Sacred Clowning

An Interview with Didier Danthois

By Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village in June 2002

Barbara: Didier, how did you create and develop the idea of sacred clowning?

Didier: For me the “sacred” added to clowning is a way to celebrate the eternal quality of our human nature, and ultimately, to share that eternal aspect through the art of clowning.

Barbara: How does the sacred part express itself in the clowning?

Didier: It connects with the clowning because of the way we prepare, the way we tune into ourselves, where we come from with our clown. This work is not about acting. It is about coming home to the present moment. We are interested in touching the quality of this moment. For example, how you feel, how you are, just now, as you are sitting, touching the floor, a cushion next to you. What is around you, and between us as we speak? All those nuances of experience are moving through us in this moment; maybe the shyness

I feel as I speak with you, or my joy. To honor all those qualities as a shared reality, as a ground to inspire us into creativity. An authentic improvisation is born, just from being present, open, receptive; not from an act. You are here, I’m here, and I feel that, and from there, a dance can start to happen. Sacredness to me is connected to honoring that essence of coming home to ourselves and each other.

Doing nothing is the main point for me when I work with people. Sometimes I have people who have had years of drama training and I ask them to do nothing and it is very hard for them. To be on the stage and just be, with your heart open. Do nothing, just feel. Unless we can do that, we cannot touch the truth about our relationships, our true connection to space, to the universe. All performances or work we do with patients in health care settings is based on that attitude. Trusting, being in the now, listening, letting ourselves be touched, rather than coming with an idea to fill up the gap when nothing appears to be happening. True creativity can only come from silence, from not knowing.


Barbara: So when you offer this, what is your hope? That people come into this space with you?

Didier: I would say I wish to meet people. I don’t hope that they meet me, because hope is an attitude which provokes certain reactions. We create an open space where we just intend to meet the other. And that means we might be rejected. If we meet our fears as they are, and don’t try to change the outside situation, or want something different, then there is the potential for transformation. In that attitude, we come to essence, by simply not expecting things to be a certain way, and engaging from a true emotional response to what is there.

And then, of course, we use our skills in movement to magnify what we feel. So we develop dance, we develop mime. We enter imagination and play mindfully. In mime, the essential point is to come to the essence, to the heart of a movement. We can come to essence through feeling, through being here now. So it’s another way to look, and that has been a great key in the way we work as sacred clowns.

This way of working came to me ten years ago, after working extensively with people with special needs. For eight years I worked with blind performers on stage, with people who had Downs syndrome and learning difficulties, people who are often considered to be unable to do anything. I worked with one completely blind lady, and in the show we had to cross the stage running. She saw nothing, and her hand was resting on my hand, and the weight of her hand was like a leaf. She had total trust. At one point we had to jump together, leaping across the stage. We could have run into the wall! I’ve really learned about trust from those students. They taught me so much. Working with them, putting performances together, rediscovering the true meaning of being present, not expecting something. They taught me how in putting the performance together, they were not bothered about the end product. I was, they were not! I went through a lot and over the years they showed me that actually each step is a gem, nothing is separate. Everything is part of the beauty unfolding.

I remember there was a beautiful man, about twenty years old, in a group of people with Downs syndrome. One day he shared a dream. And I took the whole group into creating the reality for his dream. The power of his dream was a teaching and a mystery, so we entered it. All the participants in the workshop created a magic story out of this dream. It was so moving. I was nearly crying by the end of it, it was pure, there was no ego. I did my best to have enough openness not to try to modify but to follow and serve that dream, to open and let go. These people took me back to what celebrates life and the eternal aspect of love and nature.


So how can we bring that quality to the population of supposedly “normal” people, like you and me? And that is where I look for the answers. What was the essence of that experience? Innocence, potency of feeling, presence, authenticity, very little thinking, and joy and fun. A lot of this attitude was coming from play. How can we resurrect play? How can we be in the present, how can we be in touch with our feelings? Then one day I discovered a man called Lex Van Someren who was teaching something called ‘The Dancing Clown.’ So I started training, and soon I was very involved in the humor of the clown and the ability to play with everything that creates it, which is your sadness, your joy, your depression, your wanting to hide behind the corner. All those qualities are not to be separated. The clown is about restoring the full picture. It is expressing opposite energies. One of the names for the clown in the North American Indian tradition is “contrary.” He has the ability to touch on what is not expressed, on the repressed, to bring back to life, to mirror to the society what has been forgotten.

Barbara: It’s like the court jester.

Didier: Yes. It is the same. The clown is to bring back what is left behind.

Barbara: Big job!

Didier: That’s a big job. So the courses we do, we reawaken that ability to get in touch with the present moment. Working with inner listening, rather than outer, and watching the breath, feeling the breath through the whole body.  And I apply that literally to movement. If you want to expand your mind right to your fingertips or your toes, you can do that. And then we get in touch with beauty. Your movement becomes magic because you are opening your consciousness to touch the air, to tickle the air, with your fingertips, or your toes. Then wonder is there and also innocence. We are touching innocence, which means spontaneous, unprepared actions. Those movements are the result of inner listening, of bringing back the sense to their inner source.

Barbara: When you go to a hospital, when you enter that space, how do you help to create safety for those people? How do you connect? Do you begin to express what you feel in the room? I always had a fear of clowns because there is a spontaneity there and a call for interaction, but I didn’t feel safe because I didn’t know what their motive, their agenda was. How do you create safety?

Didier: Another aspect which we train to develop as part of mindfulness is compassion, to really feel the other as much as yourself, and to move into action in response to the other with care. We learn to sensitize that muscle by practicing compassion. Breathing in, dissolving your own resistance, your own blocks, your own fears. And breathing out, offering care to the other. We practice that for each other as a team of clowns, and then for the patients or audience. We practice this weeks in advance as part of daily warm-up, which means the clowns, the artists, already feel relieved of a lot of fear and feel more creativity, more ease, more love. Something has been prepared on the invisible level. We include the staff, the patients, the whole surrounding in our preparations.

I feel this is a very important part of the way we work. And many people feel quite inspired by this way of working because it brings more understanding, more openness from the people we share with, whether it’s a hospital, or a street improvisation.

It touches people. And we are able to share some of the values we’ve forgotten in our society, like silence, stillness, expressing true feelings. Being in places where normally nobody stops. We use simple things of nature to share our experience. We smell a flower, then offer it to someone. This art is about stopping in order to experience the here and now. Sometimes we go into slow motion. A group of five, six clowns in slow motion, walking next to each other. Traveling, but not going anywhere. Enjoying being the Fool, being aimless. This is what I call “Fool at Heart”, the Fool who expresses a response from his heart, or her heart.

Barbara: Tell me about how you work in teams.

Didier: We work in groups with street improvisation and in parks. A landscape of clowns comes together, relating to the space, celebrating nature. This summer we are having a gathering of about thirty clowns. We are working with a group of children in Germany, and are going to create a magical journey of clowns through a garden. So we will lead the children into different mime-clown scenes, really connecting to nature. That’s one example of what we do together.

Another aspect of the work is stage performance. Every year we have a retreat in Scotland, and we offer a performance in a Tibetan monastery there. We offer a whole week of training at the end of the retreat and we also have a performance with the monastics. It’s so beautiful!

We also have a more committed aspect of clown training for the work we do in hospitals. It requires being very grounded in meditation, and true motivation to want to share something from your heart. The nurses are often over-worked and very stressed. You come as a clown, with your joy, playing music, and maybe invite a patient to sing, or play, opening the joy muscle. I have worked with groups of nurses, and through that I have realized how much compassion they have, but so often, they didn’t have enough support to help them integrate challenging experiences. After nursing a dying patient, they might have to rush immediately to the next one. No space, no sharing time, never.  So slowly, something tightens in their heart. But of course, their compassion is still there, underneath all the stress. As a result, the nurses might sometimes feel annoyed with the clowns, or at other times relieved to see them.


Barbara: How do you deal with that?

Didier: I’m a true Westerner, very independent, and I have a lot to learn about being part of an organism. That’s why I’m here in this retreat, and I have a lot of pain to clear. My family and my background never gave me a positive experience of being part of a group. And now I realize the next step for this work has to be in a Sangha, so we can be supported in our values. The teaching of this three-week retreat is just like pouring honey into my brain and my heart, and I’m clearing up so much pain of never having lived in a true family. Here we have a true family. Thay inspires me so much about Sangha building, and how we can celebrate the sacred, the true values of human life. But as soon as we touch those wonderful golden aspects of life, we release a whole cloud of suffering that’s been there for years and years, so we are still very much beginners on the path. How can we hold the sacred view in a society that is not seeing it? That is the challenge. That is why I am here.

Barbara: How many clowns do you work with?

Didier: There are eighteen trained clowns. Clown Care & Co. is composed of two groups in England, (in London and Bristol), and there are other Sacred Clown groups emerging in Holland, and Germany, (in Munich and Frankfurt).


Barbara: Didier, can you give me a specific example of seeing someone transformed or touched when you were clowning?

Didier: We’ve been working with the elderly in a Jewish center, with people between 65 and 100 years of age. It’s a big place, 300 residents, and we’ve been working with teams of clowns and it has been quite beautiful. The residents often say they are bored, watching TV all the time. Some are depressed, waiting for death not having much hope for anything else. Discretely we find a way, maybe over two weeks, to turn off the television. Then three, or four, of us may just mime how we see the residents we are visiting. I might sit there and wait a bit, copying their posture, just being there, breathing, making some eye contact, Not expecting anything in particular – the whole work of clown care is not to expect, but to trust, and doing nothing is doing everything, just being there. And then we can just make a little movement, and very soon there’s a kind of mirroring happening. They start to move, I will start to move slowly, and I start to play some music, singing an old Jewish song they have known in their childhood. We hum the melody, and they start to sing the words.  And as they sing the words, some joy comes into their body, and we encourage a little movement, just connecting to their neighbor, letting go of their feelings of isolation. So it builds up slowly from things that are meaningful to them.

