Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way. Wherever I go, I express this, and I am encouraged that people from many different walks of life receive it well. Peace must first be developed within an individual. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world.
Peace Is Every Stepis a guidebook for a journey in exactly this direction. Thich Nhat Hanh begins by teaching mindfulness of breathing and awareness of the small acts of our daily lives, then shows us how to use the benefits of mindful-ness and concentration to transform and heal difficult psychological states. Finally he shows us the connection between personal, inner peace and peace on Earth. This is a very worthwhile book. It can change individual lives and the life of our society.
As I walked slowly and mindfully through a green oak forest this morning, a brilliant red-orange sun rose on the horizon. It immediately evoked for me images of India, where a group of us joined Thich Nhat Hanh the year before last to visit the sites where the Buddha taught. On one walk to a cave near Bodh Gaya, we stopped in a field surrounded by rice paddies and recited this poem:
Peace is every step.
The shining red sun is my heart.
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy.
These lines summarize the essence of Thich Nhat Hanh’s message—that peace is not external or to be sought after or attained. Living mindfully, slowing down and enjoying each step and each breath, is enough. Peace is already present in each step, and if we walk in this way, a flower will bloom under our feet with every step. In fact the flowers will smile at us and wish us well on our way.
I met Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982 when he attended the Reverence for Life conference in New York. I was one of the first American Buddhists he had met, and it fascinated him that I looked, dressed, and, to some extent, acted like the novices he had trained in Vietnam for two decades. When my teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, invited him to visit our meditation center in San Francisco the following year, he happily accepted, and this began a new phase in the extraordinary life of this gentle monk, whom Baker-roshi characterized as “a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery—a true religious presence.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam in 1926 and was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1942, at the age of sixteen, first eight years later, he
co-founded what was to become the foremost center of Buddhist studies in South Vietnam, the An Quang Buddhist Institute.
In 1961, Nhat Hanh came to the United States to study and teach comparative religion at Columbia and Princeton Universities. But in 1963, his monk-colleagues in Vietnam telegrammed him to come home to join them in their work to stop the war following the fall of the oppressive Diem regime. He immediately returned and helped lead one of the great
nonviolent resistance movements of the century, based entirely on Gandhian principles.
In 1964, along with a group of university professors and students in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service, called by the American press the “little Peace Corps,” in which teams of young people went into the countryside to establish schools and health clinics, and later to rebuild villages that had been bombed. By the time of the fall of Saigon, there were more than 10,000 monks, nuns, and young social workers involved in the work. In the same year, he helped set up what was to become one of the most prestigious publishing houses in Vietnam, La Boi Press. In his books and as editor-in-chief of the official publication of the Unified Buddhist Church, he called for reconciliation between the warring parties in Vietnam, and because of that his writings were censored by both opposing governments.
In 1966, at the urging of his fellow monks, he accepted an invitation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Cornell University to come to the U.S. “to describe to [us] the aspirations and the agony of the voiceless masses of the Vietnamese people” (New Yorker, June 25, 1966). He had a densely packed schedule of speaking engagements and private meetings, and spoke convincingly in favor of a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so moved by Nhat Hanh and his proposals for peace that he nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, saying, “I know of no one more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam.” Largely due to Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence, King came out publicly against the war at a press conference, with Nhat Hanh, in Chicago.
When Thomas Merton, the well-known Catholic monk and mystic, met Thich Nhat Hanh at his monastery, Gethsemani, near Louisville, Kentucky, he told his students, “Just the way he opens the door and enters a room demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk.” Merton went on to write an essay, “Nhat Hanh Is My Brother,” an impassioned plea to listen to Nhat Hanh’s proposals for peace and lend full support for Nhat Hanh’s advocacy of peace. After important meetings with Senators Fulbright and Kennedy, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and others in Washington, Thich Nhat Hanh went to Europe, where he met with a number of heads of state and officials of the Catholic church, including two audiences with Pope Paul VI, urging cooperation between Catholics and Buddhists to help bring peace to Vietnam.
In 1969, at the request of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh set up the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks. After the Peace Accords were signed in 1973, he was refused permission to return to Vietnam, and he established a small community a hundred miles southwest of Paris, called “Sweet Potato.” In 1976-77, Nhat Hanh conducted an operation to rescue boat people in the Gulf of Siam, but hostility from the governments of Thailand and Singapore made it impossible to continue. So for the following five years, he stayed at Sweet Potato in retreat—meditating, reading, writing, binding books, gardening, and occasionally receiving visitors.
In June 1982, Thich Nhat Hanh visited New York, and later that year established Plum Village, a larger retreat center near Bordeaux, surrounded by vineyards and fields of wheat, corn, and sunflowers. Since 1983 he has traveled to North America every other year to lead retreats and give lectures on mindful living and social responsibility, “making peace right in the moment we are alive.”
Although Thich Nhat Hanh cannot visit his homeland handwritten copies of his books continue to circulate illegally in Vietnam. His presence is also felt through his students and colleagues throughout the world who work full-time trying to relieve the suffering of the desperately poor people of Vietnam, clandestinely supporting hungry families and campaigning on behalf of writers, artists, monks, and nuns who have been imprisoned for their beliefs and their art. This work extends to helping refugees threatened with repatriation, and sending material and spiritual aid to refugees in the camps of Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.
Now sixty-four years old, yet looking twenty years younger, Thich Nhat Hanh is emerging as one of the great teachers of the twentieth century. In the midst of our society’s emphasis on speed, efficiency, and material success, Thich Nhat Hanh’s ability to walk calmly with peace and awareness and to teach us to do the same has led to his enthusiastic reception in the West. Although his mode of expression is simple, his message reveals the quintessence of the deep understanding of reality that comes from his meditations, his Buddhist training, and his work in the world.
