Breakfast with Thich Nhat Hanh

My current company on the train to work each morning is a blueberry flavoured breakfast bar and an inspiring little book called ‘Peace Is Every Breath – A Practice for our Busy Lives’.  The author is one Thach Nhat Hanh (pronounced ‘Tik N’yat Hawn’), 85, a Vietnamese Buddhist and Master of Zen who has spent his whole life preaching peace and encouraging people to learn the art of mindful thought and living entirely in the present.  A truly selfless individual, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the first pioneers of the idea that inner-peace is of immense benefit not just to ourselves but to those around us.  When war broke out in Vietnam in the 1950s, he was one of the first few Buddhist monks to find a balance between meditating in the monasteries whilst helping out those suffering from the devastation of war in the surrounding towns and villages.  Amongst other things, he orchestrated the rebuilding of homes and schools, set up medical centres and helped re-house those who had been left without a home.

Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006 – photo from Wikipedia

His spirituality has taken him around the world, most notably to the U.S (where one Martin Luther King Jr nominated him for a Nobel Prize in reaction to his movements to oppose the Vietnam War), and France – where he still lives today, in the Plum Village monastery and spiritual retreat he founded in 1982.

Now – perhaps I am being too premature in my decision to devote an entire blog post to Thich Nhat Hanh – I am only 83 pages in to the first ever book I have read by him, and it is only our 2-week anniversary – for I had not heard of him prior to a fortnight ago, when I came across his work in my local book-shop.  This blog post is not intended to be an in-depth study into everything he has ever said and done though, for indeed, I have only scratched the surface myself.  Yet, already I am feeling as though I have benefited from having Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas in my life, and I just want to spread the word.

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have fully begun to embrace my spirituality.  It started with the travelling and the experiences in contrasting cultures, and continued last Summer – a challenging time in which I turned to spiritual writing to help me figure life out.  These days, I lead a much busier lifestyle and have a lot less time to read and – most significantly – to think.  Perhaps then this is why the following summary, as featured on the back of the book, is what caused me to select Thich Nhat Hanh’s piece over the wealth of others on the bookshelf:

“In his travels round the world, Thich Nhat Hanh sees how the hectic pace of life takes its toll.  This superbly simple book is his response.  Rather than telling us to put our busy lives on hold, he gives us the insights and tools we need to bring the practice of mindfulness into our every waking moment.  With his guidance, we can transcend the mad rush of existence and discover the ability to experience transformation and happiness here and now.”

Mindfulness in our every moment?  Despite how hectic and challenging a working-class lifestyle can be?  Is it even possible?  I would never have thought so, but with each page, Thich Nhat Hanh is starting to convince me otherwise:

“Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

How do you normally feel when you wake up?  What thoughts run through your head?  I know what goes on in mine… and my personal version of the above would probably read something more like: 

“Waking up this morning, I curse my alarm and my heart sinks at the thought of going out into the freezing cold to get my train.  10 hours of work are before me, followed by a train-home which will probably be delayed due to signalling problems in the London Bridge area.  I vow to try and walk home as quickly as possible, and will look at all beings with eyes of compassion!  Apart from people who walk really slowly in front of me, and couples who take up the whole pavement because they are incapable of parting hands, meaning I must walk in the road, where I will probably be almost mown down by some idiot in a car who should never have been granted their drivers’ license”.

But, since I met my new buddy Thich Nhat Hanh a fortnight ago, I’ve been trying to adopt his approach, and do you know something?  It works!!  Time and time again, on this Blog and elsewhere, I have advocated the idea of putting our heart and soul into making the most of every single second.  I know it’s the right thing to do – not always the easiest thing, but the right thing.  My ability to do so does not always match the standards of that belief, but Thich Nhat Hanh truly inspires when he paints a new day in such an opportunistic light.  The core truth is that:  we are so damn lucky to be alive, no matter the pain we may experience from time to time.  Life is one big paint-palette that will, at times, run out of the brighter colours and leave us with just the muddy greens and greys.  At times: we will have our hearts broken, we will watch loved ones leave us for the Heavens, we will experience sickness, and we will probably experience many other forms of pain too.  These things will never be any easier to deal with, but all the whilst we have our breath, we have hope.  When our palettes then become replenished with the brighter colours we will be more appreciative, more learned, and stronger than we ever were before.  Anything can happen and everything has purpose.  Life is our playground and the daytime is when we get to use it.  Thich Nhat Hanh lives for every moment, giving his full attention to his every movement, and that is a way in which we can all strive to live.