We’ve had many who started to sing with us so loudly and full of energy. We might have two clowns who start to dance in the middle, softly, to the music. If someone is totally withdrawn, which can happen particularly with dementia, we might just start copying them, or for example touch their hand, to bring back the mind into the body. We have to feel how far we can go without disturbing their sense of security. So that’s how we work, we invite slowly, and we engage, in a very careful way, with music, mime, mirroring their feelings, in a true way until we open the door for a possible exchange.

Our mind/heart is a mirror. As you become a mirror, you are remembering yourself, especially when you are old and a bit lost in your mind. Here you are, and you’re fine as you are. And this true meeting is a stepping stone for playing creatively. Then we can start to relate to the invisible, as we touch empty space, letting an expansion arise from the meeting. It’s to expand our mind to a possibility that there is something more than you and me here. This is also the role of the clown. We are entering the invisible. As we enter this realm, something happens in the feeling, in the mind, and it has surprising qualities, it can transform. We start to relate to the invisible.

Barbara: That really helps me understand how you work and how the human process happens, the gift of being together, and the gift of presence. Didier, is there anything that you could offer to the rest of us, of how we could bring this sense of play into our lives, in our interactions with others?

Didier: What touches me so much is looking at beauty. What is beauty? And where does beauty come from? If you move and there’s beauty in your movement, anybody can be touched. Beauty is simply bringing the breath into the movement, and letting ourselves be touched. We often say we have to do something to express ourselves, but actually, to have an attitude of listening and letting ourselves be touched by what is, that is real beauty. The air as you move, the floor under your feet, all those things are the ground for beauty, a kind of beauty that gives joy, and costs nothing. What is art? Art is being simple. Like William Blake says;

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.


It is there. And if we can just really enjoy a flower, or a little shadow on the floor, or some dust in the air, you can enter it. We are very free already when we bring our minds to the smallest things. Developing mindfulness into an art form is the most wonderful gift. The clown is a master at coming back to being

truly human, embracing the sadness and the joy, so they unite and become one. This is the full spectrum, the full rainbow, sadness and joy, there is a quality of reverence in that experience, and it also becomes a potential for play. It is very simple. It is the practice of coming home, being touched and touching. In my performances I don’t work with things completely set, there are just little landmarks, and between them I connect with the audience. The audience is creating the performance with me. We are engaging and sharing a creative moment together, and it’s a mystery. And if we can hold that mystery, then we have true magic. The interaction of opening the space and holding it together, the not-knowing, is really a beautiful interconnection.

Barbara: I’ve been touched, by you allowing yourself to be touched.

Didier: Yes! Right. To not know, and hold it there. You know, hold it right now, just here — I don’t know what I am going to tell you, I’ve lost the track of it.

Barbara: [laughs]

Didier: Just enjoy it!

Barbara: Right!

Didier: You know, if I can just enjoy it, it’s okay.

Barbara: Right, right. It’s interesting how much discomfort there is, in that moment, for most of us.

Didier: Exactly. In that moment, I’ve lost the track. I can panic. Or I can enjoy it. Then we stay together and just trust each other. If you are on stage, with an audience before you, and you fill up the gap, then at that moment you are truly lost. If you are lost, you have also lost your audience. You have lost the inter-dependence. So it’s very important to not panic, but rather to rest there, and not judge the experience.

Instead of performing, we learn to be in the moment, and when nothing is there, just breathe! As soon as you have this attitude as the ground, you are never lost. You are always free, and you are always in total connection with your surrounding and the people present.

[plane flies overhead, making a lot of noise.]

I just lost what I was saying then, and I felt, okay, just felt it, [exhaling long], and I didn’t lose you. But in that moment, it would be easy to fill up the gap with doing.

Barbara: Right.

Didier: This is where we lose track.

Barbara:And especially, if you had kept going with what you were saying, ignoring that sound, you would have lost me, because it’s all happening right there, and we were in it together.

Didier: Yes.

Barbara: – and we need to be authentic with it.

Didier: Exactly.

Barbara: I’m going to try that. When I lose my train of thought, instead of trying to get it back, I’m going to enjoy that moment, that place.

Didier: Creativity is never lost then, because with this attitude, we will be touched, if we remember to trust.

Barbara: Sometimes losing your train of thought is a very good thing, because it takes you back into your store consciousness. And when you feel that the ground underneath you drops away, what you feel is where you really are—you’re coming from a much more authentic place then, a place in the moment.

Didier: Yes, exactly. It is a very important key. And often with art, we are frightened to become, to do, art. We are frightened to dance, especially in the West, everybody is more or less terrified to express themselves. At school, you’re asked to do a drawing, you have half an hour, and you try to do it right, yeah? You have never been told how to touch the magic. I never learned those things at school. I learned the opposite. I was beaten up at school.

Barbara:You just learned how to be judged.

Didier: Exactly. And also to judge myself. So one of the basic things to re-learn is to trust, and in doing nothing, we can let ourselves be touched. To touch the magic is entering that space of letting ourselves be an instrument. This is where art is born, I think true art. And if we can share some of our feelings in this way, in a park, in the middle of nowhere, this is very important. In the middle of a British railway station, there are three clowns, expressing just that. And very quickly, you have many people who stop, because they have been waiting for something to stop them for a long time. The clowns do slow motion mime, and it’s very beautiful to watch, because it’s not a movement from an idea. It’s a movement coming from being very present. It can touch deeply.

I’ve been very involved with teachings from the East. And now I am feeling and exploring where our roots are for mindfulness in the West. Where is it hidden, that understanding of being in the present moment? The archetype of the Fool is a very important Western archetype. Jesus was a Fool. There is so much of that Fool quality in his teachings. Many times here in Plum Village, when we are eating together in mindfulness, I feel that I’m eating with Jesus. It comes not as a thought, it comes like a feeling or a memory. To touch some essence of the Fool is very important. The clown is born from that. The role of the Fool in spirit as an archetype is extremely important, in resurrecting simplicity and joy, the pleasure of being in the moment, touching life, all of nature, in a very simple way.

Barbara: I was a fairly happy child and fairly happy adult, and then at a certain point I started feeling like I lost my playfulness, that a lot of my life was spent doing things I didn’t want to do, and I wasn’t very happy. I wasn’t seriously unhappy, it was just that a lot of what I was doing was not really play, not really fun. And I started looking at that. Where did that happen? Whydidthathappen? AndIfeelthattodayyouhaveledmeback into exploring play and being in a group, a Sangha, that plays together. And I think that the Fool is the one who has the ability to stop everything and play. That’s so needed because we have this idea that when we grow up, things have to be hard, and we have to work all the time, and we have to let go of childish things, and so we lose ourselves.

Didier: Yeah! We lose the sense of play.

Barbara:Yeah! And we lose our heart, we lose ourjoy. And it’s very sad when there are children who have lost that.

Didier: It’s very sad. It’s a big concern I have about play and children, and what is happening to them. I mean, what we are doing? We are taking away all drama in school, all physical education, and in England, they are selling playgrounds because they want the space to build buildings. This is absolutely mad. And the computer world has taken over the children’s world. They play not with people, they play with machines and in the computer games they learn to kill each other. This is very serious, if we realize that play is the beginning of spiritual understanding, the root is starting there when a child plays with another, in trust and not knowing.

Play, to my mind, is bigger than the individual. It is taking us on a journey of creativity. It is the first step in a perception of something beyond my individual self. And we learn to respond to emotions, to each other as we play. If we don’t let the children play in this way, what are we going to have in fifteen years? This is very serious. I have put together a questionnaire for school teachers to express what they feel is happening with our children, because the curriculum has become entirely academic.

We must become aware of the importance of play for the sake of the children. This is really the focus I have now for the work, to really bring awareness to the importance of play, as the birthplace for spiritual understanding.


Didier Danthois first trained in clowning and circus skills twenty years ago at the Fratellini Circus School in Paris. He studied Expressive Dance, and performed with Amici Dance Theatre Dance Company for five years. He is also a certified Biodynamic Psychotherapist and group facilitator. He trained in clowning with Lex Van Someren. Didier has been inspired by the teachings of the Buddha for the last ten years, first through his root teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, and then by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He works towards creating an art which celebrates the beauty of authenticity, compassion and the interdependence of all things, and all people. Didier is the founder of Fool at Heart, School of Sacred Clowning, and teaches, performs and directs in England and abroad. He is presently involved in establishing ‘ClownCare & Co.’, an organization bringing Sacred Clowning into healthcare settings.

For future events, contact Didier at 32 Rosemary Avenue, London N3 2QN England  Tel: 020 8343 0255 E-mail:

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is a managing editor for the Mindfulness Bell.

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The Singing Bell

Jane  Olivier

I received a bell from a friend while attending a summer re treat with Thich Nhat Hanh.  I received the encouragement I needed to use the bell in my class during my discussion group with educators.

