Trying to breathe mindfully as a Vietnamese nurse applied stitches to my bleeding foot, after I had absentmindedly sliced it open on a water glass, I knew it was time for a refresher in mindfulness.
Too much online work had turned my monkey mind into a roaming beast that needed to be tamed. My regular morning meditation no longer did the trick. Practicing mindfulness had become another item on my to-do list.
20 minutes meditation in the morning before the busyness of daily life has had a chance to frazzle me, had become too easy. Tick, done, next item on the list please.
A week living alongside monastics, learning from those who practice deeply, was what I needed to integrate mindfulness more fully into my life. As soon as my foot had healed, together with my then 19-year old niece I boarded a plane to Bangkok, bound for Thai Plum Village, the largest mindfulness meditation practice centre in Asia in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition.
About 3 hours outside of Bangkok, at the edge of Khao Yai National Park, Thai Plum Village is home to about 180 monastics, most of whom are young Vietnamese disciples. In 2017, when I visited, it was also home to Thay (meaning ‘teacher’), as Thich Nhat Hanh, the master of mindful living, is affectionately referred to by his students. He’d moved to Thailand from France after suffering a stroke and before being allowed to resettle at the Root Temple in Hue, Vietnam, the place of his original ordination at the age of 16.
Here is what living for a week at Plum Village Thailand taught me about mindfulness:
Mindfulness is not a tool, it’s a lifestyle
I’ve always thought of mindfulness as a tool that helps us stay centred and focused in today’s frazzled world. Learning to become more mindful, I assumed, was just a matter of sharpening my tools, like the edge of a blunt knife.
But it’s so much more than that as a young, charismatic and very hip, bilingual Canadian-Vietnamese monk, brother Phap Huu taught us on day two.
Mindfulness is very hip at the moment, he said. But make no mistake, it’s not simply a tool, it is a lifestyle. It takes a 24/7 commitment. It was the message I had come to hear.
Brother Phap Huu shared with us the extraordinary experience of watching Thay continuing to practice mindful breathing in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital in Bordeaux after sustaining a haemorrage. The doctors where flabbergasted by the Zen monk who continued to meditate whilst in a coma.
At one point a stressed-out doctor, who was attending to other patients, came into the room to take refuge in the calm energy of Thay’s presence. She needed to fill up on a moment of stillness to help her get through her busy day. Even when in a coma in ICU, brother Phap Huu said, Thay continued to practice and to teach.
The hip young abbot concluded his spell-binding dharma talk with an unexpected rendition of one of his very own rap songs about mindfulness, followed by a Bruno Mars song.
My 19 year old niece was hooked. Clearly, there are many ways to practice mindfulness as a lifestyle.
The power of the mindfulness bell
One of the easiest and most effective ways to practice mindfulness off the cushion, is to stop every fifteen minutes to the chime of a bell, and take three conscious breaths.
At first, I was mystified when suddenly, everybody around me froze, mid-sentence, mid-step, as if in a silent pantomime play. I didn’t immediately make the connection with the clock, that chimed at regular intervals, sounding a bit like my grandmother’s old wall clock.
The Mindfulness Bell, which is also available as a free app for smartphones and computers, is a powerful way to train the mind to return to the present moment, every fifteen minutes, no matter what is going on in our busy lives. It’s a way to release tensions of body and mind, by mentally repeating the words:
I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home. Our true home is in the present moment .
Realising that the present moment is our true home
The expression ‘I have arrived, I am home. My destination is in every step’, is one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s key messages.
To make sure nobody can possibly miss it, it’s written in beautiful calligraphy (a legacy of Thich Nhat Hanh himself) on a large ornamental rock, strategically placed halfway between the women’s dorm and the meditation hall. I passed it countless times every day, and I never tired to stop and soak up the deep peace this simple message gave me.
Remembering that my true home is right here, right now, not in the past, not in the future, but in the present moment, is a powerful way of becoming centred on and off the cushion.
The practice of deep listening
One of the ways we can integrate mindfulness into every aspect of our daily lives is the practice of deep listening. As brother Phap Huu pointed out, it’s also the message that resonated most strongly with Oprah when Thay was a guest on her show. No wonder mindfulness is so hip!
When we listen deep inside ourselves we are able to develop a relationship with our true selves. Listening to our inner sufferings, Thay says, is a way to resolve most problems we encounter and to heal ourselves. To be happy, we need to find happiness within ourselves, not in others. It starts by practicing self compassion, by learning to be present to listen and to pay attention to our inner wounded child.
By listening deeply and with compassion to others, Thay says, we can help relieve the suffering of another person. It’s the most precious gift we can give another. But it’s not as easy it it sounds, as it requires us to listen with the sole purpose of helping the other, without judging, reacting, criticising and analysing, simply accepting and continuing with compassion, even if the other is full of bitterness and misconceptions.
“Deep listening, compassionate listening is not listening with the purpose of analyzing or even uncovering what has happened in the past. You listen first of all in order to give the other person relief, a chance to speak out, to feel that someone finally understands him or her. Deep listening is the kind of listening that helps us to keep compassion alive while the other speaks, which may be for half an hour or forty-five minutes. During this time you have in mind only one idea, one desire: to listen in order to give the other person the chance to speak out and suffer less. This is your only purpose. Other things like analyzing, understanding the past, can be a by-product of this work. But first of all listen with compassion. Compassion” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditation doesn’t have to be a chore
Living with monastics for a week was an important reminder that meditation is something we must practice in our everyday actions. When we wash the dishes we are focused on only washing the dishes. When we eat, we are focused on chewing our food, recognising the work that has gone into preparing it, acknowledging the gift mother earth gives us every day. When we walk, we are careful how we place each foot in front of the other, without hurrying.
The early morning sitting mediation at Plum Village is followed by walking meditation. On many mornings there was also a group stretching session. Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition is so popular, I realised, because it has adopted the teachings of the Buddha to the needs of the modern world. I was surprised to find myself surrounded by confused and questing millennials in search of meaning and healing.
The daily dharma sharing sessions were an honest exchange of real problems and solutions. There were many heartbreaking stories of inter-generational trauma, families destroyed by alcoholism and violence, young people suffering burn-out from stressful jobs that left them unfulfilled.
Everybody had come in search of meaning and inner peace, tears were shed, new bonds were forged and new insights gleaned from Thich Nhat Hanh’s many books. Everybody left feeling restored, calm and with renewed faith in our ability to heal ourselves thanks to Thay’s easy to implement self-help tools.
I am deeply humbled and grateful to have learned from monastics, some as young as 17, who have chosen the challenging path of living mindfulness as a 24/7 lifestyle.