stopping

The Energy of Love

By Anh-Huong Nguyen Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

When I invest all of my being into my breath, this exercise becomes a mantra. I entrust myself completely to my breathing, and I know I am safe. Mindful breathing is my anchor.

Many young people suffer because they don't know what to do in times of strong emotion. They need the anchor of their breath. A few weeks ago, I shared the technique of belly-breathing with a group of fifth-grade students. I told them to use it in times of strong emotions. They listened attentively and practiced very well. These young people need our help to enter the heart of the Buddha and learn to take refuge in their safe island of self. My family escaped from

Vietnam in a very small boat. None of us could swim. Before we left, my father tied eight floats on both sides of the boat. On the open sea, our boat was caught in a terrible storm. The boat engine stopped. I peeped out of the boat. The waves were so high, all I could see was water- no sky, no horizon, just water everywhere. If my father had not tied floats on the boat, we would all have been in the bellies of the fish. Mindful breathing is like the floats on our small boat. By holding onto our breathing, we are able to go safely through the storms of life.

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Allowing our body to relax is the key to enjoying our breathing. The breath is part of the body. When the body is at ease, breathing becomes natural and relaxed. Since conscious breathing is a bridge connecting body and mind, the breath is also part of the mind. When the breath is calm, it calms the mind. I like to see my breathing as a pillow on which I rest: "Breathing in, I am resting on the pillow of my in-breath. Breathing out, I am resting on the pillow of my out-breath."

The practice of mindful breathing is the practice of stopping. Someone asked when to stop. The answer is "now." There is such a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and suffering in each of us and in the world today it is important for us to learn and practice the skill of stopping. When we discover that we are running into an accident, our only wish is to be able to stop. And we can achieve stopping by holding onto our anchor of conscious breathing. Stopping helps us realize the absence of accident-the presence of safety and happiness. A half-smile is the fruit of that realization. Forgetfulness is the kind of energy that makes us run away from the present moment, and is the cause of many of our accidents. Missing our steps as we walk on earth is an accident. Missing the looks and the smiles of our beloved ones at the dinner table is another accident. The moment we come back to our breath, forgetfulness is being transformed into remembrance, mindfulness, happiness, and compassion.

The practice of conscious breathing is indeed the beginning of and the basis of the practice of love. The practice of a half-smile always goes with the practice of mindful breathing. A smile is both a means and an end. We smile to acknowledge and nurture the joy that is present, so that our joy may continue to grow. When happiness pervades our whole being, a half-smile blooms on our lips, in our eyes, and beneath our steps-without any effort. Several people have asked: "How can I smile when there is no joy in my heart?" The feeling of joy may not be present, but the seed of joy is there. It only needs to be touched and watered.

Mindful breathing helps us water the seeds of joy by connecting with the elements of joy within and around us: "Breathing in, I feel the blood flowing in my body. Breathing out, I am in touch with the sound of water trickling in the creek." Friends in the practice can help us touch our seed of joy. Our smile can also help us touch our seed of joy. We do not have to feel joy to smile. We smile to wake up the seed of joy sleeping in the soil of our mind. It may not seem too difficult to smile to others, yet it can feel strange to smile to ourselves. More than anyone, we deserve our smile. If we cannot smile to ourselves, something is in the way, preventing us from accepting and loving our self.

Suppose one winter day, we come home and the house is cold. We light the fireplace. After a while, the room becomes warm and comfortable. Our energy of mindfulness embraces our pain in the same way. The act of making a fire is born from an insight that the room is cold and the desire to warm the room. When we realize that we are suffocating in our pain, deep in our heart is born the desire to relieve our suffering. Our half-smile is the manifestation of that awakening and desire. Our half-smile is a breath of fresh air which brings immediate relief to our pain. It proves that we have compassion towards ourselves. Before the match is struck, the fire logs cannot produce wann air. Similarly, we must touch the seed of self-compassion for mindful breathing to produce the energy needed for transformation. Mindful breathing is the practice of compassion: "Breathing in, I smile to my in-breath. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body."

Holding onto our breathing is an art. It requires self-training and practice. By nurturing ourselves with the ease and joy of conscious breathing while strong emotions are not there, we will remember to return to our breath the moment strong emotions start to arise. If our instability is so great that we cannot hold onto and experience a sense of safety in our breath, one of the following methods can be used.

First, we can revive trust in ourselves and in the practice by recalling any feeling of peace and stability that was produced by our conscious breathing in the past. This can be done most easily when we are in an environment conducive to the practice, such as in a park or beside a river. The energy of trust helps us reconnect and entrust ourselves to our breath again. Second, we can ask for support from our Sangha brothers and sisters who are quite solid and loving. Their presence and their words bring us relief and enable us to taste the safety of our breath again. Third, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by a loving, supportive community that has the practice of peace, joy, stability, and compassion as its foundation. Breath is life. If we cannot experience the safety of conscious breathing and the joy of being alive, we are like wilted flowers. A practice community is good soil where each practitioner is trained to be a skillful gardener. Good soil and well-trained gardeners together can transform wilted flowers into fresh flowers. Taking refuge in the Sangha is to entrust ourselves completely to the practice and wisdom of the Sangha. The Sangha is the anchor. If the Sangha is a true Sangha, we will be able to experience the joy of conscious breathing in order to be healed and transformed.

In one retreat, a woman expressed feeling numb toward her breath. Belly-breathing did not work for her. It is true that when our mind and body become very tense, we may not be able to feel our breathing. I asked her to lie down and allow herself to be held tenderly in the arms of the Mother Earth as several imagery exercises were offered to help her relax. After 20 minutes, she began to feel her in-breath and her out-breath. Later in the retreat, as tears came to her eyes, she shared with friends her feeling of peacefulness with the practice of belly-breathing. This miracle could not have happened without a loving, supportive Sangha. It is autumn in Virginia. Each day, I receive many beautiful leaves from our five-year-old son, Bao-Tich.

Whenever he steps through the door, his face is as radiant as the leaf in his hands. Looking at Bao-Tich, I realize how happy he was to encounter the leaf, pick it up, bring it home, and offer it to me. For him, each autumn leaf is a true wonder. He encounters each leaf as if it is everything. He looks so happy and satisfied! Everyone was once a child like Bao-Tich. We were happy and satisfied with "little things" such as the leaves, the pebbles, the twigs, the acorns. We looked up at the sky and talked to the birds. Our smile shows our desire to revive that capacity. A smile is the rain and the sunshine. It has the power of liberating us from holding enmity toward ourselves and others. A smile can transform dry earth into fertile soil. Our smile seals us to the present moment.

A mindfulness practitioner is a love weaver. When we practice mindful breathing-whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down--each breath is a thread woven into a cradle of love. Thanks to this cradle, we have a place to hold and nurture our joy, to hold and lullaby our pain. Transformations take place in this very cradle.

Dharma teacher Anh-Huong, Chan Y, facilitates the Mindfulness Practice Center in Fairfax, Virginia. She is the founder of The Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam, which helps poverty-stricken children and orphans in Vietnam.

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Breathfully Taking Care

 By Therese Fitzgerald After months of zazen practice at San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher Richard Baker-roshi, "Do I really have to count my breath?" "Yes," he responded with unmistakable solemnity. I had friends who managed to count hundreds of breaths forwards and backwards, and others who described staying home just enjoying their breathing in zazen posture. So I kept putting myself in the "bamboo rod," as Suzuki-roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind--trying to learn what for me was a somewhat elusive practice.

Ten years ago, I acknowledged to Thich Nhat Hanh that paying attention to my breathing was mostly an experience of getting in touch with constriction in my abdomen and chest. Thlly asked me, "Is there any time you enjoy your breathing?" I thought for a moment and responded, "Yes, when I'm floating in the ocean, in a pond, or even in the bathtub." "Why do you ever get out of the bathtub?" he asked wide-eyed, opening his palm.

Now as I sit up in bed writing while my husband sleeps next to me, I realize I am enjoying my breathing alongside of his breathing. At times-sitting at my office desk looking out the window, lying under a tree, standing at the dish sink-I find myself simply and happily being conscious of my breathing. The concept and practice of stopping, samatha-stopping at the sound of the telephone bell, having a friend ask, "Are you enjoying your breathing?" or stopping for formal meditation-has helped me notice my breathing throughout the day and notice whether it is long or short, relaxed or constricted. Stretching out in the prone posture is the most conducive for my relaxed breathing, and floating in a warm body of water, especially salt water, always gives me the most enjoyable breathing experience.

And then there are times when I have really needed to "take refuge in the island of self' by practicing conscious breathing. This practice was my constant companion, for example, throughout the ordeal of my beloved brother's recovery from a brain injury accident, starting with six weeks in a coma. The breath proved to be my strongest link with the present moment. By returning to my breath when any thoughts of the past or the future could have overwhelmed me, I nurtured my strength to stay with my brother through the coma- which was fairly unnerving, as he was both completely familiar to me and yet far, far away in another universe. Walking meditation in the halls of the neuro-unit sustained me in my contact with less-than sensitive medical staff and anxious visitors. I remember one visitor pleading with me, "Tell me it's gonna be all right." I breathed and spoke from a place of calm conviction, "He's alive. Let's be grateful and be with him as he is right now."

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I had to leave midway through the coma, knowing that it would be several weeks before I could see my brother again. My father and I had just visited a facility for severely-damaged brain injury survivors. As I entered my brother's hospital room, I was choked up with sorrow and dread. Tears threatened to disable me from sitting by his side and helping him as he struggled to tear at the feeding tube. I called on the practice of putting breath to song and sang "Breathing In, Breathing Out" with as much spirit as I could gather. My calm was restored, and my sister, who arrived to take care of my brother, was heartened.

Years later, I continued to process the lessons from this experience. While practicing walking meditation at Plum Village one year after the accident, my sadness almost overwhelmed me. I remembered Thay's advice to me just months after the accident when I found it difficult to practice walking meditation on the beautiful streets of Prague, as all I could think of was my brother's inability to walk at the time. Thay had responded, "Walk for your brother." As we started out on the path along the Plum Village sunflower fields, I poured my loving concentration for my brother into each step, while I maintained awareness of my breathing. A song/mantra emerged from that walk which expresses what I continue to learn from the radical awakenings my brother opened up for me: I didn't know how precious life is, until I saw you lying there. I must have forgotten how precious life is, and then I saw you lying there. I couldn't believe how precious life is, as I watched you lying there. And then I practiced taking care, taking care of you lying there. And now I know how precious life is,  how very precious life is.

I tum to this mantra when I need to come back to my breathing and deepen my perspective.

It seems so simple: mindful breathing helps us be present for the preciousness of life. The trick is "remembering to remember" the practice that helps us stay present. We help ourselves by carving out time to sit and walk mindfully every day to develop the "habit" of stopping and being with the breath. And yes, counting the breath, gatha practice, guided meditations, or some other means of being fully aware of our breathing, can be the vehicle which facilitates our practice so that it is there for us to call on when we need it.

Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, practices swimming meditation and mindful breathing in any body of water above freezing.