Six hundred elementary school students attend my music classes. As students arrive, many need to be quieted and focused. First I ask them to sit silently in a circle. I request them to sit like a mountain. I tell them that when they sit like a mountain, they are being the best that they can be. I tell the students when they are aware of their breathing, they will learn to sing and play instruments very well.  Before ringing the bell, I ask them to think “in” when they breathe in and “out” when they breathe out. When the bell stops vibrating, a student brings the bell to my desk. Students love this. It calms me.

Does the bell and the breathing consciously help me teach music? It reminds me to be in the present moment and it seems to do the same for my students. My class is very focused but filled with fun. Students play recorders, Orff instruments, tin whistles, and percussion. They sing and dance. The reminder of the bell helps us all to be in the present moment.


Jane Oliver is a music teacher in the Barrington Elementary School, Barrington, NH.

Robert Harrison, photographer, has just finished high school and will enter college to study photography this coming fall. We appreciate his many photos from Plum Village that he has contributed to the Mindfulness Bell, especially his photos of young people and young monastics in Plum Village. Robert’s photos appear on pages 22, 43, 46, 47, 53 and back cover.

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Opening the Voice with the Practice of Chanting

Brother  Goodness

When I was in grade school and high school I attended chorus classes, but I never paid much attention. It was a wonderful time to goof around, and for my classmates and I it often turned towards playful endeavor that tested our teachers’ sanity. I was not aware of the opportunity I had in that moment. But as much as I tried to avoid and resist it, then and at other times, learning to open my voice in speech, song, and chant has become a great part of my life.

Many seasons flourished and faded away while I lived under the great fear of simply opening my voice and singing. I sensed that when we do this we reveal ourselves; our voice transmits to those around us a direct experience of what is going on inside. What is in us vibrates in the listener, and it can be frightening when we are revealed like that to others, and even to ourselves.

This is a fear of being in touch with the reality of ourselves. And this fear is based on the belief that we are individuals, separate from others. We cannot avoid the perils of such misperceptions. Now we are learning that these beliefs and fears are at the root of much suffering and that they can be addressed directly by our practice of meditation. I have experienced that the practice of cultivating mindfulness of the voice can help us grow through this fear to a deeper understanding from which no bitterness and suffering arises.

I cherish a comical and yet inspiring memory of my father as he listened to German and Italian operas while cooking dinner. He would mimic these vigorous and committed voices as they coursed passionately through passages of misfortune and glory. He was being funny, but he was also singing his heart out, and as a child I could sense the intensity and power in his voice. My father is not an opera singer, but when he loved what he was doing and he was happy, he could put aside his inhibitions and his voice soared out in full vibrato. He didn’t know it, but it marked me, and it challenged me.

As a teen-ager, faced with self-centered awareness amidst my peers, this challenge grew into fear. There were many liberating moments when I was alone, at home or in the car, and turning the volume of the stereo up very loud, I sang along with my favorite bands, fully committed to letting my voice shine out. I thought nobody could hear me, but I was wrong. I could hear myself. Through this listening relationship to my own voice, I secretly began to teach myself to sing.

Many of us hold onto these self-centered fears for our whole life. We are afraid to open our voice; we simply do not know how to do it. We always feel uncomfortable and stifled when we are with others who are singing and especially if we ourselves are asked to sing. I was lucky. I found a safe way that slowly, bit by bit, stabilized my faith in my voice. Until one day I was strong enough to really sing out and enjoy. In that moment I made a leap, uncertain where I would land, but hopeful nevertheless. My voice wasn’t very beautiful but I had to make that first jump. Then I had to do it again and again. I had to thrust myself onto the path. And thus a great fear that had once chosen dark corners for me to hide in now opened many doors. It offered me a chance to be honest and accepting of much in me that previously was hidden and unwanted. Since that time my voice has always been a great teacher and a great joy, as it continues to unfold the marvels of challenge and freedom.

Entering monastic life, I met the practice of chanting, and it was then that my voice really opened. It was then that I began the process of liberating my voice, setting it free from the sorrow and loneliness that colored it deep within my heart. For the voice carries in it all the shadow and glimmer of our consciousness, afflictions as well as wholesome seeds. Without careful awareness and training we transmit many things to others through our voice frustration, anger, longing, and despair among them. On my own path, the liberation and transformation of my voice settled itself on a regular practice of sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. Soon after, it leapt joyfully into the arms of chant. I found that all aspects of spiritual practice and lifestyle will affect the voice. Likewise, all spiritual endeavor with the voice, such as the practice of chanting, will strengthen the other aspects of our practice.

Chanting as Meditation

Chanting is a meditation practice. If it is not a practice then it is not really chanting. For it is not the notes on the page or the text and font that make up the chant, it is the living voice inspired from the depths of consciousness and summoned from the relaxed and stable posture of the body. Chanting is the realization of the teaching sent out to the world in every syllable. It is the resonance of many voices held together by attentive, listening ears. It is the delicate ringing of harmonic layers left hanging in empty space, and it is the silence which fills up an open heart when it seems that tone is no longer heard.

When we chant well we are moved straight into the beauty and wonder of life without any emotional push and pull. We are moved, but not in the direction of longing, comfort, or excitement, as we are by many musical expressions these days. We are moved towards realization in the practice, towards freedom and clarity. When we chant well we remain grounded in our breathing and our practice of mindfulness. Thus the chant releases tension and knots in both body and mind, transforming us, drawing us into the current of awakening. It helps us let go and be flexible, capable of opening our heart to what is there in the marvelous moment. It reminds us of our resources and the strength of our compassion. It offers us inspiration to persevere through challenge and hardship; and it leaves a peaceful smile on our face.


In the Buddhist practice there are three realms of action in which we cultivate awareness: action of the body, action of speech, and action of thought (mind). In truth, there is no action that exists solely in one of these realms. They all have much to do with each other. The practice of chanting is a practice that consciously brings together all three realms of action into one, and does so in a very pleasant way that can be shared among many people simultaneously. Thus chanting has the potential to generate both concentration and joyful togetherness. Spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for thousands of years, and almost all have some form of chanting as a substantial part of their practice.

The Realm of the Body

There are many ways to approach the practice of chanting in terms of techniques and methods. Yet there are certain elements of the practice that are important to any method. One of these is the breath.

It is essential in meditation practice, and especially in chanting, that the breath be relaxed and easy. If we can succeed in this then the breath, of its own accord, becomes full, deep, flexible, and strong. To relax the breath we need also to relax the abdomen and the abdominal organs. Thus the diaphragm muscle (which is an elastic membrane separating the lungs and the lower internal organs) can move (drop) easily and allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. If the belly and its contents are relaxed, then the diaphragm muscle can move downwards with very little effort more like letting go than making an effort. Then the chest can gently open, from the inside out, to accommodate more air. This allows our chanting, which relies on the firm and steady force of the out-breath, to come from the center of the body. It comes from the natural upward movement of the diaphragm, rather than the forced constriction of the chest. In this way we avoid using a lot of tension and unnecessary energy for a process that is designed to be relaxed and easy. If we breathe only with our chest, expanding it with the in-breath and contracting it with the out-breath, then we make unnecessary effort. Granted, this can help us to add to the total volume of air in our breathing, but it is not the natural mechanism for the lungs.

This is my experience of the natural process of breathing and its effect on chanting. You can help yourself to enter into this experience of the breath by learning to truly follow your breath without manipulation and keeping your abdomen flexible, warm and relaxed. Allow the diaphragm to draw the air down towards the belly and relax completely into the process of breathing.

Healthy breathing is encouraged by eating in moderation, massaging and stretching the torso of the body regularly, and by an upright and relaxed posture. It is very nice to stand while chanting, softening the knees a little to stay grounded and balanced. If you practice while sitting, be sure not to slouch.

We can also cultivate an awareness of the throat, larynx, neck, and ears. Be gentle, soft, and open in these places. Do not strain the neck forward while chanting. Do not force tones out of your throat. Chant the middle way, not too strong, not too soft. Chant in such a way that you can hear your own voice and also the voices of people chanting with you. Keep the neck and head warm and relaxed at all times. These things will help make it possible for the healing vibrations of sound to work in the body and transform the voice. It will also help to prevent tearing and scarring to the vocal chords and damage to the inner ear.

The Realm of Speech

The practice of chanting lies at the crossroads of spoken word and song. A chant is not a poem and is not just recited. A chant is not a song and is not simply sung. It is expressed with wakefulness somewhere between these two as a powerful poetic recitation and as an uplifting song, carefully blended. When we chant well we benefit from both the clarity of shape and texture and the steady, light, and yet grounded feeling imparted to us through tones.

When speaking and reciting in the English language we primarily use consonant sounds. The consonants sculpt and develop the texture of the voice. The consonants give shape to the meaning of words and can be powerful, beautiful, and sometimes emotionally unsettling.

When we sing a song, we are expressing primarily in vowels. You cannot sing a consonant; you can only sing a vowel. Singing out the vowel sounds, we express the meaning of the song directly in the realm of feeling. Thus, the significance of a song comes to us less from the message in its lyrics and the shape of its consonants, and more from the way its melody and harmony make you feel. This is very important, because the vibration of the tone has no filter before it impacts us. It goes straight past reasoning and we must embrace it as it is. Sometimes the intended meaning of a song and the actual feeling it gives us are in conflict with one another. For example, the lyrics express something light and uplifting but the melody and harmony of tones give rise to sadness and nostalgia. And even if the melody and harmony are appropriate, the voice of the singer can be influenced by his or her state of mind and emotions. Thus the song may not bring about the intended or appropriate feeling. The feelings brought about through the expression of the vowel sounds have great potential. They can be healing and transforming or agitating and even painful. We need to be aware of these things so that the healing spirit of the practice can shine through our chanting and singing.

