Mindfulness of Ourselves - Mindfulness
by Thich Nhat Hanh
excerpts from a talk delivered Saturday evening
September 28, 2002
Peace Walk 2002
Let us enjoy our breathing.
Breathing in--I feel I am alive.
Breathing out--I smile to life.
To Life smiling to life
Anger. There's a seed of anger in every one of us. There is also a seed of fear, a seed of despair. And when the seed of anger manifests, we should know how to recognize it, how to embrace it, and how to bring [ourselves] relief. When the seed of fear manifests itself as energy in the upper level of our consciousness, we should be able to recognize it, to embrace it tenderly, and to transform it. And the agent of transformation and healing is called mindfulness.
Mindfulness is another kind of energy that is in us in the form of a seed also. If we know how to practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, then we should be able to touch the seed of mindfulness in us and transform it into a zone of energy. And with that energy of mindfulness, we can recognize our anger, our fear, our despair. We practice recognizing and embracing.
When a mother working in the kitchen hears the cries of her baby, she puts anything she is holding down and goes to the room of the baby, picks the baby up and holds the baby dearly in her arms. We do exactly the same thing when the seed of anger and fear manifest in us; our fear, our anger is our baby. Let us not try to suppress and to fight our fear and our anger. Let us recognize its presence; let us embrace it tenderly like a mother embracing her baby.
When a mother embraces her baby, the energy of tenderness begins to penetrate into the body of the baby. The mother does not know, yet, what is the cause of the suffering of the baby, but the fact that she is holding the baby tenderly can already help. The energy of tenderness and compassion in a mother begins to penetrate into the body of the baby, and the baby gets some relief right away. The baby may stop crying. And if the mother knows how to continue the practice of holding the baby mindfully, tenderly, she will be able to discover the cause of the suffering of the baby.
When the seed of anger is watered, when the seed of fear is watered, whether by yourself or by another person or by the mass media--because the mass media in this country has watered a lot the seed of anger and fear in us--we should know how to recognize, embrace and bring relief to our anger and our fear.
The attitude is the attitude of non-duality, non-violence. Our fear, our anger are not our enemies; they are us. We have to treat our fear, our anger in a most non-violent way, the most non-dualistic way, like we are treating our own baby. So if you are a good practitioner of meditation, you will know exactly what to do when the seed of anger is watered and begins to manifest in the upper level of your consciousness. With the practice of mindful breathing or mindful walking, you generate the energy of mindfulness, and exactly with that energy, you can recognize the energy of anger, of fear in you.
Anger is energy number one. By practicing mindful breathing or mindful walking, we generate the energy number two: the energy of mindfulness. We call it in Buddhist terms: mindfulness of anger. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. When you drink your water mindfully, that is called mindfulness of drinking. When you eat mindfully, that is called mindfulness of eating. When you breathe mindfully, in and out, that is called mindfulness of breathing. When you walk mindfully, it is called mindfulness of walking. So, when you recognize your anger, embrace your anger tenderly with that energy of mindfulness, it is called mindfulness of anger, mindfulness of despair, mindfulness of fear. We should be able to learn and help the young people to learn how to do it. It's very important.
The Buddha offers us very concrete and simple exercises in order to become mindful. The first exercise on mindful breathing is: Breathing in--I know I am breathing in. Breathing out--I know I am breathing out. You can reduce the length of the sentence to one word. In. Out. While you are breathing in, you just recognize that this is your in breath, and you use the word, in. And you are wholly concentrated on your in breath. Nothing else. You become your in breath. You're not thinking of anything. You're not thinking of the past, of the future, of your projects. You release everything. You just follow your in breath, and you become one with your in breath. And the energy of mindfulness is generated together with the energy of concentration.
If you are an organic gardener, you know that a flower is made of several elements that may be called non-flower elements: the sunshine, the cloud, the minerals and the seed. And among the non-flower elements, there is the element compost garbage. The garden always produces garbage. If you are an organic gardener, you know how to handle the garbage. You know the techniques of transforming the garbage back into compost and into flowers. You don't have to throw away anything at all. So, the energy of fear, of anger should be considered to be the garbage. Let it be produced, because it can become the art of mindful living.
So, now we should learn how to handle the garbage in us, namely, craving, anger, fear and despair. We should not be afraid of the garbage in us if we know how to transform it back into joy, into peace.
