"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about calming your mind and opening your heart enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call! Musings on Life and Practice by a Long-time Student of Meditation.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Breath of Fresh Air

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. 
All is a miracle.” 
 ― Thich Nhat Hanh

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. 
Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

First, The Good News 

 If you haven't heard by now, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who had suffered a severe stroke on November 11 last fall, returned home to Plum Village on April 4.  According to the Plum Village website, "Thay has been able to enjoy going outside, sitting under a tree and listening to birdsong, drinking a cup of tea and enjoying the sound of the bell. "  

At home in the community he founded, surrounded by the beauty of spring and a team of his devoted monastic attendants, Thay will receive on-site physical and speech therapy to treat  his hemiparesis and continue his progress in recovering his speech.  At age 88, his emergence from a severe brain hemorrhage and coma to return home is seen by many as nothing short of miraculous.

But, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, it's all a miracle. 

Then, More Good News: The Miracle of Mindfulness

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. 
Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh

It seems too good to be true that the simple act of becoming more deeply aware of your own breathing could be the key to recognizing the miraculous nature of our lives.  It sounds way too easy.  

Until you try it.  

When you do, you may quickly learn that the mind has a mind of it's own.  Awash in our habitual conditioning, we are most often "lost in our thoughts."  Although we are always experiencing the world through all of the five senses, proprioception, intuition, and an array of other faculties that science is just beginning to recognize (although mystics have spoken about them for eons), most of our attention is usually focused on the various narratives and images generated from past experiences or imagined future experiences that run through our minds.  The rest just slides by at the periphery or beneath the range our conscious awareness.  In this state, we are missing out on the absolute grandeur of life as it is.  

It doesn't have to be this way.

Many of us have found that learning how to gather one's attention and place it on the actual sensations of one's own breath is an effective means of cultivating Mindfulness, that quality of consciousness that engages the full range of our capacity to experience life in the present moment.  Although it takes time and effort to rein in what some teachers have called "monkey mind", it is well worth the effort.  

There are many techniques that support the ability to focus the attention on the breath.  
(READ MORE)
If you find that simply focusing on the sensation of breathing at the entrance to your nostrils, on the rising and falling of your abdomen, or elsewhere in your body is difficult to do, counting your breaths 1-10, (then back down again) can be helpful.  It gives your "thinking mind" something to do and provides a simple structure.  

Similarly, the second quote by Thich Nhat Hanh at the top of the page is a "gatha", a four line verse intended to be recited silently in co-ordination with two in-breaths and two out breaths.   You could design your own gatha to keep you centered on the your breathing, perhaps evoking feelings of peace and goodwill toward yourself and others as in the Thich Nhat Hanh's gatha.  As you proceed, though, the intention is to experience the actual sensation of your breathing as the focus of your meditation.  Over time, this focus, even when it is in the background of your attention, serves as an anchor in the present moment.

As you find that your mind has wandered off -- and you will -- making a mental note "thinking" and returning your attention to the breath, gently and persistently, is called "noting practice" and is suggested by many teachers, including Pema Chodron, whose written teachings have been a primary support for my own practice for the past ten years.

Having spent years practicing in the Zen tradition, I first resisted this technique as cumbersome and unnecessary.  Yet, as I adopted it, it became clear how useful it is, not only on the meditation cushion, but afterwards where it becomes obvious how much of our day to day "reality" is generated by the thoughts and narratives that run through our minds.  There are times when just noting "thinking" has instantly dispelled the troublesome self-created phantasy world that I was immersed in as I was walking down the street -- and left a beautiful sunny day in its wake. 

In addition, with noting practice, you are given the opportunity to begin to get in better touch with the emotional tones of your own experience.  Oftentimes, those feelings are just below the level of consciousness, at the root of the narrative.  They then are held in place by the unfolding storyline.  

Pema Chodron suggests that you listen carefully to the tone of voice of your own mental "note" and the subsequent redirecting of your attention.  Oftentimes, it can be harsh and judgmental.  Noticing that, you are given the opportunity to connect with a sense of kindness and compassion for yourself, the basis for cultivating deeper kindness and compassion for others.   Chodron also suggests "feeling what is in your heart" as you let go of a storyline and return to your awareness to your breath, opening to the underlying feelings of your experience.  There, riding on the flow of your own breath, the Practice deepens. 


I first came across the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh in his 1975 classic, The Miracle of Mindfulness.  I was amazed.  

Now decades later, although teachers and teachings have informed my understanding, Thay's teachings -- and the miracle that he is -- are still an ongoing inspiration.  Although, I've found other techniques to extremely helpful, Mindfulness of Breathing is still the primary anchor of my meditation Practice.   As the quality of Mindfulness has developed over time, more and more, the present moment opens to display the ongoing miracle.   More and more, with each breath, I am able to touch the textures and tones of life as it is.

It just takes Practice.

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