We can develop awareness of these things by cultivating mindfulness in the act of chanting, as well as at other times; practicing the mindfulness trainings, carefully choosing what we listen to, watering wholesome seeds in our consciousness. Slowly we tear away the veils of our conditioning, and we begin to recognize truth and beauty in music and the voice that carries it. Slowly we bring a spiritual quality and resonance into our own voice and music.

The Realm of Thought

Our thoughts play an important part in chant. Of course the message of the chant is influential. Its content gives rise to energy, inspiring a kind of movement. We might describe this movement as the opening of the heart or stilling of the mind, a beginning anew, the settling of afflictions, or the cooling of desire. These phrases describe not emotions but spiritual activity, an entering into the realms of happiness that lie beneath our busy worldly affairs. The presence and practice of our spiritual ancestors are found in these thoughts expressed in chants. The stability to be gleaned from tradition and lineage is contained in these thoughts as well.

But the very thoughts that enter our mind during the moment of chanting are equally important. We should always remember that chanting is a process of meditation. Do not allow the mind to wander aimlessly. Maintain concentration on the breath, the posture of the body, and the content of the words you are chanting. Then your authentic presence and the chant join together into a living vibration that is shared among all present; and indeed, even those not present will benefit.

It is easy to be distracted by imperfections in your own voice or in the voices around you. Try not to be carried away by such judgments. You do not need a trained and controlled voice or “perfect pitch sensitivity” to chant well. Chanting is about being right where we are, and practicing. Chanting is a process, an unfolding into the present moment. This present moment is a place where many powerful things can happen, especially with the support of our spiritual ancestors and our community of practice. Because chants carry with them the understanding and the compassion of the ancestors, if we don’t feel skilled or confident, we can lean on them. The ancestors and our community are there for that.

I have discovered that a talented singer with a beautiful voice can sing horribly, wounding the heart and ears of the listener. I have also listened to people chant, whose voices, according to technical evaluation, were horrible. But because they chanted with full presence and sincere intention, what came out of them was something spiritually inspiring and beautiful. Talents are often the learning of behavior that brings one the love and recognition one needs, and not necessarily an expression of truth or something beautiful, because what hides beneath the talent is a fear, a longing it is suffering. This untended and unwanted suffering has twisted itself into something acceptable in an attempt to gather recognition that fills the emptiness inside, the void of loneliness. I believe that an artist who meditates must understand these things and take on the path of transformation in order to purify their talent, to make it a conscious, well -tended, and fully embraced expression of their life.

Some people, especially those with some talent or training, find it difficult to chant with others whose voices are not technically skilled. There are many ways to remedy this. The best is to do away with our idea of how things should be. Then happiness reveals itself. It is only difficult to chant with those who have unskilled voices because of our expectation, desire, and on a deeper level, because of the fear of what is not harmonious in us. So leave expectations and desires behind, and do not be afraid to rejoice in the reality of what is there. Start simply, with basic chants suited for the whole community. Have the Sangha practice lots of recitation, reading the texts aloud together. As a community, take up some basic training for the voice; there are huge resources available for this. But most important, always endeavor to do these things as ways to strengthen your practice and the practice of your community. This is cultivating wholesome thoughts in the practice of chanting.


Suggestions for Chanting in Community

Here are several suggestions for individuals and Sanghas to aid in the practice of chanting:

Take time to memorize the words and learn the content so that you can concentrate easily during the chant. Be aware of what you are saying so that you enter into a process of realization and are not simply repeating the text.

Take time to memorize the melody and the basics of the rhythm and dynamics of the chant so you do not have to rely on a piece of paper to remind you of what you are doing. Then you can begin the process of unfolding the tapestry of the chant.

Stay in touch with the process of breathing; learn to take deep and relaxed breaths while chanting. The point is to remain truly present and to cultivate stability and insight while chanting, not to get out of breath and make a flawless performance. If you need a breath, take one, it’s okay to miss a couple of words. Maintain awareness of body posture, holding yourself up right in a relaxed way. Every few breaths check to make sure you are not straining the neck, throat, and facial muscles. Soften them, relax them, and smile.

Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.

All who are chanting must learn to chant with one voice.  This is a very deep and wonderfully fruitful practice. Chant lightly, not too loud, so that it is easier to hear those around you. This encourages togetherness.   When we chant well together we can begin to allow the expression of the chant to change subtly according to the experience of the content.  The chant then becomes something totally alive and the collective experience of being together in freedom can arise very easily. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, when practicing the chants marked “breath by breath,” be aware that each breath is usually for one phrase and there is space to draw an in-breath between phrases. We do not need to maintain the rhythm continuously through the chant each phrase stands on its own. They are not marches, and they should express the natural rhythm and dynamics of the English language. Only general guidelines are given as to how long each note is held or how much volume it receives. These chants are open to the expression of the chanters in the present moment and require a lot of listening to each other. They are inspired by the Gregorian technique, but they are not truly Gregorian.

When practicing other chants in the chanting book, we can follow the standard music notation more closely, adhering more to the timing and dynamics that are scored. There are no breath marks, but do not rush to take breaths in between notes. There is no need to worry about saying every syllable or word, skip one or two if necessary in order to take a real in-breath and maintain calm and presence.  Remember to listen carefully to those around you as you chant. Rely on the group to carry the chant. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves when we practice as a Sangha.

The musical notation of a chant cannot contain its vitality. The notes and the technique are used as a guide to learn and transmit the basic form of the chant, but we should eventually let them go in order to truly live the chant. Please remember that chanting is not about getting somewhere or attaining something. Come home to the wonderful moment, open your voice, and enjoy!

Brother Chan Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained as a monk in 1996 and became a Dharma Teacher in 2001.

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Breathing Into Life and Death

An Interview with Rochelle Griffin

by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002


Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?

Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.

I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!

Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.

Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.

That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting.  But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.

In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.

In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.

In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin

I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.

In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.

Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?

Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.

Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.

People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.

In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.

The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!


I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.

I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.

Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?

Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.

In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.

Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.

This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.

Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.

Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?

Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.

Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.”
– Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.

Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?

Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.

We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!

Barbara:At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!

Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!

Barbara: Right, right.

Rochelle: When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.


Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.

I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go.  I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.

As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”

I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”

“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”

A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”


He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.

I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”

He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.

It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.

Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?

Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more  of  a  mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.

In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there.  And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.

What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.

Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?

Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.

Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.

Rochelle: Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!

Barbara: It’s like being with children.

Rochelle: Absolutely.  You can’t fool them at all.  They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!

Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.

Rochelle: Thank you for asking.

Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

Photos by Harry Pelgrim.

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A Winter Peacewalk

Judith Toy

It is the third Sunday in December. As usual, wearing white, I am the first person to arrive at an empty Pack Square in the city of Asheville, North Carolina, while Philip parks the car.

I slowly circumambulate the rounded brick walk below the obelisk of Vance Monument, keeping company with actual-size hog and turkey statues commemorating Asheville’s farming origins. In our new age, the critters are bronze. I begin the process of deep quieting soften the belly, regulate the breath. Notice the brisk wind. I should have dressed more warmly.

Two men and two women cluster across the street in front of the noodle shop—talking with lively gestures the younger couple draped in stark white, head to foot. Will they walk with us? The girl is young and ebullient and spreads her white shawl’s wings like a great peace bird floating about the other three.

Having landed a parking space, Philip arrives looking like a hatted ice cream man, with creamy muffler flowing over his shoulder. Here comes the peace bird and her flock across the street toward us.  Are you walking with us?  Yes, yes.

We introduce ourselves and chat a bit, find these four are from Hickory, a city fifty miles east. And here arrives a lithe Buddhist woman, properly hatted and gloved, from  the Anatasatti Magga Sangha! We begin our slow walk with no signs, no banners. Just follow our breath.

From the corner of my eye, I see two more Buddhists, handsome young men from the Shambala Group, catching up, bringing up the rear. We walk as one body. We are Buddha’s monks without bowls in the ancient Indian city of Maggada. Nine of us. Slow. With dignity. Into the crowd.

I notice the eyes of passersby and imagine what they’re thinking. “Oh my God, those people are weird. I can’t look. Oh no, they’re coming this way. Think I’ll duck into this store and let them pass. Aah, drug burnouts. What a beautiful smile on that one,” and so on.

I hope we don’t frighten folks. A curly headed child is throwing a screaming fit on the far corner. A woman with a red hat and red lips, coming our way, questions us with her eyes. Philip offers her one of our handouts. She takes it and smiles. A storekeeper leaves her shop to place her palms together and bow. We bow back. Two mothers, heads down, children firmly in tow, pass by mutely and quickly, facing away from us. They seem to be stomping. This is when I notice that our own footsteps are silent, like Cherokees in the Appalachian forest.

The curly headed child breaks away from her mother and runs, to stop and stand defiantly, curious, before us. I know she feels our calm and wants to drink it. With a look of apology, her mother whisks her away from the strangers.

Sky so blue. Deco buildings, red tile roof in sun. Philip and I keep step. It is good, this marriage, having this other self. We hold hands. This is our path. Sometimes we lead with both left feet. Sometimes his right and my left. We do not jay walk. At the side streets when the lights change, we feel ourselves wanting to fly across to the other side, but still we maintain our slow pace. A hundred perfect pigeons soar up over rooftops right before our eyes. Suddenly, the sky’s translucent.

In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment…wind bites, hands icy, gut serene. Noticing that I am empty, I am no longer empty.

