feelings

Meditation and Healing

By Thich Nhat Hanh The first act of the meditator is to go back to his or her body as the object of mindfulness. Breath is the vehicle with which we go back to our body. The breath belongs to the body. It is a link between body and mind. As soon as you go back to your in-breath and out-breath and breathe mindfully, your mind comes home to your body and you are truly present in the here and now, truly alive.

Then, make another step. During your in-breath, be aware of not only your in-breath, but also of your body. That is the meaning of the exercise given by the Buddha, "Breathing in, I am aware of my body." During my in-breath, I use the energy of mindfulness to embrace my body, to recognize its presence. The next exercise the Buddha proposed is that you calm your body. "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile to my body." These exercises can be done sitting or lying down. Go back to your body, recognize it, embrace it, and calm it. Your body needs peace. There may be tension, conflict, and war in your body, and you have to be there for your body. "Darling, I am here for you." And "darling" here is my own body.

mb25-Meditation

First, you embrace the body as a whole. You smile to the body. Next you begin to focus your mindfulness on one part of your body, like your eyes. Then you focus on your nose, your tongue, your brain, your lungs, and so on until you come to the soles of your feet. Scan your body with the beam of mindfulness. "Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes." The meditator identifies each part of her body, recognizes it, embraces it, and smiles to it. When you arrive at a spot where there is a little bit of pain, you stay longer. You spend more time with that part of your body, embracing it and smiling to it.

Allowing your body to rest is very important. Your body has the capacity of self-healing if only you allow it to restore itself. Many of us have lost the capacity to rest. We are victims of stress and tension. We learned that habit, and we are no longer capable of resting. That is why it is difficult for our body to restore itself. When an animal in the forest gets hurt, it goes to a quiet place and lies down. It does not think of eating, drinking, or anything until the wound is healed. We used to do that, but we have lost that kind of habit. Every time something is wrong in our body, we worry so much, we get a lot of help, but we don't allow our body a chance to rest and recover. So this is a very important practice recommended by the Buddha: be there for your body, allow it to be, and allow peace and harmony to be restored in your body by mindful living, mindful resting, mindful eating and consuming.

The second object of your meditation is your feelings. In each of us, there is a river where every drop of water is a feeling. If you are truly present, you'll be able to identify your feelings—pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or mixed—and look deeply into the nature of each feeling. That is meditation. Just recognizing. Not to be attached to a feeling, not to try to push it away. This is very important. Simply recognize each feeling as it arises, while it is there, and as it is dying down. You don't fight your feeling, you just embrace it like the sunshine embracing the vegetation.

In the morning when the tulips are still not open, the sunlight embraces the flower. Each particle of the light continues to penetrate the flower, and after one or two hours, the tulip will open. In the same way, we don't intervene or fight our feelings. We generate the energy of mindfulness in order to recognize and embrace the feeling.

We should not be afraid of our feelings and emotions. Sometimes an emotion can be very powerful, like a storm. It makes us suffer a lot. But we should remember that an emotion is only an emotion. Not more than an emotion. Sometimes we think that we are only our emotion. That is not correct.

Some of us, especially young people, suffer so much when they are overwhelmed by a strong emotion. Sometimes young people tend to believe that the only way to stop suffering is to kill themselves. When we observe a tree in a storm, if we focus on the top of the tree, we feel a lack of safety. The tree seems fragile, unable to withstand the storm. But if we focus on the trunk of the tree, we see its firmness. We see that the tree is deeply rooted in the soil and that it will withstand the storm. When we are overwhelmed by strong emotion, we should not focus on the level of the brain or the heart. We have to bring our attention down to the level of the navel. This is our trunk. We know that to stay in the storm is dangerous, so we go down and embrace the trunk. We practice mindful breathing, and focus all our attention on the rise and fall of the abdomen during the storm of strong emotion. Breathe in and out deeply, and nourish your awareness that emotion is something that comes, stays a while, and goes away. And after ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes, that strong emotion will go away.

An emotion is only an emotion, and you are much more than your emotion. Why do you have to die because of one emotion? We have to tell the young people that, and we have to train them to practice breathing with us. When a young person is shaken by a strong emotion, we must invite him or her to sit down with us. We can hold his hand. We can invite her to breathe in and out with us, focusing our attention on the rise and fall of our abdomens. "Darling, please breathe in deeply and breathe out deeply, and focus your attention on the rise and fall of your abdomen." And you are channeling your energy to support the young person. You help that person to go across the storm. After a few times practicing with your support, she will be able to do it by herself. We may save a life if we know how to practice and how to help young people practice like that.

We should not wait until the emotion arises to begin the practice, because we will forget. We have to begin right now. The Buddha gave us these exercises: "Breathing in, I am aware of my feeling. Breathing out, I smile to my feeling. Breathing in, I am calming my feeling. Breathing out, I am calming my emotion." If we practice for a few weeks, the practice will become a habit, and when strong emotion arises, we will know how to practice. We will remember to practice.

