The Miracle of Mindfulness:
An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Chapter 1: The Essential Discipline
Instead of compartmentalizing time in to “my time” and “family time” make all time “my time.”
Story about family vs my time:
“I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for my child, another part was for my wife, another part to help with our newborn, another part for household work. The left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.”
“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with my children and wife as my own time. When I help my child with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with my wife. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”
Washing the dishes to wash the dishes
Don’t wash dishes to have clean dishes. Wash them to wash dishes. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that waits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.
Eating a tangerine
Becoming so immersed in talking about future plans while eating a tangerine is like “eating” the future plans.
A tangerine has sections. If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can’t eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine.
Chapter Two: The Miracle is to Walk on Earth
To have “unlimited my time” you must constantly recognize that this is your time. This is mindfulness, keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality. You must practice this not just in meditation sessions, but in one’s daily life.
When you are walking along a path leading into a village, you can practice mindfulness. Keep the thought: “I’m walking along the path leading into the village.” If really engaged then we will consider the act of each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts like af lower, enabling us to enter the world of reality.
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle
How to go through daily hardships and responsibilities of life?
Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise—this is mindfulness.
It is a means and an end, the seed and the fruit. When practicing to build up concentration, mindfulness is a seed. But presence of mindfulness is the presence of life, and therefore is also the fruit.
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. Remain conscious through the whole breath-body.
Walking alone it is easy to concentrate. But walking with someone it is harder. Don’t resist, but concentrate on the conversation and the walk at same time.
Hardest of all is to practice the Way at home, second in the crowd, and third in the pagoda. —Vietnamese folk song
The breath is the bridge from our body to our mind.
A person who knows how to breath is a person who knows how to build up endless vitality: breath builds up the lungs, strengthens the blood, and revitalizes every organ in the body.
Chapter Three: A Day of Mindfulness
Devote one day a week to being fully mindful.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life. Don’t be attached to the future. Don’t worry about things you have to do. Don’t think about getting up or taking off to do anything. Don’t think about “departing.”
Chapter Four: The Pebble
If you want to relax the worry-tightened muscles in your face, let the half smile come to your face. As the half smile (aka indeterminate smile) appears, all the facial muscles begin to relax. The longer the half smile is maintained, the better.
Imagine yourself as a pebble thrown into a river. The pebble sinks through the water effortlessly. Detached from everything, it falls by the shortest distance possible, finally reaching the bottom, the point of perfect rest. You are the pebble. At the center of your being is your breath. When you feel yourself resting like a pebble which has reached the riverbed, that is the point when you begin to find your own rest.
Once one has realized relaxation, it is possible to go deeper and realize a tranquil heart and clear mind.
We also must practice mindfulness of our feelings and perceptions:
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 effort will be wasted. But if he does not know anything about his own mind, all of his effort will be wasted.
Acknowledge feelings and note it.
The Guard at the Emperor’s Gate:
Whatever feelings or thought enters through the gate, you are aware of its entrance, and when it leaves, you are aware of its exit. But those that enter and exit are no different from the guard of the gate. Our thoughts and feelings are us.
When we are angry, we ourselves are anger. When we are happy, we ourselves are happiness. When we have certain thoughts, we are those thoughts. We are both the guard and the visitor at the same time. We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important things is to be aware of the thought.
Monkey and Shadow:
The mind is like a monkey swinging from branch to branch through a forest. In order not to lose sight of the monkey by some sudden movement, we must watch the monkey constantly and even to be one with it. Mind contemplating mind is like an object and its shadow—the object cannot shake the shadow off. The two are one. Wherever the mind goes, it still lies in the harness of the mind. Once the mind is directly and continually aware of itself, it is no longer like a monkey. There are not two minds.
Eventually drinking a cup of tea, the seeming distinction between the one who drinks and the tea being drunk evaporates. Drinking a cup of tea becomes a direct and wondrous experience in which the distinction between subject and object no longer exists.
Chapter Five: One is All, All is One: The Five Aggregates
The subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. To see is to see something. To be angry is to be angry over something. When the object of knowledge (the something) is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge. So when there is nothing to thinking about, there is no thinking.
When we practice mindfulness of the body, then the knowledge of body is mind. Same for breath. Every object of the mind is itself mind. Therefore the contemplation of the the nature of interdependence of all objects is also the contemplation of the mind. The objects of mind are the dharmas.
There are five dharmas (or five aggregates):
- bodily and physical forms
- mental functionings
Contemplation on interdependence is a deep looking into all dharmas in order to pierce through to their real nature, in order to see them as part of the great body of reality and in order to see that the great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.
Example of a table:
The table’s existence is possible due to the existence of things which we might call “the non-table world”: the forest where the wood grew and was cut, the carpenter, the iron ore which became the nails and screws, the sun and rain which made it possible for the trees to grow.
If you took away any of those non-table elements then table would no longer exist.
A person who looks at the table and can see the universe is a person who can see the way. You meditate on the assembly of the five aggregates in yourself in the same manner. You meditate on them until you are able to see the presence of the reality of one-ness in your own self, and can see that your own life and the life of the universe are one. If the five aggregates return to their sources, the self no longer exists.
