In our house we have a little table that sits behind the couch. My husband calls the table an altar, but being a little less comfortable with any language that hints at religion, I’ll just go with table. On it sit some little statues of the Buddha and a singing bowl. Underneath it sits a little book my husband bought by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, called Peace is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives. I try to meditate every day, and after I meditate, I pick up this book and flip to a page at random and have a read.
The idea of the book is that we are all very busy people who also want some peace, contentment and happiness in our lives. How are we to achieve that? Thich Nhat Hanh’s book is filled with suggestions as to how to integrate a practice into the fabric of our daily lives that might bring us closer to peace and happiness. The book is divided into tiny little vignettes like “Preparing breakfast” and “Brushing your teeth” and “Shopping for happiness.” Peace Is Every Breath is Thich Nhat Hanh’s attempt to help people bring Buddhist-influenced practices into a modern and decidedly non-Buddhist life. The book is simple and easy to read and has been a great source of comfort to me, so I thought that over the course of this new year, I’d share bits and pieces of it on my blog.
Sitting and Breathing
It took me a long time to understand what all this sitting and breathing was about. I make no claim to fully understand it now. I do know that I am a happier and more compassionate person when I am sitting and breathing on a regular basis, and that’s enough for me.
Several years ago I was part of a small meditation group with some friends. It all seemed very intense. You were supposed to breathe, and count to ten without thinking of anything, but if you didn’t get to ten, you had to start all over again. It kind of felt to me like an exercise in becoming steeped in your own failure, because I never got to ten. Then I went and heard a Tibetan llama talk on campus, and he used the phrase “monkey mind,” and it was like a bulb in my head went off. Meditation is not a contest to beat your last best count—to get to 8 this time instead of 7. It is practice. You are practicing becoming aware. You are practicing mindfulness. This does not mean you can stop your thoughts. Your job is simply to get to a place where you can see them clearly. This sounds so incredibly simple, but is so incredibly hard.
The Tibetan llama used the phrase “monkey mind” to describe the way our minds work. Like a monkey, the mind is restless and all over the place. One moment you’re typing at your computer, the next you’re back in high school at your first dance, and then you’re replaying an interaction with a colleague, and then you’re thinking you should call your mother, and then you’re wondering whether it’s going to snow tomorrow. This is nothing to feel bad about. It’s just the way things are. Sitting and breathing is about being able to see the monkey at work, rather than getting lost in the chaos that is our monkey mind.
I try to sit and breath for 15 minutes every day, but Thich Nhat Hanh asks that you start with just two or three minutes. Find a comfy place. It’s good to sit in the lotus or half-lotus position, but you don’t have to. And then just breathe in and out. Try to focus your attention on your breathing. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
There’s nothing mystical or magical about sitting and breathing. You’re not going to suddenly see your spirit animal or hear the voice of god or be able to travel through time. You’re just going to learn to see your mind at work. You’re just going to become a little more aware. For example, I learned that my mind is quite good at replaying negative things that have happened. It’s quite good at imagining how future interactions might go badly. When I’m upset, it’s as if my mind is a skipping record. Most recently, I rehearsed a conversation with someone in my head almost without ceasing for two days straight.
The hope of meditation is that as you become aware of what your mind does, you can learn to do something different. Obviously, it doesn’t always work. And it takes time. Sitting and breathing is practice. It’s exactly like learning a musical instrument or the multiplication table. If you do it over and over again, eventually you will get better at becoming aware. And then perhaps after the 56th time rehearsing the same conversation, you can at last stop.
Thich Nhat Hanh also provides many gathas for daily practice. A gatha is a short poem or saying that you use to help you stay in the present moment. In a class I taught, I used to have students do an exercise where they walk around all day reciting in their head exactly what they’re doing at that moment–“I am walking towards the door to this building. I am placing my hand on the door handle. I am opening the door. I am walking in the door. I am walking down the hall.” They found this infuriating, but gathas serve the same purpose with an added bit of wisdom or insight thrown in. There are gathas for answering the telephone, peeing, saying hello, turning on the televison, etc. You can make up your own gathas, too, but here’s the gatha Thich Nhat Hanh gives us for sitting and breathing:
Breathing in, I feel my breath coming into my belly and chest.
Breathing out, I feel my breath flowing out of my belly and chest.
Breathing in, I am aware of my entire body.
Breathing out, I smile to my entire body.
Breathing in, I’m aware of some pains or tensions in my body.
Breathing out, I release all the pains and tensions in my body.
Breathing in, I feel well.
Breathing in, I feel at ease.