During practice, we should look deeply into the nature of our emotion, and identify the nutriments that have brought it into us. It is our way of consuming and being in touch with the world that has brought that strong emotion into us, whether it is fear or despair or anger. To meditate is to look deeply into what is there and understand the source, the deep causes of it, the true nature of it. We all have good seeds and bad seeds within us. If we allow the bad seeds to be watered every day, then we have the desire, the anger, the tendency to harm ourselves and other people around us. If we look deeply, we can identify the kind of nutriments we ingest in our daily life. Nothing can survive without food. There is so much violence in the bodies and consciousness of young people today, because they consumed so much violence in their daily life. They don't know how to embrace, to look deeply and transform. They don't know how to cut off that source of nutriment. They continue to consume the poisons of craving, hatred, despair, and violence in their daily life. To meditate is to go back to the river of feelings, identify every feeling, calm them, and look deeply into them, in order to understand their true nature in terms of nutriments.

In the Buddhist teaching, we hear of the practice of the six paramitas, crossing over to the other shore. This is the shore of suffering, the shore of ill-being, despair, fear, and anger. I don't want to stay on this shore. I want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of well-being, forgiveness, peace, and compassion. Six kinds of boats can carry me from this shore to the other shore, the six paramitas. And the sixth one, the last one, is about understanding prajna. It is prajna paramita, the kind of understanding that can bring you to the other shore. When you practice to identify what is there and look deeply into the nature of what is there, you are practicing prajna paramita, and the insight you get will bring you to the other shore, the shore of liberation and well-being.

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Language of the Heart

By Paul Tingen

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field.

I'II meet you there.
When the soul lies in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other"
doesn't make any sense.

—Rumi

Imagine for a moment that you're on a peace mission in another country with a few Sangha members, speaking to people who live in the area. Suddenly someone in the audience jumps up and yells at you: "Murderer! Assassin!" Before you know it, most of your audience have joined in, and the situation becomes threatening. How would you feel? What would you do? Breathing and smiling alone may calm you, but may not be enough to calm the anger in the crowd. Most of us would be deeply grateful for a strategy to defuse the situation, and more importantly, to connect with the hearts of the people in the audience. Such a strategy exists, can easily be learnt, and has been proven to work. In the real situation described above, the technique was so effective that the person holding the talk was invited to share a holy meal with the very person who first shouted "murderer!"

A few years ago, peace mediator Marshall Rosenberg experienced this very outburst during a talk in a Palestinian refugee camp. In response, he used Nonviolent Communication (NYC), or Compassionate Communication-a practice of mindful speech and deep listening. NVC is also known as "a language of the heart," or "giraffe language," because giraffes have the largest hearts of any land animal. Giraffes also have long necks with which they can more easily see future consequences of their actions, and pea-sized brains that make it impossible for them to make heady analyses, criticisms, blame, shame, and judgments of their unfortunate counterpart, the jackal. In NVC, the jackal symbolizes habit energies of criticizing, blaming, and shaming that undermine even our best intentions.

Dr. Rosenberg, an American psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers, developed Nonviolent Communication as "a process that strengthens our ability to inspire compassion from others and respond compassionately to others and ourselves." Rosenberg noticed that certain people stay centered and loving in the face of the most challenging circumstances, even in a society that routinely expresses needs through coercive and controlling thinking and  language-blame, criticism, shame, and punishment. According to Rosenberg, this jackal approach is a "life-alienating form of thinking and communication," and the root of the immense suffering and violence that plague our planet. In a similar vein, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, "If you have a gun, you can kill a dozen people; if you have an ideology and try to enforce it, you can kill millions."

Meditation is one way of quieting the noisy judgments of our rational mind. Thich Nhat Hanh calls meditation our "appointment with ourselves." It is an opportunity to listen to ourselves, to listen to our heart, to practice compassion and deep understanding. Considering Thay's emphasis on relationships, families, communities, and reconciliation, one could call his path "a practice of the heart." My contention is that this "practice of the heart" and NVC's "language of the heart" are delightfully complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Like mindfulness practice, Rosenberg's "giraffe" language is simple and very powerful. In developing this practice, he looked deeply into the nature of the way we habitually think and communicate. The result, NVC, offers a radical and hopeful alternative for communication that fosters understanding. And like Thay's teachings, NVC strongly emphasizes non-duality, not taking sides, and reconciliation. The giraffe-jackal duality that NVC appears to create is illusory, useful only to meet needs for learning and clarity. In the end, there are no jackals, only giraffes with a language problem.

