Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Breath, is a guide on how to incorporate a spiritual practice into our everyday lives. It doesn’t really matter what particular spiritual tradition you’re coming from, though Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. The important things Hanh wants to get across is that everyone can have some kind of practice in their lives that makes them a little bit happier and a little bit better as a person. So it’s appropriate that the book begins at the beginning–waking up each morning.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not a particularly good waker-upper type person. You can ask my husband if you need independent verification. I used to think that if I just slept long enough, I could get over the whole pain of waking up. In my almost-forties now, I’ve realized that this might have been a mistake. Sure, you get the extra sleep, but you also get that sense of all the hours you spent sleeping when you could have been doing something else.
Here is the poem Thich Nhat Han suggests we might begin with every morning:
Waking up this morning, I smile:
Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me.
I vow to live each moment fully
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Lest you become discouraged at the outset, let me assure you that this is not how I begin each morning. Nor do I bounce out of bed with that particular intention in mind. At this point I have reached in my own practice, I can manage a kind of echoing thought that I have another 24 hours and I should try to be excited about it. But if it’s earlier than 7 am, I confess, it’s not particularly easy.
Hanh has poems for running water and washing your face, for brushing your teeth, for showering and getting dressed, for preparing breakfast, and for eating breakfast. The gist of all of these practices is two-fold. First, to become mindful of your daily activities, even the ones that seem really boring and repetitive. And second, and connected to the first, to appreciate these moments, even when they seem fairly unexciting. As I’ve said before, this practice is all about learning to dwell happily in the present moment.
Most of us take for granted that when we turn on the tap on our bathroom faucet, that water will, in fact, come out. Even if we have to wait a while (as we do in our bathroom), we trust that the water will eventually warm up. What if, instead of taking that for granted, we became thankful for those things? What if we became mindful enough to appreciate them? What if we became, like our own strange little cat who can spend hours watching the water run out of the faucet, infinitely fascinated by the sight of running water? It’s quite an interesting and beautiful thing if you take the time to watch it. What if we aspired to that every morning? Would we become incredibly dull? Or enlightened?
What if, as we prepared our breakfast in the morning, we thought about where the food came and how it got to us? What if we told the people we eat breakfast with every morning how happy we were to be eating breakfast with them? What if we learned to be grateful for every cup of coffee or tea? I know a few people who seem to have come to this kind of mindfulness naturally. And I know a few people who have come to it because some experience has taught them how quickly it can all be taken away. I do not come to it naturally, and I am blessed enough to have sailed through my life largely devoid of the kinds of traumas that teach you that it is all so very fleeting. So I need this kind of practice to remind me.
As I’ve said before, Thicth Nhat Hanh’s book is all about practice. You don’t magically become mindful. You work at it. Buddhism and other Eastern practices seem intimidating to use in the West because of their foreignness, but I like to think of them as the ancient equivalent of “Spiritual Practice for Dummies.” Start simple. Start stupid. When you are brushing your teeth, think about brushing your teeth. When you are taking a shower, try to be aware that you are taking a shower. It sounds so incredibly stupid and simple, doesn’t it? What moron can’t be aware while they’re taking a shower? Well, give it a try and let me know how you do; I’m still working on it.