In his beautiful compendium of teachings, Peace Is Every Step, Vietnamese Mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh gives us the secret to finding happiness every instant of every day.
“Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”
The whole book, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh’s other Mindfulness teachings, is all about what it means to be awake, alive in the present moment. Through meditation and focused awareness of what’s going on in our bodies, starting with the breath, and in our minds, we can develop keen—and ultimately intuitive—awareness of both our physical and mental selves. If you value peace and happiness, it is a highly rewarding path to follow. An excellent ideal. The best I know of.
But of course it’s easier said than done, and for the record, I am but a beginner on the path. That’s why, like yoga, Mindfulness meditation is called a practice, and to get good at it, like anything else, you need a lot of it. Only the real masters like Thich Nhat Hanh, the gurus and swamis, and the practitioners of meditation over long periods of time attain such states of serenity and joy and can navigate life out here in reality while maintaining complete equanimity, peace and happiness at every step, no matter what the external circumstances. They are centered in a space where they enjoy every delicious breath. And that’s how they talk about breathing, too. Delicious.
But what about the rest of us? Those of us who go to school, pursue careers, live with our families, and have civic, religious, artistic, athletic, and other responsibilities and commitments to ourselves and others? Our cell phones are ringing, our parents are nagging, the NCAA Championship is on, and my partner hasn’t come home yet. While striving toward the ideal of peace at every step, especially at early stages of Mindfulness practice, can we reasonably expect to go deeply inside and be fully present with every delicious breath? Even during geometry class or a staff meeting, not to mention while driving to the basket, driving a car, or driving support for Senate Bill 422 (SB422)?
So what’s a busy body to do? Good question, glad you asked.
Make Conscious Choices About What You’re Doing…and Thinking
Many of us—and that’s no royal we, as I am absolutely included in “us” here— get pulled away from full absorption in the present moment by self-conscious thoughts: I hope she doesn’t call on me, how visible is that shiny new pimple on my nose, how will my test grade affect my average and GPA and prospects for college, etc., etc., etc.? Suddenly my peace and happiness fizzle away. Where did the delicious breaths go?
But here’s where my very favorite thing about Mindfulness practice comes to the rescue. It teaches us to be compassionate with ourselves, with our bodies and our thoughts and feelings, even when they seem to pop into ours heads uninvited and of their own accord. The practice tells us it doesn’t matter so much what we think; what matters is thinking about our thinking, becoming aware of our thoughts, which positions us to make conscious choices whether or not we want to continue with them. Again, the whole key is awareness. Be awake, alive in the present moment.
Know when you’re thinking thoughts that are causing worry, waves in the lake of your zen. Knowing that you are fretting in and of itself takes away some of the power stress holds over us. You don’t have to try to do anything, except perhaps consciously choose to bring your thoughts to other places, like maybe your breath or your laundry or the book you’re trying to study. Awareness of our thoughts—rather than just thinking them and allowing them to lead us like a bull being led by the ring on its nose— can mean the difference between buckling under the weight of our worries and harnessing the power of living in the moment.
We all have our favorite trains of thought, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we generally know where those trains are headed: my precalculus train is leading to stressville, my ex-boyfriend train is heading to resentmenttown, and my upcoming concert train is going straight for ego-inflation city. In Mindfulness, we train ourselves to PAUSE throughout the day, become aware of our body sensations and thoughts as often as possible, and then make choices. In every instant of your life, either you control your mind, or your mind controls you.
And guess what? YOU get to choose.
This freedom to choose our thoughts also gives us permission to make a conscious decision NOT to be fully present in a given moment. This morning I set a conscious intention to remain as fully present as I could during an exercise class, to be aware of my changing bodily sensations that come with mad physiological changes (i.e., sweating profusely). I think it was still during the warm-up when a thought bubbled up from a passage I read in Peace at Every Step last night. So I said to the thought, thanks for sharing, we’re taking a class right now, please come back later. But it was persistent and bubbled up again, and again, and again. I take it as a small sign of progress that I was actually AWARE this was going on despite my clear intention to be present during class. So I made a game-time decision to forego my full presence, my full attention and absorption (yeah, the teacher legit called me out at one point for woefully not following along with everyone else), and to see where the ideas would lead. I started composing this blog post in my head. Maybe I missed out on some of the joy (and calories burned) available in that class. But it was my choice, and I felt good about it making it. I came home and wrote it all down. I really don’t like being led by the nose.
So as you go about your day today, maybe experiment a few times with taking stock of what’s going on in your body (meaning sensations, what you’re physically feeling on the outside and inside of your body), what you’re doing, and what you’re thinking. Maybe you’ll discover a new power to change your course if you want to. Maybe you’ll find a delicious breath or two.
Oh, and one more thing. You have my permission to Mindfully, consciously, change your mind at any time, for any reason that bubbles up from your true self.
-Michael J. Youmans, Ph.D., Owner/Director, CollegePrepExpress