The practice of NVC does away with coercive and controlling language-words like right, wrong, too this or too that, should, ought, and so on. When I first encountered NVC, I realized that during my years of spiritual training, all I'd done was extend the limits of "wrong" behavior that I was willing to look at with compassion and understanding. I still felt that there were right and wrong behaviors, and I still labeled people and their behavior in critical ways. In contrast, NVC recommends eradicating every sense of rightdoing and wrongdoing, encouraging us to go all the way and not even judge murder or the destruction of our environment as wrong. We can immediately sense the enormous ramifications. For most people, this feels like a terrifying leap. How can we protect our freedom and safety, and peace and the beauty and richness of our planet, if we cannot say that cutting down rainforests, murder, or selling weapons is wrong? But by not judging, NVC does not condone these actions. Instead it offers a powerful language with which we can express our likes and dislikes, our values and our needs, in a non-coercive, non-blaming, nonviolent way--one that is likely to be much more effective in creating the understanding and change we seek.

NYC employs three techniques to cultivate powerful, loving speech. First, NVC encourages us to explore how our feelings relate to our needs, and not to events around us, as we may first believe. Secondly, it encourages us to recognize human needs as universal, divine qualities that all human beings share. And thirdly, NYC distinguishes our needs from "specific, doable, here and now requests." From these premises springs a common language of the heart that all human beings share and understand. This "giraffe language" is a way of connecting and communicating with the Buddha nature in ourselves and others.

To explain how NYC works, I need to spell out the fundamentals of giraffe language. It may seem a little bit complicated at first, and as with any new language, we must practice to become fluent. Once we get it, however, giraffe language will feel more natural than the habitual jackal language of blame, shame, and punishment.

Classic giraffe language employs four basic steps: observe, name feelings, identify needs, and make requests.

1) Observe. Identify what we see in purely descriptive language, without evaluation or interpretation. In mindfulness practice, Thay also emphasizes the importance of double-checking our perceptions, urging us to ask, "Am I sure?"

2) Name Feelings. Get in touch with how we feel in the present moment, and name pure feelings. "I feel rejected," or "I feel misunderstood" are feelings mixed with evaluations, and unhelpful. Instead, name heart feelings such as: sad, hurt, frustrated, happy, skeptical, resistant, touched, serene, mindful, intrigued, relaxed, open, scared, or optimistic. Simply naming our feelings without evaluation is also an aspect of our mindfulness practice---one of many practices that are complementary with NVC.

3) Identify Needs. Identify the immediate need causing our feeling. For example, "I feel scared because my safety feels threatened," or "I feel joyful because of the appreciation I'm getting," or "I feel frustrated because I'm not getting respect."

4) Make Requests. Ask for a specific action that is doable right here and now. This offers a practical opportunity for creating heart-connection and making each other's life more wonderful. It is a bridge that connects people.

In real life, the practice may sound something like: "When I hear you screaming, I feel scared, because I'm not getting the safety I want. Please would you lower your voice?" Note that the speaker does not use any judgmental language, such as that the person screaming is "wrong," or "too loud." The speaker simply expresses his or her own feelings and needs, and follows it with a specific, doable request. Or giraffe language could be: "When I see you smile  at me, I feel warm and touched, because it meets my need for being seen and appreciated. Could you tell me how you feel when you hear me say that?"

Note that giraffe grammar always puts "I" with "I" and "you with "you." I feel something because I want something, and you feel things because you want something. A giraffe never believes that her feelings are caused by someone else's actions, or that he can cause someone else's feelings. A giraffe has two choices of expression: honesty, i.e., expressing her own feelings and needs, or empathy, i.e., hearing the other person's feelings and needs regardless of how they are expressed. In contrast, jackal puts "I" in relation to "you," e.g., "I feel scared because you're shouting," or "I feel warm because you're smiling at me."

When Marshall Rosenberg was called a murderer as he addressed the Palestinians in a refugee camp, he responded with empathy. He realized that the speaker's exhortations might have had something to do with his American nationality, and the fact that the night before, tear gas canisters stamped with "Made in the USA" had been shot into the camp. Rosenberg explored the speaker's feelings and needs: "Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently?" The man shouted more angry words in response. Rosenberg remembers, "Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and me listening for the feeling and need behind each statement. I didn't disagree or agree. I received the man's words not as attacks, but as gifts from a fellow human, willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me. Once the gentleman felt understood, he was able to hear me as I explained my purpose for being at the camp. An hour later, he invited me to his home for Ramadan dinner." Rosenberg was able to practice compassionate listening and loving speech with the angry man because he was able to hear the man's needs, and because he did not immediately try to fix things by suggesting practical solutions.

Separating the expression of needs from the expression of requests for solutions opens up the common ground of our needs-needs for air, food, shelter, sleep, empathy, love, compassion, understanding, connection, community, etc. A request seeks help with solutions, here-and-now action. Arguments and wars do not begin because people  disagree about needs, but rather because of the way people go about getting their needs met. If we can see the universal need of another person, we may begin to recognize his or her humanity. It is sad how often we communicate our needs through a pointing finger, rather than an outstretched hand. NVC does not call this jackal behavior wrong, but points out that blame and judgment are tragic ways of expressing our unmet needs. Someone who uses jackal language is in pain and need. Recognizing this makes compassion and connection with the poor jackal- our own or someone else's-not only possible, but necessary.

