By Jamie Burnett
I read the last issue of The Mindfulness Bell with surprise and great joy. I had just visited many of the same places that Thay and others had traveled to in China. How small our planet is and how interrelated we all are! I visited China for the first time to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), in Huairou. Attending the meeting was an honor and a pleasure, allowing me to meet women from all over the world, learn about their lives, and share my life with them.
There were over 30,000 women at the NGO Conference, approximately 3,000 workshops, countless other presentations, and many opportunities to share experiences. Reports in the American press before the conference had me anticipating much physical discomfort there. While I did have some moments of discomfort, I also experienced much joy. For me, all of the moments were present moments filled with wonder. My practice enabled me to be present for so many of these moments. Every day, every hour, “breathing in, breathing out” calmed me and brought me fully into the present moment, enabling me to experience all of my emotions.
I would like to share two examples. My practice allowed me to be “with” a woman standing next to me as we waited in the rain for lunch for almost an hour. I was able to be in the moment with her—with the rain, the chill, and the discomfort—and open to learn about her life as a Palestinian woman, her struggles and her joys. I was also able to share my struggles and joys with her.
My practice also allowed me to be present for long bus rides on not very comfortable buses. One morning, I took a bus from Huairou to Beijing, and ended up in the back of the bus seated behind a Vietnamese woman and an American woman. The Vietnamese woman had not had an opportunity to rest since arriving at the conference, and the bus was very noisy and uncomfortable. Although I wanted very much to talk with the Vietnamese woman, between her fatigue and the noise level on the bus, it was clear that a conversation would not be possible.
I found myself breathing in and out, steadying myself, being with the moment—with the clanking open windows, the roar of the engine and the wind, the vibration through the thinly cushioned seat and even thinner floorboards, the thick dust mingling with the exhaust fumes in the air, the heavy damp heat of the morning, and the bright sun reflecting off the white metal interior of the bus. I was also aware of my own fatigue, the smell of so many bodies close together on a very hot, sunny day, and odors of different foods the women from Africa seated behind me were eating and offering to everyone on the bus.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
How many millions of times that gatha has centered me and brought me back to my true self in the last seven years!
The Vietnamese woman seated in front of me began to fall asleep and her head slowly, gently drifted toward the American woman sitting next to her until her head rested on the shoulder of the American. I breathed and remembered a generation ago when this woman’s country and mine were locked in bloody battle. I wondered if she, too, had lost a beloved brother in that war; if she, too, had a mother whose heart was broken and a niece who never had the chance to know her father.
After a few minutes of sleep, the Vietnamese woman was awakened by ajolt from the bus. She looked startled and a little frightened as she realized she had laid her head on the American woman’s shoulder. Then she laughed shyly and bowed very slightly to her seat mate. In my heart, I bowed back to her.
Jamie Burnett lives in Bethesda, Maryland.