Mindfulness has the power, has the capacity of helping us to recognize what is there in the present moment. When anger is there, we recognize the fact that anger is there. When fear is there, we recognize the fact that fear is there. And the practice is not to fight, to suppress, but to recognize and to embrace.
"Oh my little anger, I know you. You are my old friend. I will take good care of you. Oh my little fear, I know you are always there. I will take good care of you." That is the attitude of non-duality, the attitude of non-violence, because we know that mindfulness is us; love is us; but fear and anger are us, also.
Let us not fight. Let us only take care and transform. The organic gardener doesn't have to fight the garbage placed in (or created by) the garden. She knows exactly what to do in order to handle the garbage, in order to transform it back into cucumber, into tomatoes, et cetera.
The first function of mindfulness is to recognize what is there, positive or negative. The second function of mindfulness is to embrace it and to get deeply in touch with it. If it is a positive thing like a blue sky or the beautiful face of a child, that becomes something very nourishing, very healing for us. And if it is something negative, like hatred or fear, we should be able to embrace it and bring relief to it.
The third function of mindfulness is to help us look deeply into the nature of what is there; in this case, fear or anger. The nature of something means the root of that something: how this fear has been created; how this anger has manifested. Look deeply into the nature of our fear and our anger in order to see their true nature. When we understand, when we have insight into the nature of our fear and our anger, that insight will help transform our fear, our anger into positive energies.
Looking deeply helps us to recognize, to realize things that we have not realized before. In the past three years, we have been bringing groups of Israelis and Palestinians to Plum Village (where we live and practice) to support their practice. We have learned a lot from them, also. When they arrive, they always bring with them a lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of suspicion. They could not talk to each other, because everyone has a lot of suspicion and anger and fear in himself or herself....
The groups of Israelis and Palestinians, when they arrive, they are introduced to the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking right away. The practice helps to generate the energy of mindfulness so they can recognize and embrace their fear, their anger, their suspicion, their despair. We do it together with the support of the International Community of Meditation. The Jews and Palestinians practice sitting together, eating mindfully and silently together, walking together, breathing together for a number of days -- seven days, eight days, nine days. Every day they listen to a Dharma talk in order to receive the teachings on how to do the practice of mindfully recognizing their fear, their anger, their suspicion and their despair, how to embrace them and how to treat them with nonviolence and non-duality.
About ten days are necessary for each of them to be able to see more clearly, because anger and fear prevent us from seeing things clearly, especially when anger or fear has become collective. When anger has become collective, when fear has become collective, it's extremely dangerous for our nation and for the world. That is why we should practice not only as individuals but also as communities, as nations.
With the support of the international community, the Jews and the Palestinians are able to come down, and now they are assisted in the practice of listening deeply with compassion to the other groups. Listening to our own suffering, our own fear, our own anger is the first thing we have to do as a person and as a community. After that, when we have some insight about the roots of our fear, our anger, our despair, then we can listen to other groups of people. While listening, you have to practice mindful breathing in order to keep calm, to maintain compassion in you, because that practice of deep listening is also called the practice of compassionate listening. Compassionate listening means to listen with one purpose: helping the other side, the other person to express himself or herself and to get relief. You don't listen to criticize. You just listen in order to give the other person a chance to empty his heart; to empty her heart in order to get relief.
When you can listen like that for one hour to the other person, he or she will get relief. During the whole time of listening, you keep your practice of mindful breathing, in order to maintain compassion. If these two things do not exist during the time of listening, your listening will not have a good effect. Even if the other side says things that are full of wrong perceptions, blaming and judgment, you are still capable of listening with compassion. This is extremely important. And that is possible only with the practice of mindful breathing and the maintaining of compassion during the whole time of listening. We have to train ourselves for at least one week in order to be able to do it and to help our beloved one get relief.
When you are the person who speaks, you practice gentle speech, loving speech. You have the right, and you have a duty to tell the other group of people, the other person, what is in your heart. But you have to use the kind of language that can convey your feelings, that can convey your insights, your suffering to the other person; namely, the language of love and kindness. If you do not use the language of love and kindness, then you touch off the energy of anger and hatred in the other person, and he or she will not be able to listen to you. That is why it is very important to practice loving speech, gentle speech. That is the subject of the fourth mindfulness training in the Buddhist tradition.