His way of teaching centers around conscious breathing— the awareness of each breath—and, through conscious breathing, mindfulness of each act of daily life. Meditation, he tells us, is not just in a meditation hall. It is just as sacred to wash the dishes mindfully as to bow deeply or light incense. He also tells us that forming a smile on our face can relax hundreds of muscles in our body—he calls it “mouth yoga”—and in fact, recent studies have shown that when we flex our facial muscles into expressions of joy, we do indeed produce the effects on our nervous system that go with real joy. Peace and happiness are available, he reminds us, if we can only quiet our distracted thinking long enough to come back to the present moment and notice the blue sky, the child’s smile, the beautiful sunrise. “If we are
peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.”
Peace Is Every Stepis a book of reminders. In the rush of modern life, we tend to lose touch with the peace that is available in each moment. Thich Nhat Hanh’s creativity lies in his ability to make use of the very situations that usually pressure and antagonize us. For him, a ringing telephone is a signal to call us back to our true selves. Dirty dishes, red lights, and traffic jams are spiritual friends on the path of mindfulness. The most profound satisfactions, the deepest feelings of joy and completeness lie as close at hand as our next aware breath and the smile we can form right now.
Peace Is Every Stepwas assembled from Thich Nhat Hanh’s lectures, published and unpublished writings, and informal conversations, by a small group of friends—Therese Fitzgerald, Michael Katz, Jane Hirshfield, and myself—working closely with Thay Nhat Hanh (pronounced “tie”—the Vietnamese word for “teacher”) and with Leslie Meredith, our attentive, thorough, and sensitive editor at Bantam. Patricia Curtan provided the beautiful dandelion. Special thanks to Marion Tripp, who wrote the “Dandelion Poem.”
This book is the clearest and most complete message yet of a great bodhisattva, who has dedicated his life to the enlightenment of others. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is simultaneously inspirational and very practical. I hope the reader enjoys this book as much as we have enjoyed making it available.
Arnold Kotler, France
Breathe! You Are AliveTwenty-Four Brand-New Hours
Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.
Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child. Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy.
We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available. We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and soon. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.
This small book is offered as a bell of mindful ness, a reminder that happiness is possible only in the present moment. Of course, planning for the future is a part of life. But even planning can only take place in the present moment. This book is an invitation to come back to the present moment and find peace and joy. I offer some of my experiences and a number of techniques that may be of help. But please do not wait until finishing this book to find peace. Peace and happiness are available in every moment. Peace is every step. We shall walk hand in hand. Bon voyage.
Has My Smile
If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily lives we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. If we really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile? Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.
How can you remember to smile when you wake up? You might hang a reminder—such as a branch, a leaf, a painting, or some inspiring words—in your window or from the ceiling above your bed, so that you notice it when you wake up. Once you develop the practice of smiling, you may not need a reminder. You will smile as soon as you hear a bird singing or see the sunlight streaming through the window. Smiling helps you approach the day with gentleness and understanding.
When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness. This half-smile, how many artists have labored to bring it to the lips of countless statues and paintings? I am sure the same smile must have been on the faces of the sculptors and painters as they worked. Can you imagine an angry painter giving birth to such a smile? Mona Lisa’s smile is light, just a hint of a smile. Yet even a smile like that is enough to relax all the muscles in our face, to banish all worries and fatigue. A tiny bud of a smile on our lips nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously. It returns to us the peace we thought we had lost.
Our smile will bring happiness to us and to those around us. Even if we spend a lot of money on gifts for everyone in our family, nothing we buy could give them as much happiness as the gift of our awareness, our smile. And this precious gift costs nothing. At the end of a retreat in California, a friend wrote this poem:
I have lost my smile,
but don’t worry.
The dandelion has it.
If you have lost your smile and yet are still capable of seeing that a dandelion is keeping it for you, the situation is not too bad. You still have enough mindfulness to see that the smile is there.
You only need to breathe consciously one or two times and you will recover your smile. The dandelion is one member of your community of friends. It is there, quite faithful, keeping your smile for you.
In fact, everything around you is keeping your smile for you. You don’t need to feel isolated. You only have to open yourself to the support that is all around you, and in you. Like the friend who saw that her smile was being kept by the dandelion, you can breathe in awareness, and your smile will return.
There are a number of breathing techniques you can use to make life vivid and more enjoyable. The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, you say to yourself, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” And as you breathe out, say, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Just that. You recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. You don’t even need to recite the whole sentence; you can use just two words: “In” and “Out.” This technique can help you keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle, and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.
Breathing in and out is very important, and it is enjoyable. Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, “In” and “Out,” we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.
To me, breathing is a joy that I cannot miss. Every day, I practice conscious breathing, and in my small meditation room, I have calligraphed this sentence: “Breathe, you are alive!” first breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment.
Present Moment Wonderful Moment
In our busy society, it is a great fortune to breathe consciously from time to time. We can practice conscious breathing not only while sitting in a meditation room, but also while working at the office or at home, while driving our car, or sitting on a bus, wherever we are, at any time throughout the day.
There are so many exercises we can do to help us breathe consciously. Besides the simple “In-Out” exercise, we can recite these four lines silently as we breathe in and out:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!
“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind.
“Breathing out, I smile.” You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself.
“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am.
“I know this is a wonderful moment.” It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy—tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, “Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.”
This exercise is not just for beginners. Many of us who have practiced meditation and conscious breathing for forty or fifty years continue to practice in this same way, because this kind of exercise is so important and so easy.
While we practice conscious breathing, our thinking will slow down, and we can give ourselves a real rest. Most of the time, we think too much, and mindful breathing helps us to be calm, relaxed, and peaceful. It helps us stop thinking so much and stop being possessed by sorrows of the past and worries about the future. It enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment.