Another of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas on mindfulness that has struck out at me is that of clarity of mind and reflection.  As humans, our interpretation of reality is frequently contaminated by our feelings and emotions.  Important to us though these are, they don’t always provide us with an accurate, un-biased reflection of the truth.  Thich Nhat Hanh uses a beautiful analogy of nature which describes what a peaceful mind may look like:

“The image of a reflecting pool of water represents a tranquil mind.  When the mind is not disturbed by mental formations like anger, jealousy, fear, or worries, it is calm.  Visualise a clear alpine lake reflecting the clouds, the sky and the mountains around it so perfectly that, if you were to photograph its surface, anyone would think you had taken a photo of the landscape itself.  When our mind is calm, it reflects reality accurately, without distortion.  Breathing, sitting, and walking with mindfulness calms disturbing mental formations such as anger, fear, and despair, allowing us to see reality more clearly.”

What he is saying here is that the more focused we are on what we are doing in the present moment, the less susceptible we are to having our minds contaminated by all those ‘ugly’ emotions:  anxiety, fear, anger to name just a few.  The moment your mind loses its focus, that’s when it will start to wander, and that’s when all those ‘ugly’ emotions – anger, fear and despair – will creep their way into your landscape.  Mindfulness – and living solely in the present moment – is Thich Nhat Hanh’s solution to this.  It is impossible to think about multiple different things at the same time.  Try it and see.  Can you remember when it was that you laughed the hardest and loudest you’ve ever laughed?  What are you going to cook for dinner tonight?

When a negative thought enters our mind we have to shift back into the present moment and focus on what we’re doing, but what if that negative thought is direct result of something that is taking place right here, right now?

Thich Nhat Hanh uses another example from nature to combat this.  This time, we are trees – tall trees – blowing around in a storm of emotion:

“When trees get hit by a storm, the treetops are thrashed around and run the highest risk of being damaged.  The trunk of a tree is more stable and solid; it has many roots reaching deep into the Earth.  The treetops are like your own head, your thinking mind.  When a storm comes up in you, get out of the treetop and go down to the trunk for safety.  Your roots start down at your abdomen, slightly below the navel…put all your attention on that part of your belly, and breathe deeply.  Don’t think about anything, and you’ll be safe while the storm of emotions is blowing.”

We are humans and as such we have feelings.  We are not super-intelligent beings and we don’t always know best.  The way in which we perceive things is very much determined by our strength of character.  We are loved, and we love.  We have passions and desires, and should anything threaten those we won’t react well.  Thich Nhat Hanh’s solution is to ride the storm by focusing on our ‘roots’, channeling all our energy into our lower stomachs and breathing mindfully.  Doing so won’t always make the problem disappear, because let’s be honest – shit happens and nobody is immune from it, but just taking those few moments to check back in with ourselves helps us to steady ourselves and embrace whatever challenge we face in the strongest possible way, not in a kneerjerk, panicked and wilted way – but instead the most calm, collected and strong.

I could easily go on, telling you about the ideas of Thich Nhat Hanh, but if you’ve liked what you’ve read so far, why not head down to your local bookshop and buy yourself a copy of one his many publications about peace and mindfulness?  Marvel for yourself – like I do – at just how much sense one individual can make.  Thich Nhat Hanh is the kind of inspirational being that modern society needs – for he teaches us that in life, less is more.  We don’t actually need a lot of things to lead a wholesome lifestyle – just a bit of mindfulness.  All else will follow.

“In the garbage, I see a rose.
In the rose, I see the garbage.
Everything is in transformation.
Even permanence is impermanent.”

Song of the Day:  Owen Pallett – This is the Dream of Win & Regine

The first time I encountered Owen Pallett aka Final Fantasy it was one Monday in May 2005 and I was in London watching the Arcade Fire – who at that point were relatively unknown – performing in the London Astoria.  The whole concert was a fantastic hybrid of accordions, brass, strings and a sense of sound which numbed my entire body.  The sound of Montreal dominated my stereo throughout most of the mid-2000s, and it had been so special to be there watching the Arcade Fire perform – possibly their first concert in the UK.  I remember a lanky guy with blonde curtains and a violin opening the show.  His name was Owen Pallett and within his short spell on stage he managed to build up a great rapport with the audience.  This song was his testimony to Win and Regine of Arcade Fire and the demands they had faced as newcomers in the Montreal music scene… but you don’t necessarily have to care about any of that to be able to appreciate this raw talent: