The word mindfulness has had a bit of a workout of late. So we thought we would give you (and us!) a crash course in mindfulness and why this simple little concept is all you need to find happiness and peace in your life.
Who better to focus on than the teachings of the father of mindfulness Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced “Tik N’yat Harn”).
Now in his 90’s Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most influential Buddhists in the world. From Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from his motherland in 1966 due to his opposition to the Vietnam War. He spent the next five decades writing over 100 books and bringing the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, compassion, kindness and peace to audiences across the world.
After a stroke in 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh was able to return to Vietnam where he is living out his final days, coming full circle on his life, and preparing for death, or his ‘transition’.
What is Mindfulness?
At its core, mindfulness is about presence. It is a mental state that you achieve by being in the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
When we are not present we are typically focussing on either the past of the future – both of which are projections of the mind. In other words, they are not reality. Not only is the present moment the only reality we have, but as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, it is the only place where we can find true happiness and peace.
Many people think of mindfulness as synonymous with meditation, but mindfulness is just one way to practice meditation. To practice mindfulness, you don’t need to sit on a cushion in a lotus position, and while you can, you can also incorporate formal and informal mindfulness techniques into your daily life.
As Thich Nhat Hanh describes, “Most people are caught in their worries, their fears, their anger, and their regrets, and they are not mindful of being there... Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together. You breathe in and out mindfully, you bring your mind back to your body, and you are there. When your mind is there with your body, you are established in the present moment.“
“I don’t have time to be mindful!”
Take a moment to think about how often you are truly present…
Maybe when you are engrossed in a work task, or a creative project? Ideally when having a conversation with a friend or your children. Perhaps while exercising, or eating a meal...
But the reality for many of us is we might be in the middle of a work task and we, almost automatically, flick to a distracting webpage. Maybe in a conversation rather than really listening we are thinking about what we are going to say next. Perhaps while exercising we are replaying an incident from days, or years earlier. Or possibly we shovel our lunch in while hunched over a phone.
Sound familiar? At Ovae, we are as guilty as anyone of this. Navigating our modern world and juggling so many roles – business owner, mother, partner, daughter, friend etc – is really hard. Even though we know how important mindfulness is, we often find ourselves thinking “I don’t have time to be mindful!” or “I’ll be present later!” Crazy, right?
But we have been sold a lie that all this distraction, multi-tasking and so called efficiency, is a good thing. It is actually bringing us away from the present moment, and away from our true selves.
Is mindfulness really that important?
Um, yeah, it is… Mindfulness has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, or pain, and improve creativity, concentration, and cognition. It can literally restructure your brain, rewiring destructive thought patterns, all while improving your physical body. Pretty incredible, huh?
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you are in the present moment, then you can recognise the many conditions of happiness that are in you and around you, and happiness just comes naturally… Suppose you are offered a cup of tea, very fragrant, very good tea. If your mind is distracted, you cannot really enjoy the tea. You have to be mindful of the tea, you have to be concentrated on it, so the tea can reveal its fragrance and wonder to you. That is why mindfulness and concentration are such sources of happiness.”
Every moment of your day – walking, eating, breathing, talking, and working – presents an opportunity to practice mindfulness and to create a moment of joy and happiness. It just takes practice. “Mindful living is an art, and each of us has to train to be an artist.”
Ready to give it a try? Five mindfulness exercises by Thich Nhat Hanh:
In this simple but powerful exercise the object of your mindfulness is your breath. You simply identify the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as out-breath. You don’t need to interfere with the breath, if you in-breath is short, then allow it. All you do is recognise the breath.
“You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.”
And it gets better. “You can enjoy your in-breath. The practice can be pleasant, joyful. Someone who is dead cannot take any more in-breaths… The in-breath can be a celebration of the fact that you are alive, so it can be very joyful.”
In the second exercise, focus more deeply on your breathing. Follow both your in-breath and out-breath from the beginning to end, until no other thoughts are present.
When you follow your breath with deeper concentration “Your awareness is sustained. There is no interruption. Suppose you are breathing in, and then you think, “Oh, I forgot to turn off the light in my room.” There is an interruption. Just stick to your in-breath all the way through… If you continue like that, your breathing will naturally become deeper and slower, more harmonious and peaceful. You don’t have to make any effort—it happens naturally.”
Now take it one step further by becoming aware of your body while you are breathing.
“Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I am aware of my body. I know my body is there. This brings the mind wholly back to the body. Mind and body become one reality.
When your mind is with your body, you are well established in the here and the now. You are fully alive. You can be in touch with the wonders of life that are available in yourself and around you… In our daily lives, we are seldom in that situation. Our body is there but our mind is elsewhere.”
Now you release the tension in the body. When you are truly aware of your body, you may notice that it is holding tension or stress. It is possible to release the tension through relaxation, which you can do at any time.
An ideal time to practice is when you are driving. “When you come to a red light, you are eager for the red light to become a green light so that you can continue. But the red light can be a signal. It can be a reminder that there is tension in you, the stress of wanting to arrive as quickly as possible. If you recognise that, you can make use of the red light. You can take the ten seconds to sit back and practice the fourth exercise: “Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. Breathing out, I release the tension in my body.” Peace is possible at that moment, and it can be practiced many times a day—in the workplace, while you are driving, while you are cooking, while you are doing the dishes, while you are watering the vegetable garden. It is always possible to practice releasing the tension in yourself.”
Mindful walking requires you to become aware of the act of walking and to enjoy it.
“You don’t have to make any effort during walking meditation, because it is enjoyable. You are there, body and mind together. You are fully alive, fully present in the here and the now. With every step, you touch the wonders of life that are in you and around you. When you walk like that, every step brings healing. Every step brings peace and joy, because every step is a miracle.”
At Ovae we are convinced – we need to make some changes! Do you need some further inspiration? Stay tuned for Part Two where we share some of our favourite of Thich Nhat Hanh’s lessons on life.
~ Ovae’s Resident Blogger ~