Of course, thinking is important, but quite a lot of our thinking is useless. It is as if, in our head, each of us has a cassette tape that is always running, day and night. We think of this and we think of that, and it is difficult to stop. With a cassette, we can just press the stop button. But with our thinking, we do not have any button. We may think and worry so much that we cannot sleep. If we go to the doctor for some sleeping pills or tranquilizers, these may make the situation worse, because we do not really rest during that kind of sleep, and if we continue using these drugs, we may become addicted. We continue to live tensely, and we may have nightmares.
According to the method of conscious breathing, when we breathe in and out, we stop thinking, because saying “In” and “Out” is not thinking— “In” and “Out” are only words to help us concentrate on our breathing. If we keep breathing in and out this way for a few minutes, we become quite refreshed. We recover ourselves, and we can encounter the beautiful things around us in the present moment. The past is gone; the future is not yet here. If we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.
When we are in touch with the refreshing, peaceful, and healing elements within ourselves and around us, we learn how to cherish and protect these things and make them grow. These elements of peace are available to us any time.
Nourishing Awareness in Each Moment
One cold, winter evening I returned home from a walk in the hills, and I found that all the doors and windows in my hermitage had blown open. When I had left earlier, I hadn’t secured them, and a cold wind had blown through the house, opened the windows, and scattered the papers from my desk all over the room. Immediately, I closed the doors and windows, lit a lamp, picked up the papers, and arranged them neatly on my desk. Then I started a fire in the fireplace, and soon the crackling logs brought warmth back to the room.
Sometimes in a crowd we feel tired, cold, and lonely. We may wish to withdraw to be by ourselves and become warm again, as I did when I closed the windows and sat by the fire, protected from the clamp, cold wind. Our senses are our windows to the world, and sometimes the wind blows through them and disturbs everything within us. Some of us leave our windows open alt the time, allowing the sights and sounds of the world to invade us, penetrate us, and expose our sad, troubled selves. We feel so cold, lonely, and afraid. Do you ever find yourself watching an awful TV program, unable to turn it off? The raucous noises, explosions of gunfire, are upsetting. Yet you don’t get up and turn it off. Why do you torture yourself in this way? Don’t you want to close your windows? Are you frightened of solitude—the emptiness and the loneliness you may find when you face yourself alone?
Watching a bad TV program, we becomethe TV program. We are what we feel and perceive. If we are angry, we are the anger. If we are in love, we are love. If we look at a snow-covered mountain peak, we are the mountain. We can be anything we want, so why do we open our windows to bad TV programs made by sensationalist producers in search of easy money,
programs that make our hearts pound, our fists tighten, and leave us exhausted? Who allows such TV programs to be made and seen by even the very young? We do! We are too undemanding, too ready to watch whatever is on the screen, too lonely, lazy, or bored to create our own lives. We turn on the TV and leave it on, allowing someone else to guide us, shape us, and destroy us. Losing ourselves in this way is leaving our fate in the hands of others who may not be acting responsibly. We must be aware of which programs do harm to our nervous systems, minds, and hearts, and which programs benefit us.
Of course, I am not talking only about television. All around us, how many lures are set by our fellows and ourselves? In a single day, how many times do we become lost and scattered because of them? We must be very careful to protect our fate and our peace. I am not suggesting that we just shut all our windows, for there are many miracles in the world we call “outside.” We can open our windows to these miracles and look at any one of them with awareness. This way, even while sitting beside a clear, flowing stream, listening to beautiful music, or watching an excellent movie, we need not lose ourselves entirely in the stream, the music, or the film. We can continue to be aware of ourselves and our breathing. With the sun of awareness shining in us, we can avoid most dangers. The stream will be purer, the music more harmonious, and the soul of the filmmaker completely visible.
As beginning mediators, we may want to leave the city and go off to the countryside to help close those windows that trouble our spirit. There we can become one with the quiet forest, and rediscover and restore ourselves, without being swept away by the chaos of the “outside world.” The fresh and silent woods help us remain in awareness, and when our awareness is well-rooted and we can maintain it without faltering, we may wish to return to the city and remain there, less troubled. But sometimes we cannot leave the city, and we have to find the refreshing and peaceful elements that can heal us right in the midst of our busy lives. We may wish to visit a good friend who can comfort us, or go for a walk in a park and enjoy the trees and the cool breeze. Whether we are in the city, the countryside, or the wilderness, we need to sustain ourselves by choosing our surroundings carefully and nourishing our awareness in each moment.
When you need to slow down and come back to yourself, you do not need to rush home to your meditation cushion or to a meditation center in order to practice conscious breathing. You can breathe anywhere, just sitting on your chair at the office or sitting in your automobile. Even if you are at a shopping center filled with people or waiting in line at a bank, if you begin to feel depleted and need to return to yourself, you can practice conscious breathing and smiling just standing there.
Wherever you are, you can breathe mindfully. We all need to go back to ourselves from time to time, in order to be able to confront the difficulties of life. We can do this in any position— standing, sitting, lying down, or walking. If you can sit down, however, the sitting position is the most stable.
One time, I was waiting for a plane that was four hours late at Kennedy Airport in New York, and I enjoyed sitting cross-legged right in the waiting area. I just rolled up my sweater and used it as a cushion, and I sat. People looked at me curiously, but after a while they ignored me, and I sat in peace. There was no place to rest; the airport was full of people, so I just made myself comfortable where I was. You may not want to meditate so
conspicuously, but breathing mindfully in any position at any time can help you recover yourself.