NVC, like mindfulness practice, emphasizes focus on present moment feelings and needs. Rosenberg says, "Spend more than five words on the past and the chances that you'll get your present moment needs met diminish with every word." The crucial question for a giraffe is always "What is alive in you or me in this moment?"

Like Thay's teachings, NYC also recommends that we stop when we notice anger arising in us, and wait until we are sure that we can respond from a point of our choosing. It recommends that we use this stopping to watch the "jackal-show" in our head our angry tapes of judgment and blame-and to identify the feelings and needs that underlie our anger. Stopping is the core of our mindfulness practice, and conscious breathing is our wonderful vehicle. We can use this practice to look deeply, and identify our feelings and needs, meditating on the seeds of our anger. Once we have transformed our  anger enough, once we are in touch with our Buddha nature again, we can use giraffe language to express what we see, feel , and want. When we are ready, we communicate our feelings and needs. As Thay has said, our anger melts like snow in the sun when we have true understanding of a situation or a person. NVC makes the same point: When we are able to look deeply and connect with the human suffering that underlies another person's actions, our anger often vanishes. Sometimes, however, my anger does not disappear even when I understand the other person, and now this is a sign for me that I need to look deeply into and express my feelings and needs. Usually I need empathy and understanding.

For me, giraffe language embodies the Fourth Mindfulness Training, and the Eighth and Ninth Mindfulness Trainings of the Order Of Interbeing: "Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. ... We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small."

Thay often stresses the importance of engaged Buddhist practice. NVC hands us a language for peaceful engagement. Combining NVC's "language of the heart" with Thay' s "practice of the heart" gives us powerful instruments for transformation of ourselves and our relationships, and enables us to contribute to the well-being of communities and the world.

Paul Tingen, True Artist of The Heart, can be emailed at paul@tingen.co.uk. Marshall Rosenberg has written a book on the practice of NVC: Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Compassion (PuddleDancer Press, ISBN: 1-892005-02-6). More information about NVC is available from the Centre for Nonviolent Communication website: www.cnvc.org, or by phone: (800) 255-7696.

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Poem: Container of Compassion

mb33-Container my teacher once asked me, how can we package compassion, wrap it up in a small parcel to sell at the local grocery store?

carefully, I looked at the tree before me, are you a package of compassion? she stood silently, leaving no room for doubt.

this morning, sitting, the sky growing light, i set my mind on compassion. can my mind be a container of compassion? a parcel of loving kindness? can my breath be a solid, tangible manifestation of compassion?

quietly i sat allowing the mind of love and understanding fill me, nourish me the love of my teacher the love of the air the understanding that embraces a sister i struggle with, an offering of peace.

my mind journeys to a recent day, walking along the road leading to the cliffs and ocean below. with each person i pass, i allow my heart to open lightly some look easily, friendly we say, “hi” others caught in their thinking not available to look each other briefly in the face.

the dance of moving closer, looking down, up, over then allowing our eyes to meet a warming of our faces, a half smile sometimes a bow and i pause, my two feet next to each other giving space to our greeting heads lowered, then a brief smile eyes touch and we continue our paths.

can we walk all through the day, the evening and the night and allow our fresh hearts to greet each living being?

and as we greet the people, animals, plants and minerals along our path, above and below shall we also meet the subtle beings, the mental beings – our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions and our consciousness with kindness, with warmth, and equanimity

and perhaps we may become containers of compassion, parcels of light for each other.

sister steadiness, 2001

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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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Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

By John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend. In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.

Feelings

There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • "Blue sky": Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”

  • "Noting": Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.

  • "Change the peg": Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.

  • "Taking the hand of suffering": Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm. Very interesting.” Kind and gentle.

  • "Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.

Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are

    • inherently valuable

    • deeply caring

    • enormously intelligent

    • immensely powerful

    • infinitely creative

    • naturally cooperative

    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.

    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.

    • Treat the person with complete respect.

    • Be present and

    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.

    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.

    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful

    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”

  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our behavior. Initially developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.

  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.

  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.

  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy. Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.

  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation. He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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Voices of Pain

By Sarah O’Brien mb39-Voices1

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. While around me the feelings, unbelievable and large, saunter. Heavy elephants.

The voice tells me things you don’t want to know I am thinking. You don’t want to know, because you will realize that I am crouching in a wretched place full of shame and dirty waters and elephants of so many colors and tales that all becomes confusing.

The voice whispers to me that I do not belong here, that I am breathing too loudly, that I am undeserving of love, that I am unable to speak truthfully, that I am a rapist inside and a murderer. The voice believes itself, and it is loud.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. Around me the sitters are sitting, silently breathing. I emerge from the pool gasping for breath. Tears are silently flowing down my cheek. Thank god in this practice in this room we don’t look and measure one another. I face the wall, and draw from the silence around me, from the still sitters not judging, only breathing.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. The sound of the bell emanates through the room. I bow, and I know I am in the present moment. Still, that voice tells me I am not welcome in the here and now. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

I ask the voice, what do you want from me? Love, she an­swers. Only love.

