Deadlines, Hanging Out, and Spiritual Practice

By Charles Suhor

mb44-Deadlines1It wasn’t until late in my career that I saw connections between my spiritual practice, deadlines, and deep listening to colleagues and friends. It wasn’t until retirement that I linked all of those things to what’s commonly called “hanging out.”

In the Workplace

My job was a traffic jam of timetables for meetings, reports, and publications. There was always something overdue and a dozen things that seemed unlikely to be completed on schedule. I was deputy director of the National Council of Teachers of English, a group with 70,000 members and a staff of about eighty. Part of my work was absorbing discontent for the boss and interpreting both sane and silly organizational policies for constituents and staff members who had questions or problems. It wasn’t a rat race, but it surely was a race.

But the work was enjoyable, and it was solidly in the realm of right livelihood. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving teachers and improving classroom instruction. Daily meditation and contemplative reading helped to bring mindfulness to the everyday clutter of work. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words were instructive: “During the moment when someone is consulting, resolving, and dealing with whatever arises, a calm heart and self-control are necessary.”

Even so, in the rush of things I often sensed a lack of easeful presence when working one on one with colleagues. When a co-worker came to my office, I often had a vague feeling that something else was looming on the horizon. I felt a need to address the matter at hand with intelligent dispatch so we could both move on to other tasks, like talking to someone at a party and being tempted to look over their shoulder to see if anyone more important was in the room.

This habit was broken when we got a new CEO. He would stop whatever he was absorbed in when I came to the door, invite me in, and sit for as long as I needed to talk through the matters at hand. More importantly, his relaxed demeanor gave the impression that nothing was more urgent than discussing my concern. Even when rejecting a proposal, he did so with a full sense of presence and no hint of a dismissive attitude.

This helped me question a deeply ingrained idea in our culture, the notion that my train of thought will be irretrievably broken if interrupted.

Ego alert! How important to the rumblings of the universe are my treasured ideas? And how hard is it, really, to get back into the flow of paperwork if I put it aside to talk to a real human being? I was surprised to find that it wasn’t all that difficult. You just do it. The idea of my train of thought was just another habituated mental shackle to avoid acknowledging that I didn’t want to be disturbed. With right effort I could simply stop the train and reboard it after talking to a colleague.

As it turned out, when I set the work before me aside I was happy to be released from it for a while, and I welcomed my colleagues wholeheartedly. I felt better, and the good feeling resonated with them. I moved from a sense of forbearance during these visits to feelings of freedom and loving kindness. And I was reminded of something I already knew. I liked these people, and I hadn’t been fully participating in the pleasure of their company. I could rest in the insight of Taizan Maezumi Roshi: “Deadline after deadline? There is no deadline! Each moment is a beginning as well as an end, not a goal or deadline set up by someone else.”

mb44-Deadlines2In Retirement and at Leisure

Obviously, “hanging out” isn’t a technical term. We all recognize it as something like open-ended conversation with others in a leisurely setting, either with no agenda or a general intention to talk about things of common interest as they occur.

For decades a busy family and professional life left me with little time for the kind of hanging out (except within the family circle) that I did in college and my early working years. Yes, there can be some grand, stolen moments and hours during the work year. You book a no-agenda lunch with a close friend and enjoy the spiritual high of intensive talk. You hang out with colleagues at the hotel after a twelve-hour day of conventioneering and unwind with friendly banter.

My leisure time in retirement opened new opportunities for hanging out. Conversations can go on, loosely knit, with no inclination to glance at the watch or mentally rehearse the next appointment. This isn’t limited to spending time with family and friends. If you’re a hobbyist, it’s hanging out at your favorite store and getting deeply into your common interests with a stranger. Or it’s the simple wonder of meeting someone new in a coffee shop, striking up a conversation, and learning something about a topic you didn’t think would interest you. I came to recognize that the camaraderie in these chance encounters resembled the feeling of welcome in office visits and the after-hours hanging out with colleagues during my work years.

Hanging out is not the same as “frivolous speech and idle chatter” that the Buddha cautioned against. When conversations are vain and superficial, our inner state is at first discomfiting, then painful. But the airy content of hanging out isn’t mere vacuous banter. Hanging out, like all talk in which compassionate engagement is the starting point, is experienced as a kind of background music for metta, the sending of loving intentions. With mindfulness, you become readily aware if the conversation drifts towards gossip, competition, manipulation, or other dissonance that unsettles the noble intention of right speech.

