Tag Archives: Thich Nhat Hanh

If I Am Not My Body and I Am Not My Mind, Who Am I?

Sometimes I have difficulty with the more woo woo aspects of mindfulness practice. I tend to think about my meditation, for example, in pretty straight forward terms. I sit. I close my eyes. I breathe. I pay attention to the breath. If my mind wanders, I notice that, and then I try to bring my attention back to the breath. Sometimes, I notice the mind wandering and then I allow it to continue wandering. Sometimes, rather than focusing on the breath, I might instead meditate on a subject, a theme, a wish for the world or the day, a mantra, if you will. Generally, I find meditation restful, rejuvenating, leveling, grounding, motivating, a place for deep reflection, and I think for these reasons that it’s good for me. Certain philosophical or spiritual aspects of the work come to me with more difficulty. For example, this idea of consciousness somehow being not a part of or beyond my physical self. I kind of get the notion that we are not our thoughts, that thinking is a brain function that fluctuates from moment to moment, sometimes (often) without our control. While we may, from time to time, have an evil or a perverse thought, this does not make us evil or perverse. A healthy approach to the mind might be like a healthy approach to one’s art: that poem is NOT me; it is a moment moving through me. I am not attached to it. Similarly with the body. This meat and water sack I walk around in is NOT me; it’s only a vehicle, a vehicle on loan, one that is destined to break down. We try to take care of the vehicle and try not to wrap our identity too tightly around it. A difficult job, no doubt. But the body and the brain seem to me to be the responsible parties for all the stuff we feel and think, are inextricably connected to each other; when the mind is sick so will be the body. I guess, what I’m trying to put into words is the problem I have accepting mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, enlightenment as NOT the result of stuff that my body and brain are doing, as not a part of my biology. If I am not my body and I am not my mind, who am I? If I am not the one who thinks but the one that is aware of the thinking, who’s that guy? Is he really everywhere? Is he traveling in outer space? Is he connected to people all over the world, past, future and present, as part of something like Emerson’s Oversoul? Can he affect change by thinking thoughts and sending those thoughts out as waves across the planet? Is the top of my head really a glowing purple orb?

I don’t know about these things.

What I do know is that if I love myself I can love others. If I am happy or joyful I can spread happiness and joy. I think these things are part of the practice, but still, they are material, they have to do with the way my thinking effects my behavior and the way my behavior affects the people I encounter and the systems within which I operate. This stuff can spread, right, because if I make someone feel joy they might spread it around ad infinitum. I believe this, and I tell my students this stuff all of the time, that the way we think and what we believe determines the way we live our lives. What we put in, we get out. What we give, we get back. And I acknowledge that this is not a simple matter. Patterns form, some nearly impossible to break. Some of these patterns are not ours. And then there are chemicals and shit inside there that sometimes betray us. I don’t know that it would be helpful to tell a David Foster Wallace, a Phillip Seymore Hoffman, a Virginia Woolf to simply sit on a cushion for 20 minutes a day. I don’t believe that depression is a choice. I’ve had moments recently when I’ve experienced melancholy for no apparent reason, almost debilitatingly so, but it passes, and I am lucky. I have had the good fortune to be able to locate it, look at it, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh would advise, hold it, love it a little, whereby it might transform into something more life-giving and useful. So when we say, this body is not me, or these thoughts are not me, I get that. We are more  than our component parts and thoughts and emotions. We are not that guy cursing because he has to clean up after the puppy, AGAIN. And we share atoms with everybody and everything. I am the puppy. You are my other me. I get that, too. Mostly, though, what I get is presence. How am I present in the world? And it still seems to me that that presence comes out of some combination of body and brain, for better or worse.

1 Comment

Filed under Self Reflection

Mindfulness in 2015: A Silver Bullet Resolution

bell2

For Christmas this year, we bought our nine year old son the latest kid’s  book from Thich Nhat Hanh, Is Nothing Something? Kids’ Questions and Zen Answers about Life, Death, Family, Friendship, and Everything in Between.  While the boy has expressed not even a little bit of interest in diving into The Biggest Questions answered by arguably the most important Buddhist on the planet, I have read it all the way through several times. It’s not my first experience with Thich Nhat Hanh, I have a healthy collection of his work, but it is my first Thich Nhat Hanh experience with children as a target audience, ironically, because it has engaged me significantly more than it has my son.