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Breath Therapy

By Terry Helbick The joy of mindfulness and mindful breathing has grown in my life from a "spiritual" practice reserved for meditation to a practice I use in all areas of my life. It is an essential element in my work as a clinical psychologist essential for me so I can be present with clients and essential for my clients to learn as they heal and change. All those practicing in the fields of healing come to appreciate how important it is to be centered, fresh, and present with clients or patients. An effective helper must be in touch with her own still center so that she can focus clearly on and listen deeply to the person who comes to her for help. She needs to have space enough inside her to see and accept whatever the person brings, without judgment. Empathy, understanding, and acceptance are the basics of a therapeutic relationship. Mindful breathing makes it possible for me to realize this type of openness and awareness with clients.

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A therapist must also monitor her own thoughts, opinions, and emotional reactions as they arise. I use mindful breathing to contain and release my own "stuff' as it arises in therapy sessions. I can then act as a container for the client, reflecting their suffering and holding it with love and acceptance. I have found that my ability to be useful to others depends intimately on my ability to be still and spacious in mindfulness. Mindful breathing is the tool I use to center myself in that stillness. It is also the tool that can hold, protect, and release the mental formations that may arise in me as I work with my clients.

Using mindful breathing, I am better able to observe what is happening with my clients. I am more apt to notice that slight change in their breathing as they tell a certain part of their story, or that fleeting look of fear that tells of a feeling they didn't mention. As my breathing keeps me calm and open, it helps my clients look at their own thoughts and feelings with less need to deny or defend themselves. This helps them get to the root of their suffering much quicker.

Learning mindfulness practices of various sorts is an important part of therapy for many of my clients. I teach mindfulness of breathing to help them overcome their suffering and realize peace. I teach it first as a means to calm body and mind. It is the ideal tool as it will always be there for them, anytime, anyplace. Many clients have symptoms that stem from chronic over-arousal of their nervous systems. Whatever the cause, the body simply cannot tolerate this state of affairs for long without becoming ill. In addition to various physical diseases, chronic over-arousal is responsible for symptoms related to mental maladies such as anxiety and depression. Many people find that with practice, mindful breathing is quicker and more effective than a pill for calming down, with the added bonus of no unpleasant side effects.

Mindful breathing can create a safe place from which one can learn to nurture oneself and to observe mental, emotional, or physical states. Mindful breathing is an act of loving kindness towards oneself. It is literally feeding oneself, as well as allowing oneself to be fed by the universe, moment by moment. That safe place of calm and stillness is also the starting point for productive self-observation- an important skill to learn as an agent in one's own healing. Many types of therapy assume a client can do this. I find that many cannot because they do not know how to stop reacting in unhelpful ways to the contents of their own mind.

Mindful breathing gives the client a means to stop the flow of habitual thoughts and feeling in response to an external or internal stimulus. To be able to stop and generate a feeling of calm is critical to being able to observe the content of one's mind without judgment or attachment to the thoughts and feelings arising. Clients can use mindful breathing to stop their thinking, calm their feelings, and then, to create a space in which a new attitude, behavior, feeling, response, or even insight can be realized.

Much of my work involves helping people transform suffering from severe trauma, victimization, and loss. Mindful breathing has been invaluable for containing the intense emotional pain that arises in this type of healing. It can be the anchor in the storm that keeps a person from losing themselves in the intensity of an emotion, or to the terror of being out of control. Conscious, slow breathing can give back the self control and self nurturing they need.

The development of concentration and focus is important for numerous reasons in therapy work, just as in spiritual practice. I often give my clients instruction in meditation for its calming effects and for the additional skill it brings in concentration. Lastly, conscious breathing can be taught as an exercise that increases available energy and support. All too often, I watch clients actually stop breathing as they struggle with their issues. They cut themselves off from life support and as a result have no energy to cope. I simply teach them to monitor their own breathing so that they can notice when they stop and can get back on-line with life-breath by breath.

Terry Helbick, True Original Land, is a member o/the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California.

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Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn't have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn't have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people's suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don't like to do, and to say things you don't like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn't want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, "My friend was right, you don't have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don't think that you are a happy person. You have killed him." The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man's stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, "Good­ness has been born in you, so you don't have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon."

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don't know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, "My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful." He said, "Okay," and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, "Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom."

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don't practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn't allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it's like sitting on thorns. We don't know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. "Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you." By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don't have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: "Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you." After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don't know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That's not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don't want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don't have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It's okay to suffer, it's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call "energy number two." The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of ... , you don't need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don't stop, if you don't become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief.

This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998.

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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A River or Feelings

By Patrecia Lenore

Like many people's, my mind has several negative habit patterns. Perhaps because of childhood abuse and neglect, the seeds of reactivity, anger, and mistrust are particularly strong. Recently, when these three habits arose in me, I had the opportunity to observe their transformation.

Because I needed advice, I confided in a dear friend about a difficult situation, but after our conversation, I felt a lot of shame. I thought she had not listened to me in the way I needed and I felt hurt and abandoned. My shame quickly turned into anger and mistrust, as I said to myself, "See, you can't trust anyone. She probably thinks you are really bad. But what I did was shameful, so it's not surprising she thinks of me that way." I hurt, but part of me knew that my feelings were growing out of proportion to what had really happened.

After sitting with my feelings, I called my friend to share what I was experiencing. I couldn't reach her. The negative habit patterns continued to intrude upon my consciousness, with an added message: "She is angry, because what I told her was so shameful, and she doesn't care for me any more or she would call back right away." Meanwhile, my "mother" awareness was holding my feelings, and although they felt "true," mindfulness softened their effect and helped me remember they were just habit patterns. I kept coming back to my breath and practiced loving kindness meditation for my friend and for myself. Even so, later in the day, the thoughts were still painfully present.

Then I remembered a practice from my other Sangha, a twelve-step group. In this practice, if you are having difficulty with someone, you pray for them every day for two weeks. In this case, my prayer was forgiveness meditation: forgiving my friend for any way she might have hurt me, and asking her forgiveness for any way I might have hurt her. The next two days, the habit pattern of mistrust was still pretty strong, so I kept coming back to my breath, cradling my feelings and attempting to let them go, and doing forgiveness and loving kindness meditation.

On the third day, as I waited for a subway, I visualized Thich Nhat Hanh and other compassionate teachers in my life. With surprise, I realized that in that particular moment, I didn't trust them either. I saw how deeply embedded my feelings were, and I almost cried. How could I not trust even these people? I began naming to myself all the wise and good things these teachers have imparted to me and many others. As I meditated on their gifts of wisdom and compassion, I was suddenly flooded with memories of all the wonderful qualities of my friend, the things that make me love her so much. In that moment, the pain of the anger and mistrust lifted, and sweet feelings of love and trust filled my heart again.

That day at work, my friend called. She explained that she had not called sooner because she had visitors. I told her my whole story, and said she had called at the perfect moment. If she had called sooner, perhaps I wouldn't have experienced how diligent practice can free me from even the most painful feelings. I had also had time to contemplate how perceptions formed in my childhood cause much of my torment and my fear of being unlovable. We both laughed gently about my experience (what a busy mind!), and observed how quickly I went through a process that used to take me weeks or months.

I am learning to give myself time to be with my feelings and to contemplate "right action" before I take any steps. Knowing that anger and mistrust are strong in me, I can more quickly see these habit patterns when they arise and not be consumed by them. I see they are simply habit patterns, which arise and will subside. As I nurture the seeds of forgiveness  and loving kindness for myself, for my feelings, and for all beings, the painful habits have less power over me. These practices are helping me heal my wounded heart and become more open and loving.

Patrecia Lenore, Flower of True Virtue, practices with the Community of Mindfulness/New York Metro.

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Poem: Smiling with My Pain

I feel the pain. It hurts. It hurts very much. I want to smash something, someone, anything. It hurts. It hurts very much. Rage and anger boil within me. It hurts. It hurts very much. I feel inadequate, useless, pathetic; After all it's only pain. But it hurts. It hurts very much.

I stop.

I breathe. I breathe in the stale rank air which surrounds me. I begin to calm, to slow down. I begin to know that I am breathing. As I breathe in, I know I am breathing in. I greet the air. As I greet the air, It tastes sweet and fresh. It tells me of newly mown meadows and mountain valleys. I continue to breathe; Each breath being As if it were the first new beautiful breath of my life.

I hurt. I hurt very much. But I begin to feel safe. I begin to smile. My fixed, clamped, teeth part, Just a little. The tip of my tongue gently brushes my awakening mouth.

My numbed, compressed lips open. They move and begin the forming of a very small, fragile smile. My hard, staring eyes begin to soften. They crease around their edges. They open. I begin to see. I hurt. I hurt very much. But now I know everything will be all right.

As my smile continues to find its way, And my breath brings peace and calm, So my shoulders drop. My tense, aching muscles ease. As my smile mingles, merges and lovingly takes hold of my intolerance, anger and frustration, So love, peace and understanding arrive. I take a long, slow, beautiful breath,

And let my mind dwell on something good and wonderful. I forget that I hurt.

I sense the love, joy, happiness and laughter Of my brothers and sisters in the Dharma, gathered round the long tables; In the warm steamy kitchen, Purposefully wrapping earth cakes in preparation for the New Year's celebrations. I feel the strength of the green banana leaves, As I carefully wrap them round the sticky rice, and tie them with string. I hear the laughter of my brother as I get it all wrong, And he shows me, Again, How to wrap the rice. As I touch this beautiful moment, So I open, And am filled with the wonder and joy of my life. I forget to forget that I hurt.

With the love and understanding that my breath and smile have brought, I acknowledge and greet the deep hurting pain in my body. I smile with my twisted, locked, muscles at the back of my tongue, That hurt so much.

We speak together with love and understanding. I smile with the hard, creased up I knot of muscle at the base of my I spine, That is trying to pull me out of I shape and is the cause of so much pain. I hurt. I hurt very much. But now I know I hurt.

As I open to my pain, To the joy and wonder of my life, So I remember the sound of a teacher's strong, clear voice. I repeat the words that I know so well: "My mind and my body are one." The words travel to the very centre of my being, Like the music of a beautiful bell.

With all my wrong perceptions—I know I am my pain. With all my wrong perceptions—I know I am the cause of my pain. We are one, as I understand, as I do not understand. I know that I hurt. I hurt very much. I But I do not hurt at all. I

Rupert Wilson  Hungerford, England

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Questioning Habit Energy

By Jack Lawlor

Each day, our culture sends innumerable messages urging us to consume. If we are modestly observant, we can see that many human consumption patterns threaten the air we breathe, the forests we admire, the other species we profess to love, and even the ability of less fortunate people to earn a living wage under adequate working conditions. And yet we struggle to curb our desire to consume even more, even when we've sensed that compulsive consuming thwarts-rather than enhances-our ability to live happily and to be truly free.

Our habit energies know us well, and we often feel stuck in them. Think of all the energy we expend on this never-ending, never satisfied cycle of appeasing our wants! The Irish novelist, Flann O'Brien, found a kind of humorous pathos in our tendency to be recidivist victims of desire. In his brilliant novel, The Third Policeman, O'Brien's characters are condemned to an eternity of repeating the same patterns, circulating the same emotional landscape over and over, by their unacknowledged grasping. In Buddhist terms, O'Brien was describing manifestations of karma.

The teachings of the historic Buddha look deeply into the connection between desire and suffering. The First Noble Truth sets forth the Buddha's observation that life contains suffering and unease; the Second Noble Truth observes that grasping and clinging are often a direct cause of this suffering. We are invited to experiment with these insights. We may well find that it is unhealthy to incessantly feed the flames of desire, yet we do. We often give in to compulsion in an effort to appease it, only to find that a fresh compulsion arises. If we give way to a fraction of the messages we receive urging us to consume, or if we give way to every desire that arises in us, we will find ourselves spent and exhausted. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Second and Third Realizations of the Great Beings candidly assess the relationship between compulsive desire and our experience of unhappiness:

... more desire brings more suffering. All hardships in daily life arise from greed and desire. Those with little desire and ambition are able to relax; their bodies and minds are free from entanglement.