So, with the assistance and the support of the Plum Village community, the two groups sit down and practice listening to each other and using gentle speech. It works very well always. Listening like that in the presence of many, many other practitioners, you realize-- maybe for the first time-- that on the other side they are human beings also, and they have already suffered very deeply because of anger, of hatred, of violence, of despair. The moment that you realize they are human beings who have suffered deeply also, compassion begins to arise in your heart, and now you are able to look at them with the eyes of compassion. You have become a Bodhisattva, capable of using the eyes of compassion in order to look at other living human beings.
Fourteen days or twenty-one days can produce a miracle. There are people who say, after having been in Plum Village, "I believe that peace is possible in the Middle East." Both groups want to bring home the practice; to organize sessions of practice among friends. Now they have set up Sanghas, communities of practice--a little bit everywhere in the Middle East. And they want to maintain their practice, because their practice helped them maintain compassion and insight, [and allowed them] not to be drowned in the ocean of despair.
It is our conviction that if their leaders come together and practice the same kind of practice, they will be able to bring peace and reconciliation to the Middle East. If we practice, if we organize a peace conference supported by many nations, and if we organize so that the two parties have a chance to try this kind of practice, then the peace conference will bring a wonderful result. Because if you still have a lot of anger, a lot of suspicion, a lot of hatred, it would be extremely difficult for you to come to an agreement that will really bring peace and well-being to the two nations, the two people.
I would like to tell you the story of a couple who live in California. They have practiced in this mindful way. The lady, who is a Catholic, wanted to commit suicide, because she had suffered so much. There was no joy in her life anymore. Her husband was like a bomb, ready to explode at any time. He had a lot of anger, a lot of bitterness, a lot of frustration, a lot of violence in him. The three children, who attended university, were very afraid of coming close to their father. Their father would get angry at anything--would explode at any time. He believed that his wife and his three children were boycotting him, and that made his anger and frustration grow bigger and bigger every day.
The lady had a friend, a Buddhist practitioner, who was aware of her situation, and who had tried to persuade her to listen to a Dharma talk given by her teacher. The title of the Dharma talk, in the form of a cassette tape, is "How to Diffuse a Bomb." When you contain within yourself too much violence, too much anger, you become very tense. You become like a bomb. You suffer very much, and you spill your suffering all over the people who live with you, and people are afraid of you. They don't want to approach you, and then you believe that everyone is boycotting you. You are extremely lonely.
The Buddhist lady believed that if her friend listened to the Dharma talk, she would know how to help diffuse the bomb in her husband. But that lady considered herself a Catholic. She said, "I am a Catholic. Why should I listen to this kind of stuff?"
But the morning that [the lady] called and announced that she was going to die, her Buddhist friend asked her to come over right away. She wanted to see her for the last time, and this time she tried her best to convince the lady to listen to the talk. She said, "You always said that I am your best friend, and the only thing I ask you to do is to listen to the Dharma talk of my teacher. I don't think that you are truly my friend." That challenge helped. The lady told herself, "Now, I am going to die. Why don't I satisfy the person I consider to be my friend." So she agreed to listen to the Dharma talk.
The Buddhist lady withdrew in order to allow her friend to be alone in the living room, and she began to listen to the cassette tape. As she listened to the Dharma talk, insight came to her. She recognized the fact that the suffering in her had not been created only by her husband, but by herself. And the suffering in her husband had not been created by her husband alone, but she had participated in creating the suffering in him. When she listened to the Dharma talk, she realized that in the last six years, she never used the kind of language that is called loving speech. She always blamed him. She always used a very sour language, full of blaming and judgment. She realized she had made the situation worse every day, and she felt that she was partly responsible for her own suffering and the suffering of her husband.
When you suffer, you have the tendency to blame the other person as the only source of your suffering. You don't recognize that you are responsible to some extent for your suffering, and you have also created the suffering of the other person. That was her insight during the time that she listened to the talk, and her heart opened, and for the first time in so many years, she felt sorry. She felt compassion for herself and for her husband.
She was animated, inspired by the idea of going home and helping her husband by practicing listening deeply, listening with compassion. She became very enthusiastic. But her Buddhist friend said, "No, my friend. You are still very weak. You have to train yourself at least one week in order to be able to do so. Because if you listen to him, and if his language is full of blaming and wrong perceptions, you will interrupt him and spoil everything. You have to train yourself first. Let me propose to you this. My teacher is coming from France, and he is going to offer in the Bay area two retreats, one for the Vietnamese-speaking people and one for the English-speaking people. Why don't you sign up for the first retreat?"