How to love her? How to cherish her? I know I cannot do it alone. I need the support of Sangha. Sitting in the midst of those who meditate, a light grows as if from a seed inside of me. Hope arises like a small purple flame at the center of a candle, the kind that may stay lit and turn to a royal orange, or that may dampen and desist when untended.

I hear the sound of the bell and the flame is evoked; the voice is quiet. I wonder: is she listening? Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

At home I am overcome with the image of a downtrodden black boy, seven years old and angry. His name is Jerome. His arms are crossed, and his hands are creased with many lines.

I wonder to myself, is this she? Is this the voice I have been waiting to love?

A watercolor painting of Jerome shows his angry lines, his dejected pouting lips. I sit on the purple cushion to meditate and light a candle in front of the image. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. I soak in all of the aspects of Jerome, and create a space for love in my heart.

The voice is silent. I listen to the sound of my breathing. I see the candle flame, I see Jerome.

Angry voice arises, and the elephants come trampling in. They trample me. Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home.

I am still alive, and the tears come again. This time the tears are not for me, they are for Jerome. They are for that small child inside of me that is so angry and unknown.

How many other suffering children are there? Which voices in my life do they come forth to represent? An angry father? A suffering relative? A buried ancestor coming back through my genetic structure to relay the message of pain?

How many times will I cry these tears? I don’t know. Some­times I can’t see their faces––I only hear the voice.

It is when I hear the voice that I know how much compassion and breath I need, and how much I need the Sangha, Buddha, and Dharma. They have brought me to a time and place where I can meet myself with love. They supplement the medications and therapy in which I invest for healing. They are my refuge and place of stillness. To sit with the Sangha is like drinking a balm of honey, lemon, and water. It is simplicity that spins around me like a cocoon.

Breathing in, I have arrived. Breathing out, I am home. During Dharma discussion someone holds my hand. People raise voices to the question: Can you speak to the matter of holiness, practice, and depression?

This so that during individual practice Jerome and I become so much one that he and I both dissipate, and the voice comes and goes until all that is left is breath.

mb39-Voices2Sarah O’Brien practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC. She is a program coordinator for NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, of Montgomery County, Maryland, and enjoys playing Native American flute.

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Dharma Talk: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk at Stonehill College, Massachusetts August 16, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today is the last day of our five-day retreat. We will speak about the sixteen exercises proposed by the Buddha on mindful breathing.

The first four exercises are about practicing with the body. The second set of four are practicing with feelings. The third set of four are practicing with the mind. And the last four are about practicing with the objects of mind.

Body-Centered Practice

The first exercise is to identify the in-breath and out-breath. Breathing in, I know this is my in-breath. Breathing out, I know this is my out-breath. To recognize my in-breath as in-breath.

The second is to follow my in-breath all the way through. By doing so, I keep my mindfulness and concentration strong. I preserve my mindfulness and concentration during the whole time of my in-breath and my out-breath.

The third exercise is: Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. This exercise will bring mind and body together. With mind and body together, we are truly established in the here and the now, and we can live our life deeply in each moment.

The fourth exercise is to release tension in our body. These four exercises help the body to be peaceful. They help us to take care of our body.

Practicing with Feelings

With the fifth exercise we come to the realm of feelings. We bring in a feeling of joy. We cultivate and recognize joy within us.

With the sixth exercise we bring in happiness. The practitioner knows that mindfulness is a source of happiness. Mindfulness helps us to recognize the many conditions of happiness we already have. So to bring in a feeling of joy, to bring in a feeling of happiness, is easy. You can do it any time.

There is a little difference between joy and happiness. In joy there is still some excitement. But in happiness you are calmer. In the Buddhist literature there is the image of someone very thirsty walking in the desert, and suddenly he sees an oasis, trees encircling a pond. So he experiences joy. He has not drunk the water yet. He is still thirsty, but he is joyful because he needs only to walk a few more minutes to arrive at the pond. That is joy. There is some excitement and hope in him. And when that traveler comes to the oasis, kneels down and cups his hands, and drinks the water, he feels the happiness of drinking water, quenching his thirst. That is happiness, very fulfilling.

The practitioner should be able to make use of mindfulness, concentration, in order to bring himself or herself a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness, for his own nourishment and healing. Just with mindful breathing, mindful walking, we can bring in moments of happiness and joy, because the conditions of happiness are already sufficient inside of you and around you.

The seventh exercise is to be aware of painful feelings. When a painful feeling or emotion manifests, the practitioner should be able to be present in order to take care of it. With mindfulness, she will know how to recognize and embrace the pain, the sorrow, to get relief. She can go further with other exercises in order to transform, but now she’s only recognizing and embracing. Recognizing and embracing tenderly the feeling of pain and sorrow can already bring relief.