... the human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes unwholesome actions to ever increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace, in order to practice the Way, and consider the realization of understanding as their only career.

The good news experienced by the Buddha is that freedom from destructive habit energy is possible, and that the way is an Eightfold Path of appropriate view, thinking, mindfulness, speech, action, diligence, concentration, and livelihood-practices that enable us to dwell in freedom during this very lifetime. These teachings are known as the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. For most of us, liberation from compulsive behavior does not arise from intellectually grasping the Buddha's analysis or memorizing the various lists that summarize the Buddha's teachings. Instead we make real progress in liberating ourselves from compulsive behavior when we directly experience the fruit of the teaching.

We are fortunate to practice in a mindfulness tradition that emphasizes the centeredness and peace provided by conscious breathing. Everyone who has experimented wholeheartedly with sensing and feeling the breath has tasted the freedom from anxiety, fear, and compulsion afforded by just a few moments of dwelling in the present moment. Conscious breathing enhances our capacity to be aware and alert, not rutted or stuck on autopilot. This experience enables us to stop—samatha—and look deeply—vipassana. Taking refuge in the island of mindfulness in the midst of confused, chaotic, and turbo-charged contemporary circumstances enables us to be the calm person in the cultural boat of consumerism. When we practice samatha, we find a respite from our habit energy of consuming in order to fill the aching void we sometimes find within ourselves, particularly when we feel tired, stressed, or unappreciated.

Taking refuge in our breath in the midst of doubt and confusion provides a moment of freedom and the option to follow the road usually not taken. If the desire to consume frivolously arises, we can recognize its emergence and disengage from it for a moment by enjoying our breathing. Rather than be swept away by habit energy, we can pause and observe what is actually going on. We can take a moment to reflect on how our habit of giving way to compulsion often gives way to greater complications, weariness, and suffering. And we have an opportunity to look deeply into the causes and conditions of our desire, in order to transform at the base our habit of compulsive acquisitiveness. A complete mindfulness practice involves both stopping and looking deeply in this way.

I have found that moments of desire are a precious opportunity to practice an insight meditation inspired by the chapters on Right View and Right Thinking in Thich Nhat Hanh's book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. There, Thay essentially invites us to ask ourselves four questions: "Am I sure?" "What am I doing?" "Hello, habit energy! What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?" and "Where is the bodhicitta, the mind of love, in myself and those I am with, and how do I nourish it?" For me, these questions are a kind of natural koan that arises in the context of daily life. The moment of freedom provided by our practice of conscious breathing gives us the chance to ask these questions when confronted by desire.

We are constantly urged to consume. When we are surrounded by the Sunday morning paper, gleaming with colorful advertisements, the thought arises in us that we need a new car. The day provides a wonderful opportunity to remain home, alone or with loved ones, but the seed of new car ownership is also arising. We breathe, smile, and say hello to the thought, perhaps breathing through it to sense its marrow. I find it is helpful to ask Thay's question, "Am I sure? Am I sure I need a new car? Don't I already have one with only 114,000 miles? Am I sure I want to disrupt the grace and ease of a lazy Sunday morning at home with the family, the funny papers, and Dave Barry's humor column? And aren't car dealerships closed on Sundays?"

Nonetheless, the day will come when the air conditioning breaks down for the second time, making it uneconomical to engage in further auto repairs. I may find myself at the dealership, being magnetically attracted to the Behemoth showroom. Thay's second question arises then, like a guided meditation, "What am I doing? I came here to buy a replacement for my 1991 Ford Taurus and I find myself eye-level with the floorboards of new Gigantors. The family, the dogs, and I can make do with much less. What am I doing? Why? Am I about to affiliate with a symbol rather than a reality? If the goal is to vacation with the family in a natural setting, why not go home and make plans to do that rather than purchase a symbol that proclaims that some day I may get around to doing it?"

If we look deeply into our consumption patterns, we may find the same theme recurring beneath the surface of our behavior. "Am I trying to make a statement rather than 'walk the talk'? Am I trying to find an easy way to affiliate with an image rather than live genuinely and free? How much time, money, and energy are spent on this kind of behavior? How many hours of extra work?" This is Thay's third question: "Hell o, habit energy. What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?"

Oftentimes, when we are mindful and awake, the mere recognition of habit energy will drain it of much of its strength. On the other hand, some of our habit energies are quite strong, having been well-nourished and accommodated for many years. When strong habit energies are encountered, we can also nourish what is strong and healthy in us. For example, many Americans have strong seeds that value equality and fairness. When we weigh our consumer tastes against the air pollution and resource depletion that results from our consuming, our desires may be tempered by empathy for other people and species who share our desires to breathe air and drink water that is as clear and unpolluted as possible. "Where is the bodhicitta in myself, and in those I am with?" we might ask. This is Thay's fourth question: "What is the best way to nourish the mind of love?"

How do we nouri sh what is best in ourselves and others? How do we water the seeds of compassion? If our insight meditation proceeds to this question, the interdependence of self and other becomes clear, and the Dharma door to taking refuge in Sangha is thrown open. Individually, we feel weak in the face of habit energies, especially those that are fed with the vigor of our mass culture. Collectively, as a Sangha, we can slowly build what Thay and Father Daniel Berrigan call a "community of resistance" to societal and individual habit energies. Practicing alone, our efforts may seem minor and insignificant. Convening regularly as a Sangha to sit in meditation and explore the Mindfulness Trainings, we know that we are part of a collective effort to transform suffering at the base.

The practice has both individual and collective manifestations. A few years ago, I read a little cartoon showing two meditators sitting beside each other on their cushions. One turned to the other and said, "Can you watch my breath for me? I have to feed the parking meter." Of course, neither the Buddha nor Thay--nor monks and nuns, nor the local Sangha--can watch our breath for us. They cannot practice samatha for us, or ask Thay's four insightful questions about our habit energies. Nonetheless, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha serve us as a kind of collective compass that helps in moments of doubt and confusion. And even when doubt and confusion arise, with a few moments of conscious breathing, we can take refuge in the sanctuary of mindfulness. Taking refuge in this practice in the midst of temptation, habit energy, and confusion can provide us the opportunity to ask a few very important questions about what we are actually doing. Most practitioners find that stopping and looking deeply can free us from the compulsions that rob us of our time, our freedom, and our happiness. We can learn from small successes in taking the road not usually traveled. We build upon these small successes and pretty soon, we're following the very Eightfold Path the Buddha spoke of as the means to transform our suffering.

As the founder of our lineage, Lieu Quan, observed in his enlightenment verse, "For the realization of True Emptiness to be possible, wisdom and action must go together."

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, practices with Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and leads retreats throughout the American Midwest.

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The Fifth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

Making Friends with Time

By Tracy Sarriugarte and Peggy Rowe

Smell the Roses

People from a planet without flowers would
think we must be mad with joy the whole time to
have such things about us.
—Iris Murdoch

Beauty from nature is one of my favorite touchstones and it comes in all forms and shapes and sizes-trees, flowers, clouds, and creatures. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it is also in the ear and tongue and nose of the beholder. A bird song at midday can be as sweet as a soundless sunset. But beauty cannot touch us without our awareness, appreciation, and active participation.

I am passionately fond of roses, of every shape and hue and fragrance—especially fragrance. At my home, I cultivate long-stemmed hybrid teas, short and sassy floribundas, vigorous climbers, and wayward rugosas. My favorite roses have the most delightful names, like Angel Face, Sheer Bliss, Chrysler Imperial, Dainty Bess, and First Kiss. Every rose in my garden is graced with scent. Some of my roses smell like cinnamon, some like honey, and some smell of citrus. My red roses have the deepest perfume, to match their rich, dark color; the white roses are the most delicately scented; and the yellow roses, my favorite, smell like summer sunshine. Yet with all their beautiful fragrance, a rose might as well be a weed if no one stops to smell it. In late spring, when the first roses burst into bloom, my garden is filled with delightful aromas and the humming of busy bees harvesting the sweet nectar and pollen. My neighbors, all busy people, hesitate a moment before getting into their cars to drive to work. I watch them stop and inhale deeply, standing with their car doors open, one leg already inside the car, and I often see them smile as they drive away. It makes me happy that their commute begins in a beautiful, aromatic way.

Seeing, hearing, or touching beauty reconnects us with our deep selves and with everything around us, of which we are a part. It's as simple as smelling the many fragrances and aromas carried by the breeze, or listening to the sounds of children's voices from the schoolyard, or touching the velvet fur of a beloved pet. When time seems to be moving away from us too quickly, the wonders of the natural world can bring us back to a deeper appreciation of life and true enjoyment of this moment in time.

Practice: Smell the Roses

  • What do you find beautiful? When are you touched by beauty?

  • Take a moment to appreciate the beauty around you right now-look around, sniff the air, listen for faint sounds in the distance, reach out to touch a different texture than where your hands now rest.

  • Get outside. Feel the caress of the air on your skin. Smell the fragrance of this season of the year. Touch a leaf or a blade of grass. Look up at the sky.

  • Notice what is most pleasing and beautiful to you. Make a note in your personal journal or share with another person how beauty touched you today.

Listen to Your Body

Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing
individual, labeled by specific protein configuration
sat the surface of cells, identifiable by
|whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special
medleys of fragrance. You'd think we'd never
stop dancing.
—Lewis Thomas, M.D.

Our body is the vehicle that helps us travel through time. Every feature of the human body was created with a special purpose. Meticulously designed, the body is a miracle. Every hair and every cell contain all the data necessary to make an entire universe. The body functions as a fully-integrated system much like a community. Each part benefits from the whole and if one part is disruptive, the whole system may be jeopardized.

Taking time to listen to the voice of our body is a practice of great benefit. If your body were to write you a letter, what would it say? Here is an example of a letter from my journal:

Dear Peggy: I'm enjoying the new diet. More water and greens help me feel strong and clear. I appreciate the regular meditation time. This helps me feel my natural rhythm and a sense of calm. I enjoy the walks with Suzanne. The movement is refreshing and the sun feels good. Thanks for listening. I love you, Your Body.

By putting ourselves in touch with our body, we come to feel and understand the body and learn concrete ways to bring it peace and joy. We know that stretching relieves tension and produces wellbeing; that we feel more alive after a walk; that we can change our state of mind by breathing deeply; that in dancing, we forget our worry; that our posture can reflect different attitudes and states of mind. Using our bodies in certain ways not only reconciles us to the physical world but also changes our state of mind in the present moment.

We can access body wisdom by stopping and listening, which can occur in a body session, during yoga or exercise, through letter writing and by prayer. Messages come to us via our senses, the experience of pain and pleasure, and through our dreams. Sometimes we can communicate with our body simply by looking in the mirror.

When I first sat down to have a chat with my body, I was frustrated. I couldn't hear what my body had to say. As I looked more deeply into my experience, I realized that I had been out of touch with my body for some time. I had been dragging my body around like a stubborn puppy. As with any relationship, I would have to build trust. And that would take time.