A Householder’s Skillful Means

The Buddha distinguished between the regimens of the monk and those of the householder, whose practice also embraces family life, livelihood, and interaction in the larger society. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “Lay persons will have more need for affectionate small talk with friends and family, polite conversation with acquaintances, and talk in connection with their line of work.”

I believe that hanging out is a householder’s skillful means, similar to a balanced work ethic, creative sex, and serious engagement in public discourse. The peace of connecting with each other through verbal interchange at work and at leisure is worthy of lay people’s special attention and cultivation. Granted, as householders we’re less likely to be able to associate daily with devotees and other guides to spiritual development. On the other hand, when we hang out we can look for, or often trip upon, the center of transcendence in a stranger. If that sounds unlikely, pull up a chair, friend, and we’ll talk about it for a while.

Charles Suhor lives in Montgomery, Alabama, “a place well-suited for the practice of engaged Buddhism,” and where he convenes a weekly meditation group at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

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Dharma Talk: Right Action: Waking Up to Loving Kindness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Right Action is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. It includes, first of all, the kinds of actions that can help humans and other living beings who are being destroyed by war, political oppression, social injustice, and hunger. To protect life, prevent war, and serve living beings, we need to cultivate our energy of loving kindness.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Loving kindness should be practiced every day. Suppose you have a transistor radio. To tune into the radio station you like, you need a battery. In order to get linked to the power of loving kindness of bodhisattvas, buddhas, and other great beings, you need to tune in to the “station” of loving kindness that is being sent from the ten directions. Then you only need to sit on the grass and practice breathing and enjoying.

But many of us are not capable of doing that because the feeling of loneliness, of being cut off from the world, is so severe we cannot reach out. We do not realize that if we are moved by the imminent death of an insect, if we see an insect suffering and we do something to help, already this energy of loving kindness is in us. If we take a small stick and help the insect out of the water, we can also reach out to the cosmos. The energy of loving kindness in us becomes real, and we derive a lot of joy from it.

The Fourth Precept of the Order of Interbeing tells us to be aware of suffering in the world, not to close our eyes before suffering. Touching those who suffer is one way to generate the energy of compassion in us, and compassion will bring joy and peace to ourselves and others. The more we generate the energy of loving kindness in ourselves, the more we are able to receive the joy, peace, and love of the buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout the cosmos. If you are too lonely, it is because you have closed the door to the rest of the world.

Right Action is the action of touching love and preventing harm. There are many things we can do. We can protect life. We can practice generosity (dana). The first person who receives something from an act of giving is the giver. The Buddha said, “After meditating on the person at whom you are angry, if you cannot generate loving kindness in yourself, send that person a gift.” Buy something or take something beautiful from your home, wrap it beautifully, and send it to him or to her. After that, you will feel better immediately, even before the gift is received. Our tendency when we are angry is to say unkind things, but if we write or say something positive about him or her, our resentment will simply vanish.

We seek pleasure in many ways, but often our so-called pleasure is really the cause of our suffering. Tourism is one example. The positive way of practicing tourism – seeing new countries, meeting new people, being in touch with cultures and societies that differ from ours – is excellent. But there are those who visit Thailand, the Philippines, or Malaysia just for the sake of consuming drugs and hiring prostitutes. Western and Japanese businessmen go to Thailand and the Philippines just to set up sex industries and use local people to run these industries. In Thailand, at least 200,000 children are involved in the sex industry. Because of poverty and social injustice, there are always people who feel they have to do this out of desperation. In the Philippines, at least 100,000 children are in the sex industry and in Vietnam, 40,000. What can we do to help them?

If we are caught up in the situation of our own daily lives, we don’t have the time or energy to do something to help these children. But if we can find a few minutes a day to help these children, suddenly the windows open and we get more light and more fresh air. We relieve our own difficult situation by performing an act of generosity. Please discuss this situation with your Sangha and see if you can do something to stop the waves of people who profit from the sex industry. These are all acts of generosity, acts of protecting life. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to spend months and years to do something. A few minutes a day can already help. These acts will bring fresh air into your life, and your feeling of loneliness will dissolve. You can be of help to many people in the world who really suffer.

