you from outside. Everyone has the seeds of mindfulness, concentration, and insight within himself or herself. With the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful sitting, we help these seeds manifest as energies. These are the three kinds of energy that make an enlightened being.

These energies make you awake, bring your body and mind fully together, and put you in touch with all of the wonders of life. You stop running and trying to find happiness somewhere else. You see that happiness is possible in the here and now.

When you’re fully aware of what is there, and you can maintain that awareness and keep concentration alive, then insight arises. This insight can help free you from your worries, fears, longing, and searching. With insight, you recognize that there are more than enough conditions for you to be happy right here, right now. This insight brings freedom, joy, and happiness.

The Holiness In You

The energies of mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated by practicing mindfulness of breathing, of walking, of sitting, and of all your other daily activities. When you are inhabited by these three wholesome energies, there is holiness in you.

We speak of holiness, but oftentimes we don’t know exactly what it is. To me it’s very clear that holiness is made up of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When you’re inhabited by these three energies, you are a buddha, an enlightened person. In Christianity we speak of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can be interpreted as the quality of presence that is there when we have mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Wherever these three energies are, life is there, healing is there, nourishment and happiness are there. So it’s possible to generate the energy of holiness. When these energies of holiness are in you, you don’t suffer anymore; you’re free. I can call you “Your Holiness.” Everyone can be holy if they know how to generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. It’s not too difficult.

When I pour tea, I like to pour the tea mindfully. When I pour the tea mindfully, my mind isn’t in the past or the future, or with my projects. My mind is focused on pouring the tea. I’m fully concentrated on the act of pouring tea. Pouring tea becomes the only object of my mindfulness and concentration. This is a pleasure and it also can bring many insights. I can see that in the tea there is a cloud. Yesterday it was a cloud, but today it is my tea. Insight is not something very far away. With mindfulness and concentration you can begin to develop the insight that can liberate you and bring you happiness.

There is mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of pouring tea, mindfulness of drinking tea, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of brushing teeth, and so on. When you breathe mindfully, you focus your attention on only one thing: your in-breath and out-breath. This is concentration on your breath. When you are really concentrated on your breath, insight can come right away. You may get the insight that you are fully alive, and to be truly alive like that is a miracle.

Insight Is Not Something Far Away

Insight is enlightenment, awakening. You’re enlightened about the fact that you are alive. You wake up once again to the miraculous reality that you are here, still alive. There are many insights that can happen while you breathe in mindfully. You breathe in and you realize that your legs are still strong enough for you to walk, jump, and run. When I practice walking, I’m very happy and grateful that I can still walk. Many of my friends from my generation can’t walk anymore.

Thanks to mindfulness, concentration, and insight, every step can generate the energy of joy and happiness. That is meditation. Bringing your mind home to your body, establishing yourself in the present moment, and touching the wonders of life make joy, happiness, and freedom possible in the here and now. Everyone can do it.

Everyone can pour his tea mindfully. Everyone can drink her tea mindfully. Instead of allowing ourselves to think of the past or the future, we focus our mindfulness on drinking tea. We are fully present in the here and now. The only thing we touch is the tea. If I’m mindful of my body and established in the here and now, I become real. When I’m real, life is also real. The tea I’m holding in my hands is real. It’s because I’m real that the tea becomes real. The encounter between the tea and me is real; that’s real life. If you’re possessed by fear, anger, or ruminative thinking, you’re not truly present and your tea is not truly there. That isn’t true life.

Generating the Energy of Mindfulness

The energy of mindfulness makes things real and alive. The practices of mindful walking, mindful sitting, and mindful breathing help generate the energy of mindfulness. They are the basic practice. You can also take a shower in mindfulness and enjoy the entire time of taking a shower. When you prepare your breakfast, if you allow mindfulness to be there in every moment, it can be a time of genuine happiness. You can wash the dishes in the same way; getting in touch with the water and washing each plate and bowl in mindfulness can be a joy. You don’t need to hurry up and finish. You can enjoy washing the dishes. Washing dishes in this way is just as profound and holy as doing sitting meditation or walking meditation.

When you go to the toilet, you can choose to urinate in mindfulness. You can take the time and enjoy urinating. Why hurry? This time is given to us to live. Happiness and freedom are possible during the time you urinate. You needn’t urinate in a hurry so you can go off and do other things. This is why in meditation centers we put a flowerpot in the washroom, to remind us that this is also a meditation hall. Enjoy the time you take to shower, to prepare your breakfast, or to urinate or defecate. It can be very pleasant. When you brush your teeth, brush in a way that makes freedom and joy possible. You have two or three minutes for tooth brushing. Make them happy moments. If you can be happy while brushing your teeth, then buttoning your jacket can also be a joy. With mindfulness and concentration, we can enjoy every moment that is given to us. This is the art of living.


Thich Nhat Hanh is the founder of the Order of Interbeing, a community of monastics and laypeople with monasteries and practice centers around the world. This article is adapted from his latest book, Peace of Mind, published by Parallax Press, November 2013.

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