Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present, and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. We bring our body and mind into harmony while we wash the dishes, teach, drive the car, or take our morning shower.
In our practice, we do most of the same things we do at home - walking, sitting, working, eating, and so on - except we learn to do them with mindfulness, with an awareness that we are doing them. We practice mindfulness throughout every moment of the day--not just on the meditation cushion but also in the kitchen, the toilet, in our rooms, and on the path leading from one place to another.
In practicing together as a community, in school or with your family, our practice of mindfulness becomes more joyful, relaxed, and steady. We are bells of mindfulness for each other, supporting and reminding each other along the path of practice. With the support of the community, we can practice to cultivate peace and joy within and around us, as a gift for all of those whom we love and care for. We can cultivate our solidity and freedom – solid in our deepest aspiration and free from our fears, misunderstandings, and our suffering.
We try to be intelligent and skillful in our practice, approaching every moment with curiosity. We practice with understanding and love, not just with the outer form and appearance. Enjoying the practice of mindfulness with a relaxed and gentle attitude, our mind becomes open and our heart receptive.
Below is a collection of practices we can use to bring mindfulness into our daily lives:
Living and Working Together
Togetherness is a practice. At the practice center we have a unique opportunity to live closely with friends from many different countries and backgrounds. Together we form one sangha body, connected by the practice of mindfulness. With our collective energy of calming and looking deeply, it is possible for us to support each other on the path of transformation. This requires cooperation, skillfulness, and acceptance. To live and work together, we need to cultivate understanding, communication, and a willing heart. Let us take the time to get to know the people in our work. We have neglected our neighbors for too long.
If you have colleagues, friends or family who also wish to practice we can encourage each other with our practice and build diligence and solidity. Living and working together is an opportunity to develop understanding and compassion for ourselves and for others. By being mindful of the people we work with, we can identify and appreciate their positive qualities, creating an atmosphere of harmony. We know that when the other person is happy, we are also happy.
We can show our respect to our colleagues and the space we share by helping to keep it neat and clean. We try to be considerate of others. For example, we might like to ask before we open a window or turn on the light, to make sure it will not bother our colleagues. In this way we can create a supportive environment for practicing loving kindness through our words, thoughts, and actions.
The greatest gift we can offer our fellow practitioners is our practice of mindfulness. Our smile and our conscious breathing communicate that we are trying our best to find peace within ourselves and we hope to contribute to the peace in the work as well. We should remember to keep communication flowing, and our happiness will flow as well.
Bell of Mindfulness
In our practice centers you might hear a bell and notice people pausing in their activities and conversations. It might be the sound of a telephone ringing, the clock chiming, or the monastery’s activity bell sounding. These are our bells of mindfulness. When we hear the sound of the bell, we relax our body and become aware of our breathing. We do this naturally, with enjoyment, and without solemnity or physical rigidity.
When we hear one of these bells of mindfulness, we stop our conversations and whatever we are doing and bring awareness to our breathing. The bell has called out to us:
Listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.
By stopping to breathe and to restore our calm and our peace, we become free, our work becomes more enjoyable, and the people in front of us becomes more real. At home we can use the ringing of our telephone, the local church bells, the cry of a baby, or even the sound of fire engines and ambulances as our bells of mindfulness. With just three conscious breaths we can release the tensions in our body and mind and return to a cool and clear state of being.
To introduce a bell of mindfulness to your work place or class room is a great way to give yourself space and not get lost in the hectic activities around. Inviting the bell throughout the day can restore peace and calm and students love it!
Our breathing is a stable solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather--our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions--our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.
We feel the flow of air coming in and going out of our nose. We feel how light and natural, how calm and peaceful our breathing functions. At any time, while we are walking, gardening, or typing, we can return to this peaceful source of life. We may like to recite:
“Breathing in I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out I know that I am breathing out.”
We do not need to control our breath. Feel the breath as it actually is. It may be long or short, deep or shallow. With our awareness, it will naturally become slower and deeper. Conscious breathing is the key to uniting body and mind and bringing the energy of mindfulness into each moment of our life.
Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.
As we wake up in the morning and open our eyes we may like to recite the above gatha (mindfulness verse). We can start our day with the happiness of a smile and the aspiration to dedicate ourselves to the path of love and understanding. We are aware that today is a fresh, new day, and we have 24 precious hours to live.