Motorcycle with cute rider, rock music, passes. Lots of bundled shoppers. It’s Christmas. This moment is the meaning of everything Van Halen, shoppers and gawkers and walking for peace, spreading our peace, gifting ourselves, gifting the world with our pleasure in peace.

We spy our next door neighbor, Rose, leaving the Roman Catholic basilica.   Does she see us?   Does she not want to recognize us? Oh well. We walk gently on the sidewalks, murmur with our feet to the smothered earth below, kiss the mother. Now we enter the door of the warm dark basilica, its candle  wax and incense and faint Gregorian chants. We pass the huge heating vents, feel glad for this sanctuary from the wind. Still walking slowly, following breath, from left to right, we pass before Mary the Mother of God, the candle alcove, the shrine room, and Jesus Himself breathing in Jesus, breathing out Jesus and back to the bright outdoors, past the sacred shops, past the sacred shoppers, past the honking horns and lights and holiday sale signs and brave-hearted dogs on leashes. It is the same in the street as in the church, this harmony of body and mind.

Judith Toy, Chan An Mon, True Door of Peace, lives with her husband, Philip and practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, NC. She is working on a nonfiction book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.

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Helping Congress Be Like a Sangha

By Scott Nance


The next time a congressman or congresswoman is waiting at the airport, maybe he or she won’t be caught up thinking about his or her next meeting, or an upcoming vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, he or she may be doing mindful breathing or mindful walking. That’s because Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and other monastics from Plum Village recently brought the importance of mindfulness and going home to ourselves to members of Congress at an evening presentation at the Library of Congress on September 10th. A special retreat for members of Congress and their families followed two days later.

The idea behind meeting with members of Congress, their families, and their staffs was not to offer political ideas or suggestions, Thay said a few days before the retreat.

Co-sponsored by The Faith and Politics Institute, an independent organization in Washington, the purpose of the events was to share the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking with U.S. lawmakers, their staffs, and their loved ones.

It’s been forty years since Thay first visited the U.S. capital. He first came in 1963 when the South Vietnamese regime repressed Buddhists and kept them from celebrating the Buddha’s birthday. Thay noted that he visited Washington a lot during the Vietnam War. “I came to bring information about the Vietnam War; information that was not available through the warring parties,” he said.

Thay recalled a particularly memorable visit during the war when he met with six senators, including Senators Edward Kennedy and George McGovern. “Six senators were eating lunch and asked me questions. I did not have the time to eat one spoonful of soup,” he remembered.

For this most recent trip, Thay and Sister Chan Khong began their visit by meeting with reporters. The press conference was the morning of September 10, just hours before Thay’s talk in a packed auditorium at the Library of Congress. “We have come as a group of people who know the practice,” Thay said. “That is why in the retreat, there will be a collective energy of mindfulness that can support those who are beginners in the practice.

Congressman Brian Baird of Washington has been reading Thay’s books for more than ten years, and gained a lot from participating in the retreat. “I thought it was outstanding,” the congressman said following the retreat. “It was a privilege and honor to meet Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought many of his ideas–particularly the practice of meditation as he teaches it–can be very beneficial. “Both my wife and I have tried to incorporate the practice of meditation–especially walking meditation concepts–and mindfulness in general in our daily lives,” he added. Congressman Baird said he and his wife find themselves eating differently after the retreat. He also practices walking meditation at work. “When walking to and from votes, for example, I’ll use that opportunity to be aware of breathing, and think of some of the concepts that


Thich Nhat Hanh shared with us,” he said.

Participating in the retreat has already had a positive effect on his job in the House, the congressman said. “I think it tends to make it both more effective and more enjoyable,” he said. The congressman believes he will be more effective by being focused on core values and awareness, then interactions with others will be more positive and more successful. “And much of this job is about interactions,” he said.

Introducing Thay for the evening talk, Congresswoman Lois Capps of California acknowledged that Thay’s talk coincided with the observance of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.

Congresswoman Capps said that “it is very appropriate that he be here with us, particularly that he be here on this eve of this momentous day in our nation’s history…”

To begin the evening at the Library of Congress, Sister Chan Khong sang a beautiful song, encouraging the audience to breathe mindfully in preparation for Thay’s talk. By surprise, another of the notables who made introductory remarks for Thay was well-known television comedian Garry Shandling. Mr. Shandling followed Sister Chan Khong, and he asked the audience for a round of applause for her lovely, inspirational song. The audience responded with a rousing ovation. “Sister Chan Khong, along with all of us who are fighting our egos, still wants a little applause now and then,” Mr. Shandling said playfully. “She is a fantastic woman.”

Then, with a smile, he said, “The question that must be in your mind: What am I doing here?” He revealed that he has practiced Zen Buddhism for twenty-five years. “I never talk about it,” he said. “My comedy certainly deals with the human condition and the suffering, and the pain, and the emotions that we all live through. Thank goodness I have a way to express it through my comedy. Behind that, I am someone who has meditated, and had a path–and a serious path–all these years.”

“The magic of Thich Nhat Hanh–and it’s nothing short of magic–is that he invited me, knowing that this sense of humor—this child-like art—is really part of life,” he added. Mr. Shandling said he has known Thay for two years. “I love him. I know him after those two years. I knew him after the first moment I looked in his eyes,” he said. He said that Thay really has touched in such a gentle, special way so many countless numbers of lives. “I’m one of them, and that’s what brings me here tonight,” he said.

Scott Nance is a professional journalist living and practicing in the Washington, D.C. area. Photography by Eric Alan.

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Lamp Transmission of Shalom

at the Great Ordination Ceremony
Deer Park, California
February 13, 2004


Respected Thay, respected Venerables, brothers and sisters and friends, I offer Greeting to this House, greetings to the people and to the ancestors of this House.  Greetings to the land, the mountains, the rivers, and the sea. Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa (translation:  Greetings, greetings, greetings to you all).  In New Zealand, this is a traditional and respectful way to begin to speak as a guest of another community.

I have a sense that if I were to turn and look behind me I would see the New Zealand Sangha sitting, supporting me, and see my beloved daughter, who ten years ago insisted that we sell our house and go to Plum Village. She was eight, and she was very wise.

About fifteen years ago somebody put a book of Thay’s in my hand. I read one page, and that page was the beginning of the lamp transmission. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but I knew that this man knew what I wanted to know. For me, it is very beautiful to see this physical manifestation of the lamp, but the lamp of the Dharma, the lamp of Thay is in here, in my heart.

With my mother behind me and my daughter in front of me, there is a hardness in our family line. The practice gave me a lot of courage to transform that hardness so my daughter wouldn’t have to suffer so much. In the early days at home I would literally stop when there were difficulties between me and my child, and I would turn to Thay and I would say, “And what am I supposed to do now?” Many of you will probably know what he answered. He said, “Shalom, do the dishes.” Because that was what was in front of me. And I would do the dishes, very mindfully, and the difficulty between us would calm down.

A few years ago I was very sick. I’m not quite sure how this will sound to you, but it was a wonderful experience! It was very difficult and there was pain, and for many days I felt as if someone had pulled the plug out, because there was no energy, and this body suffered a lot. But something wonderful happened. I could experience for myself the softening of that hardness. I felt a lot of compassion and a lot of love for this body. I could feel the energy of the teaching from Thay, of the mother holding the baby.

Some mornings I would wake up and walk from my bed to the kitchen, and I would get halfway through cutting an apple, and there would be no energy left, so I would have to put the knife down and leave the apple half cut, and walk mindfully back to bed.  My body was very ill, but my mind was very clear.  So I lay in my bed and I breathed in, and I breathed out, and I could do that quite easily.  I could look out at the hills and the sky, and I was very happy.

It’s very wonderful to sit together and receive the Dharma lamp, all of us. I’d like to say to my lay friends: Don’t wait for the Dharma lamp that looks like this. It is a great good fortune for us to be able to be here. I wish you all well. I wish you well in body, heart, and mind, and I thank you for supporting me and teaching me.

Shalom lives in a community of mindfulness practitioners called Dharma Gaia Garden. They welcome guests throughout the year, for organized retreats and for informal visits. Some scholarships are available

The Path of Emancipation, a twenty-one day retreat, July 10– 31, will follow Thay’s teachings from the book of the same name. Cost: $400 plus dana for the teachings.

Go to or e-mail  Write to Dharma Gaia Garden, RD1 Coromandel, New Zealand; phone (+ 64  7) 8667995

Shalom’s Insight Gatha

The deep purple delphinium drops her petals one by one. Magnificent!
And my countless faces appear and disappear, bubbles on the ocean’s surface.
Beauty and pain quiver my ripening heart. The earth trembles.
I step gently, this foot anointed by the bodhisattva’s hand.

Thay’s Gatha to Shalom

The seed that has been planted in the Precious Land
now has a chance to be penetrated by the spring rain.
Day and night, let us dwell peacefully in the position of touching the earth
so that everywhere flowers will bloom and reveal our true mind.

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Book Reviews

mb36-BookReviews1Beginning Mindfulness
Learning the Way of Awareness

By Andrew Weiss
Published by New World Library

Reviewed by Richard Brady

“How do I practice with this?” Often, when I am confronted with a serious issue in my life, I will go to an experienced practitioner and ask this question. The advice I have received has often led me to embrace a variety of informal, daily mindfulness practices.

Andrew Weiss’s Beginning Mindfulness, based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, is a wonderful vehicle for just this kind of learning. A long-time member of the Order of Interbeing, Andrew developed this material as a textbook for his ten-week Mindfulness Meditation course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.  Readers will find suggestions for practice such as downloading the Washington Mindfulness Community’s mindful clock computer program as well as classic practices like using gathas throughout the day.  Each lesson ends with a “homeplay” assignment, directing the reader to experiment with both formal and informal practices in a variety of ways.