The eighth exercise is to release the tension, to calm the feeling. So the second set of four exercises is to deal with feelings. The practitioner should know how to recognize her feelings, and know how to embrace and deal with her feelings, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.

Practicing with Other Mental Formations

With the ninth exercise, we come to the other mental formations. Feeling is just one category of mental formations. In Buddhist psychology we speak of fifty-one categories of mental formations. Formation—samskara— is a technical term. This pen [Thay holds up a pen] is a formation, because many conditions have come together in order for it to manifest as a pen. It is a physical formation. My hand is a formation, a physiological formation. My anger is a formation, a mental formation. We have fifty-one categories of mental formations, the good ones and the not-so-good ones.

The ninth exercise is to become aware of any mental formation that has manifested. There is a river of consciousness that’s flowing day and night. Anger, hate, despair, joy, jealousy, compassion, all continue to take turns manifesting. As a practitioner, you are always present so you can recognize them. You don’t need to fight or to grasp; you just recognize them as they arise, as they stay for some time, and as they go away. There is a river of mind in which every mental formation is a drop of water, and you observe the manifestation and the going away of that mental formation. Don’t try to grasp, don’t try to fight. Just calmly recognize them, smile to them, whether they are pleasant ones or unpleasant ones.

The tenth exercise is to gladden the mind, to make the mind glad, to bring vigor to the mind. There are so many good seeds in us, like the seed of mindfulness, the seed of concentration, the seed of insight, the seed of joy, the seed of peace. We should know how to touch the seeds in our store consciousness, and how to invite them to come up. Then the landscape becomes very pleasant.

It’s as if you have some films on DVDs, and many are very uplifting. As a practitioner, you know how to select a movie that will bring joy and happiness. Suppose you are watching a film that contains violence, hate, and fear. You know that it is not good for you to watch, but you don’t have the courage to turn it off, because you feel that if you turn it off, then you will have to confront the fear, the anger, the loneliness inside you. You are using the film to cover up your afflictions.

The Buddha advises us that there are many good DVDs available, and you have to choose good DVDs in order to watch the fine films that are available. The DVDs of Buddhahood, of understanding, compassion, forgiveness, joy, and peace are always there. So to select DVDs that can bring joy, encouragement, strength, aspiration, compassion, is the object of the tenth exercise. We can practice that together. We can help another person to touch the good things in her, so that she will have the energy and strength to succeed in her practice.

The eleventh exercise proposed by the Buddha is to bring the mind into concentration. The Buddha has proposed many topics of concentration for us to use, to concentrate the mind.

The twelfth exercise is to liberate the mind. The mind is tied up, caught by the afflictions of sorrow, of fear, of anger, of discrimination. That is why we need the sword of concentration in order to cut away all these binding forces.

Impermanence: Notion or Insight?

Suppose we speak about the concentration on impermanence. We have a notion of impermanence and we are ready to accept that things are impermanent. You are impermanent, I am impermanent. But that notion of impermanence does not help us, because although you know intellectually that your beloved one is impermanent, you believe she will be here for a long time, and that she will be always the same. Everything is changing every moment, like a river, and yet you still think of her as she was twenty years ago. If you are unable to touch her in the present moment, you are not in touch with the truth of impermanence.

Using mind consciousness, you need to meditate to touch the true nature of impermanence. You need the concentration, the insight of impermanence rather than the notion of impermanence to liberate you.

The notion of impermanence may be an instrument which can help bring about an insight into impermanence. In the same way, a match is not a flame, but a match can bring about a flame. When you have the flame, it will consume the match. What you need is the flame and not the match. What you need for your liberation is the insight of impermanence and not the notion of impermanence. But in the beginning the notion, the teaching of impermanence can help to bring the insight of impermanence. When the insight of impermanence is there, it burns up the notion of impermanence.

Most of us get caught in notions when we learn Buddhism. We don’t know how to make skillful use of these teachings in order to bring about insight. We have to practice. While sitting, walking, reading, drinking, we are concentrating on the nature of impermanence. That is the only way to touch the insight of impermanence. Concentration means to keep that awareness alive, moment after moment, to maintain it for a long time. Only concentration can bring insight and liberate you.

Suppose you and your husband disagree about something. You are angry and are about to have a fight. Suffering is in you, suffering is in him, and the mind is not free. To free yourselves from anger, you need concentration. Let us try the concentration on impermanence. You close your eyes. “Breathing in, I visualize my beloved one 300 years from now. What will he become in 300 years? What will I become in 300 years?” You can touch the reality of impermanence. “We have a limited time together, and we are wasting it with our anger, with our discrimination. That’s not very intelligent.”

When you visualize both of you 300 years from now, you touch the nature of impermanence and you see how unwise you are to hold on to your anger. It may take only one in-breath or one out-breath to touch the nature of impermanence in you and in him. With that insight of impermanence you are free from your anger. “Breathing in, I know I am still alive and he is still alive.” When you open your eyes, the only thing you want to do is to take him into your arms.