The Catholic lady accepted, and during the six-day retreat, she practiced with all her heart, because for her it was a matter of life and death. That is why she invested herself entirely into the practice. She learned how to breathe, how to walk, how to embrace the suffering in her, how to use the kind of loving speech that will be able to open the heart of her husband. And with the support of other practitioners, she went very deeply into the practice.
The night that she came home, she put into practice what she had learned on the retreat. She was very silent that night, practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking. And, finally, she came and sat down close to [her husband], and she began to speak. She said, "My husband, I know that you have suffered terribly during the past six or seven years. I have not been able to help you, and I have made the situation worse. I am sorry. I did not know how to listen to you. I didn't know what was going on in your heart, in your mind. I was blind. I was unable to see. And that is why I have made the situation worse. I didn't want you to suffer. I wanted you to be happy, but because I did not know how, I have made the situation worse. So, please, my husband, please help me. Please tell me what is in your heart. I want to understand so that I will not repeat the unskillful things I have done. I am very sorry. You have to help me; alone I cannot change."
She was very surprised to see him begin to cry like a little boy. Seeing that, she knew that the door of communication had opened. So she practiced mindful breathing, deeply, and she insisted, "Please, my husband, please tell me what is in your heart. I will try to listen. I will try to understand. I want you to be happy. I don't want you to suffer."
It turned out, that that night was a very healing night for both of them. She was very successful in her practice of deep listening and using loving speech, and she was able to restore communication. She was able to convince him to sign up for the second retreat of mindfulness. And during the last day of the second retreat, he stood up and he introduced his wife as a bodhisattva. (A bodhisattva in Buddhism means an enlightened being who is able to help other people to be enlightened, also.)
It is my conviction that the practice of the Israeli and Palestinian groups, the practice of that couple in California can be applied as the practice in the international political scenery. The principle of the practice is to go home to yourself and listen to your own suffering and raise your own suffering and despair and fear. That is what I proposed last year after 9/11. Two days after the 9/11 event, I spoke to four thousand people in Brooklyn. I proposed that America should go back to herself, practicing mindful breathing and embracing the pain, the suffering, the fear, the anger, and listening to the suffering of America. On the 25th of September that year, I spoke at the Riverside Church in New York City with Ambassador Andrew Young. We went to Ground Zero the day after, and I again proposed that [America] should embrace this practice of going home to herself, listening to her own suffering; that she must bring relief to herself before she can do something to help the situation in the world.
the United States of America, there are people-- sections of the population--
who feel that they are victims of social injustice and discrimination. They feel
that they have never been listened to. Suffering is there in America, and America
has to practice listening to her own pain and suffering. This is the first step.
There are vast resources of peace in this country. There are those of us in America
who have the capacity to listen deeply and with compassion to the suffering of
America. We should be able to look around, to identify them, and to invite them
to come in order to form a parliament for deep listening, a kind of counsel of
sages, in order to practice listening to the suffering of our own nation, of our
own people. Then we should be able to invite those people who have felt that they're
victims of social injustice and discrimination to come in order to tell us about
their suffering. We should have people who come and help them to practice calming,
embracing their suffering, help them use the kind of language that can convey
the suffering, the feeling within themselves, exactly like in the case of that
couple, exactly like in the case of the Palestinians and Israelis in Plum Village.
America can act compassionately within her frontiers in order to heal the wounds, to mend the wounds within America first. This is the first step. We cannot do the second step before we can make the first step. If you want to help other countries, other groups of people like Afghanistan and the others, we have to help ourselves first, all of us know that this has to begin with one's self. So, acting with compassion and wisdom within our own frontiers is the first step.
Then bringing that practice into the international levels, America can ask other nations to help create sessions of deep listening where America can participate. Around the world there are those who are capable of being compassionate, of being attentive, of being able to listen deeply. You shall invite them to come and listen. Other groups who believe that they have been victims of injustice, that they are mistreated by America and other big nations, they are invited to come and to tell the world about their suffering, their fear, their anger. If we have not been able to listen to our fear, our anger, we cannot listen and understand the fear and the anger of other nations and people. Then there are those of us who can come as volunteers to help these people to breathe, to walk, to calm down, to use the kind of language that can convey what is deep in their heart.