At retreats led by Thich Nhat Hanh,  I often meet folks who are looking for ways to form Sanghas of practice when they return home.  I suggest offering a study/practice group using this book, which is suitable for both novices and experienced practitioners.  Beginning Mindfulness can play a significant role in making mindfulness practice more widely accessible.

mb36-BookReviews2Mindfulness Yoga
The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind

By Frank Jude Boccio
Published by Wisdom Publications

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

This book is a must-have for all mindfulness practitioners who also practice or teach yoga.  In his introduction, Frank Boccio says, “I owe a special debt of gratitude to Thay Nhat Hanh for introducing me to the teachings of the Buddha on anapanasati and the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. They were just the medicine I needed at a desperate time in my life, and they have gone on to transform my life, my practice, and my teaching.”

In Mindfulness Yoga, Boccio takes us through the four sections of the Anapanasati Sutra (the Full Awareness of Breathing) and outlines a course of asanas to practice according to each teaching. Rich with personal stories, and interspersed with guided meditations, this text offers a way to deeply connect with our bodies and our feelings through the practice of yoga.

The design of the book is a pleasure. The photos of the poses are clear.  Each page stays open so you can practice the pose while referring to the illustration.  Both content and design are richly inviting.

As a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, I have learned that the two sutras on the Full Awareness of Breathing and the Four Establishments of Mindfulness are at the heart of my practice.  Every year I try to spend some weeks focusing on each one, and each time I learn a bit more about myself. This book makes me want to join with Sangha friends and return to these teachings in a new way, using my body as explorer. Anyone want to join me?

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Blowing Our Anger

By Marie Sheppard


Anger and I go back a long way. These seeds have been well fer­tilized, for generations, and I was doing my best to keep up the tradition until I began to practice mindfulness.

Being a parent has motivated me to work harder than I oth­erwise would have with anger. I didn’t want our children to be on the receiving end, as I had been. I knew that if they were, the cycle would continue and they would end up giving just as they had received. I hoped that they would have a different relation­ship with anger. I wanted to give them tools to help them to work with anger in ways that would deepen their understanding and compassion for themselves and those around them.

About three years ago we were visiting extended family when a huge fight erupted. Our three-year-old son Rowan and I were sitting at the far end of the picnic table as the voices escalated and the tears came. This was Rowan’s first exposure to such a heated argument, and my immediate impulse was to protect him. I wanted to distract him and, at the same time, give him something that would help him to be with this expe­rience. I started telling him a spontaneous story about looking deeply at our anger. The story introduced a practice we call “blowing our anger” that we are still using, three years later.

A little girl named Jess wakes up from her nap and becomes very cross that no one has come in to give her a cuddle. She stomps through the house and wreaks havoc on her family. She knocks down the block tower that her brother is carefully building. She yanks a ball out of her dog’s mouth, puts it in a drawer and slams it shut. She tells her Daddy (who had just told her that he was making her favorite dinner—sushi) that she hates sushi and that he is a dreadful cook!


She stomps out in the garden to find her Granny. Granny asks her how she is feeling, and Jess tries the same behavior with her. Granny observes that Jess seems upset and encourages Jess to blow her anger up to the sky. Granny explains that anger is sticky, and if you blow it at other people, it will stick to them and they will become angry. If you blow it to the sky, the wind will carry it away. Jess does this, and a scarlet red fireball of anger floats up into the sky and dissipates.

Granny explains that once the anger has blown away, Jess can look underneath it to see what is there. These are the feelings that caused the anger to come. If we share the feelings that fuel the anger, other people can understand what we are experiencing and try to help us. Jess does this and realizes that she felt hurt because no one seemed to care about her or give her any attention when she awoke from her nap. She tried to hurt her family because she was feeling hurt, and she understands that they are probably feeling angry with her. She guesses that under their anger, they are probably feeling hurt or frightened by the things that she did.

Granny encourages Jess to go back into the house and ex­plain what happened to her family. Jess brings her family to the garden and describes how she blew her anger and what she found underneath. Then, she invites them to practice in the same way. Jess holds their hands and as they blow, the colors fly up to the sky and float away.

We have used this story (with lots of rousing sound effects) to help us manage our anger and look at what is underneath it. By “managing,” I mean not blowing anger in hurtful ways at those around us. Blowing is really breathing and calming. Once we have released the force of anger, we can identify its cause.

After I first told the story, I began going outside to blow when I became angry. I would then return to the family and explore what was underneath my anger. Once he had seen me practice this way, I invited Rowan to go outside and blow when he became angry. It’s been important that it not be seen as a punishment, but as a way of helping.

The first time he did this, he was in the car. He rolled down his window and blew very hard (and noisily!). He described what his anger looked like, in vivid detail, as it flew up into the sky. As we continued this practice, he wondered whether it would stick to trees or birds, and we agreed that it dissipated in the air so that it couldn’t stick to anything. After he had finished his “blowing med­itation,” I would coax him to share the feelings that had caused the anger. Discussing these emotions, and the events leading to them, was a healing process, for both of us.

As he grows older, Rowan is more focused on looking into his anger. There have been several times where he will initiate, after having blown his anger at us (and then outside), a discussion about what is underneath his anger. While we still encourage him to practice blowing (and vice versa), he needs less help with the next steps then he did before. Just recently, a friend of his had an altercation with another playmate on the playground. Afterwards, his friend stood perfectly still and bellowed at the top of her lungs. She was furious. Rowan was perched on the slide and called down to her: “What’s underneath your anger, Leah? I think you might be embarrassed because of what happened, is that what’s under your anger?”

I stood to the side, listening as he gently tried to help her figure out why she was so upset.

I was deeply moved that he found this tool useful, and of his own volition, was using it to help a friend. It reminded me of one of the Buddha’s teachings that I treasure most: don’t practice because I tell you to. Only practice if it works for you.

mb39-Blowing3Marie Sheppard, Joyful Path of the Heart, practices with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center and the Washington Mindfulness Community. Marie and her family (partner Scott, children, Rowan and Ela, and dog, Bicho) enjoy the outdoors.

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Inner Therapy

Two scenarios for moving through a day of psychotherapy

By Ryan Niemiec

mb42-Inner1Several years ago I discovered the practice of mindfulness. This radically altered how I approach my work as a psychologist at the Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute and as a behavioral health consultant. Every client who seeks treatment is suffering from some kind of distress; it is difficult for the therapist to be of help if his or her mind is mirroring the same chaos. Here I describe a typical day before mindfulness, compared with how a typical day passes for me now…

Four Years Ago: Before Mindfulness

I speed into the fenced-in parking lot and skid into the parking space closest to the back door of the psychotherapy clinic. I balance a cup of coffee on some books and a lunch bag as I fumble out my keys. Picking up speed, I hurry down the narrow hallway to the waiting room where I ask my waiting client, Lisa, to follow me to my office. I have Lisa begin to tell me about her struggles while I hang up my coat, put my books and papers away, and prepare my notepad. I ruminate about the train that delayed me five minutes and the morning coffee I spilled on my shirt. Lisa is a talker so I sit back and let my mind wander while she rambles from topic to topic.

I wish Lisa a good week and call in my next appointment, Scott, a particularly challenging and defensive man. I find clever ways to avoid his challenges and work to out-smart his defensive speech. This seems to keep his anger at bay.


At midday, I attend a meeting with various administrators and therapists where there is a tight agenda filled with tasks to accomplish. I make a couple of suggestions for improving clinic relations in the community. Nobody seems to hear them and we transition to the next topic of caring for clients. I make an observation and propose an idea for how to better work with a particularly difficult client. One team member, Dr. Christopher, voices strong disagreement with the idea and explains why it would not work. I nod my head and sit quietly through the remainder of the meeting.


I leave the meeting irritated and call up my next client, Joe. For most of the session my mind wanders to Dr. Christopher’s critical comments and I begin to feel they were directed at me personally. This raises my anxiety level and my thoughts begin to scan my day. I evaluate my therapy work with Lisa, reflecting on other ideas I should have implemented in today’s meeting, and I quickly judge that I am not doing enough to help Scott. In the current session with Joe, I continue to nod and show facial expressions as if I am listening very closely and hanging on every word he is saying. With a vague idea of Joe’s conflict with his boss, I offer a general suggestion to journal more about this conflict and encourage him to sympathize more with his boss’s position. Joe thanks me for my suggestions as he leaves, leading me to believe I have done him some good.

I have five minutes between sessions to call a managed care (insurance) company to get authorization for more visits for a client. I dread making these calls. They never go smoothly. The workers transfer me to two different departments. I notice my frustration level rises and I begin to feel these people are inconveniencing me and wasting my time. A third voice comes on the line and tells me she is putting me on hold, and before I can respond the background music clicks on. Hearing the soft music further escalates my anger as I am forced to pause my busy day for a couple minutes. Realizing I cannot tolerate this injustice any longer, I count down from ten to one, curse at the music, and slam the phone down on the receiver.

I stomp off toward the waiting room to greet my next client, Sue. Along the way, I pass a colleague and I mumble something about how incompetent and insensitive all managed care workers are and how they prevent good therapists from doing their job. The colleague nods in acknowledgment and walks on.