As I continued to practice deep listening, I discovered that my body was communicating. The messages were just subtler than I had expected and I had to learn to understand them. Early body messages might be a twinge, an involuntary movement, or an itchy spot. I learned to follow body clues like a skilled tracker.

The first verbal message I consciously received from my body came to me as if it had been shouted. I was experiencing a sense of depression and I asked my body to help me understand my condition. The message I heard was, "You're not depressed-you're tired!" My body had been trying to communicate with me; in fact, it was sending the message as loudly and as clearly as it could. I had to say, "Quit shouting!" I instantly felt some relief from my body. I had heard! Hooray! No more shouting.

The next chapter in my growing friendship with my body came in the form of information overload. Now that the communication lines were open and our relationship was on good terms, my body had a lot to say. During the next several months, I received Goldilocks-like messages such as: "like this" and "don't like this," "more of this" and "less of this," "this hurts" and "this feels good." After I began behaving in accordance with the information provided by my body, the communication settled down. Then, like Goldilocks, I discovered what was "just right."

The food we eat, the way we breathe, how we treat our bodies can produce heaviness or lightness. Expressing concern and compassion for our body can bring us peace and joy. We discover how to rest and to refresh and restore to each part of the body the capacity to function normally. We can create positions of greater balance, experience well-being and even ecstasy. We can invent new harmonies and rhythms that help us step lightly, with grace and ease.

I find the voice of my body to be one of my greatest resources. My body is wise, relentlessly honest and, to my surprise, very kind. My body wants what is best for me. Depth psychologist Marion Woodman said, "If you can listen to the wisdom of your body, love this flesh and bone, dedicate yourself to its mystery, you may one day find yourself smiling from your mirror."

Practice: Listen to Your Body

  • Take a few moments to listen to the voice of your body. Imagine that your body would like to write you a letter. Just let your hand and body write the letter.

  • This is a great practice for building regular communication with your body. It is also useful if you are feeling disconnected from your body or wishing to understand a particular condition or behavior.

  • What is your body saying right now? How do you want to respond?

  • What action can you take today that will let your body know that you are listening?

Notice Ordinary Miracles

Take, for example, a pencil, ashtray,anything, and holding it before you in bothhands, regard it for a while. Forgetting itsuse and name yet continuing to regard it,ask yourself seriously, "What is it?" Itsdimension of wonder opens; for the mysteryof that being is identical with the mystery ofthe being of the universe-and yourself.-Joseph Campbell 

She was old for as long as I can remember. Shewore flower-sprigged dresses with a white apron and smelled of violets. She had sugar cookies as big as my fist and the cookie jar was always always full. When she was 81, she wrote her autobiography and called it My First 80 Years. My Grandmother Morris taught me the value of looking for ordinary miracles.

"Ordinary miracles are all around," she said. Sometimes education helps us to see them. We learn in school how rainbows are created and we can never look at the sky again without knowing there are rainbows waiting in hiding. Other times, miracles are unveiled when we open our eyes and truly see what is there. This can be an experience of deeply appreciating a glorious sunset, responding to the touch of someone's hand, or of feeling grateful for our own breath. And sometimes ordinary miracles reveal themselves in the company of one who is in touch with the extraordinary cloaked as ordinary.

Sand was one of my grandmother's ordinary miracles. She had a large wooden storage shed full of jar after jar of sand. She began gathering sand when she was in her late teens. She first noticed sand when she was delivering Watkin's spices from her horse and buggy route. The sun was striking the earth by the road and it looked like gold, she said, but it wasn't gold, it was an ordinary miracle. Sand was never the same.

She married a fellow adventurer. Weekends and on vacation, they toured the country collecting sand. If anyone went on a trip, my grandmother knew what color of sand they could expect to find there. Her face would light up when she received a gift jar of sand. She would hurry into the shed to see if it was a new color.

This was the first ordinary miracle I learned about. I explored where to find the pink sand, black sand or orange sand. I discovered what created color. I learned to notice and value what was beneath my feet. I observed that the earth comes in all shades of the rainbow. I learned about rocks and minerals and to imagine a place with a pink beach.

The second ordinary miracle I learned about from my grandmother was that she transformed sand into art. She created sand paintings on plywood boards and in large glass bowls. I remember her with sand sifting through her hands, slowly and patiently creating works of art out of nature's raw material. This was magic to me as a little girl, and the memory still is today. I look at sand and see color, art, and my grandmother.

We don't need to go looking for ordinary miracles. They are everywhere and we see them when we stop, look, listen, and appreciate what is already in the circle of our own life. The value of doing this practice is that it can help us to stay open and available. It can help our hearts stay soft and connected to our own life. It can help us stay connected to the magic and the mystery that is present in our life. A pencil is a miracle; so is a sheet of paper, a matchstick, and a dinner plate. Experiencing an ordinary miracle stops time and opens us up to the timeless dimension. Pausing to appreciate ordinary miracles can help us remember that happiness is where we are and the miraculous is all around us.

Practice: Notice Ordinary Miracles

  • Find a comfortable place whether inside or in nature. Take a piece of paper and write down some of the ordinary miracles you observe.

  • Choose one of these ordinary miracles and sit with the item or being for five minutes. Forgetting its use and its name, hold the item or regard it and ask yourself, "What is this?" This is a practice of looking deeply and listening deeply.

  • What did you observe? What did you learn?

  • As you go throughout your day, anytime you see this item or being, see if you can recall the sensation or discovery that you made by looking deeply into an ordinary miracle.

Excerpted from Making Friends with Time (PBJ Productions 1999; available from Parallax Press) Tracy Sarriugarte is an ordained minister, an organizational consultant, and a creative entrepreneur. She practices with the Beginner's Mind Sangha in Boise, Idaho. Peggy Rowe, True Original Vow, has more than twenty years of experience as a teacher and organizational consultant. She is a writer and gourd artist, and practices with the Still Water Sangha in Santa Barbara, California.

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An Experience with Fasting

a sharing from the Editor

On September 19, I learned of Thay's intention to fast for ten days as a prayer for the missing and their loved ones, and as a call for peace. He invited us to join him, and my heart said yes. I am familiar with the practice of fasting, and had recently done a three and a half day juice fast. But I had never done a ten day fast of just water and herbal tea, and since I am in good health, I felt ready to begin. My purpose in doing this was to respond to the violence that had occurred and to join Thay in his efforts to offer a peaceful and happy way of life to everyone in the world. Part of this was to learn to treat my body with love and respect and to allow it to rest and cleanse. Another part was to become aware of my habit energies in relation to eating, and to become friends with the desire and craving that habitually come up around food.

As I began the fast, I was very aware of Thay's support in the process. Many days I took long walks on the beach, receiving nourishment from the fresh ocean breezes and the feel of the sand under my feet. I would talk with Thay and ask him to help me in this practice. On the seventh day, our practice center was blessed with a visit from eleven monks and nuns on their way home to Deer Park Monastery. They dropped in for lunch, and as we served the buffet, they asked me to join them. When I told them I was fasting with Thay, they thanked me for supporting him . That was the first time I realized that, not only had Thay been supporting me in my practice, but also that my practice had been supporting Thay. One brother looked at me over the food and said. "You are Thay." Several days into the fast, I began to notice that the element of stopping had blossomed in me. In sitting meditation, when the bell rang to walk, I noticed that I had really stopped and had no desire to rise or not rise. And when the bell rang to sit again, I noticed I had no desire to stop walking or to continue walking. By stopping one habit pattern, I had taught my whole self that stopping is okay, that stopping can be nourishment of the deepest kind .

I was also confronted by my beliefs about how much I need to consume to stay healthy. During the first week I saw that, except for climbing hills or lifting heavy objects, my energy was not significantly reduced . As the fast neared the end, I did notice that I was becoming weaker and that my skin was becoming dry. I began to see images of starving Biafran children and maybe for the first time, really imagined what it would be like to live my whole life in those conditions. The contrast between what I consume and what they receive is a startling picture I am often not ready to experience.

I have now committed to fast one day a week, offering my body a lazy day and my mind an opportunity to observe its grasping nature with love and compassion. In general, I am also making a small but consistent effort to consume less. I thank Thay for helping me get to know myself and for ceaselessly being present with me in my suffering and in my happiness.

I know that for many of us, when we heard of the tragedies of September 11, a deep longing arose to hear words of comfort and understanding from our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. This issue contains a special section with some of his responses: a special piece written October 19, called " 'Strike Against Terror': is a Misleading Expression"; his Dharma talk from Berkeley on September 13; and stories of practitioners who were with Thay during this time. Though it has been three months since that morning, the impact is still being deeply felt in our society and within our own hearts. May each of us find solace and understanding from the teacher within.

In gratitude,
Barbara Casey

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A Lifetime of Global Peacemaking

An Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman by Barbara Casey

Gene, how did you first become familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh?

Gene: I have been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation since 1950 and we sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking tours for peace in the United States and abroad in 1966. I was interested in this young Buddhist who had so much to contribute to peace. In 1985 I went for a month to Plum Village, his center in France. While there, he asked me to organize his first retreat with Vietnam Veterans. It was a wonderful retreat here in Santa Barbara and there are several veterans from that retreat that l still see.

Thay, as we learned to call him, is particularly strong and powerful in h is teachings on reconciliation.  Since that is my field, l learned much from him.  The international program I founded, Compassionate Listening, is based on h is teachings that we must listen to both sides of any conflict before we take action and we must acknowledge the suffering and grievances of both sides without judgement. Ultimately through this process, we bring the two sides together for reconciliation.

When Glasnost came, everyone just stopped, thinking that no more work of reconciliation was needed, but I knew that wasn't true. So l began working in the Middle East and since then I have been going back and forth, working there. On one trip to Israel, I stopped in London and attended a Quaker meeting. I saw a huge sign outside the hall saying, "Meeting for worship for the tortured and the torturers," so l went to that meeting. I had long listened to the tortured, but listening to the torturers I'd never thought of that. So I developed a Compassionate Listening program and wrote many articles about it. Then in 1996 I received a call from Leah Green in Seattle, saying she wanted to use my Compassionate Listening process in her peace delegations to the Middle East. No one else had wanted to work with me because they said I didn't advocate for anything. When you advocate, you pick a side and you have enemies. I didn't take a side. When people asked me who I was advocating for, I told them, "I'm advocating for reconciliation."

Tell us about Compassionate Listening:

Gene: Compassionate Listening is a process for making peace because you listen to the grievances of both sides, you hear the suffering of both sides, and you hear the life stories of the people who represent each side. It is a listening program that does not criticize or advise. The Middle East project has been bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Now there are more people who are beginning to understand the situation. When l went to Israel the first few times, the Israelis I met said the Palestinians didn't exist and no one would go into the Palestinian Territory except the peacemakers.

Compassionate Listening is people listening to both sides without judging or condemning and being there as nourishing, nurturing people caring for people on both sides. It's amazing.

One of my last visits to Israel included a meeting with the military head of Hamas at that time. He was a very appealing young man. I listened to his life story. He had been arrested and exiled by the Israelis, and made to sit on the border of Lebanon where they were fighting. His story was horrific but he was a loving man. I went up to him afterwards and said, "l might have some ideas on nonviolence for you and I wonder if you would like to hear them?" And he said, "You sound just like my mother." I told him, "I'd like to be your mother!" We hugged and I left. A week after I came home, the newspaper reported that he had participated in nonviolent demonstrations twice. I don't know where he is now but the transforming experience of having a group of people listen to your life story was reflected in the change in this young man.