Let us try to get up from bed right away after following three deep breaths to bring ourselves into mindfulness. Let us not delay our waking. We may like to sit up and gently massage our head, neck, shoulders, and arms to get our blood circulating. We might like to do a few stretches to loosen our joints and wake up our body. Drinking a cup of warm water is also good for our system first thing in the morning.
As we wash up or otherwise prepare to start the day, we allow ourselves enough time so we do not have to rush. Enjoy the dark morning sky. Many stars are twinkling and greeting us. Take deep breaths and enjoy the cool, fresh air. As we set off for work, let the morning fill our being, awakening our body and mind to the joy of a new day.
Sitting meditation is like returning home to give full attention to and care for our self. We sit upright with dignity, and return to our breathing. We bring our full attention to what is within and around us. We let our mind become spacious and our heart soft and kind.
Sitting meditation is very healing. We realize we can just be with whatever is within us--our pain, anger, and irritation, or our joy, love, and peace. We are with whatever is there without being carried away by it. Let it come, let it stay, then let it go. No need to push, to suppress, or to pretend our thoughts are not there. Observe the thoughts and images of our mind with an accepting and loving eye. We are free to be still and calm despite the storms that might arise in us.
If our legs or feet fall asleep or begin to hurt during the sitting, we are free to adjust our position quietly. We can maintain our concentration by following our breathing as we slowly and attentively change our posture.
After practicing sitting meditation, we sometimes practice indoor walking meditation (Kinh Hanh). We take one step with each in-breath and each out-breath.
We can find suggestions for guided meditations in Thay’s book, “The Blooming of a Lotus” or from one of the Dharma teachers.
Eating a meal together can be a mindful practice. We should try to offer our presence for every meal. Serving food to ourselves, we can already begin practicing. We realize that many elements, such as the rain, sunshine, earth, air, and love, have come together to form this wonderful meal. In fact, through this food we see that the entire universe is supporting our existence.
We are aware of our colleagues and friends as we serve ourselves, and we should take an amount of food that is good for us. At lunchtime we can enjoy breathing in and out while practicing the five contemplations:
- This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.
- May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive this food.
- May we recognize and transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed and learn to eat with moderation
- May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.
- We accept this food so that we may nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood, build our sangha, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.
We should take our time as we eat, chewing each mouthful at least 30 times, until the food becomes liquified. This aids the digestive process. Let us enjoy every morsel of our food and the presence of the dharma brothers and sisters around us. Let us establish ourselves in the present moment, eating in such a way that solidity, joy, and peace be possible during the time of eating.
Eating in silence, the food becomes real with our mindfulness and we are fully aware of its nourishment. In order to deepen our practice of mindful eating and support the peaceful atmosphere, we remain seated during this silent period. After twenty minutes of silent eating, two sounds of the bell will be invited. We may then start a mindful conversation with our friend or get up from the table.
Upon finishing our meal, we take a few moments to notice that we have finished, that our bowl is now empty and our hunger is satisfied. Gratitude fills us as we realize how fortunate we are to have had this nourishing food to eat, supporting us on the path of love and understanding.
Knowing when to rest is a deep practice. Sometimes we try too hard in our practice or we work too much without mindfulness; thus we become tired very easily. The practice of mindfulness should not be tiring; rather, it should be energizing. But when we recognize that we are tired, we should find every means possible to rest. Practicing with a tired body and mind does not help. In fact, it can cause more problems. To take care of yourself is to take care of your whole community. Resting may mean to stop what you are doing and take a five-minute walk outside, to go on a fast for a day or two, or perhaps to practice Noble Silence for a period. There are many ways to rest, so please pay attention to the rhythm of your body and mind for the benefit of all. Total Relaxation is a practice of resting. Mindful breathing, whether in the sitting or in the lying position, is the practice of resting. Let us learn the art of resting and allow our body and our mind to restore themselves. Not thinking and not doing anything is an art of resting and healing.
The Body of Practice
Taking care of our body is an important practice. We need our body to be healthy in order for us to practice. Mindful Movements and Deep Relaxation can support our health and happiness in the practice, and keep us in touch with our body.
Each day we practice the 10 Mindful Movements, which is an opportunity for us to unite our mind and body. We enjoy opening our body, stretching up to the sky, and releasing down to touch the ground. Throughout each exercise we stay aware of our breathing and our movement. We find a sense of balance and flexibility in our own body and mind. We practice in a relaxed way, not straining to gain anything.