Sue is very upset today. She is mourning some losses in her life. I don’t have much energy left after a ten-hour day of back-to-back clients, group sessions, and meetings. I listen for a while and drift off to planning what I will do next—my house needs some work, I could go to the store, and I deserve to relax with a beer and a movie. The session nears a close and I feel confused as to how I can help Sue today. I make a general and safe suggestion that she peruse her old photo albums and journal about her experience to manage her grief.

The day is finally over. I grab my coat and walk as fast as I can down the hallway, hoping no one will try to have a conversation with me. Leaving the clinic, I think about where I might stop for dinner.

Present Day: With Mindfulness

I listen to the engine transition from idle and click off. I have intentionally parked my car several rows back from the clinic’s back door so I can enjoy the walk. I feel the sensation of the sun’s rays on my right cheek as it makes its way through some cumulus clouds. As I open the clinic door, I see a dead cricket upside down on the ground. I allow this image to stay with me throughout the day.

Before meeting with my first client, Lisa, I prepare for the session with a brief meditation. I follow my breathing closely to bring about a concentrated awareness to start the therapy session. I feel a sense of clarity, which stays with me as I walk down the hallway. I feel very focused with Lisa. I challenge her verbosity and we explore the fears she hides with her words.


Following the session, I return to my meditation chair and silently concentrate on my breath. I let go of Lisa and our work today. I smile to the image of Scott, my next client. I return my focus fully to my breathing. I slowly stand and begin to walk, coordinating every three steps with my inhale and every four steps with my exhale. Scott begins the session with apathy and disdain, verbalizing his disinterest in being in therapy. He complains of people mistreating him. After empathizing with his struggles my mind begins to wander. I hear the sound of people’s voices in the hallway. This distraction builds and threatens to throw me off balance, drawing me into Scott’s stories and emotion. I ask Scott if he minds if I close my eyes while I listen to him. This opens my ears in a new way. I begin to deeply listen to Scott, hearing the pain and fear behind his defensive speech of disclaimers, his masculine façade of having it all together. Somehow Scott begins to open up deeper. He associates my closed eyes with my full, undivided attention. In this exchange of deeper awareness, honesty, and connection, he and I become aware of insights reflected in the present experience.

At a midday administrative meeting, my stomach tightens when my suggestions seem to go unnoticed. I deepen my breath to my abdomen, repeating the phrases commonly used by Thich Nhat Hanh: “Breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I smile; dwelling in this present moment; I know this is a wonderful moment.” My thoughts become more focused. I assert myself to the team leader, asking for the group to reconsider my ideas. Later, one group member, Dr. Christopher, rejects and criticizes my suggestion for improving a client’s health. My shoulders tense, my heartbeat increases, and beliefs of “I’m not helping anybody” and “I never say the right things” blanket my view. I reconnect with my breathing and decide I will address Dr. Christopher’s approach with me after the meeting so as not to risk embarrassing him in front of the team and to not take up time from the busy agenda. I also resolve that if he is busy after the meeting I will set up a time to speak with him later.

Before seeing my next client, Joe, I close my office door to take a two-minute break in my meditation chair. I anchor my attention to my breath and scan my body. I relax the tension that was beginning to creep into my shoulders. I practice letting go of my last meeting and my morning clients. I slowly walk to the waiting room, feeling my body transition with each step. I greet Joe with a warm smile and firm handshake. Remembering that my mind tends to wander quite a bit with Joe, I practice mindful listening. When my mind trails off, I return the focus to my breath, not Joe. This anchors me to the present moment in the room and re-opens my ears to listen deeply.

Between sessions, I make some administrative phone calls, mostly to managed care companies. It is not surprising to me when I am put on hold several times, transferred to incorrect departments, and challenged over my professional opinion. During the final call, I am put on hold for several minutes. I had kept my balance up to this point, but this seems to dig at me in a deeper way. As I become aware of the rising bodily and emotional tension, I shift my attitude. I see this phone call as an opportunity—a space to befriend the breath once again. This keeps me focused on what is most important for me to say for my client and it keeps me fresh for the person that begins to speak on the other line.

I am running late for my session with Sue but knowing the importance of breathing through the transitions and creating space for each person, I return to my meditation chair for a few deep breaths. In my session with Sue, I soon begin to feel overwhelmed by the amount of stress, sadness, abuse, and shame she is reflecting and experiencing. I listen carefully and only speak of those things I know to be true about her condition and express them as my perceptions, thus fallible. We conclude this emotional work with five minutes of silent breathing to pay respect to Sue’s openness and vulnerability with another being.

My workday is coming to a conclusion, but much of the day remains. I stand in the middle of the office to appreciate the fullness of the work and respect the energy that was present. With careful awareness, I flick off the light-switch and pull the door closed behind me. Leaving the clinic, I again notice the cricket and its particular position, now slanted a bit to the right. I smile to it and slowly turn to walk to my car.

Ryan Niemiec, Fullest Breath of the Heart, is a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri. He works in the Program for Psychology & Religion, helping ministers, priests, and nuns with mental health problems, as well as the Headache & Pain Management Program; he also teaches mindfulness.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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To Draw a Zen Circle

By Maureen Chen


“Calligraphy is a deep practice,” says Thay. To do calligraphy as a meditation practice, you do not need the ink, brushes, and rice paper that Thay uses. Any pen, pencil, or marker and any paper, such as the paper in your computer printer, will do.

To draw a Zen circle, first set the point of your pen, pencil, or marker on your paper where you want the bottom of your circle to be. As you breathe in, draw the first half of the circle. As you breathe out, draw the other half.

In this meditation practice, you can coordinate your drawing with your breathing so that you draw a complete circle in the duration of one in-breath and one out-breath. Whether your circle is perfectly round or not is unimportant, as long as you practice with mindfulness and concentration. Those who do Thay’s mindful movements will recognize this practice as similar to movement #4, making circles in the air with the arms, except that the circles are smaller and are made on paper.

You can choose to write a meaningful word or phrase in your circle. Still being aware of your breathing, write in your normal handwriting, mindfully taking the time and effort needed to make each letter beautiful.

While Thay’s exhibition is part of history, he has given us this new practice. Says Thay, “When you practice calligraphy, you can touch the insight of no-self, of interbeing, because you cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with the whole cosmos. And that is why calligraphy can be a deep practice and why you do calligraphy. You get concentration, you get mindfulness, you get the insight of interbeing, the insight of no-self. It has the power to liberate us from fear, anger, suffering, separation, discrimination.”

For inspiration, see Thay’s video demonstration at

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Dharma Talk: Diet for a Mindful Society

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindfulness is the blood of our psyche. It is exactly like the blood in our body—it has the power to wash away the toxins and heal our pain, the pain in our consciousness.


When we are not mindful, we ingest many poisons into our consciousness. In fact, we water the seeds of suffering every day, and the people around us water these seeds also. As a result, our suffering increases. When we spend four days together in a retreat, we water the seeds of happiness inside us and around us, and we refrain from watering negative seeds, like anger, hatred, and fear. At the end of four days of practicing like this, we feel much better. We need an intelligent policy concerning our cultural environ­ment so that we do not allow ourselves to ingest indiscrimi­nately TV, movies, magazines, advertising, and other so-called “cultural products.” Many of these things poison us every day with their frantic energy, noisiness, sexual exploitation, and violence. We need a diet for our con­sciousness to avoid ingesting so many of these poisons.

When we ingest toxic substances into our body, we get sick. When we ingest toxic “cultural products” into our consciousness, we also get sick. Our society has so many kinds of spiritual and cultural foods that are toxic. Televi­sion is poisoning us and our children, as are many maga­zines, news images, and so on. We practice watering the seeds of anger, fear, and violence every day. We have to learn to live our daily lives in a way that can help us refrain from taking in more poisons. When these poisons enter our store consciousness, they weaken our power of mindfulness. Without some kind of diet for our consciousness, it is very difficult to practice mindfulness. There are already so many toxins in our store consciousness; we should stop ingesting more.

Many unwholesome seeds have been transmitted to us since our childhood. Practicing mindfulness, we become aware of that pain. But we are not yet strong enough to transform it, so it is important that we stay in touch with the many wonderful, refreshing things that are inside us and all around us—the blue sky, the eyes of a child, the evening sunset. When our mindfulness becomes strong, we will be able to touch our pain with it, and the pain will be trans­formed. I often talk about the mother as the symbol of tenderness, love, and care. When a baby is crying, the mother comes and takes the baby into her arms. Her tenderness penetrates into the baby, and the baby stops crying. When we practice mindfulness of breathing and touch our pain with that energy, our pain will be calmed and will begin to be transformed.

But our seeds of suffering are always trying to emerge, and we try to suppress them. By doing so, we create a lack of circulation in our psyche, and we get sick. As the blood of our psyche, mindfulness can loosen our pain and help dissolve it. Every time our pain is embraced by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength and returns to our store consciousness a little bit weaker. When it arises again, if our mindfulness is there, our pain will be even less. In that way, we create good circulation in our psyche. If the blood in our body circulates well, we feel much better. If our mindful­ness circulates in our consciousness, we also begin to have a feeling of well-being. We needn’t be afraid of our pain when we know that our mindfulness is there, ready to embrace and transform it.

If we have not been practicing for some time, our mindfulness may be of poor quality. It may only be a fifteen-watt light bulb. But if we practice for a few weeks, it will become a one-hundred-watt bulb. For mindfulness to be of good quality, conscious breathing should be practiced. Conscious breathing is the kind of fuel that can keep the light of mindfulness alive. If you practice five minutes of conscious breathing, you will keep mindfulness alive for five minutes. When contemplating a beautiful tree, if you stay in touch with your breathing for five minutes, you will also stay in touch with the tree for five minutes. If you lose awareness of your breathing, thinking may settle in, and the tree will vanish. Breathing is a wonderful way to sustain the seed of mindfulness in your consciousness.