The most stable posture for meditation is sitting cross-legged on a cushion. Choose a cushion that is the right thickness to support you. The half-lotus and full-lotus positions are excellent for establishing stability of body and mind. To sit in the lotus position, gently cross your legs by placing one foot (for the half-lotus) or both feet (for the full-lotus) on the opposite thighs. If the lotus position is difficult, it is fine just to sit cross-legged or in any comfortable position. Allow your back to be straight, keep your eyes half closed, and fold your hands comfortably on your lap. If you prefer, you can sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting on your lap. Or you can lie on the floor, on your back, with your legs straight out, a few inches apart, and your arms at your sides, preferably palms up.
If your legs or feet fall asleep or begin to hurt during sitting meditation so that your concentration becomes disturbed, feel free to adjust your position. If you do this slowly and attentively, following your breathing and each movement of your body, you will not lose a single moment of concentration. If the pain is severe, stand up, walk slowly and mindfully, and when you are ready, sit down again.
In some meditation centers, practitioners are not permitted to move during periods of sitting meditation. They often have to endure great discomfort. To me, this seems unnatural. When a part of our body is number in pain, it is telling us something, and we should listen to it. We sit in meditation to help us cultivate peace, joy, and nonviolence, not to endure physical strain or to injure our bodies. To change the position of our feet or do a little walking meditation will not disturb others very much, and it can help us a lot.
Sometimes, we can use meditation as a way of hiding from ourselves and from life, like a rabbit going back to his hole. Doing this, we may be able to avoid some problems for a while, but when we leave our “hole,” we will have to confront them again. For example, if we practice our meditation very intensely, we may feel a kind of relief as we exhaust ourselves and divert our energy from confronting our difficulties. But when our energy returns, our problems will return with them.
We need to practice meditation gently, but steadily, throughout daily life, not wasting a single opportunity or event to see deeply into the true nature of life, including our everyday problems. Practicing in this way, we dwell in profound communion with life.
In my tradition, we use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing. Sometimes we also recite this verse:
Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.
When we breathe in, we say, “Listen, listen,” and when we breathe out, we say, “This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”
Since I have come to the West, I have not heard many Buddhist temple bells. But fortunately, there are church hells all over Europe. There do not seem to be as many in the United States; I think that is a pity. Whenever I give a lecture in Switzerland, I always make use of the church bells to practice mindfulness. When the bell rings, I stop talking, and all of us listen to the full sound of the bell. We enjoy it so much. (I think it is better than the lecture!) When we hear the bell, we can pause and enjoy our breathing and get in touch with the wonders of life that are around us—the flowers, the children, the beautiful sounds. Every time we get back in touch with ourselves, the conditions become favorable for us to encounter life in the present moment.
One day in Berkeley, I proposed to professors and students at the University of California that every time the bell on the campus sounds, the professors and students should pause in order to breathe consciously. Everyone should take the time to enjoy being alive! We should not just be rushing around all day. We have to learn to really enjoy our church bells and our school bells. Bells are beautiful, and they can wake us up.
If you have a bell at home, you can practice breathing and smiling with its lovely sound. But you do not have to carry a bell into your office or factory. You can use any sound to remind you to pause, breathe in and out, and enjoy the present moment. The buzzer that goes off when you forget to fasten the seat belt in your car is a belt of mindfulness. Even non-sounds, such as the rays of sunlight coming through the window, are hells of mindfulness that can remind us to return to ourselves, breathe, smile, and live fully in the present moment.
Cookie of Childhood
When I was four years old, my mother used to bring me a cookie every time she came home from the market. I always went to the front yard and took my time eating it; sometimes half an hour or forty-five minutes for one cookie. I would take a small bite and look up at the sky. Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I just enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets, the cat, the dog, the flowers. I was able to do that because I did not have much to worry about. I did not think of the future, I did not regret the past. I was entirely in the present moment, with my cookie, the dog, the bamboo thickets, the cat, and everything.
It is possible to eat our meals as slowly and joyfully as I ate the cookie of my childhood. Maybe you have the impression that you have lost the cookie of your childhood, but I am sure it is still there, somewhere in your heart. Everything is still there, and if you really want it, you can find it. Eating mindfully is a most important practice of meditation. We can eat in a way that we restore the cookie of our childhood. The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.
If I offer you a freshly picked tangerine to enjoy, I think the degree to which you enjoy it will depend on your mindfulness. If you are free of worries and anxiety, you will enjoy it more. If you are possessed by anger or fear, the tangerine may not be very real to you.
One day, 1 offered a number of children a basket filled with tangerines. The basket was passed around, and each child took one tangerine and put it in his or her palm. We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualize the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. Then they saw petals falling down and the tiny green fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. Now someone has picked it, and the tangerine is here. After seeing this, each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out. We ate slowly like that.
Each time you look at a tangerine, you can see deeply into it. You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and he very happy.
The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, “Eat this. This is my flesh.” He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life. In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetful -ness, so the bread was not bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindful-ness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness. The practice of eating bread, a tangerine, or a cookie is the same.
When we breathe, when we arc mindful, when we look deeply at our food, life becomes real at that very moment. To me, the rite of the Eucharist is a wonderful practice of mindfulness. In a drastic way, Jesus tried to wake up his disciples.
A few years ago, I asked some children, “What is the purpose of eating breakfast?” One boy replied, “To get energy for the day.” Another said, “The purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast.” I think the second child is more correct. The purpose of eating is to eat.
Eating a meal in mindfulness is an important practice. We turn off the TV, put down our newspaper, and work together for five or ten minutes, setting the table and finishing whatever needs to be done. During these few minutes, we can be very happy. When the food is on the table and everyone is seated, we practice breathing: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile,” three times. We can recover ourselves completely after three breaths like this.
Then, we look at each person as we breathe in and out in order to be in touch with ourselves and everyone at the table. We don’t need two hours to see another person. If we are really settled within ourselves, we only need to look for one or two seconds, and that is enough to see. I think that if a family has five members, only about five or ten seconds are needed to practice this “looking and seeing.”
