How a broken glass reminded me to practice mindfulness with every breath


I practice mindfulness because I can’t afford not to.

At my age, not being present in the here and now is an accident in the making. Life in Asia comes with all sorts of daily dangers one must negotiate with mindfulness to survive. Motorbikes shoot out of nowhere into your path. Potholes, especially in the rainy season, are open invitations for broken ankles. Traffic lights are always a gamble. A moment of distraction can have very nasty consequences.

Being aware of every step I take, alert in every moment to what is around me as I dodge scooters running a red light, is a practice in mindfulness. I think of it as a form of complimentary health insurance.

Mindfulness is hard work.

Mindfulness demands that every action be performed with awareness. Even a banal act like placing your water glass near your work station needs presence of mind.

I am pretty good at practicing mindfulness in the crazy Vietnamese traffic, but at home I forget to be present in every moment.

Where did I place that glass of water again?

Yesterday had looked like a good day. I’d started at 5:30 am with a 25 minute meditation. But by lunch time, I was juggling four things at once, as you do when you have a long to-do list. I had no more time for mindfulness, I was too busy working.

I didn’t even remember placing the water glass on the floor.

How many times had I told myself that glass on a tiled floor is a really bad idea in a barefoot office.

10 stitches later, I am forced to be horizontal for a week. It was a deep cut. No activity for at least a week. Including yoga and preparing my first online video.

Clearly I needed to learn a profound lesson about mindfulness.

Mindfulness needs to be practiced 24 hours a day, not just on the meditation cushion

25 minutes of meditation in the morning wasn’t enough to teach me what I needed to learn at  on this day. It took a trip to a Vietnamese hospital to hammer home the point that mindfulness must be  be practiced in every moment of the day, not just on the meditation cushion.

The irony is that after my morning meditation I’d read a few chapters of  Thich Nhat Hahn’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. Mindfulness, the Vietnamese zen monk reminds us, begins with the banal acts we perform every day.

“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

The same goes for how you place a glass of water, twirl a bite of spaghetti on your plate or tie up your shoe laces.

“The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality,” Thich Nhat Hahn says. “I‘m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves. “

Well, that wasn’t me yesterday morning. I stepped on my glass of water with utter mindlessness and it sliced deep into my foot.

Being mindful whilst seated on the meditation cushion is the easy part. Remembering to be mindful when we perform everyday actions, is the hard part.


Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness quote


So, how can we be present every moment of the day?

How can we, in Thich Nhat Hahn’s words, keep our consciousness alive to the present reality? According to the master it all starts by focusing on the breath.

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as a means to take hold of your mind again.”

To learn how to follow your breath, to make it calm and even, Thich Nhat Hahn suggests to start by counting the breath.

As you breath in count to 1 in your head, as you breath out count 1, as you breath in count to 2, as you breath out count to 2, all the way to 10, then start again.  “This counting,” he says, “is like a string that attaches your mindfulness to your breath. This exercise is the beginning point in the process of becoming continuously conscious of your breath.”

I had ample opportunity to practice this  as I lay on a stretcher yesterday afternoon, while a Vietnamese nurse with very little English expertly and efficiently sowed up my bleeding foot. I screamed like a mother giving birth, it hurt so much. Once I remembered to simply concentrate on by my breath, I was able to endure the pain silently (or maybe the anesthetic just kicked in).

Every act is a rite

Convalescing on my daybed, sedated by painkillers, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn.

“Each act must be carried out with mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite,” he teaches.

I’ve been drinking my tea as if the world depended on it and I’ve been placing my glass of water on a small table beside me as if it were a sacred rite.

In the scheme of things, my little accident was nothing but a scratch, but it was a powerful wake-up call that mindfulness can’t be confined to a timed exercise on the meditation cushion. It’s a full time commitment.

“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves”

My injured foot reminded me that it’s high time for a hands-on refresher in mindfulness. I’ve just booked myself in for a week of living with Vietnamese zen monks at Plumvillage Thailand next month. I look forward to sharing with you what I learn. Stay tuned!

In the meantime,  please share your experience with mindfulness or ask me any questions that you’d like me to take to the monks at Plumvillage Thailand.

What is your experience with mindfulness?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.





Writing for Wellbeing in Bali: Find Your Voice, Release Your Stories, Unleash Your Creativity with yoga & sound bowl balancing

October 30 – November 6, 2017
(retreat starts the day after the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival)

2 replies
  1. Oliver Marsh
    Oliver Marsh says:

    Hi Kirstin, I found this to be the case for me as well. I was doing meditation in the morning for 20-30minutes but I found I was becoming almost less mindful during the day. I ticked it off my to-do list and went on with the day: I’ve done my meditation for today, got the health benefits etc, and now don’t have to think about it. Since then I haven’t been doing sit-down meditation – “this is meditation now”, but trying to just be more mindful throughout the day. I found I’m more calmer and happier from doing this then the other way.

    • Kerstin
      Kerstin says:

      Hi Oliver, so nice to hear from you and yes, it’s so true, isn’t it, we tend to treat the morning meditation as just another item on our to-do lists. It’s great to hear that the ‘other’ form of meditation, ie. being mindful in every moment, is working for you. There was a time in my life when I spent a lot of time in meditation centres and Buddhist temples and simply by living with monks I learned how to be present in every moment. But it’s so hard to remember to do this consistently in our frantic lives, which is why I am due for a refresher at Plumvillage Thailand. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Oliver!


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