Right Action is also the protection of the integrity of the individual, couples, and children. Sexual misbehavior has broken so many families. Children who grow up in these broken families become hungry ghosts. They don’t believe in their parents because their parents are not happy. Young people have told me that the greatest gift their parents can give them is their parents’ own happiness. There has been so much suffering because people do not practice sexual responsibility. Do you know enough about the way to practice Right Action to prevent breaking up families and creating hungry ghosts? A child who is sexually abused will suffer all his or her whole life. Those who have been sexually abused have the capacity to become bodhisattvas, helping many children. Your mind of love can transform your own grief and pain. Right Action frees you and those around you. You may think you are practicing to help others around you, but, at the same time, you are rescuing yourself.

Right Action is also the practice of mindful consuming, bringing to your body and mind only the kinds of food that are safe and healthy. Mindful eating, mindful drinking, not eating things that create toxins in your body, not using alcohol or drugs, you practice for yourself, your family, and your society. A Sangha can help a lot.

One man who came to Plum Village told me that he had been struggling to stop smoking for years, but he could not. After he came to Plum Village, he stopped smoking immediately because the group energy was so strong. “No one is smoking here. Why should I?” He just stopped. Sangha is very important. Collective group energy can help us practice mindful consumption.

Right Action is also linked to Right Livelihood. There are those who earn their living by way of wrong action – manufacturing weapons, killing, depriving others of their chance to live, destroying the environment, exploiting nature and people, including children. There are those who earn their living by producing items that bring us toxins. They may earn a lot of money, but it is wrong livelihood. We have to be mindful to protect ourselves from their wrong livelihood.

Even when we are trying to go in the direction of peace and enlightenment, our effort may also be going in the other direction, if we don’t have Right View or Right Thinking, and are not practicing Right Speech, Right Action, of Right Livelihood. That is why our effort is not Right Effort. If you teach the Heart Sutra, and do not have a deep understanding of it, you are not practicing Right Speech. When you practice sitting and walking meditation in ways that cause your body and mind to suffer, your effort will not be Right Effort, because it is not based on Right View. Your practice should be intelligent, based on Right Understanding of the teaching. It is not because you practice hard that you can say you are practicing Right Effort.


There was a monk practicing sitting meditation very hard, day and night. He thought he was practicing the hardest of anyone, and he was very proud of his practice. He sat like a rock day and night, but he did not get any transformation. His teacher saw him there and asked, “Why are you sitting in meditation?” The monk replied, “In order to become a Buddha.” Thereupon his teacher picked up a tile and began to polish it. The monk asked, “Why are you polishing that tile?” and his master replied, “To make it into a mirror.” The monk said, “How can you make a tile into a mirror?” and his teacher responded, “How can you become a Buddha by practicing sitting meditation?”

To me, the practice should be joyful and pleasant in order to be Right Effort. If you breathe in and out and feel joy and peace, you are making Right Effort. If you suppress yourself, if you suffer during your practice, you are probably not practicing Right Effort. You have to examine your practice. Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are manifested as the practice of mindfulness in daily life. This is the teaching of engaged Buddhism – the kind of Buddhism that is practiced in daily life, in society, in the family, and not only in the monastery.

During the last few months of his life, the Buddha talked about the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (understanding). Mindfulness is the source of all precepts: We are mindful of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, so we practice protecting life; We are mindful of the suffering caused by social injustice, so we practice generosity; We are mindful of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, so we practice responsibility; We are mindful of the suffering caused by divisive speech, so we practice loving speech and deep listening; We are mindful of the destruction caused by consuming toxins, so we practice mindful consuming. These Five Precepts are a concrete expression of mindful living. The Threefold Training – precepts, concentration, and understanding – helps us practice Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort.

In his first Dharma talk, the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path. When he was about to pass away at the age of eighty, it was also the Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught to his last disciples. The Noble Eightfold Path is the cream of the Buddha’s teaching. The practice of the Five Precepts is very much connected to his teaching. Not only is the practice of Right Action linked to the Five Precepts, but the practice of Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also linked to all Five. If you practice, you will see for yourself. The Five Precepts are connected to each link of the Eightfold Path. We need Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Action. Buddhism is already engaged Buddhism. If it is not, it is not Buddhism. It is silly to create the term engaged Buddhism, but in society where people misunderstand so greatly the teaching of the Buddha, this term can play a role for a certain time. Whatever we say, what is most important is that we practice.

This lecture will be incorporated into The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, to be published by Parallax Press in early 1996.

First and second photos by Therese Fitzgerald.
Source of second photo unknown.

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