After breathing, we smile. Sitting at the table with other people, we have a chance to offer an authentic smile of friendship and understanding. It is very easy, but not many people do it. To me, this is the most important practice. We look at each person and smile at him or her. Breathing and smiling together is a very important practice. If the people in a household cannot smile at each other, the situation is very dangerous.
After breathing and smiling, we look down at the food in a way that allows the food to become real. This food reveals our connection with the earth. Each bite contains the life of the sun and the earth. The extent to which our food reveals itself depends on us. We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread! Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.
Having the opportunity to sit with our family and friends and enjoy wonderful food is something precious, something not everyone has. Many people in the world are hungry. When I hold a bowl of rice or a piece of bread, I know that I am fortunate, and I feel compassion for all those who have no food to eat and are without friends or family. This is a very deep practice. We do not need to go to a temple or a church in order to practice this. We can practice it right at our dinner table. Mindful eating can cultivate seeds of compassion and understanding that will strengthen us to do something to help hungry and lonely people be nourished.
In order to aid mindfulness during meals, you may like to eat silently from time to time. Your first silent meal may cause you to feel a little uncomfortable, but once you become used to it, you will realize that meals in silence bring much peace and happiness. Just as we turn off the TV before eating, we can “turn off” the talking in order to enjoy the food and the presence of one another.
I do not recommend silent meals every day. Talking to each other can be a wonderful way to be together in mindfulness. But we have to distinguish among different kinds of talk. Some subjects can separate us: for instance, if we talk about other people’s shortcomings. The carefully prepared food will have no value if we let this kind of talk dominate our meal. When instead we speak about things that nourish our awareness of the food and our being together, we cultivate the kind of happiness that is necessary for us to grow. If we compare this experience with the experience of talking about other people’s shortcomings, we will realize that the awareness of the piece of bread in our mouth is much more nourishing. It brings life in and makes life real.
So, while eating, we should refrain from discussing subjects that can destroy our awareness of our family and the food. But we should feel free to say things that can nourish awareness and happiness. For instance, if there is a dish that you like very much, you can notice if other people are also enjoying it, and if one of them is not, you can help him or her appreciate the wonderful dish prepared with loving care. If someone is thinking about something other than the good food on the table, such as his difficulties in the office or with friends, he is losing the present moment and the food. You can say, “This dish is wonderful, don’t you agree?” to draw him out of his thinking and worries and bring him back Co the here and now, enjoying you, enjoying the wonderful dish. You become bodhisattvu, helping a living being become enlightened. Children, in particular, are very capable of practicing mindfulness and reminding others to do the same.
To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!
If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert. With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment.
Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end—that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes; we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.
Walking meditation can be very enjoyable. We walk slowly, alone or with friends, if possible in some beautiful place. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking—walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk. The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step. Therefore we have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment. We can take the hand of a child as we do it. We walk; we make steps as if we are the happiest person on Earth.
Although we walk all the time, our walking is usually more like running. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. We can all do this, provided that we want it very much. Any child can do it. If we can take one step like this, we can take two, three, four, and five. When we are able to take one step peacefully and happily, we are working for the cause of peace and happiness for the whole of humankind. Walking meditation is a wonderful practice.
When we do walking meditation outside, we walk a little slower than our normal pace, and we coordinate our breathing with our steps. For example, we may take three steps with each in-breath and three steps with each out-breath. So we can say, “In, in, in. Out, out, out.” “In” is to help us to identify the in-breath. Every time we call something by its name, we make it more real, like saying the name of a friend.
If your lungs want tour steps instead of three, please give them four steps. If they want only two steps, give them two. The lengths of your in-breath and out-breath do not have to be the same. For example, you can take three steps with each inhalation and four with each exhalation. If you feel happy, peaceful, and joyful while you arc walking, you are practicing correctly.
Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now it is time for us to take good care of her. We bring our peace and calm to the surface of the Earth and share the lesson of love. We walk in that spirit. From time to time, when we see something beautiful, we may want to stop and look at it—a tree, a flower, some children playing. As we look, we continue to follow our breathing, lest we lose the beautiful flower and get caught up in our thoughts. When we want to resume walking, we just start again. Each step we take will create a cool breeze, refreshing our body and mind. Every step makes a flower bloom under our feet. We can do it only if we do not think of the future or the past, if we know that life can only be found in the present moment.
The telephone is very convenient, but we can be tyrannized by-it. We may find its ring disturbing or feel interrupted by too many calls. When we talk on the phone, we may forget that we are talking on the telephone, wasting precious time (and money). Often we talk about things that are not that important. How many times have we received our phone bill and winced at the amount of it? The telephone bell creates in us a kind of vibration, and maybe some anxiety: “Who is calling? Is it good news or bad news?” Yet some force in us pulls us to the phone, and we cannot resist. We are victims or our own telephone.
I recommend that the next time you hear the phone ring, just stay where you are, breathe in and out consciously, smile to yourself, and recite this verse: “Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.” When the bell rings for the second time, you can repeat the verse, and your smile will be even more solid. When you smile, the muscles of your face relax, and your tension quickly vanishes. You can afford to practice breathing and smiling like this, because if the person calling has something important to say, she will certainly wait for at least three rings. When the phone rings for the third time, you can continue to practice breathing and smiling, as you walk to the phone slowly, with all your sovereignty. You are your own master. You know that you are smiling not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of the other person. If you are irritated or angry, the other person will receive your negativity. But because you have been breathing consciously and smiling, you are dwelling in mindfulness, and when you pick up the phone, how fortunate for the person calling you!