I was requested by the American Friends Service Committee in Alaska to offer two trainings. They were having problems with indigenous people in Alaska having their food supply threatened. Their program went for a year and a half and then they came together and made seven concessions.

In the listening process, there is a group leader and the same listeners stay with the project. They start out listening to one group and then the other. They don't bring the groups together until they feel they are ready; by that time they have often worked through many of their differences. This is the process that I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh because in his community each person tells their side.

How does a person use compassionate listening skills in their daily life?

Gene: You listen to people; you don't criticize or condemn them and you don't argue with them. You are grateful they told their story. I have one grandson who is a little terror and is defiant of everything he's told to do. One day he came over and he didn't talk to me, but he was being very troublesome. So l said, "Tell me what's going on, are you upset with me. Have I done something?" He said, "I'm mad at my dad!" I said, "Thank you for telling me; tell me about it." He said, "I didn't want to come here, I wanted to stay and play with my friends, but my dad made me come!" That explained everything. Before I understood, his behavior was so awful l was ready to send him home. After I knew the problem, he softened up and his dad was here and we all began talking, and then everything was fine.

I think that you have to ask, is there anything wrong?  Is there anything I've done? Can you tell me how you're feeling? I don't know if it will work, but it works in the home if we can stop our own feelings of aggravation and listen. Just stop and say, "I'm going to listen to you now; tell me whatever it is that's bothering you because it will help me."

At home it's so easy to just start arguing, I think it really helps to set an environment by stating what you're going to do; "I'm going to stop and listen to you now." Stopping and verbalizing your intention helps to create safety.

Gene: If an argument starts, one of the things that I usually do is to say, "I can't talk about this anymore, I have to think about it." Because at the moment the argument is going on I would just fall into it and defend myself. I do what I need to get out of the angry mode because that's the hardest place to listen from.

In the Compassionate Listening project, you have to be able to listen to people you hate, but sometimes a person just cannot listen and they have to stop. I would have a hard time listening to [President] Bush, and I think it would be the best thing for me to go and listen to him. I think I would learn more about whatever it is that arouses me and makes me fear for my nation and for our lives.

How can Compassionate Listening help us in these times?

Gene: I think we should listen to the people who differ from us, either in small groups or one on one. We should listen to what we find is the truth they speak and affirm them in it. That is one of the processes of Compassionate Listening. For example, in the U.S. we can go in pairs, from door to door; and ask three questions: What do you think of the war against evil? Do you see a way other than war for resolving these differences? Would victory resolve our differences? Why or why not? Each person will have an opportunity to look at their own truth and to consider the beliefs behind their words.

We went to Libya and stayed a week doing Compassionate Listening. We met with people in government, politics, law, and academia. We also met with the religious leaders of Islam. I told them that I, as a Quaker, believed the spiritual teachings were evolutionary and asked them if the teachings in the Koran were too. They went into another room to consider my question and when they returned they said, "We interpret Mohammed's teaching in different ways as time goes by." When we asked them about their treatment of gay people, we were relieved when they answered that they don't kill them anymore.

Gene, if you had an opportunity to meet with President Bush, how would you go about listening to him?

Gene: I would go with a small group who had been trained in this process. We would say something like: "We want to know about you as a person and as a President. Tell me the best time you ever had in your childhood." We would not ask adversarial questions. We would say we want to know about your life, we want to know what you believe and what your faith tells you to do. What I would like to find is the good spirit in Bush that can be built upon, where we can build on what he believes, because there is no point in attacking him. I would listen with compassion to him.

How do you think we can bring peace?

Gene: There is no future without forgiveness. We must start going in delegations around the world, acknowledging the harm our country has done, acknowledging our grief over it and asking for forgiveness. I think every country has to do it, but I think that it needs to start here. The goal of compassionate listening is that we will acknowledge the harm that we've done and ask for forgiveness and listen to the other people. All of this bombing and destroying people has never brought peace.  So we have to do something much bigger. That will come in steps and just doing this compassionate listening is an important beginning.  There is a coming together of the two sides.

One of the many things I love about compassionate listening is that it's not at all abstract.  It's something I can do even when I feel completely overwhelmed by the state of things in the world.

Gene: Yes, and I still go back to the one on one. Since 9/11 I've had at least twelve people call me up and just want to come and talk to me, so I've listened.

Compassionate listening seems easy to do but is so difficult. If one aspires to be a compassionate listener, what are the qualities one needs to develop in oneself! Especially to be able to listen to people who have different views?

Gene: In the course I teach, you examine yourself for hatred. All the classes are on the Web, and it's free. Whatever you can't listen to, you don't do. You have to discipline yourself and not react. With my grandson I react all the time, so I am working on that. You have to discern the truth and it's not listening with your human ear, it's listening with your spiritual ear. It's much better to work in a group with a leader, but you can do it by yourself with my booklet.

What is your vision? How do you see Compassionate Listening being used in society?

Gene: I think it is a process that can be used in every experience and l think it's a process that we Americans have to learn. This process is a step in our evolution, a direction that is different from the way we've gone before.  I've never seen so many articles published on listening before; I believe its time has come. We just have to transform ourselves and it's a wonderful thing to do! We have been doing things that are very destructive to human beings for a long time.  We don't know how rich and important it is to go out and do something!

It seems that separation breeds more separation, and compassionate listening breaks down the illusion that we are different, that we are "other." We need to do that on a personal, one on one way, for the seeds of that belief to dissolve.

Gene: That's a great statement. I' m going to use that in my teaching. We can only aspire to the impartiality and balance that's needed to do compassionate listening. But if we're aware of our biases, then we can stay in honesty while listening.

Our nation is in denial about all the harm we've done. '"We're peaceful," we say, while we drop the bomb in Afghanistan and support war all over the world. I don't think we can hope for much until we transform and begin to listen, and then it's going to be a rough road.

What advice do you have to our readers if they want to begin incorporating compassionate listening in their lives?

Gene: l recommend they find other people and practice together. Go to my Website, and you will find my training booklet, "Compassionate Listening: an Exploratory Sourcebook for Conflict Transformation." They should do it together as a team; they could do it in their Sanghas. Try going door to door, as I have suggested, and then come together and share your experiences. It's good to go representing a group, taking a poll or survey. See how you're doing by writing a "love letter" to the person you dislike or hate the most. My sourcebook has many of these kinds of suggestions.

I'm amazed about all the new efforts to listen in our country. I think it's thrilling. It's amazing how effective it is in our personal life as well as our public life. Keep saying no to things you don't believe in, but look for the truth in the invitations. Don't worry about any outcome; go on growing and learning that's the reward.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a Quaker peace activist who has pioneered compassionate listening practice for over thirty years. She has become a legend in the peacemaking community through bringing compassionate listening to the heart of the world’s greatest conflicts in Russia and the Middle East.

Compassionate Listening: An Exploratory Sourcebook by Gene K. Hoffman

Excerpts

In Compassionate Listening, we do not seek to change those who share with us, we seek only to love them. The more people are loved, the more freedom they have to respond to their own inner truth which may or may not prompt movement.   The only change we can be assured of is that if we truly listen to our fellow human beings, we ourselves will be changed.

What are the results of Compassionate Listening?

People who are involved with Compassionate Listening projects report them to be transforming experiences usually for both the listeners and speakers. Those in conflict have the chance to learn about one another as human beings and potential friends. Their understanding of the complexities of issues addressed are broadened and deepened. Their preconceptions are often shattered, their abilities to listen and be present are challenged and expanded. They find new understandings of themselves and others. Often listeners remark at what a reciprocal experience they have felt, despite only taking the role of listener.

When not to get involved with Compassionate Listening

You must not try to take on the Compassionate Listening role around an issue where your own experience is too fresh or painful. You will get hurt, and you will l hurt those with whom you set out to build bridges. You may need to rest and come back to the issue later.

"Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in awareness, we could have seen the beginning phases and helped to avoid it. The reconciler is not a judge standing outside the conflict, but becomes an insider who will take his or her responsibility by understanding the suffering of both sides. The participants in the conflict should communicate clearly how they see the suffering endured by the other side. The conflict's resolution should be offered on the basis of benefit to both sides. Our purpose is the realization of understanding and compassion." Thich Nhat Hanh

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Sacred Clowning

An Interview with Didier Danthois By Barbara Casey during the Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village in June 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara: It’s like the court jester.

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

Barbara: Big job!

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara: Tell me about how you work in teams.

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

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

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

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Barbara: How do you deal with that?

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

Barbara: How many clowns do you work with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara: [laughs]

Didier: Just enjoy it!

Barbara: Right!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara: Right.

Didier: This is where we lose track.

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

Didier: Yes.

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

Didier: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

Barbara:You just learned how to be judged.

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

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

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

Didier: Yeah! We lose the sense of play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intention, Innovation, Insight

A Day of Mindfulness at Google

By Sister Chan Hien Nghiem

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The Google campus is an interesting place. Called the “Googleplex” by Silicon Valley, it is a sprawling mass of buildings of unusual shapes and sizes, with earnest-faced, intelligent-looking young people darting between them. Some of them are riding free “Google bikes,” which––like the buildings––are branded with Google’s signature tones of red, yellow, green, and blue. There is a plastic pink flamingo perched on a dinosaur skeleton in the main courtyard, as well as a mini-pool, a sandy volleyball court, deck chairs, and exotic desert plants native to the Valley. Right away, you know that this is a place full of creative people, playful people––people who are dedicated to their work and their company’s mission of “making the world’s information accessible and useful.” Google is known as one of the most innovative companies in the world––an exciting, challenging, and fun, if sometimes chaotic, place to work. Yet it is also known as a place where its young (average age twenty-nine), talented employees burn out and leave after just a few years.

As a result, Google has invested a huge amount in “employee well-being.” All the food, the eighteen cafes, gyms, child care, and other onsite services are offered to its ten thousand employees completely free of charge. If you complete a project well, you can gain free “massage credits” to redeem on campus, or take some time out in a “napping pod.” And yet, none of these “perks” can ever be enough to balance the intense workaholic culture. Google’s CEO said that they have “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” Employees may work up to sixteen hours a day, mostly in front of a screen. No matter how much high-quality food and services they have access to, they suffer greatly. They are so busy that they experience acute stress and pressure, struggle to sustain healthy relationships with their partners, and have little time for family life. And so “Googlers” were delighted when, in 2011, Thich Nhat Hanh agreed to lead a half-day of mindfulness for employees during his US tour. Google was proud to announce on its website that it was the very first corporate headquarters in America to host the world-famous Zen Master. As of this writing, Thay’s Dharma talk Q&A has been viewed over 230,000 times since Google posted it on YouTube.

Thay’s visit on October 23, 2013, was his second time on the Google campus. This time, Google asked for a full Day of Mindfulness, not just a half-day, on the theme “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” More than seven hundred employees signed up, so they needed to open two “satellite” locations where Thay’s Dharma talk was live-streamed on big screens, with monastics assigned to each location. There was a lot of excitement in the bus as we headed to the Googleplex to start the day with an early morning walking meditation. Some of us had been there in 2011 and remembered the joyful, relaxed atmosphere, the openness of the employees, and the fun campus. There is one entrance hall where Google search terms (being submitted by users around the world in “real time”) are projected flowing down a wall like a waterfall. There is another lobby with a giant swirling slide for engineers to slide down from the first floor to the ground floor.