I woke up today at 4:00 in the morning and my new year’s resolution came to me, in part, I think, because of my interaction over the last few days with this particular book for children.  It struck me that, as I understand it, the Zen practice of Mindfulness is the silver bullet of resolutions because everything I would hope to accomplish this year in terms of productivity, health, sanity, relationships, improvement of any sort, could be accomplished through a more intentional, deliberate mindfulness practice.

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful.

It is alarmingly straight forward and simple.  But I’d like to reflect here about a few key areas where I think mindfulness practice would impact my life–and what it might look like in actuality.

But first, from Thich Nhat Hanh, here is the answer to the central question, what is mindfulness:

Mindfulness is energy.  This energy helps us enjoy what is happening right now.  Mindful energy can bring us a lot of joy.  It helps us suffer less and learn from our suffering.  A good way to get some mindful energy is to close your eyes and breathe easily.  Just pay attention to your breath.  If you can enjoy your in-breath and out-breath, you are creating mindful energy.

This whole breathing advice sounds like what people do when they meditate, and clearly, mindfulness can be practiced through meditation–and I have for a long time been engaged in a tentative and awkward dance with meditation. Introduced to me for the first time perhaps fifteen years ago, I have often flirted with it, but never become a regular practitioner. I find this strange; it has for all of this time had an enormous appeal to me, in part, I think, because whenever I have had an experience of it, I have felt afterwards the incredible gift of it, almost a new man, rejuvenated, refreshed, calm. Perhaps, and stupidly (because my experience tells me something different), I and others resist meditation practice because it seems on the surface like a whole bunch of work.  Let’s hear from Thich Nhat Hanh one more time, in response to the question, what is meditation and why do people do it:

To meditate is to concentrate and look inward.  You can sit down to meditate but you can also meditate while walking to school, lying in the grass, or resting on your bed at night.  If you are quiet and enjoying your in-breath and out-breath, you’re practicing meditation.  If you know how to smile beautifully and without effort, then you know how to meditate. It’s not difficult.

If I ask you why you eat ice cream, you say, “Because I like it.” Meditation is the same.  I do it because I like it.  To meditate is to have fun.

I can think of not a single argument against this, against the various and absolutely easy way it is to find opportunities to meditate, or even against this bold and seemingly counter-intuitive comparison between meditating and eating ice cream. Okay, here’s a resolution revision:

I resolve in 2015 to be more mindful and to find opportunities daily for meditation practice.  And to conclude, I want to make a short list of areas in my life where mindfulness may become particularly handy.

To begin with, here on New Year’s Eve day, I hope to engage this evening in some mindful drinking.  Even though I made myself laugh out loud there a little bit, that’s not a joke.  I believe the central problem that myself and a billion others have with alcohol is that we do not imbibe mindfully.  What does mindful drinking look like? It means, perhaps, being more intentional and purposeful, more conscious about why we drink and about how much we drink.  My mindfulness drinking goal for the year would be to drink better booze and less of it. And never to find myself muddled to the extent that I cannot appreciate and be thankful for the art and craft of a fine brew, whatever that brew might be. I use the term brew loosely: Tonight, it’s brandy, by the way.

With more seriousness, mindfulness practice will help me with stress, professionally and personally.  This year at the school house has been more difficult than very many other years in memory, and the resident nine year old never ceases to come up with new ways to exasperate his parents at home. Mindful breathing will help me deal with the stress and the anger that often occurs when things are not going well in the classroom, or when my dear, beloved son’s behavior goes spiraling southward.

Finally, mindfulness practice will help me do less handwringing about the creative work I feel I should be doing, or the kind and volume of the reading and writing I want to get done, or the better human being I aspire to be, or the more effective super teacher I feel so much pressure to become, through a kind of acceptance and celebration of where I am and who I am in the moment, a concept called sankalpa introduced to me by fellow blogger Yoga Mom.  She writes:

in this relaxed state,
we listen,
and discover
our heartfelt desires
A sankalpa
proclaims this:
I am that 
which I am seeking.
I can relax
as I awaken
to my true nature.

Mindfulness practice and daily meditation might help us finally realize that whatever it is that we desire and hope for the new year, we are already there. Amen, sister. Or Namaste. Or Happy Mindful New Year to you and yours.

7 Comments

Filed under Self Reflection