In Asia, since early times, we have known that there is no boundary between food and medicine. When we eat and breathe properly, we nourish our blood. Our blood has the power to rinse away the toxins in our body and heal our pain. If we have good circulation, we will have a feeling of peace and joy, because the blood can go anywhere in our body and wash away the debris eliminated by our cells. We know that if we ingest a lot of toxic food into our intestines, our blood will receive many of these toxins and its power of cleansing and healing will be diminished. So we need to practice a kind of diet to help our blood stay clean.


Following a diet does not mean to suffer. There are many delicious foods that have great nutritional value. And we don’t have to eat a lot. Sometimes, when we are too sad and don’t know what to do, we take refuge in eating. One woman who came to Plum Village told me, “Thay, every time I feel anxious, I just open the refrigerator door and eat. I cannot control myself.” By taking refuge in eating, we stuff a lot of poisons into our stomach that we know are not good for our blood. Sometimes we also take refuge in studying, social work, protecting the environment, or watching television. We have many refuges that we use in order to run away from ourselves, from our own unhappiness.

We should select the things we eat carefully, and chew our food very well, at least fifty times. If you do so, after eating just half the usual quantity, you will feel satisfied. And chewing every mouthful carefully and slowly, your food will reveal itself to you, and it will already be partially digested by your saliva even before it enters your digestive system. Its passage will not be slowed down, and putrefac­tion will not take place in your intestines. Eating in this way prevents poisons from entering your blood.

Massage is also very important. When there is a spot in the body where the blood cannot circulate freely, we feel some pain. The oxygen in the blood isn’t able to go there and flush out the toxins. Massage is a technique to revitalize circulation. If I practice massage on the spot that is sore, fresh blood will come there to nourish the cells and create a feeling of peace and joy in that spot. For healing to take place, we need the blood to circulate into the zone of pain. Blood is the agent of healing.

We know that to improve the quality of our blood, breathing is important. Our lungs have a three-and-a-half-quart capacity, but usually we breathe in and out only one-tenth of a quart. And if we don’t breathe good air, the amount of oxygen we take in will be even less, and the quality of our blood will be poor. Therefore, we practice breathing in and out consciously, and as our breathing becomes deeper, we exhale more carbon dioxide and inhale more fresh, clean air. We have to learn to breathe more deeply, from our abdomen, and to breathe air that is of good quality. Diet, massage, and conscious breathing improve the quality of our blood. They also increase the quality of our mindfulness.

Please write down three things: First, what kind of toxins do you already have in your body, and what kind of toxins do you already have in your psyche? “Breathing in and breathing out, I recognize that these toxins are already in my body.” What kind of toxins do you have in your conscious­ness? A guilt complex is a toxin, anger is a toxin, despair is a toxin, jealousy is a toxin. If you need to practice walking meditation or sitting meditation in order to look, please do so. Look and see for yourself what kind of toxins you have in your body, and what kind of toxins you have in your mind. What makes you suffer now? What blocks of suffer­ing do you have right now? When you have done that, you will know what you have in your body and in your con­sciousness. Then, please go further, and look into the bodies and souls of your children and your spouse, since all of you are practicing together as a sangha. (Practicing as a commu­nity or a family is always easier. Not only will you refrain from watering the seeds of your own suffering, but your spouse and children will also practice not watering the seeds of your irritation, anger, and so on. That is why we take refuge in the sangha, the community that practices together.) When you recognize these toxins and list them on a sheet of paper, that is also meditation—looking deeply, recognizing, and calling things by their true names.


After that we come to Item Two: “What kind of poisons am I putting into my body and my consciousness every day?” We do this as individuals, as a family, as a city, and as a nation. We need administrators, legislators, and politicians to practice with us. If you are a psychotherapist, a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, a lawyer, a businessperson, or a social worker, you have to practice in this way for all of us. What am I ingesting every day that is toxic to my body and my consciousness? What is my family ingesting? What are my city and my nation ingesting every day concerning violence, hatred, and fear? The beating of Rodney King, the young driver in Los Angeles, by the five policemen is a good example of how much hatred, fear, and violence are in our society. What kinds of poisons do we ingest every day in our families, our city, and our nation? This is a collective meditation. We need everyone to participate.

Third, write down the prescription that arises out of that insight. For example, “I vow from today on not to ingest more of this, this, and this. I vow only to use this, this, and this to nourish my body and my consciousness.” This is the ground of the practice—the practice of loving kindness to yourself. You cannot love someone else unless you love and take care of yourself. Practicing in this way is to practice love, peace, and enlightenment. Enlightenment is insight. When you look deeply, you have insight, and your insight brings about compassion. Before you begin to eat, breathe in and out and look at the table to see what is good for your body and what is not. This is to practice the precept of protecting your body. When you want to watch television or go to the movies, first look deeply in order to determine what should be viewed and what should not be viewed by you and your children. Think about the books and maga­zines you read, and decide what should be read and what should not be read by you and your children. Practicing together as a community, we don’t need to take refuge in eating or entertaining ourselves with any more poisons. Practicing the precepts in this way helps all of us. Buddhist precepts are not imposed from the outside. From our own insight, we decide what to ingest and what not to ingest into our body and our soul.

For example, if all of us practice looking deeply into war, we will see into the true nature of our society and we will know what to do and how to live in order to prevent the next war. If we prescribe a healthy diet to ourselves, our families, our cities, and our nation and practice that kind of diet, another war will not take place. If we do not practice, a war like the Persian Gulf War will happen again in one, two, or five years. If we continue to live forgetfully, we will be overwhelmed again when we have to confront such a war. The true nature of war and the true nature of our collective consciousness are the same. For war not to come, we need to begin now to prevent it. The best way to prevent a war is to change our collective consciousness. As long as people believe that the war in the Persian Gulf was a war of liberation, a clean and just war, they will be tempted to do it again as soon as there is another conflict somewhere in the world. To change that kind of mentality, we have to practice looking deeply in order to understand the true nature of the war, which was not liberation, moral, or clean. If we don’t practice mindfulness, the amount of hatred, illusion, anger, and violence in our society will lead our leaders to adopt such means again. Without an intelligent diet, we cannot reduce the amount of delusion, hatred, and violence in our society. When we practice well, we will stop bringing poisons into our blood, our soul, and our society.

Insight meditation, looking deeply, is a practice of massage. You practice in order to push the energy of mindfulness into your pain. As it penetrates more and more deeply, your pain will dissolve. I offer you an example: There are those who do not get along with their father (or their mother), because their father has made them so unhappy, has created in their store consciousness so many seeds of unhappiness that they don’t want to look at him, they don’t want to hear his name. They may have been abused as children. For these people I offer the meditation on the five-year-old child, which is a mindfulness massage. “Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old child. Breath­ing out, I smile to the five-year-old child in me.” During the meditation you try to see yourself as a five-year-old child. If you can look deeply at that child, you can see that he or she is so vulnerable and fragile, can be hurt easily by anything that is not kind, can be wounded very easily. A stern look from his father can cause internal formations in his store consciousness. A shout from his father can cause another wound within his store consciousness. When his father makes his mother suffer, when his parents fight and scream at each other, the five-year-old receives a lot of seeds of suffering in him. I have heard young people say, “The most precious gift my parents can give is their own happiness.” If parents live happily with each other, that is the greatest gift they can offer their children. This is true, and I hope all parents can understand it.


By living unhappily, by making his wife suffer, the father is making his son suffer a lot. He may have brutalized him so severely that the young man has not been able to smile or think of his father. But now he is sitting and visualizing himself as a five-year-old child, very vulnerable, easily hurt. When he smiles at that child, he smiles with compassion. “I was so young and tender, and I received so much pain.”

The next day, I would advise him to practice this: “Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to that child with compassion.” We are not used to seeing our father as a five-year-old child. We think of him as always being a big person, stern, with a lot of authority. But we have not taken the time to see our father as a tender, young boy who can be easily wounded by other people. The practice is to visualize your father as a five-year-old boy—fragile, vulnerable, easily hurt. If it helps, you can look in the family album to study the image of your father as a boy. When you are able to visualize him as vulnerable and easily hurt, you will realize that he too may have been the victim of his father. If he received many seeds of suffering from his father, of course he will not know how to treat his son well. So he makes you suffer, and the circle of samsara continues. Grandfather makes Father unhappy, Father makes Son unhappy, and so on. If you don’t practice mindfulness, you will do exactly the same to your own children.

The moment you see your father as a victim of brutality, compassion will be born in your heart. When you smile to him with compassion, you will begin to bring blood into your pain. With mindfulness touching the pain, insight will also begin to touch your pain. If you practice like that for several hours or several days, your anger toward your father will dissolve. This is to massage the pain by way of mind­fulness. It works in exactly the same way as the blood does in your body. One day, you will smile to your father in person and hug him, saying, “I understand you, Dad. You suffered very much during your childhood.”

Therefore, mindfulness is the blood. Whatever it touches, it transforms. When it touches something beau­tiful, it makes it more beautiful. When it touches something painful, it begins the work of transformation.

Please discuss among yourselves a diet for your body, a diet for your consciousness, and also a diet for the collective consciousness of our society. This is the basic practice. It is true peace work. Peace begins with each of us taking care of our bodies and our minds every day.

First and third photo by Michele Hill.
Second photo by Gaetano Maida

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