Much of our excitement was not just to go to the Googleplex as a place, but to connect with the Googlers themselves––people in our own generation who share many of our aspirations. Software engineers (or “geeks” as they like to call themselves) are a creative, collaborative, experimental bunch of people, and meditation naturally appeals to their science-based curiosity. If they want to master technology, they also want to master their minds. Many of them have a deep faith that technology can serve the world and bring positive change, creating opportunities for all people across boundaries of nationality, race, and culture. So although we did not have green or blue hair or luminous sneakers like some of the Googlers, as Buddhist monastics we fit right in to Silicon Valley’s “Zen vibe.”

Our Deepest Desire

Google’s unofficial company motto is “Don’t be evil.” Their intention is to make the world’s information available––without being evil. But is information the same as insight? If we had to describe our aspiration as Plum Village monks and nuns, perhaps it would be to do good (water positive seeds and help people suffer less) by making humankind’s deepest insights available to all those who are suffering. It may be that the world has a lot of information, but we may lack the tools, training, and insight to help us suffer less. Information (or too much of it) may even be a cause of our suffering.

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Our Day of Mindfulness began with stopping. Thay was very joyful and relaxed as he explained walking meditation and led the hundreds of employees (many of whom had arrived early) on walking meditation around the courtyard. It was a very quiet morning, and the buildings were shrouded in mist. Everyone was perfectly silent as they took one mindful step at a time, eventually joining Thay to sit on the paving stones silently together. Absolutely nothing happened, and yet everything was happening. There was true stopping. And there was a sense of magic. Here in the pulsing heart of the Internet, there was stopping. There was peace. There was mist, and smiles, and quiet breathing. Nothing was going on, and yet everything was going on. We could feel that the Googlers were 100% engaged, 100% present. They were curious. They were tired. They knew that Thay had something they wanted, and they were eager to learn and taste for themselves what it was. Was it wisdom? Was it happiness? Was it freedom?

In a Dharma Talk back in Plum Village, Thay described how the Googlers had practiced walking meditation that morning so wholeheartedly. “They practiced very well,” said Thay, unaware that one of those Googlers was sitting right there in the Lower Hamlet meditation hall, having decided to come and “check out” Plum Village for herself. She was very proud and happy to hear Thay’s praise for their wholehearted practice. “But,” Thay then continued, “the reason they practiced so wholeheartedly was because they suffer.” And sitting there in the audience, she thought, “Yes, Thay is right. Thay has understood. We do suffer a lot. And this practice does help, a lot.”

After the walking meditation, Thay offered a Dharma talk. “Each of us has a desire, an intention, which we nourish every day,” he began. “Is our desire, our intention, just to run after fame, power, success, and wealth? Or is it something else? Every one of us should take the time to sit down and ask ourselves, ‘What is my deepest desire? What do I want to do with my life?’ It’s not just a question of ‘work-life balance.’ It goes much deeper.

“If our deepest desire is to suffer less and be happier; if our deepest desire is to come back to ourselves, to create joy and happiness, and nourish ourselves, and help others do the same; if our deepest desire is to learn how to suffer, how to come back to ourselves and embrace and look deeply into our suffering, so we suffer much less, and can help others do the same; then that is good.

“Many of us are consuming technology to cover up our suffering and run away from ourselves, but surely we can design the kind of technology that can help us do the opposite? This is a question of innovation: we have to invent new ways of practice to suit our present situation. If we do not renew our teaching, our practice, then we cannot serve society. All of us have insight, we just need something or someone to help us bring it to life so that we can know which direction to go in––and which direction not to go in.”

Thay went on to speak about the Four Nutriments, and how to nourish body and mind with mindful consumption. He also spoke about how the practice of deep listening and loving speech can be applied in corporations, and about his own experience of nourishing himself with the very simple practices of walking and breathing with mindfulness and compassion. There was then plenty of time for questions and answers. Every question came from the heart. They were the questions of “seekers,” of young minds seeking to make sense of their busy, stressful lives and seeking to bring deep meaning to them. We could feel their openness and their deep trust and respect for Thay. We could also hear their suffering.

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Sharing Aspirations

Many of us were sitting on stage behind Thay, as representatives from a different world. We may go for days or weeks without even opening a computer or listening to a track of worldly music. Unless we have worked in the registration office before Summer Retreat, we may have never known what it’s like to receive several hundred emails a day. We have a chance to stop, not just for a few minutes every day, but for hour after concentrated hour, contemplating our body, our breathing, the food or the miracles of nature around our practice centers. We can take a shower without Radio NST (Non-Stop Thinking) blaring through our mind’s ear.

When I worked in news journalism before I ordained, every day I would have to read six newspapers cover to cover and listen to two hour-long news radio shows, while following the waterfall of live “news wires” cascading down my screen. I feel it has taken me years to slowly quiet my mind and enjoy the silence of nothing happening, except life in all its wonders. Sitting there on the stage, I wondered if any of the Googlers would ever taste the deep peace and relief of being “free from information” which has refreshed my spirit in the monastery. We can’t give them that kind of peace and silence, but we can demonstrate that it is possible––in our smiles and in our steps––and we can show them how to create the conditions to generate tiny, life-changing glimpses of it in their day.

Soon we were all enjoying a delicious, vegan, mindful meal together. Google is a pioneer of corporate mindful eating, and since Thay’s first visit, the company runs a monthly “mindful meal” session in its cafes. During these lunches, Googlers have a chance to listen to the Five Contemplations, eat in silence, and share about their experience together. After Thay’s second visit, they plan to make a permanent “mindful eating zone” on campus, where employees can come to nourish themselves peacefully during their lunch break.

As well as supporting and nourishing their mindfulness practice on campus, some of us also had our own secret aspirations as we stepped into the world of Google that day. One or two of us were looking for GoogleMap employees, hoping we could inspire them to code a live, editable, browsable map of all our Sanghas and mindfulness events around the world. Brothers Phap Luu and Phap Khoi had a giant hard drive stashed in a backpack, hoping to inspire a Googler to import a decade of Thay’s Dharma talks into the back end of YouTube and publish them on our channel. (It would take perhaps a year’s constant uploading to do it from rural France). I was looking for someone who would design a really elegant, simple, flexible, free mindfulness bell app. And Thay, never one to think small, was looking for soul mates who would design the kind of technology that would help people suffer less and stop our civilization going in the wrong direction.

In the afternoon, Thay, his attendants, and a few other monastics met with senior Google engineers to discuss how they could do just that. While several hundred employees enjoyed total relaxation in the auditorium with Sister Chan Khong (surely much more healing and restful than the many massage chairs strategically placed throughout the offices), and others played volleyball with monks and nuns, a dozen of us sat around a giant boardroom table to have a Dharma discussion with Thay on the future of information technology.

Is it possible to create the kind of technology that can help people come back to themselves, embrace and handle the suffering inside? One chic and elegant employee was wearing the new “Google Glass”––the cutting-edge technology that enables you to send messages, run web searches, take photos, and record video without even lifting a finger. But was it helping her be truly present for herself or for the discussion?

The world watches 450,000 years’ worth of Google YouTube videos each month. That’s more than twice as long as modern humans have existed. But is this helping us suffer less? Is it possible to create, and make available on a global scale, the kind of content on the web that helps people to take care of themselves, their loved ones, and the planet? Google may know that someone is checking her Gmail one hundred times in one evening. That person is, at the same time, running Google searches for “causes of depression.” She makes orders through her Chrome browser for large quantities of junk food. Are the Google “algorithms” intelligent enough to offer some constructive ways to help this person? Google wants significant profits, that is true. But they also want to be good, to not be evil. Is there more they can do?

This was no ordinary business meeting, and the two hours we spent together flew by. It was amazing to contribute as part of the Sangha––as though we were the voices of one body, offering a new energy or idea in each moment, with Thay guiding us all the way. It was extraordinary to see our beloved teacher––a Zen Master from another generation, who was already over seventy by the time the 21st Century started––engaging so wholeheartedly with these young technology leaders, with such a quick and sharp mind, and with so much love and joy. The Googlers were delighted. And one of them, as Thay explained the deep meaning of why the bell and stopping are so important, was even moved to tears.

It was hard to bring the meeting to a close, and even harder to leave the room. We did so as friends, perhaps even as soul mates. The next time we meet will be for a retreat.

We didn’t take the slide down to the ground floor. We enjoyed every step.

mb66-Intention4Sister True Dedication (Chan Hien Nghiem) was born and raised in England and currently lives in the Lower Hamlet, Plum Village. She has been practising with the Sangha since 2002 and ordained as a nun in 2008.

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Anchored in Awareness

Transforming Wounds of War

By Alexa Singer-Telles

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Over the last several years, I have been working on facing deep-seated fear from my historical and cultural roots. My Jewish roots hold many stories of persecution, but until recently, I didn’t feel they affected me personally. Through the deep looking of meditation and Touching the Earth practices, I realized what my father brought home from his WWII military experience in Germany—fear and a silent anger at G-d that penetrated my sense of being Jewish. I was also changed by a powerful conversation with a loving German woman who spoke for her country, describing the shame and guilt she and her people still carry for what happened during the war. Our interaction opened up a river of compassion for her people and for all who silently suffer from the impact of war.

Knowing that many of us carry invisible wounds, I was moved to take action to bring attention to the unspoken, unseen wounds that veterans bring home to their families. I wanted to confront my own fears of persecution as a Jew, honor my father and his experience, and share my realization with others. As a leader in a local organization for marriage and family therapists, I organized a community-wide conference to help mental health professionals increase their understanding of the needs of returning war veterans and their families. The conference focused on the invisible wounds of war, particularly the self-imposed silence of soldiers upon their return from combat—the mental and emotional anguish of men, and now women, who have seen and done horrific things in war that are unspeakable to anyone at home.

At the conference, to give participants a way to manage intense emotions, I introduced the use of the mindfulness bell and shared some of Thay’s teachings on breathing and embracing difficult emotions. When a presenting psychologist shared how people in the military are trained to ignore the sensations and feelings of their own physical and emotional needs to focus solely on their mission, the group began to understand how veterans can be both unaware of their own bodies and hyper-vigilant to their surroundings. Family members, both wives and mothers, described the impact of combat on their loved ones and themselves—a sense of separation, fear, trauma, violence, and addiction.

The realities of war and its aftereffects on veterans and their loved ones are so painful that therapists can feel our interventions are inadequate. Our mindfulness practice of being able to stay present and offer compassion can be an anchor for ourselves and those we serve. At the conference, the bell was used as this anchor. At first, I invited the bell judiciously, but through the day participants began to request the bell to be rung in response to particularly powerful stories that were impacting their hearts and minds. One therapist shared, “Having the opportunity to stop and breathe gave me the capacity to stay present with the suffering described by the speakers. I was surprised I didn’t feel exhausted at the end of the day.”

This day gave tribute and voice to the silent suffering of my father and all veterans, increased therapists’ awareness of what might not be spoken but can be felt in working with veterans, and offered the practice of mindfulness and the bell as ways to sit with the strong emotions associated with war. The conference participants reported a deepening of their understanding of the invisibility and challenges of the wounds of war, increased their capacity for compassionate listening, and vocalized a willingness to reach out to work with veterans and their families.

