Mindfulness In A Busy World

This site contains:
* a talk by Thich Nath Hanh,
* a mindfulness practice,

* a commentary on the Diamond Sutra by Hanh,
* an article on Yoga for soldiers.* recommended books


(From a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh)

(Based on a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Q: How do you maintain mindfulness in a busy work environment? At times it seems there is not even enough time to breathe mindfully.

A: This is not a personal problem only; this is a problem of the whole civilization. That is why we have to practice not only as individuals; we have to practice as a society. We have to make a revolution in the way we organize our society and our daily life, so we will be able to enjoy the work we do every day…

When you drive around the city and come to a red light or a stop sign, you can just sit back and make use of these twenty or thirty seconds to relax — to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy arriving in the present moment. Remember to breathe and to smile....

To live together twenty-four hours a day as a community (Sangha in Buddhism) is very important thing. In a mindfulness-community, you can helps each other advance on the path of transformation and healing. Then you can offer yourself as a center, as a place for other people to join you in the practice. Of course, the community has trees and water and air, but it also has people, people who know the practice, people who have succeeded in the practice, and they are there for you, they are there to share the practice. For instance, when you arrive here in Plum Village, you notice that all the monks and nuns and lay people walk mindfully. There is only one style of walking in Plum Village—that is mindful walking, walking in such a way that every step can bring you peace.

You only accept walking in the Pure Land (Buddhist term for Heaven); you don’t walk in Hell. If you allow your afflictions, your anger to overwhelm you, then the place where you walk is Hell. Walk in such a way that each step of yours transforms this earth into the Pure Land. Every step should have the quality of stability and freedom....

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to go back to the present moment. Your destination is the here and the now, and if you are to arrive somewhere, that somewhere is the here and the now. So every step should bring you back to the present moment. You arrive with each step.

You have been running all your life. You have believed that happiness is not possible in the here and the now: happiness must be in the future. That is why you have always sacrificed the present moment for the sake of the future, and you have developed the habit of running. But when we come to a place like Plum Village, the first thing we learn is how to stop running. Only stopping will help us to get in touch with the here and the now. The things that you would like to see and touch the most are available only in the here and the now. The three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) peace, stability, the kingdom of God, should all be contacted in the here and the now. The present moment is the only moment when life is available. That is why it is very important that we make an effort, with the support of these brothers and sisters, to practice mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of stopping and touching life deeply in the here and the now. To be mindful means to be here, fully present, fully alive; not to be caught in forgetfulness, not to be caught in the past and the future; to make yourself available in the here and the now, to be fully present.

What does it mean to be fully present? To be in a state of being where body and mind are fully united with each other. That state of being we call the oneness of body and mind. Usually in our daily lives our body may be here, but our mind is not here. Our mind is caught in the past or the future, caught in our anguish, our projects, our fear--so you are not really here. The practice of mindful walking, or mindful breathing, can help you to bring body and mind back together.

Between the body and mind, there is something that connects the two like a bridge, and that is our breath. The moment when you focus on your breath and breathe in and out mindfully, your body and your mind will come together, and that is the first exercise of mindful breathing that the Buddha proposed: "Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in; breathing out, I know that I am breathing out."

When you practice mindful breathing, you bring your mind and body together. You become fully alive and fully present. If you are alive and fully present, if you are really there, someone or something else will be there also at the same time. That is life, because when you make yourself available to life, life will make herself available to you. This is clear. Suppose you are standing there, and enjoying the beautiful sunset. In order to really enjoy the beautiful sunset, you have to be there one hundred percent, body and mind united. If you stand there with other people, and yet you allow your mind to be caught by your worries, the past and the future, then the beautiful sunset will not be for you. That is why the basic condition is that you be there fully, and if you are there fully, then the beautiful sunset will be yours….

To make ourselves available to life is the first practice, and you can do it just by taking steps, or by taking in-breaths and out-breaths, and you have freed yourself. That is real freedom: to free yourself from the past, from the future, from worry. Just going back and enjoying your in-breath and your out-breath, you have become alive. Now, the wonders of life become available to you.

