Monday, December 24, 2018

Insights from The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh

The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh contains excerpts from the writings of the respected Vietnamese monk/peace activist. I wrote about this book a few years ago but I recently reread it and I was particularly struck by several insights that I would like to share. Thich Nhat Hanh's words are enclosed in quotation marks, while my interpretations, musings and observations follow.

1) "The basic condition of happiness is freedom. If there is something on your mind that you keep thinking about, then you are caught and have no freedom."

It is vital to stay in the moment, to find delight in what is happening now. The past cannot be changed and the future is not yet determined.

2) "When you feel restless or lack confidence in yourself, or when you feel angry or unhappy, you can kneel down and touch the ground deeply with your hand. Touch the Earth as if it were your favorite thing or best friend."

It is important to be grounded, literally and figuratively. We must not lose focus on how we are connected to all other life forms and to the planet that sustains all other life forms. I remember when Michael Jordan played his last game in the fabled Chicago Stadium, he bent down, touched the floor and then kissed it. He later explained that he could not think of a better, more appropriate way to say farewell to a venue that he considered to be not merely a building but instead a close friend. In that moment, he was grounded, and he was appreciating the past while also living in the current moment.

3) "Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness."

Hanh understands that this can be a difficult practice at first, so he suggests beginning by designating one day a week as a Day of Mindfulness, a day during which you conduct yourself in a slow and relaxed fashion, enjoying each activity that you do--no matter how mundane--as opposing to rushing through an activity to get to the next activity. Hanh's Day of Mindfulness is analogous to the Jewish Sabbath, during which observant Jews disconnect from the secular/mundane in order to rejuvenate and refresh themselves, following the example set by G-d when He rested after the Creation. The wisdom of making sure to rejuvenate yourself transcends whether you do this as a Buddhist, as a Jew or from any other belief perspective.

4) "'Interbeing' is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix 'inter-' with the verb 'to be,' we have a new verb, 'inter-be.'"

This refers to how everything is connected, to the extent that you should be able to see "a cloud floating in this sheet of paper," for without the cloud there is no rain, without rain there are no trees and without trees there is no paper.

5) "Flowers decompose, but knowing this does not prevent us from loving flowers. In fact, we are able to love them more because we know how to treasure them while they are still alive. If we learn to look at a flower in a way that impermanence is revealed to us, when it dies, we will not suffer. Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality."

"Fear of the unexpected leads many people to live a constricted and anxious life. No one can know in advance the misfortunes that may happen to us and our loved ones, but if we learn to live in an awakened way, living deeply every moment of our life, treating those who are close to us with gentleness and understanding, then we will have nothing to regret when something happens to us or them."

Life and love are so precious and fragile but rather than fearing loss we must embrace the connections that we have and savor them.

6) "In Buddhism, we speak of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. It's possible for us to live the Noble Eightfold Path every moment of our daily lives. That not only makes us happy, it makes people around us happy. If you practice the path, you become very pleasant, very fresh, and very compassionate."

This list reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Deadly Sins: "Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principle."

With the exception of sociopaths/psychopaths, I think that most people feel good when they do right and feel bad when they do wrong, but sometimes our vision gets clouded by thoughts of temporary gain or fears of being exploited and we suppress our innate sense of goodness. Throughout his writings, Hanh emphasizes the importance of just being as opposed to running after something. He refers to the Buddhist practice of apranihita, "aimlessness." Hanh explains, "If you put an aim in front of you, you'll be running all your life, and happiness will never be possible. Happiness is possible only when you stop running and cherish the present moment and who you are. You don't need to be someone else; you're already a wonder of life."

Sometimes I struggle with figuring out how to reconcile this peaceful "aimlessness" with my innate drive to compete, dominate and win but perhaps I received at least a partial answer many years ago from National Master Hans Multhopp. I asked him how to improve my technique for converting winning chess positions and he replied that it is important to enjoy the process. I assumed that he meant to enjoy the process of dominating my opponent but he corrected me and explained that he meant to enjoy the process of solving the puzzle, of figuring out what the best moves are each step of the way. Perhaps this fits in with what Hanh describes and is a better approach than focusing on the benefits/joys that will happen after winning--none of which will come to fruition without actually staying in the moment and winning the game! In my most recent chess tournaments, I have consciously employed this approach, telling myself that I am at the tournament to enjoy each move and each problem to be solved. I have noticed that I am happiest (and, not coincidentally, most successful) when I embrace this mindset.

7) "Your anger is not your enemy; it's you. It's not good to do violence to yourself. Don't say that mindfulness is good and anger is evil, and good has to fight evil. In this tradition of mindfulness, there is no battle to be won. Suppose we are feeling a very deep anger that will not go away. We have to be very patient. By continuing to generate the energy of mindfulness and tenderly embrace our anger, we will find relief."

Anger is perhaps the most corrosive, destructive emotion that humanity faces, both individually and collectively. It destroys relationships among people and it starts wars among nations. Most of us think that our own anger is righteous, even if we believe or see that other people's anger is not justified. Hanh urges all of us to contemplate our anger and calm it without viewing anger as an external force. Our anger is part of us and can be embraced much as one would embrace a baby who needs to be comforted (Hanh uses this analogy in his book).

8) "The Buddha speaks about the 'second arrow.' When an arrow strikes you, you feel pain. If a second arrow comes and strikes you in the same spot, the pain will be ten times worse...Your worry is the second arrow. You should protect yourself and not allow the second arrow to come, because the second arrow comes from you."

This is perhaps the most profound statement from a very profound book. Colloquially, we sometimes speak of "shooting ourself in the foot," but excessive worrying is an example of literally shooting ourselves and thereby needlessly increasing our pain.

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