After the conference, I shared with my dad how meditation, creative art, and Sangha support had helped me to work through my emotions and to understand how his history and my religious fears lived inside of me. I shared how, through practice, I was able to come to compassion and action. At ninety years of age, he understood and expressed his happiness and gratitude for seeing his unexpressed anger transformed in me, his seed bearing good fruit. I see that my healing is his healing as well.

mb66-Anchor2Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California, in 1991 and was ordained as an OI member in 2004. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, offering the practices of mindfulness and the expressive arts to deepen one’s experience and enliven the creative process.

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Letter from the Editor

To Our Readers

It is a rich blessing to be sitting here, receiving treasures of the practice from all over the world to share with you in the Mindfulness Bell. During the months of developing the material for an issue, I go through many changes. At first, I am inspired to create a new weaving of insight from the material I have waiting and from the transformation happening in my own life; and I am also a little anxious that I won’t receive enough material (that’s the part of me who thinks I am in control).

Then, inevitably, the river of insight flows forth and so many of you offer wonderful teachings. My confidence becomes strong and my appreciation for this wonderful path of practice deepens as I work with each piece, watching how each one becomes a beautiful thread in the overall design, both lovely and strong.

Because we have been in such a tumultuous time with the recent U.S. Presidential election, I wanted to address how to practice with politics and how to engage without becoming embroiled in partisan conflicts. Being quite involved in the campaign, I had a chance to look daily at this issue. I saw that first of all, I needed to stop. I needed to stop feeding my prejudices and judgments about others, and to start every day with an open curiosity about each person I would meet. I needed to listen deeply, both to the stories in my head and to what I heard from others and from the media. I had to look for the truth, and to learn to let go of all the rest. I had to have confidence in my own true nature and in the foundation that my practice has built for me to rest on. I had to take refuge in myself, in the strength of my spiritual and blood ancestors. I needed to nourish myself every day, with the presence of supportive and loving friends, and in the beauty of nature. And I had to work every day, to uproot my limited views and to open my heart to life in this moment.

The morning after the election, as I went out to retrieve all the political signs from my front yard, the neighbor dog ran over to greet me, wagging his tail in great happiness. In that moment I realized that to him, this morning was just as new and full of possibility as was the morning before. I realized that I needed to renew myself by spending time with the trees and the deer, with the moon and the stars.

The teachings in this issue speak of these practices. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us the power of visualization and gives us ways to explore the nature of our minds. Four lay sisters share stories of taking refuge in their spiritual and biological roots. A group of practitioners encourage us to go further with the transformative practice of deep listening. Thay and other wise teachers offer views on the political situation and our place in stepping forward as mindfulness practitioners. A guided meditation helps us to learn to continually let go.

Perhaps the most important personal result of my participation in politics over the past year has been the establishing and deepening of friendships, resulting in strong community-building. Acquaintances became friends as priorities shifted and people stepped forward to live their highest good.

May we all rest in the net of Sangha, offering one another the power of our mindfulness and deep faith in the beauty of life as it is.

In gratitude,

Poet, Peace Advocate, & Goodwill Ambassador Dies

By Norman R. Brown

For Our World*

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment...
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.

We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment...
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.

We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment...
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.

Stop, be silent, and notice...
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.

We need to be.
Just be.
Be for a moment...
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful

Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.

The internationally acclaimed poet, peace advocate, and Muscular Dystrophy Association National Goodwill Ambassador, Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek, or “Mattie” as he’s nationally known, died on June 22, 2004 in Washington, D.C. He had been hospitalized since early March with complications related to the disease that impaired most of his bodily functions.

Stepanek, of Rockville, Maryland, had dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that impaired his heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and digestion, and caused muscle weakness. Mattie was hospitalized many times over the years. He navigated around his home in a wheelchair he nicknamed “Slick,” and relied on a feeding tube, a ventilator, and frequent blood transfusions to stay alive.

Mattie was the author of five volumes of poetry, three of which reached the New York Times’ best-seller list. He became a beacon of hope to the millions of adults and children who have been inspired by his words, making him one of the best-selling poets in recent years. His admirers include Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and former President Jimmy Carter.

Despite his physical condition, the effervescent and playful philosopher was upbeat, saying he didn’t fear death. His work was full of life, a quest for peace, hope, and the inner voice he called a “heartsong,” which he explained as “our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts.” He explained, “My life mission is to spread peace to the world.”

After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, Mattie wrote the poem to the left.

Mattie advised that, “Poetry is a great way to express your feelings and life experiences so that others can understand and get through the same situation. We all have life storms. We need to celebrate that we get through them, instead of mourning and waiting for the next one to come along and wipe us out again. Remember to play after every storm. Celebrate life no matter how bad it seems. Life is a gift, and there’s always something beautiful that you can find. We have to make the best of life and do what we’re meant to do. Everyone has a special song inside their hearts. If you believe you can be happy, then you, too, will hear your song.”

Mattie was thirteen years old at the time of his death. He was the recipient of several awards, including the 2002 Children’s Hope Medal of Honor and the 2002 Verizon Courage Award. President Carter, in eulogizing Mattie, said, “I have known kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers. But the most extraordinary person I have ever known was Mattie Stepanek.”

Contributions in Mattie’s name may be made at: www.mda.org or sent to MDA Mattie Fund, P.O. Box 66002, Tucson, AZ 85728.

Go to: www.mattieonline.com for links to purchase his poetry.

* For Our World copyright, April 2002, “Hope Through Heartsongs,” page 49, ISBN 0-7868-6944-5, Hyperion Book.

Norman R. Brown, Disciplined Patience of the Heart, belong to the SDGLBT Buddhists Sangha in San Diego. He is event coordinator and registrar at Solidity Hamlet, Deer Park Monastery.

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Transformation at the Prison

By Terry Masters mb41-Transformation1

Friday Morning

I got to the prison early but Kent was already there, pacing the floor.

“Hi Kent,” I smiled.

He nodded but didn’t stop pacing. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said, as he paced. “I think I’m goin’ crazy. I don’t think I’m gonna be a Muslim anymore... I just... This is horrible...”

“What happened?”

“Well...” Pacing back and forth, but in front of me so I can hear him.

“This white dude? Yesterday he got in my face. Real bad. “And I wanted to smash his face in. I pictured him on the floor and I was stompin’ his face.

“But you know what I did?” I shook my head.

“I walked away.”

“You walked away from him?”

“Yeah! Listen. I been shot at. I been stabbed. I been dragged behind a car and I don’t even know how many fights I been in... and then... I walked away from that dude.”

I smiled. Kent didn’t notice. He was still pacing.

“I think I’m turnin’ yella. I’m nuthin’ but a big coward.

I’m a...”

I interrupted. “Kent! This is wonderful! This is so beautiful.

You did just like we’ve been talking about.”

He stopped pacing and faced me, waited for me to continue.

“Yes! Somebody...” “A white dude!”

“...A white dude got in your face, made you angry and you stopped to notice what was happening.”

His brows furrowed; he was really listening.

“You stopped, Kent! You listened to your true self.” He looked doubtful.

“You did! You stopped, just like our teacher says to do. You didn’t just react out of habit.”

His face softened a little. “And now...”

“Yeah?”

“And now, you’re doing walking meditation!” (Sorry, Thay.

I know pacing isn’t exactly walking meditation.) “This is wonderful, Kent. This is so wonderful.”

He didn’t exactly smile, but a little bit, he did. And sat down for our meditation as the other guys filed in.

Next Friday

When I came in only Kent and another guy were there, a guy I didn’t know. Kent introduced me to him: Charlie. Charlie and I visited a little as Kent moved the chairs out of the way so we could do some yoga before we meditated. Charlie is a Choctaw from Oklahoma. After a short visit, he walked away to help with the chairs.

Kent came up to me and whispered, “That’s the dude.”

“The dude?’

“Yeah, the white dude I told you about.”

“You brought him, the white dude, to meditation class?” My eyes were wide with astonishment. A smile spread over my face.

“Yeah.”

“Oh my gosh, Kent, you are amazing!” “Terry, don’t cry!”

“Well, I’m so happy!”

The other guys arrived. After yoga and after our first meditation, we always talk a little about our practice. Kent said to the group, pointing to Charlie, “This is the dude.”

Everyone knew right away who he meant. They bragged on Kent until he hid his face, pretending to be embarrassed, “Cut it out!”

I was grinning. Tears of joy were forming. “And Terry, don’t cry!”

“I’m not crying.”

“She can cry if she wants to, Kent—leave her alone.”

We all sat still then, enjoying the wonder of this man.

After a while I said, “Kent, would you be willing to tell us how it came about that you invited Charlie to join us today?”

“Well... well, I was doin’ yoga in our dorm and Charlie, he comes up an’ he says, whatcha doin’? and I say, yoga, and then after a while I say, and I’m gonna do meditation after that. And then after a while I say, and Friday I’m goin’ to meditation class, wanna come? And he says yeah.”

I’m speechless. We all are. We just sit in our circle, smiling. Finally I say, “So, Charlie I know this is your first time here, but would you mind telling us how you got the courage to say whatcha doin’ to Kent?”

Charlie squirmed in his seat as he said, “Well, Kent is a positive guy, uh...” Squirms, his eyes on his feet. “And I’m a... positive guy...” Squirm. “And well I just thought there’s too many negative guys around here and it doesn’t make sense for two positive guys not to uh...” Squirm. “Uh, stick together. So I asked him.”

Charlie took a breath and looked up at us.

Awed, no one said anything.

Charlie added, “And I like it here.” Pause.

“I’m comin’ back.” Pause.

“I’ll be back next week.” Pause.

“Yep.”

I didn’t cry.

There, at the prison? I didn’t cry.

(Although everyone but Kent said it’d be okay.) But I cried when I got home.

Cried and grinned.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas.

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The Better Way to Live Alone in the Jungle

By Terry Masters

The Buddha taught:

“…I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to be alone. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come, and to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, she has no hesitation in her heart. She gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent her from being free. This is called ‘the better way to live alone.’There is no more wonderful way of being alone than this.”

from the “Elder Sutra”*

Last spring I lived alone deep in the jungle of Peru in a hut near the Amazon River. My hut sat on stilts and had screen walls, hand-hewn plank floors, and a thatched roof. There was no electricity so I had no refrigerator, no lights, no radio, no fan, no telephone. No washing machine, sink or toilet; no running water at all unless you count the Yanomono River which ran a few yards from my hut.

It was the Yanomono River that taught me the better way to live alone.

During the day I gave reading lessons to children in a little jungle library, and in exchange for my dinner, at night I taught English to the mozos—the guys who worked at the tourist lodge about forty minutes by dugout canoe from my hut.

The first evening, after working at the library, I gathered the supplies for my English class, put on my rubber boots, got my paddle, and walked through the jungle to the muddy riverbank where my dugout was tied to a tree root. I began paddling to the lodge just as the sun was setting. The river, and even the air around the river, was gold and pink, purple and orange and red. It is a wonderful thing to be in––not under, but inside––a sunset in the jungle in Peru.

I paddled slowly under a tree of sweet-smelling, lilac-colored flowers. Many of the flowers had fallen into the river, so I was gliding in golden, lavender-petaled water. The air was soft and warm and smelled green.

Women and men bathed on the riverbank. They smiled and waved at me as I passed.

“Hola Señorita!”

“Hola amigos!” I called back. “Buena noche, ¿no?”