That is liberating with the insight of impermanence. If you are inhabited by the insight of impermanence, you will deal with him or with her very wisely. Whatever you can do to make him happy today, you do it. You don’t wait for tomorrow, because tomorrow may be too late. There are those who cry so much, who beat their chests, who throw themselves on the floor when the other person dies. That is because they remember that when the other person was alive, they did not treat him or her well; and it is the complex of guilt in them that causes them to suffer. They did not have the insight of impermanence.

Impermanence is one concentration. In Buddhism, impermanence is not a doctrine, a theory, a notion. It is an instrument, it is a concentration, a samadhi. The Buddha proposed many concentrations; for example, the concentration on no-self. When the father looks into his son and sees himself in his son, his son is his continuation. His son is not a separate person. So he can see the nature of no-self in him and in his son. He sees that the suffering of his son is his own suffering. When he sees that, he is free from his anger.

Investigating Objects of Mind

In Buddhism the world is considered the object of mind. Our mind, our consciousness, our perception, may be described as having two components: the knower and the knowable. In Buddhism when you write the word “Dharma” with a capital letter, it means the teaching, the law. When you write the word “dharma” with a small letter, it means the object of your mind. The pen is the object of my mind. The flower is the object of my mind. The mountain, the river, the sky are the objects of my mind. They are not objective reality; they are objects of my mind.

The last four exercises investigate the nature of the objects of our mind. Many scientists are still caught in the notion that there is a consciousness in here, and there is an objective world out there. That is the most difficult obstacle for a scientist to overcome.

In Buddhism we call it “double grasping,” when you believe that there is a consciousness inside, trying to reach out, to understand the objective world out there. Buddhism explains that subject and object cannot exist separately, like the left and the right. You cannot imagine the existence of the left without the right.

Consciousness is made of the knower and the knowable. These two manifest at the same time. It’s like up and down, left and right. An object of mind is the business of perception. You perceive something, whether that something is a pen, or a flower. The object of perception always manifests at the same time as the subject of perception. To be conscious is always to be conscious of something. To be mindful is to be mindful of something. You cannot be mindful of nothing. To think is to think about something. So the object and the subject manifest at the same time, like the above and the below, the left and the right. If you don’t see it like that, you are still caught in double grasping.

The thirteenth exercise is contemplating impermanence. Impermanence is just one concentration. But if you do it well, you also succeed in the contemplation of no-self, because going deeply into impermanence, we discover no-self. We discover emptiness, we discover interbeing. So impermanence represents all concentrations.

While breathing in, you keep your concentration on impermanence alive. And while breathing out, you keep your concentration on impermanence alive, until you make a breakthrough into the heart of reality. The object of your observation may be a cloud, a pebble, a flower, a person you love, a person you hate, it may be your self, it may be your pain, your sorrow. Anything can serve as the object of our meditation.

Contemplating Non-Desire

The fourteenth exercise is contemplating non-desire, noncraving. It has to do with manas, that level of our consciousness that always runs toward pleasure. If you look deeply into the object of your craving, you will see it’s not worth running after. Instead, being in the present moment, you can be truly happy and safe with all the conditions of happiness that are already available. Because manas ignores the dangers of pleasure-seeking, this exercise is to help manas to enlighten, to see that pleasure-seeking is dangerous and you risk damaging your body and your mind. If you know how to be in the present moment, happiness can be obtained right away.

No Birth, No Death

The fifteenth exercise is contemplating nirvana. This is real concentration. This concentration can help us touch the deep wisdom, the nature of reality that will be able to liberate us from fear and anger and despair.

In Buddhism the word nirvana means extinction. Nirvana is not a place you can go. Nirvana is not in the future. Nirvana is the nature of reality as it is. Nirvana is available in the here and the now. You are in nirvana. It’s like a wave arising on the surface of the ocean. A wave is made of water, but sometimes she forgets. A wave is supposed to have a beginning, an end. A coming up, a going down. A wave can be higher or lower than other waves, more beautiful or less beautiful than other waves. And if the wave is caught by these notions—beginning, ending, coming up, going down, more or less beautiful—she will suffer a lot.

But if the wave realizes she is water, she enjoys going up, and she enjoys going down. She enjoys being this wave, and she enjoys being the other wave. No discrimination, no fear at all. And she doesn’t have to go and look for water; she is water in the present moment.

Our true nature is the nature of no beginning, no end, no birth, no death. If we know how to touch our true nature of no birth and no death, there is no fear. There is no anger, there is no despair. Because our true nature is the nature of nirvana. We have been nirvanas from the non-beginning.

The other day we talked to the children about a cloud. We said it’s impossible for a cloud to die, because in our mind, to die means from something you suddenly become nothing. From someone you suddenly become no one. And grief is the outcome of that kind of outlook. It is possible for a cloud to become rain or snow or hail, or river, or tea, or juice. But it is impossible for the cloud to die. The true nature of the cloud is the nature of no death.