Before making a phone call, you can also breathe in and out three times, then dial. When you hear the other phone ring, you know that your friend is practicing breathing and smiling and will not pick it up until the third ring. So you tell yourself, “She is breathing, why not me?” You practice breathing in and out, and she does too. That’s very beautiful!
You don’t have to go into a meditation hall to do this wonderful practice of meditation. You can do it in your office and at home. I don’t know how phone operators can practice while so many phones ring simultaneously. I rely on you to find a way for operators to practice telephone meditation. But those of us who are not operators have the right to three breaths. Practicing telephone meditation can counteract stress and depression and bring mindfulness into our daily lives.
In Vietnam, forty years ago, I was the first monk to ride a bicycle. At that time, it was not considered a very “monkish” thing to do. But today, monks ride motorcycles and drive cars. We have lo keep our meditation practices up to date and respond to the real situation in the world, so I have written a simple verse you can recite before starting your car. I hope you find it helpful:
Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one. If the car goes fast, I go fast.
Sometimes we don’t really need to use the car, but because we want to get away from ourselves, we go for a drive. We feel that there is a vacuum in us and we don’t want to confront it. We don’t like being so busy, but every time we have a spare moment, we are afraid of being alone with ourselves. We want to escape. Either we turn on the television, pick up the telephone, read a novel, go out with a friend, or take the car and go somewhere. Our civilization teaches us to act this way and provides us with many things we can use to lose touch with ourselves. If we recite this poem as we are about to turn the ignition key of our car, it can be like a torch, and we may see that we don’t need to go anywhere. Wherever we go, our “self” will be with us; we cannot escape. So it may be better, and more pleasant, to leave the engine off and go out for a walking meditation.
It is said that in the last several years, two million square miles of forest land have been destroyed by acid rain, partly because of our cars. “Before starting the car, I know where I am going,” is a very deep question. Where shall we go? To our own destruction? If the trees die, we humans are going to die also. If die journey you are making is necessary, please do not hesitate to go. But it” you see that it is not really important; you can remove the key from the ignition and go instead for a walk along the riverbank or through a park. You will return to yourself and make friends with the trees again.
“The car and I are one.” We have the impression that we are the boss, and the car is only an instrument, but that is not true. When we use any instrument or machine, we change. A violinist with his violin becomes very beautiful. A man with a gun becomes very dangerous. When we use a car, we are ourselves and the car.
Driving is a daily task in this society. I am not suggesting you stop driving, just that you do so consciously. While we are driving, we think only about arriving. Therefore, every time we see a red light, we are not very happy. The red light is a kind of enemy that prevents us from attaining our goal. But we can also seethe red light as a bell of mindfulness, reminding us to return to the present moment. The next time you see a red light, pleasesmile at it and go back to your breathing. “Breathing in I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” It is easy to transform a feeling of irritation into a pleasant feeling. Although it is the same red light, it becomes different. It becomes a friend, helping us remember that it is only in the present moment that we can live ourlives.
When I was in Montreal several years ago to lead a retreat, afriend drove me across the city to go to the mountains. I noticed that every time a car stopped in front of me, the sentence Je me souviens” was on the license plate. It means “I remember. I was not sure what they wanted to remember, perhaps their French origins, but I told my friend that I had a gift for him. “Every time you see a car with that sentence, ‘Je me souviens’ remember tobreathe and smile. It is a bell of mindfulness. You will have many opportunities to breathe and smile as you drive through Montreal.”
He was delighted, and he shared the practice with his friends. Later, when he visited me in France, he told me that it was moredifficult to practice in Paris than in Montreal, because in Paris there is no “Je me souviens.” I told him, “There are red light stop signs everywhere in Paris. Why don’t you practice with them?” After he went back to Montreal, through Paris, he wrote me a very nice letter: “Thay, it was very easy to practice in Paris. Every time a car stopped in front of me, I saw the eyes of the Buddha blinking at me. I had to answer him by breathing and smiling, there was no better answer than that. I had a wonderful time driving in Paris.”
The next time you are caught in a traffic jam, don’t fight. It’s useless to fight. Sit back and smile to yourself, a smile of compassion and loving kindness. Enjoy the present moment, breathing and smiling, and make the other people in your car happy. Happiness is there if you know how to breathe and smile, because happiness can always be found in the present moment. Practicing meditation is to go back to the present moment in order to encounter the flower, the blue sky, the child. Happiness is available.
We have so many compartments in our lives. How can we bring meditation out of the meditation hall and into the kitchen, and the officer in the meditation hall we sit quietly, and try to be aware of each breath. How can our sitting influence our non-sitting time? When a doctor gives you an injection, not only your arm hut your whole body benefits from it. When you practice half an hour of sitting meditation a day, that time should be for all twenty-four hours, and not just for that half-hour. One smile, one breath, should be for the benefit of the whole day, not just for that moment. We must practice in a way that removes the barrier between practice and non-practice.
When we walk in the meditation hall, we make careful steps, very slowly. But when we go to the airport or the supermarket, we become quite another person. We walk very quickly, less mindfully. How can we practice mindfulness at the airport and in the supermarket? I have a friend who breathes between telephone calls, and it helps her very much. Another friend does walking meditation between business appointments, walking mindfully between buildings in downtown Denver. Passersby smile at him, and his meetings, even with difficult persons, often turn out to be quite pleasant, and very successful.
We should be able to bring the practice from the meditation hall into our daily lives. We need to discuss among ourselves how to do it. Do you practice breathing between phone calls? Do you practice smiling while cutting carrots? Do you practice relaxation after hours of hard work r These are practical questions. If you know how to apply meditation to dinner time, leisure time, sleeping time, it will penetrate your daily life, and it will also have a tremendous effect on social concerns. Mindfulness can penetrate the activities of everyday life, each minute, each hour of our daily life, and not just be a description of something far away.