As I paddled around a curve, naked children from the village swam out to play “Sharks Attack the Gringa.” They splashed me—as sharks will do when confronted with a gringa in a dugout canoe—and I cried out, “Ayudame! Ayudame!” (“Help me! Help me!”)—as gringas will do when confronted with a river full of ferocious fish.

When I arrived at the lodge, I was still smiling. I ate my dinner and gave an English lesson to my new Peruvian friends. At 9:00, when I was ready to paddle home, the darkness in the jungle was so thick that I could only see the top of my paddle and the front of my dugout canoe.

There was no moon. The stars filled the sky; a few were reflected in the river. I smiled, anticipating gliding back home through a dark peaceful river of silver starlight and purple flowers.

But as I left the lodge, I realized that although I could see the starry sky above and specks of starlight in the river, I could not see the riverbank, nor could I see where I was in the river. I peered into the darkness. I saw nothing.

My Peruvian friends had told me to stay in the middle of the river–– if I got too close to the bank, things in the trees could get into my canoe. I didn’t ask what things. I imagined them, though: fifty-foot anacondas, canoe-sized caiman, monkeys, bats, frogs, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes—I imagined every jungle critter known to man or woman jumping, flying, falling, crawling, or slithering into my canoe.

I got lost: the river “S”ed and I “Y”ed into a tangle of tree roots and vines. I had to paddle my way backward out of a little creek, back into the Yanomono again. I stared into the darkness trying to see where I was and what was around me. I saw nothing.

My heart began to race. I couldn’t get my breath. I began to paddle frantically through the river, bumping into the right bank, then the left.

A bat flew past, brushing my face with its wings. I squealed.

Mosquitoes buzzed my ears, bit my arms.

The sounds from the rainforest grew louder: frogs especially, but birds too, and other jungle animals I couldn’t name. I had to get home!

I peered anxiously into the darkness, trying to see what was out there, looking for the bank of mud in front of the path to my hut, looking for the tree root that was my port, looking for anything familiar. I could see nothing.

I passed under a low hanging branch and something fell from the tree into my hair. A tarantula! A huge tarantula! A huge hairy jungle tarantula!

I paddled fast, desperately slapping the water with my paddle. My arms, my shoulders, my whole body was tense. I gasped for a breath.

And then a voice from somewhere inside whispered, “Stop.”

I stopped. I took a slow breath.

I lifted my paddle from the water and let my canoe drift.

I stopped telling myself jungle stories. I stopped my Tarzan drama. I just stopped. Stopped and took a long slow breath.

Then another. And another. And another.

Finally, I forced a little smile.

“Hola, rio.” I whispered. Took a breath. Let it out.

“Buena noche, ¿no?”

The sounds of the jungle softened. The stars brightened. The river slowed.

I lifted my paddle and gently dipped it into the soft starsparkled river. I pulled it slowly through the calm waters.

Breathing in, I know that I am here, now. (Dip the paddle, pull the water, glide.) Breathing out, I know that I am now here. (No longer inventing scary jungle stories.) In…. here.

(Not thinking about the English lessons I just gave; not planning how to get up the muddy slope when I get home.)

Out….here. (Dip, pull, glide.)

Here in this present moment.

(New trees above me, new stars. New water below, new fish and mud and snakes. The air I now breathe is not the air of my last breath.)

Here in this wonderful moment. (Dip, pull, glide.)

After a while I saw some white tree trunks that looked familiar and dipping my paddle in, pulling back easily, I glided slowly toward them. I had arrived. I was home.

“Try living like that,” the Yanomono River said. “Thanks for the dharma talk,” I smiled.

The next day it rained most of the day. About an hour before sunset, when the rain had stopped, I took a small bucket to my canoe to bail out the rainwater. I also expected to bail out that huge tarantula that I had shook from my hair the night before.

There was no tarantula. In the rainwater, in the bottom of my dugout canoe, a small purple flower floated.

During the months I lived in the jungle, I became friends with the trees that lined the banks of the Yanomono River and familiar with its “S” turns. I came to know the sounds of the jungle and its smells. I recognized the reeds on the left that meant the river was going to wind to the right; the wide space overhead that meant I was to go straight; the cluster of white-barked trees that meant I was getting close to home; the hoarse frogs that meant I had arrived.

Aware that I was surrounded by friends—the river, the stars, the trees, the sounds, the smells—I was no longer so afraid. In fact, most of the time I was awed by the majesty—by the miracle—of it all.

It was the Yanomono River, deep in the jungle of Peru, that taught me The Better Way to Live Alone.

*The “Elder Sutra” as well as the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone” can be found beginning on page 234 of The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Both are the subject of Our Appointment with Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, which also includes his beautiful commentary on them.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, lives in Austin, Texas where she practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha. She has just returned from another month teaching English in the jungle of Peru.

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The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly Doing nothing Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

Mindfulness in a State Psychiatric Hospital

By Bruce L. Hilsberg

Bruce Hilsberg passed away on March 29, 2005; you may read an essay by his wife Karen in issue 39 of the Mindfulness Bell.

When I first became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh over ten years ago, I never thought that my personal interest in meditation, mindfulness practice, and the dharma would become an essential part of my work as a psychologist at a state psychiatric hospital.

I had practiced mindfulness with my wife in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, attended days of mindfulness with Thay when he visited California, and participated in meditation classes and dharma discussions with a local Order of Interbeing teacher. Over time, I have taught mindfulness techniques to some of the patients in my private practice to help them find relief from symptoms including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, manic depression, and anxiety. Still, my mindfulness practice felt compartmentalized. In the context of working at the state hospital, I still subscribed to the medical model of illness and disease in which I had been trained. During work, I contemplated curing mental illnesses and reducing symptoms rather than seeing individuals as people with strengths and a desire to build on these.

But all that changed last year, when an outside consultant was brought in to help improve the state hospital where I had worked for over eleven years. It just so happened that this consultant, who served many state psychiatric hospitals in the United States, had cultivated a Soto Zen Buddhist practice and had integrated mindfulness training into his work. When the consultations with our hospital began, I found a door through which I could enter to begin integrating my personal and professional beliefs and practices. This is the story of my journey this past year and a half.

Our system at the state hospital has watered many seeds of negative habit energy over the past decades, resulting in problems that need new solutions. For example, the system encountered difficulties in accurately diagnosing and properly treating individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses. With the help of our consultant we are moving in the direction of systemic change for the betterment of the people connected to the hospital: administrators, staff, individuals with psychiatric disabilities, family members and the community.

From the Medical Model to the Recovery Model

One of the first methods we are using is stopping and looking deeply at ourselves and each other. While we are well aware of changes that we would like to see, part of my practice has become to accept that I am where I need to be in this moment and the hospital too is where it needs to be. Sangha building has also been a very important part of the process. We are forming connections with each other to support mindfulness in our work environment so that we can embody the practice and then bring the fruits of our practice to the hospital and the people with whom we work. In this regard, we have struggled to get out of “automatic pilot” and instead to recognize our habits, realize what we are thinking and doing, and look deeply so that we can make better choices for ourselves. In turn, we can help others to make better choices for themselves. This forms the basis of a new model of treatment for mental disorders called the recovery model.

In the recovery model, we think about individuals—what helps them and what hinders them in their lives. We talk about choices and empowerment. In the same way that Thay talks about our store consciousness with our positive and healthy seeds as well as our negative and unhealthy seeds, the recovery model sees individuals as having seeds of strength and seeds of weakness. In the old medical model, we might have asked, “Why was the individual so ill? How can we treat and cure his illness?” Now with the recovery model, we ask, “How did the individual sustain herself in the face of her illness? How can I help support her strengths and help her to recognize and water her own seeds of health, growth and well-being?” We now focus on conducting strengths-based conversations with them instead of routine diagnostic work-ups (though accurate diagnoses are still considered very important).

The research that is now emerging in the field of psychology indicates that mindfulness training is an incredibly effective treatment for many people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as chronic depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The treatment does not necessarily make the disorder completely vanish, but it can empower individuals to manage their symptoms effectively, to discontinue negative cycles of thought and behavior, and to lead more adaptive and contented lives outside of hospitals and in the community. Furthermore, many individuals with psychiatric disabilities have benefited from mindfulness training as they learn to change the relationship they have with the symptoms of their illness and to feel a sense of control in their lives.

What Mindfulness Looks Like

Over the past year and a half, as I have been mentored by our consultant, my own mindfulness practice has deepened immensely. At work, I try not to operate on automatic pilot anymore. I don’t see events as meaningless. I see the importance of my speech and my actions, and I appreciate that all I have right now is the present moment and my own presence in the moment. I spend a great deal of time in meetings, and my behavior at meetings has changed. I’ve become more present in the meetings. I recognize that while there is a lot to do, what I am doing in the moment is what I need to be doing right now. I listen deeply to others’ speech, I don’t interrupt others, and I breathe mindfully. I realize that my list of things to do does not control me. I practice non-attachment to outcomes happening within a certain arbitrary period of time. I understand that I do not need to balance my time, but to find balance in my life. I realize that my list of things to do is there to assist me in seeing what needs to be done and what my priorities are, but that is all. I feel a sense of acceptance in my work of what is. Just as in my life, rather than feeling that I need to chase after a goal, buy something, or accomplish something to feel better, I am just being in acceptance of what is.

At work, I have begun to offer a weekly meditation group for members of the hospital staff. For the last couple of months, every Thursday at lunchtime we sit on chairs or on the floor in the administration building and meditate together for half an hour.

Though I have attended meetings in this room for many years, now that I meditate there, I am aware of new sounds that I never heard before. For example, I am aware of the sound the clock makes as it ticks. We have core members who are present almost every week, and we also have people who come and go. The energy of the group practice is becoming strong, and after the practice we discuss our experiences together in a spirit of acceptance, understanding, and lack of judgment.

One thing I dream of is a time when these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention for the meeting. This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

In my private life, my wife and I have made a new commitment to meditate together every morning before our young children wake up as a way to support each other in the practice. We also have had wonderful opportunities to spend time at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido and to practice breathing, sitting, walking, eating and working meditation as a family with the support of the monastic Sangha. We have come to see the truth for us in the Dharma Seal, “You have arrived, you are home.” We have also recently formed a Sangha in our area to offer the practice to our family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends on a weekly basis and to seek support for our Order of Interbeing aspirant training.

To some, the changes that have happened at our hospital are remarkable and inspiring. To others, it seems that change is moving at a snail’s pace. Many people within the hospital are struggling with the changes and feel angry, resentful, or helpless. Others are embracing the changes and feel the freshness of the new approaches as they are introduced. For me, some days are full of frustrations as more entrenched problems in the system emerge into the light of day. “Breathing in, I know I feel frustration. Breathing out, I smile to my frustration and am grateful that I am alive.” Other days are exciting as new standards of care for the individuals we serve are implemented. Overall, I can say that mindfulness is now a part of my daily work life as well as my personal life. Through mindfulness training we are working to improve our hospital, the treatment practices, and the quality of life of the individuals we serve, as well as staff, administrators and family members. It has not been easy to introduce these ideas into a bureaucratic system, but my work is enormously meaningful to me now in ways that it has never been before.

Bruce L. Hilsberg, True Commitment of the Heart, was Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. He and his wife practiced with the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California and at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

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

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Inner Therapy

Two scenarios for moving through a day of psychotherapy

By Ryan Niemiec

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

Four Years Ago: Before Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Present Day: With Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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