Life, Death, and Washing the Dishes with World Renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh
Living and dying, washing dishes, drinking tea, and the only time which we have dominion over.
The first time I did it was beneath the stands in a sports arena in Italy.
I didn’t do it for a few months after that until a trip to India where I did it on the airplane.
I had the row to myself so I did it right there in the cabin.
That was 2016.
Fast forward to the summer of 2019, I’m riding my bicycle across the country and I thought I’d do it every day.
How wrong I was.
Of my daily practices, it was the first to go.
I’m talking about meditation.
As I write this morning, my Insight Timer profile tells me I’ve meditated for 78 consecutive days.
And, as I reflect on why I’ve been able to invest in this practice each day, I credit the routine of it.
Cue responses from the James Clear disciples.
When I first started keeping a meditation practice it was for the benefits beyond the buzzwords.
I didn’t want to become a Monk, but I wanted to listen to one. So I ordered a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a world-renowned Zen master, writer, poet, scholar, and peacemaker. With the exception of the Dalai Lama, he is today’s best known Buddhist teacher.
What did he teach me?
A practice that begins with breath
Thich Nhat Hanh believes that mindfulness is anchored in the breath. Referencing The Sutra Of Mindfulness, he focuses less on the duration of a practitioner's breath and more on the practitioner’s awareness of each, and every breath.
"Be ever mindful you breathe in and mindful you breathe out.
Breathing in a long breath you know ‘I am breathing in a long breath’.
Breathing out a long breath you know ‘I am breathing out a long breath’.
Breathing in a short breath you know ‘I am breathing in a short breath’.
Breathing out a short breath you know ‘I am breathing out a short breath’.”
This simplification addresses the common tendency of beginners to doubt their form asking teachers “Am I doing this right?”, and confirms that being mindful of each breath is what practitioners are to be in pursuit of.
On the subject of technique, Thich Nhat Hanh shares that breath should be light, even and flowing. It should be very quiet, so quiet that a person sitting next to you cannot hear it, and it should flow.
“Like a thin stream of water running through the sand, your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a watersnake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse.”
This early emphasis on breathing is because breath is the foundation of practice. As Thich Nhat Hanh shares “To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds.”
Mindfulness is living in the moment
Breath is but a visitor in our body. Temporarily traveling throughout it only to exit seconds later. Where Thich Nhat Hanh directs practitioner attention next is to the permanent homes of our mind and body.
He begins by gifting us a lesson from Zen Master Thuong Chieu who wrote:
“If the practitioner knows his own mind clearly he will obtain results with little effort. But if he does not know anything about his own mind, all of his efforts will be wasted”
Using the Sutra of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh shares what practitioners must be conscious of.
The same awareness practitioners are encouraged to keep with their breath, they must also keep for all movements of their life: walking, standing, washing our hands, washing dishes, drinking tea, talking to friends, to name a few.
The subtle lesson beyond moment awareness is to practice avoiding any investment of thought into the future, that’s how we increase our momentary mindfulness.
Thich Nhat Hanh shares that often when we wash dishes, we also might be boiling water for tea out of respect for efficiency. What he warns against is that to be completely mindful that we are washing the dishes while also thinking about the tea we will drink after is impossible. He says “When washing the dishes it must be the most important thing in your life. When we do not do this we are incapable of living in the moment.”
To further cement this principle of his teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
“When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking.When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious he is lying down. No matter what position one’s body is in, the practitioner must be conscious of that position. Practicing this, the practitioner lives in direct a constant mindfulness of the body.”
Recognizing thoughts and allowing them safe passage
As the creators of our thoughts, to punish them is only to punish ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh admits that during meditation, various feelings and thoughts may arise. The challenge is to not let these thoughts lure us from mindfulness. He teaches us not to chase these thoughts away, simply to let them pass through.
We are not to chase thoughts or feelings, hate them, worry about them, or be frightened by them. We simply acknowledge their presence. When teaching this, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the word to recognize.
“When a feeling or sadness arises, immediately recognize it ‘a feeling of sadness has just arisen in me’ and if the feeling of sadness continues, continue to recognize it ‘a feeling of sadness is still in me’. If there is a thought like ‘it’s late but the neighbors are surely making a lot of noise’ recognize that the thought has arisen. If the thought continues to exist, continue to recognize it. If a different feeling or thought arises, recognize it in the same manner. The essential thing is not to let any feeling or thought arise without recognizing it in mindfulness, like a palace guard who is aware of every face that passes through the front corridor.”
By recognizing each thought and feeling, we retain power over them and remain unaffected.They are there, I am ok.To dismiss is only to store away for later.It reads elementary but for all who have practiced mindfulness before, you know how popular roaming thoughts and feelings are, and the difficulty that is granting them safe passage.
“When a feeling or thought arises, your intention shouldn’t be to chase it away, by continuing to concentrate on the breath the feeling or thought passes naturally from the mind.”
This comes from the method of recognition: recognition without judgment.Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis. Because both are ourselves.
We must look death in the face
“Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live — because death is a part of life.”
All my life, I have tormented myself with the fear of death. I’ve saidit is my main motivator, but that motivation would only then be coming from fear. It wasn’t until reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s letters that I began regaining a control over this relationship.
“We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life.”
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages practitioners to meditate on the decomposition of the body in death and to mediate knowing our body will undergo the same process. He then instructs us to continue to meditate on this until we are calm and at peace, until our mind and heart is light and tranquil and a smile appears on our face. We do this because by overcoming the revulsion and fear of death, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living.
Even more, this is a continuation of the method of recognition. Recognizing not only that our lives are precious, but that the lives of every other person are as well. No longer can we be deluded by the notion that the destruction of others' lives is necessary for our own survival.
A lesson on keeping our side of the street clean
As much as meditations on death and the method of recognition increase compassion towards others, we also must allow ourselves to prioritize our mind, our heart, our body, and our breath.
Let’s call that keeping our side of the street clean.
To illustrate this lesson, Thich Nhat Hanh shares an exchange between a teacher and a student.
“The teacher instructed the pupil: ‘Listen meda, I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance and prevent an accident. Then we’ll be sure to earn enough to eat’But the little girl was wise and answered ‘ Dear Master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourself.To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and will earn enough to eat.”
Rather than worry about another, if we encourage all to invest in themselves and the collective will be well.
In the collections of letters that became The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh elevates the significance of the present moment.
“The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.”
In these moments we find the most important relationships, the most important actions, the most important emotions, the most important feelings.
We recognize them all.
Too often, we reserve energy for the future, failing the present moment.
Personally, keeping a meditation practice has yet to return the essence of the Buddha, but that isn’t my goal. I practice to know myself better. I practice to find myself in the present more. I practice to clear my mind, to conquer fear, and recognize every emotion, thought, and feeling that comes.
My ultimate endorsement of investing in a mediation practice is the belief that should we all heed to the advice of the teacher’s pupil and look after ourself, our shared world will be a better place.
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