Liberation from Suffering
People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier which narrows one’s perception of reality, a barrier which Buddhism calls the attachment to the false view of self.
We are only alive when we live the life of the world, and so live the sufferings and joys of others. The suffering of others is our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own happiness. If our lives have no limits, the assembly of the five aggregates which makes up our self also has no limits. The impermanent character of the universe, the successes and failures of life can no longer manipulate us. Having seen the reality of interdependence and entered deeply into its reality, nothing can oppress you any longer. You are liberated.
Meditation on interdependence is to be practiced constantly, as an integral part of our involvement in all ordinary tasks. We must learn to see that the person in front of us is ourself and that we are that person.
Meditate on Death and a Corpse
We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life.
Meditate on the decomposition of the body, how the body bloats and turns violet, how it is eaten by worms until only bits of blood and flesh still cling to the bones, meditate up to the point where only white bones remain, which in turn are slowly worn away and turn into dust. Meditate like that, knowing that your own body will undergo the same process. Meditate on the corpse until you are calm and at peace, until your mind and heart are light and tranquil and a smile appears on your face. Thus, by overcoming revulsion and fear, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living. And it is not just our own lives that are recognized as precious, but the lives of every other person, every other being, every other reality. We see that life and death are but two face of Life and that without both, Life is not possible, just as two sides of a coin are needed for the coin to exist. Only now is it possible to rise above birth and death, and to know how to live and how to die.
Chapter 6: The Almond Tree in Your Front Yard
Reality has three natures: imagination, interdependence, and the nature of ultimate perfection.
The meditation on interdependence is to help one penetrate reality in order to be one with it, not to become caught up in philosophical opinion or meditation methods. The raft is used to cross the river. It isn’t to be carried around on your shoulders. The finger which points at the moon isn’t the moon itself.
Practice looking at all beings with the eyes of compassion: “the meditation on compassion.”
It must be realized during the hours you sit and during every moment you carry out service for others.
While sitting you may be at peace and totally relaxed. But you must be awake as a person walking on high stilts. Be like a medieval knight walking weaponless in a forest of swords. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize total awakening.
When possessed by sadness, anxiety, hatred, or a passion, the method of pure observation and recognition may be difficult. Turn to meditation on a fixed object. Using your ownn state of mind as meditation’s subject. This reveals and heals. The sadness under the gaze of concentration and meditation reveals its own nature.
Don’t worry if those around you aren’t doing their best. Just worry about how to make yourself worthy. Doing your best is the surest way to remind those around you to do their best.
When a great Master is born, the water in the rivers turns clearer and the plants grow greener.
Chapter 7: Three Wondrous Answers
The emperor thinks that knowing the answers to these questions will prevent him from straying in a matter:
- What is the best time to do each thing?
- Who are the most important people to work with?
- What is the most important thing to do at all times?
Story about the emperor visiting the hermit and the assassin
The moral: there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.
***We talk about social service, service to humanity, helping to bring peace to the world—but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all.***
The word “service” is so immense. Let’s be modest at first: our families, friends, coworkers, community. We must live for them—for if we cannot live for them, whom else do we think we are living for?
How can we live in the present moment, live right now with the people around us, helping to lessen their suffering and making their lives happier? How? We must practice mindfulness.
Exercises in Mindfulness
Half smile and inhale and exhale three times quietly when:
- when waking up: hang Smile sign above your head
- during free moments: sitting, looking at a child, walking, observing
- listening to music: pay attention to the words, music, rhythm, sentiments
- Letting go in a lying-down position
- Letting go in the sitting position
- Deep breathing
- Measuring your breath by your footsteps
- Following your breath while listening to music
- Following your breath while carrying on a conversation
- Breathing to quiet the mind and body to realize joy
- Mindfulness of the positions of the body
- Mindfulness while making tea
- Washing the dishes
- Washing clothes
- Cleaning house
- A slow-motion bath
- The pebble: think of yourself as pebble falling through clear stream
- A day of mindfulness
- Contemplation on interdependence: find child photo and ask “Who am I?” through the lens of the five aggregates
- Yourself: say “I will use my finger to point at myself” and then point away from myself. See that you are the universe and the universe is you. There is no life and death.
- Your skeleton: imagine all that is left of your body is a white skeleton lying on the face of the earth 80 years after burial. See it vividly. Your bodily form is not you. Be at one with life. Live eternally in the trees and grass, birds, beasts. You are present everywhere. You are not only bodily form, feelings, thoughts, actions, and knowledge.
- Your true visage before you were born: concentrate on your life’s beginning. It is also the point of beginning of your death. They have manifested at the same time.
- A loved one who has died: think of decomposition and interactions with that person
- Emptiness: contemplate the nature of emptiness in the assembly of the five aggregates
- Compassion for the person you hate or despise the most
- Suffering caused by the lack of wisdom
- Detached action: contemplate on a project you consider important
- Detachment: recall your significant achievements and realize they are a convergence of various conditions beyond your reach. You will now be bound to these achievements
- Contemplation of non-abandonment: see that everything is impermanent yet wondrous