Looking deeply, we realize that hate, violence, anger, and terrorism are born from wrong perceptions. [Others] may have wrong perceptions of themselves, and they may have wrong perceptions of us, and they have acted on the basis of these wrong perceptions. In order for them not to continue, the only way is to help them remove these wrong perceptions of themselves and of us, and that work cannot be done by the Army. That work cannot be done by bombs and guns. That can only be done with the practice of deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech. We have to support our political leaders in this practice.
One of the deepest
teachings given by Buddha is that you should not be too sure of your perceptions.
You have to practice looking deeply in order not to be fooled by your perceptions.
If you are a doctor, you have to be very careful. Even if you are sure, check
again. This kind of practice should be applied in our political life also.
The mass media has the duty of informing the people about what is happening. Journalists, reporters should be able to be calm, not to be carried away by their emotions, their feelings, their anger, their despair, in order to report well, to reflect the situation with more accuracy. Our political leaders have to train themselves in order not to be carried away by fear, by anger. They should be able to retain their lucidity for the sake of the nation and of the world. When fear and anger has become collective, the situation becomes extremely dangerous for everyone. That is why we have to bring a spiritual dimension to our political life.
You have elected your government. You have elected your House of Representatives and your Senate. You should continue to support them. You should continue to give them the kind of information that helps them correct their poor perceptions. The situation of our country, of our world, is [too important] to be entrusted only to politicians. As a mother, as a father, as a school teacher, as a doctor, you have to practice in order to remain calm, in order to look deeply, in order to understand, and you have to convey your insight, your compassion to your elected people. You have to practice. We cannot leave the matter only to our politicians.
In Buddhist psychology, we speak of consciousness in terms of seeds. In the lower level, lower layer of our consciousness, there is a part that is called store consciousness. Store consciousness is the place where all the seeds of mental formations are preserved. There is a seed of fear; there is a seed of anger; there is a seed of despair; there is a seed of peace; there is a seed of joy; there is a seed of loving kindness--all the good seeds and all the negative seeds that have been transmitted to us by our ancestors, our parents. It depends on the environment where we live, [but] such seeds can be watered several times a day. Our children watch television three hours a day or even more. And during the time they watch television, their seed of fear, of anger, of craving may be watered, and they continue to grow. We have to create, we have to produce television programs that are able to water the seed of compassion, joy, peace, loving kindness.
That is why mindful consumption is very important. When you read a magazine, you consume. When you listen to music, you consume. When we begin a conversation, we consume, because a conversation can also be highly toxic. If a man or a woman is full of fear, of despair, of hatred, and if we listen to him or to her for an hour, the poisons will penetrate into store consciousness, and make the seed of fear and anger grow very quickly. That is why the practice of mindful consumption, including consumption of conversation, is very crucial for self-protection, for the protection of our family and society.
... We should be able to stop violence and to take up the path of reconciliation and peace. This is possible. I have the conviction that America has enough wisdom and courage and compassion in order to pick up that path of reconciliation and healing.
When we listen to the other person, to the other group of persons, you get insight about their suffering, their difficulty, their fear, and their anger. And at the same time, you realize that we do have wrong perceptions also. We have done, we have said things that have created misunderstanding. We have not understood us completely. We have not understood them completely. We vow to practice in order to have a better understanding of ourselves and of them so that our action will be in the direction of peace.
America will learn a lot with the practice of deep listening and compassionate listening. The insights she will get will be able to serve as the ground for repairing the damage she has done to herself in America and she has done in other parts of the world. She will be able to help remove the wrong perceptions of the people outside of America, about America, and about themselves. It is my conviction that [she must work to] remove wrong perceptions--for that is the base, the foundation of hatred and violence and terrorism. That work cannot be done by the bombs. It should be done by the practice of deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech.
My dear friends, peace is not something we can only hope for. Peace is something we can contemplate in our daily life by our practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, embracing our fear, our anger, producing the energy of understanding and compassion. And with that element of peace in us, we should be able to support our government, our Congress. And let us remember that peace is in our hands. We can do something for peace every day. Let us practice as individuals. Let us practice as communities, as Sanghas, and let us give peace a chance.
To read a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh's Proposal for Peace,
Copyright 2002 Thich Nhat Hanh