Breathing and Scything
Have you ever cut grass with a scythe? Not many people do these days. About ten years ago, I brought a scythe home and tried to cut the grass around my cottage with it. It took more than a week before I fount] the best way to use it. The way you stand, the way you hold the scythe, the angle of the blade on the grass are all important. I found that if I coordinated the movement of my arms with the rhythm of my breathing, and worked unhurriedly while maintaining awareness of my activity, I was able to work for a longer period of time. When I didn’t do this, I became tired in just ten minutes.
During the past few years I have avoided tiring myself and losing my breath. I must take care of my body; treat it with respect as a musician does his instrument. I apply nonviolence to my body, for it is not merely a tool to accomplish something. It itself is the end. I treat my scythe in the same way. As I use it while following my breathing, I feel that my scythe and I breathe together in rhythm. It is true for many other tools as well.
One day an elderly man was visiting my neighbor, and he offered to show me how to use the scythe. He was much more adept than I, but for the most part he used the same position and movements. What surprised me was that he too coordinated his movements with his breathing. Since then, whenever I see anyone cutting his grass with a scythe, I know he is practicing awareness.
In the West, we are very goal oriented. We know where we want to go, and we are very directed in getting there. This may be useful, but often we forget to enjoy ourselves along the route.
There is a word in Buddhism that means “wishlessness” or “aimlessness.” The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself. While we practice walking meditation, we do not try to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps. If we keep thinking of the future, of what we want to realize, we will lose our steps. The same is true with sitting meditation. We sit just to enjoy our sitting; we do not sit in order to attain any goal. This is quite important. Each moment of sitting meditation brings us back to life, and we should sit in a way that we enjoy our sitting for the entire time we do it. Whether we are eating a tangerine, drinking a cup of tea, or walking in meditation, we should do it in a way that is “aimless.”
Often we tell ourselves, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But when we practice awareness, we discover something unusual. We discover that the opposite may be more helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” We must learn to stop from time to time in order to see clearly. At first, “stopping” may look like a kind of resistance to modern life, but it is not. h is not just a reaction; it is a way of life. Humankind’s survival depends on our ability to stop rushing. We have more than 50,000 nuclear bombs, and yet we cannot stop making more. “Stopping” is not only to stop the negative, but to allow positive healing to take place. That is the purpose of our practice—not to avoid life, but to experience and demonstrate that happiness in life is possible now and also in the future.
The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. When we practice mindfulness, we come to cherish these things and we learn how to protect them. By taking good care of the present moment, we take good care of the future. Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.
Our Life Is a Work of Art
After a retreat in southern California, an artist asked me, “What is the way to look at a flower so that I can make the most of it for my art?” I said, “If you look in that way, you cannot be in touch with the flower. Abandon all your projects so you can be with the flower with no intention of exploiting it or getting something from it.” The same artist told me, “When I am with a friend, I want to profit from him or her.” Of course we can profit from a friend, hut a friend is more than a source of profit. Just to be with a friend, without thinking to ask for his or her support, help, or advice, is an art.
It has become a kind of habit to look at things with the intention of getting something. We call ii “pragmatism,” and we say that the truth is something that pays. If we meditate in order to get to the truth, it seems we will be well paid. In meditation, we stop, and we look deeply. We stop just to be there, to be with ourselves and with the world. When we are capable of stopping, we begin to see and, if we can see, we understand. Peace and happiness are the fruit of this process. We should master the art of stopping in order to really be with our friend and with the flower.
How can we bring elements of peace to a society that is very used to making profit? How can our smile be the source of joy and not just a diplomatic maneuver? When we smile to ourselves, that smile is not diplomacy; it is the proof that we are ourselves, that we have full sovereignty over ourselves. Can we write a poem on stopping, aimlessness, or just being? Can we paint something about it? Everything we do is an act of poetry or a painting if we do it with mindfulness. Growing lettuce is poetry. Walking to the supermarket can be a painting.
When we do not trouble ourselves about whether or not something is a work of art, if we just act in each moment with composure and mindfulness, each minute of our life is a work of art. Even when we are not painting or writing, we are still creating. We are pregnant with beauty, joy, and peace, and we are making life more beautiful for many people. Sometimes it is
better not to talk about art by using the word “art.” If we just act with awareness and integrity, our art will flower, and we don’t have to talk about it at all. When we know how to be peace, we find that art is a wonderful way to share our peacefulness. Artistic expression will take place in one way or another, but the being is essential. So we must go back to ourselves, and when we have joy and peace in ourselves, our creations of art will be quite natural, and they will serve the world in a positive way.
Hope as an Obstacle
Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us—to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.
Enlightenment, peace, and joy will not be granted by someone else. The well is within us, and if we dig deeply in the present moment, the water will spring forth. We must go back to the present moment in order to be really alive. When we practice conscious breathing, we practice going back to the present moment where everything is happening.
Western civilization places so much emphasis on the idea of hope that we sacrifice the present moment. Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment. Many religions are based on the notion of hope, and this teaching about refraining from hope may create a strong reaction. But the shock can bring about something important. I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself hack entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment, inside of yourself and all around you.
A. J. Muste, the mid-twentieth-century leader of the peace movement in America who inspired millions of people, said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” This means that we can realize peace right in the present moment with our look, our smile, our words, and our actions. Peace work is not a means. Each step we make should be peace. Each step we make should be joy. Each step we make should be happiness. If we are determined, we can do it. We don’t need the future. We can smile and relax. Everything we want is right here in the present moment.