So if you have someone close to you who just passed away, be sure to look for her or him in her new manifestation. It’s impossible for her to die. She is continued in many ways, and with the eyes of the Buddha you can recognize him, you can recognize her, around you and inside of you. And you can continue to talk to him, talk to her. “Darling, I know you are still there in your new forms. It’s impossible for you to die.”

The nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. To be born, in our mind, means from nothing you suddenly become something. From no one you suddenly become someone. That is why you need a birth certificate. We seem to believe that from non-being we have passed into being. And when we die, from being we pass into non-being again. That is our way of thinking, which is erroneous. Before becoming a cloud, the cloud has been the ocean water, the heat generated from the sun. The cloud has not come from nothing. Her nature is the nature of no birth and no death. So this meditation helps us to remove all notions, including the notions of beginning, ending, being, and non-being.

Suppose I draw a line representing the flow of time, from left to right. And I pick up one point as the point of birth. They say that I was born on that moment, “B”. It means that the segment before “B” is characterized by my non-being. No being. And suddenly from point “B” I begin to be. And I might last, maybe 120 years [laughter], and suddenly I will come to the point “D”. And from being I pass into non-being again. That is the way we think. We think in terms of being and non-being.

To the children we said that before the date of their birth, they already existed in the womb of their mother. They spent about nine months in the womb of their mother. So it’s not true to say that they began to exist on the day of their birth. The birth certificate is not correct. But did you begin to exist at the moment of conception? Before your conception, you already existed at least half in your father and half in your mother. You have not come from nothing, from non-being. You have always been there in one form or another. So your nature is the nature of no birth.

Extinction, nirvana, means the extinction of all notions, including the notion of birth and death, the notion of being and non-being. We remove all views, all notions. That is the job of the fifteenth exercise.

There are theologians who say that God is the ground of being. But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of nonbeing? God transcends both notions of being and non-being. The fifteenth exercise is to remove, to transcend all kinds of notions. True happiness, non-fear, is possible only when all these notions are removed.

Imagine our beautiful wave. She now recognizes that she is water, and knowing that she is water she is no longer afraid of beginning, ending, coming up, going down. She enjoys every moment. She doesn’t have to go and look for water; she is water. Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death, no being and no non-being.

The sixteenth exercise is to throw away, to release all these notions, and to be completely free.

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing offers sixteen exercises on mindful breathing that cover four areas of life: body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind. We can use the sutra as a manual to practice meditation. Together with the sutra called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sutra on Mindful Breathing is very precious. A real gift from the Buddha. In the Plum Village Chanting Book, you can read both the Sutra on Mindful Breathing and the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, which are common in every school of Buddhism.

Dear friends, as I told the children, the Sangha is always there. It is a joy when you see the Sangha manifesting like this. Please continue with your practice. Please share the practice with your friends and help bring joy and peace and hope to our society. Continue to be a torch. Each of you is a continuation of the Buddha. We should keep the Buddha alive, the Dharma alive, the Sangha alive in every moment of our daily lives.

When you go home, please do your best to set up a group of practitioners in order to have a refuge for many people who live in your area.

Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing

“O bhikkhus, the full awareness of breathing, if developed and practiced continuously, will be rewarding and bring great advantages. It will lead to success in practicing the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. If the method of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is developed and practiced continuously, it will lead to success in the practice of the Seven Factors of Awakening. The Seven Factors of Awakening, if developed and practiced continuously, will give rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.

“What is the way to develop and practice continuously the method of Full Awareness of Breathing so that the practice will be rewarding and offer great benefit?

“It is like this, bhikkhus: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, sits stably in the lotus position, holding his or her body quite straight, and practices like this: ‘Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.’

  1. ‘Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.
  2. ‘Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.
  3. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
  4. ‘Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
  5. ‘Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.’ He or she practices like this.
  6. ‘Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy.’ He or she practices like this.
  7. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations.’ He or she practices like this.
  8. ‘Breathing in, I calm my mental formations. Breathing out, I calm my mental formations.’ He or she practices like this.
  9. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my mind. Breathing out, I am aware of my mind.’ He or she practices like this.
  10. ‘Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy.’ He or she practices like this.
  11. ‘Breathing in, I concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I concentrate my mind.’ He or she practices like this.
  12. ‘Breathing in, I liberate my mind. Breathing out, I liberate my mind.’ He or she practices like this.
  13. ‘Breathing in, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas. Breathing out, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas.’ He or she practices like this.
  14. ‘Breathing in, I observe the disappearance of desire. Breathing out, I observe the disappearance of desire.’ He or she practices like this.
  15. ‘Breathing in, I observe the no-birth, nodeath nature of all phenomena. Breathing out, I observe the no-birth, no-death nature of all phenomena.’ He or she practices like this.
  16. ‘Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.’ He or she practices like this.

“The Full Awareness of Breathing, if developed and practiced continuously according to these instructions, will be rewarding and of great benefit.”

Excerpted from Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing,” Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, compiled by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village, Parallax Press.

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