Thich Nhat Hanh is a man who has lived his principles. Exiled from his native Vietnam for his active engagement in the peace movement as a Buddhist monk, he has lived in exile in France for years. He has an extraordinary bibliography of spiritual writing, from slim books to guide meditation to a length biography of the Buddha.
I am not certain he would thank me for providing that short biography. I think he would have preferred for me to start with a focus on the breath, on a gentle step, on the clear sound of a bell, on a dahlia waving in breeze, on an oak tree's cool shade.
I started to read his writings because of my efforts to employ mindfulness meditation to deal with anxiety and fear. I took a course based on Jon Kabat-Zinn's UMass program described in Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. For a while, like so many others, I was struggling with anxiety -- shortness of breath, catastrophic thinking, heart palpitations, the full gamut of fight or flight reactions. Mindfulness meditation helped me to slow down, to focus on the present, to sit with fear until it left of its own accord.
However, out of the structure of a weekly class, it can be extremely difficult to keep up the practice. It is all to easy to let life interfere. So, earlier this week I picked up Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life and started to read it throughout the week. And as i hoped, it helped me to tap into that center of calm when I most needed to do so.
The volume is divided into three sections: "Breathe! You Are Alive," which presents mindfulness principles in the context of everyday life in the West; "Transformation and Healing," which drew my attention in this reading for Thich Nhat Hanh's gentle and insightful discussion of how to best deal with destructive emotions through meditation; and "Peace is Every Step," in which he provides an overview of how we can all approach peace work with help from meditation.
This is an excellent book for novice meditators. It is not written with an assumption that the reader is a practicing Buddhist or has practiced much meditation. The chapters are very short, often just a page or two, so they can be read as devotional texts anchoring the reader in her day. And his tone throughout is gentle and encouraging, even as Thich Nhat Hanh addresses some difficult topics:
"Mindful observation is based on the principle of 'non-duality': our feeling is not separate from us or caused merely by something outside us; our feeling is us, and for that moment, we are that feeling. We are neither drowned nor terrorized by the feeling, nor do we reject it. Our attitude of not clinging to or rejecting our feelings is the attitude of letting go, an important part of meditation practice." (62)
"Our conscious, reasoning mind knows that negative feelings such as anger, fear, & regret are not wholly acceptable to ourselves or society, so it finds ways to repress them, to push them into remote areas of our consciousness in order to forget them. Because we want to avoid suffering, we create defense mechanisms that deny the existence of these negative feelings & give us the impression we have peace within ourselves. But our internal formations are always looking for ways to manifest as destructive images, feelings, thoughts, words, or behavior." (78)
Thich Nhat Hanh also provides some humorous passages:
"Some of us may prefer to go into our room, lock the door, and punch a pillow. We call this 'getting in touch with our anger." But I don't think this is getting in touch with our anger at all. In fact, I don't think it is even getting in touch with our pillow. If we are really in touch with the pillow, we know what a pillow is and we won't hit it." (71)
In the end, this is a book that acknowledges the many challenges and sorrows in life, but draws our attention to the power of the present, the everyday, the real, in the midst of the phantoms of yesterday and tomorrow that plague us. This is a book that is diffused with hope, compassion and love:
“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.”