There is a story about a flower which is well known in the Zen circles. One day the Buddha held up a flower in front of an audience of 1,250 monks and nuns. He did not say anything for quite a long time. The audience was perfectly silent. Everyone seemed to be thinking hard, trying to see the meaning behind the Buddha’s gesture. Then, suddenly, the Buddha smiled. He smiled because someone in the audience smiled at him and at the flower. The name of that monk was Mahakashyapa. He was the only person who smiled, and the Buddha smiled hack and said, “I have a treasure of insight, and I have transmitted it to Mahakashyapa.” That story has been discussed by many generations of Zen students, and people continue to look for its meaning. To me the meaning is quite simple. When someone holds up a flower and shows it to you, he wants you to see it. If you keep thinking, you miss the flower. The person who was not thinking, who was just himself, was able to encounter the flower in depth, and he smiled.
That is the problem of life. If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything. When a child presents himself to you with his smile, if you are not really there— thinking about the future or the past, or preoccupied with other problems—then the child is not really there for you. The technique of being alive is to go back to yourself in order for the child to appear like a marvelous reality. Then you can see him smile and you can embrace him in your arms.
I would like to share a poem with you, written by a friend of mine who died at the age of twenty-eight in Saigon, about thirty years ago. After he died, people found many beautiful poems he had written, and I was startled when I read this poem. It has just a few short lines, but it is very beautiful:
Standing quietly by the fence,
you smile your wondrous smile. I am speechless, and my senses are filled
by the sounds of your beautiful song,
beginningless and endless.
I bow deeply to you.
“You” refers to a flower, a dahlia. That morning as he passed by a fence, he saw that little flower very deeply and, struck by the sight of it; he stopped and wrote that poem.
I enjoy this poem very much. You might think that the poet was a mystic, because his way of looking and seeing things is very deep. But he was just an ordinary person like any one of us. I don’t know how or why he was able to look and see like that, but it is exactly the way we practice mindfulness. We try to be in touch with life and look deeply as we drink our tea, walk, sit down, or arrange flowers. The secret of the success is that you are really yourself, and when you are really yourself, you can encounter life in the present moment.
We have a room for everything—eating, sleeping, watching TV—hut we have no room for mindfulness. I recommend that we set up a small room in our homes and call it a “breathing room,” where we can be alone and practice just breathing and smiling, at least in difficult moments. That little room should be regarded as an Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace. It should he respected, and not violated by anger, shouting, or things like chat. When a child is about to be shouted at, she can take refuge in that room. Neither the father nor the mother can shout at her anymore. She is safe within the grounds of the Embassy. Parents sometimes will need to take refuge in that room, also, to sit down, breathe, smile, and restore themselves. Therefore, that room is for the benefit of the whole family.
I suggest that the breathing room be decorated very simply, and not be too bright. You may want to have a small bell, one with a beautiful sound, a few cushions or chairs, and perhaps a vase of flowers to remind us of our true nature. You or your children can arrange flowers in mindfulness, smiling. Every time you feel a little upset, you know that the best thing to do is to go to that room, open the door slowly, sit down, invite the bell to sound—in my country we don’t say “strike” or “hit” a hell—and begin to breathe. The bell will help not only the person in the breathing room, but the others in the house as well.
Suppose your husband is irritated. Since he has learned the practice of breathing, he knows that the best thing is to go into that room, sit down, and practice. You may not realize where he has gone; you were busy cutting carrots in the kitchen. But you suffer also, because you and he just had some kind of altercation. You are cutting the carrots a hit strongly, because the energy of the anger is translated into the movement. Suddenly, you hear the bell, and you know what to do. You stop cutting and you breathe in and out. You feel better, and you may smile, thinking about your husband, who knows what to do when he gets angry. He is now sitting in the breathing room, breathing and smiling. That’s wonderful; not many people do that. Suddenly, a feeling of tenderness arises, and you feel much better. After three breaths, you begin to cut the carrots again, but this time, quite differently.
Your child, who was witnessing the scene, knew that a kind of tern pest was going to break-She withdrew to her room, closed the door, and silently waited. But instead of a storm, she heard the bell, and she understood what was going on. She feels so relieved, and she wants to show her appreciation to her father. She goes slowly to the breathing room, opens the door, and quietly enters and sits down beside him to show her support. That helps him very much. He already felt ready to go out—he is able to smile now—but since his daughter is sitting there, he wants to sound the bell again for his daughter to breathe.
In the kitchen, you hear the second bell and you know that cutting carrots may not be the best thing to do now. So, you put down your knife and go into the breathing room. Your husband is aware that the door is opening and you are coming in. So, although he is now all right, since you are coming, he stays on for some time longer and sounds the bell for you to breathe. This is a beautiful scene. If you are very wealthy, you can buy a precious painting by van Gogh and hang it m your living room. But it will be less beautiful than this scene in the breathing room. The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.
I know of families where children go into a breathing room after breakfast, sit down, and breathe, “in-out-one,” “in-out-two,” “in-out-three,” and so on up to ten, and then they go to school. If your child doesn’t wish to breathe ten times, perhaps three times is enough. Beginning the day this way is very beautiful and very helpful to the whole family. If you arc mindful in the morning and try to nourish mindfulness throughout the day, you may be able to come home at the end of a day with a smile, which proves that mindfulness is still there.
I believe that every home should have one room for breathing. Simple practices like conscious breathing and smiling are very important. They can change our civilization.
Continuing the Journey
We have walked together in mindfulness, learning how to breathe and smile in full awareness, at home, at work, and throughout the day. We have discussed eating mindfully, washing the dishes, driving, answering the telephone, and even cutting the grass with a scythe. Mindfulness is the foundation of a happy life.
But how can we deal with difficult emotions? What should we do when we feel anger, hatred, remorse, or sadness? There are many practices I have learned and a number I have discovered during the past forty years for working with these kinds of mental states. Shall we continue our journey together and try some of these practices?