Perhaps you are familiar with the expression "Pure Land." There is a Buddhist school called the school of the Pure Land. The Pure Land is the land of bliss, the equivalent to the Kingdom of God in Christianity. There we feel safe, we feel protected, we feel solid, and we feel free—free from afflictions, from anger, from despair. Of course, if we look for a word that describes the opposite, we have the word "Hell." Hell is a place where we have to suffer a lot, where it’s very hot. I think all of us have had some taste of Hell. We suffer so much; we are burned by the fire of our anger, our despair, and our afflictions. We know what Hell is. So we aspire to be somewhere else: the Pure Land, the land of bliss, the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the teachings of the Buddha, both Hell and the Pure Land are there within yourself. And they exist within every cell of your body. If you allow Hell to manifest, then it will manifest; and if you want the Pure Land of bliss to manifest, it will manifest. What we learn through mindful breathing is that every time Hell is about to manifest (in our thoughts), we can be aware of it, and return to the Pure Land of the present moment. Then we give a chance for the Pure Land within us, the Kingdom of Heaven within us, to manifest.



This relaxation technique is recommended by many Western psychologists and stress- counselors. It is based on ancient Buddhist practice called “Mindfulness of Breathing.” It involves no religious doctrine or belief.

(A) Sit comfortably but upright in a chair, on your bed, or on the floor. Become aware of your breath flowing into the body and out of the body. Do not force or control the breath: just observe it. With each breath, simply notice: “Breathing in, breathing out.”

(B) Become aware of your whole body, without resisting any sensation or trying to be relaxed. Just observe and feel every sensation. Watch the sensations arise and dissolve. Do not label them “pleasant” or “unpleasant”: just feel and observe the energy in each sensation.

(C) Become aware of your mind, full of thoughts. Do not try to control thoughts, change them, or push them out. Just be the silent Watcher of your thoughts.

(D) Imagine that you are sitting on the bank of a stream. Thoughts move by like petals floating by on the stream. You do not reach out to grasp them: just let them appear and drift away. Do not resist them or invite them. Just observe the mind, and anchor your attention in the breath.

(E) After a little while, notice the silent space inside you, the silence beneath the chatter of your thoughts. Are you your thoughts? Or are you that silent space that watches thoughts come and go?

(F) Rest in that inner silence. Without strain or effort, notice that your thoughts are swimming in a vast stillness, silent and clear, even when the mind is filled with thoughts! That is the space of Awareness itself. It is relief from the mind, without having to struggle against the mind.

• What did you learn about your mind from this practice?
• Could this practice help your mind or your body manage stress? Explain.


"In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha Talks about four notions that affect all our views and perceptions. These four notions need to be thrown away.

"The first notion we need to throw away is the notion of self. There is the idea that i am this body, this body is me or, this body is mine and it belongs to me. We say these things based on the notion that “I am.” But a better statement would be, “I inter-am.” It’s closer to the truth in the light of interconnectedness; we see there is no separate self that can exist by itself. You cannot exist without your parents, your ancestors, food, water, air, earth, and everything else in the cosmos. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, we can throw away the notion “I am.”

"The second notion the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion of person or human being. When we look into the human being, we see animal ancestors, we see plant and mineral ancestors. A human is made of non-human elements. If we take away the non-human elements, the human being would no longer be there. This is the oldest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect what is not human. Discriminating between human and nature is a wrong view.

"The third notion is that of living beings. We distinguish living beings from non-living beings. We distinguish humans and animals from plants and minerals. But looking deeply into living beings, we see elements that we call non-living beings: plants and minerals. You can see that plants and minerals are also alive. After meditation we see there’s no real frontier separating living beings and so-called non-living beings.

"The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of life span. We believe that we’re born at one point in time, that we shall die at another point in time, and that in between is our life span. Most of us believe we’ll spend seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred years on this planet and then we’ll be gone. But when we look deeply, we see this is a wrong perception. In our mind, to be born means that from nothing we become something, to die means that from something we become nothing; and from someone we become no one. But a cloud can’t be born; it has come from the water in the rivers and oceans, and dust and the heat of the sun have helped create it. A cloud can never die; it can only become rain or snow. A piece of paper can’t be born; it’s made of trees, the sun, the cloud, the logger, and the worker in the paper factory. When we burn a piece of paper, the paper is transformed into heat, ash, and smoke; it cannot be reduced to nothingness.

"Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality. These four notions are at the foundation of our fear, discrimination, and suffering. When we are able to see them as false views, ignorance and suffering will no longer touch us. We’ll no longer suffer because of our false views."

from 'Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way' by Thich Nhat Hanh


A SOLDIER'S EXPERIENCE OF YOGA (from The Pensacola Times)

PENSACOLA, Fla. - When Marine Lt. Alan Zarracina finally did the splits after months of struggling with the difficult pose in yoga class, the limber women around him applauded.

Zarracina, a 24-year-old Naval Academy graduate and flight student, admits he would have a hard time explaining the scene to other Marines.

Each class ends with a chant for peace. Then, instructor Nancy La Nasa hands students incense sticks as a gift for their 90 minutes of back bends, shoulder stands and other challenging positions.

Zarracina has tried to drag some of his military friends to class, but they make fun of him. "It's not necessarily considered masculine," he said.

Still, the popular classes, based on ancient Hindu practices of meditation through controlled breathing, balancing and stretching, are catching on in military circles as a way to improve flexibility, balance and concentration. A former Navy SEAL told Zarracina about the class.

The August edition of Fit Yoga, the nation's second-largest yoga magazine with a circulation of 100,000, features a photo of two Naval aviators doing yoga poses in full combat gear aboard an aircraft carrier.

"At first it seemed a little shocking — soldiers practicing such a peaceful art," writes editor Rita Trieger.

Upon closer inspection, she said, she noticed "a sense of inner calm" on the aviators' faces.

"War is hell, and if yoga can help them find a little solace, that's good," said Trieger, a longtime New York yoga instructor.

Retired Adm. Tom Steffens, who spent 34 years as a Navy SEAL and served as the director of the elite corps' training, regularly practices yoga at his home in Norfolk, Va.

"Once in a while I'll sit in class, and everyone is a 20-something young lady with a 10-inch waist and here I am this old guy," he joked.

Steffens, who said the stretching helped him eliminate the stiffness of a biceps injury after surgery, said the benefits of regular practice can be enormous.

"The yoga cured all kinds of back pains," he said. "Being a SEAL, you beat up your body."

Yoga breathing exercises can help SEALs with their diving, and learning to control the body by remaining in unusual positions can help members stay in confined spaces for long periods, he said.

"The ability to stay focused on something, whether on breathing or on the yoga practice, and not be drawn off course, that has a lot of connection to the military," he said. "In our SEAL basic training, there are many things that are yoga-like in nature."

Zarracina, the Marine, said yoga has helped him improve his posture and become more comfortable while flying.

"Sitting in an airplane for two hours with a harness pulling on you, you will feel a hot spot around your back," he said.

But he said mastering difficult stretches like the splits wasn't easy despite being in top physical condition.

"For the first two weeks, I didn't like (yoga) because it was painful," he said. At Marine training in Quantico, Va., "we did hikes and field training. Yoga taps into those core muscles that people don't really use."

At the Army's Camp Rudder on Eglin Air Force Base outside Pensacola, Army Ranger candidates go through their final and most difficult stage in their grueling training regimen. Capt. Jeremiah Cordovano, a Rudder instructor, said that yoga isn't a part of Ranger training but that some use it to build flexibility.

"It's still something that is sort of catching on, but a lot of guys have done it," he said. "I have done it quite a few times. A friend introduced me to it and I was surprised. At first I was just smiling, but after five or 10 minutes you really start to work out your muscles and stuff."

But the peaceful meditation techniques and chanting taught in yoga classes don't necessarily transfer to the combat zone, Cordovano said.

"I spent 14 months in Iraq, and I didn't see anybody doing yoga while I was over there," he said.

Recommended Books

* Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, D. John Kabat-Zinn (The program of the Stress-Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center)

* The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, Esther M. Sternberg (Director of the Molecular, Cellular, & Behavioral Interactive Neuroscience Program at the National Institutes of Health )

* Achilles In Viet Nam, Dr. Christopher Shey (Psychiatrist compares how ancient and modern warriors dealt with stress)

* At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey, Claude Thomas (Viet vet's healing through Buddhist practice of compassion)

* Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh (Modern Buddhist teacher)

* Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh

* When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron (An American woman teacher)