Practicing Deep Relaxation as a community, led by an experienced practitioner, creates a wonderful energy of peace and harmony. It is a practice of totally letting go and returning back to take care of our body and mind. We use the breath as our anchor to help us. Our breath is also like a wave, gently rocking us into a deep peace. In this state of rest, our body and mind can release their burdens. A lot of healing happens just by letting go and sinking into this state of total relaxation. After practicing Deep Relaxation, led by a sister or brother in the practice, we may use these techniques anytime we need to rest.
Practicing Mindful Movements and Deep Relaxation allows us to listen deeply to our bodies. We learn to be gentle with ourselves and to give ourselves space to understand and to grow. Practicing in this way, our body becomes our friend and not a burden in our practice. Compassion towards ourselves will penetrate into our interactions with others. How we walk, move, sit, stand, and hold our body are reflections of our states of mind. When we move with ease, others around us will also feel light and relaxed in our presence.
Dharma sharing is an opportunity to benefit from each other’s insight and experience in the practice. It is a special time for us to share our experiences, our joys, our difficulties, and our questions relating to the practice of mindfulness. By practicing deep listening while others are speaking, we help create a calm and receptive environment. By learning to speak out about our happiness and our difficulties in the practice, we contribute to the collective insight and understanding of the community or workplace.
Please base our sharing on our own experience of the practice rather than about abstract ideas or theoretical topics. We may realize that many of us share similar difficulties and aspirations. Sitting, listening, and sharing together, we recognize our true connections to one another.
Please remember that whatever is shared during the Dharma discussion time is confidential. If a friend shares about a difficulty he or she is facing, respect that he or she may or may not wish to talk about this individually outside of the Dharma discussion time.
To participate in working meditation can be a great happiness. As we are working at our computer, preparing dinner for our family, or teaching a class, we can practice stopping, calming, and refreshing ourselves with our conscious breathing. We can relax and smile at our co-workers and pace ourselves to maintain a light and serene state of being.
The kitchen is also a mindful practice space. Let us be mindful when we are cooking or cleaning in this space. Let us do our task in a relaxed and serene way, following our breathing and keeping our concentration on the work. Only a few words may be needed about the work at hand.
While cooking, we allow enough time so we will not feel rushed. This awareness will guide us to cook healthy food infused with our love and mindfulness.
Although in our daily lives we are constantly with people, we are also in solitude. Solitude is not about being alone high up in the mountains, or in a hut deep in the forest. It is not about hiding ourselves away from civilization. Real solitude comes from a stable heart that does not get carried away by the crowd nor by our sorrows about the past, our worries about the future, and our excitement about the present. We do not lose ourselves; we do not lose our mindfulness. Taking refuge in our mindful breathing, coming back to the present moment is to take refuge in the beautiful, serene island within each of us.
We participate with the sangha for sitting meditation, walking, meals, and working; but we are always within our own island as well. We can enjoy being together with our brothers and sisters, but we are not caught and lost within emotions and perceptions. Instead we see that or friends and colleagues are our support. When we see a colleague move in mindfulness, speak with love, and enjoy her work, she is our reminder to return to our own source of mindfulness. Returning to mindfulness is to return to solitude.
When we enjoy our time with the people and friends around us and we don’t feel lost in our interactions with others, then even in the midst of society, we can smile and breathe in peace, dwelling in the island of ourselves.
Touching the Earth
The practice of Touching the Earth is to return to the earth, to our roots, to our ancestors, and to recognize that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We are their continuation and, with them, will continue into the future generations. We touch the earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind us that we are the earth and part of life.
When we touch the earth, we become small, with the humility and simplicity of a young child. When we touch the earth, we become great, like an ancient tree sending her roots deep into the earth, drinking from the source of all waters. When we touch the earth, we breathe in all the strength and stability of the earth, and breathe out our suffering--our feelings of anger, hatred, fear, inadequacy, and grief.
Our hands join to form a lotus bud and we gently lower ourselves to the ground so that all four limbs and our forehead are resting comfortably on the floor. While we are Touching the Earth we turn our palms face up, showing our openness to the three jewels--the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. After one or two times practicing Touching the Earth (Three Touchings or Five Touchings), we can already release a lot of our suffering and feelings of alienation, and we can reconcile with our ancestors, parents, children, or friends.
Gathas are short verses that help us practice mindfulness in our daily activities. A gatha can open and deepen our experience of simple acts which we often take for granted. When we focus our mind on a gatha, we return to ourselves and become more aware of each action. When the gatha ends, we continue our activity with heightened awareness.
As we turn on the water faucet we can look deeply and see how precious the water is. We remember not to waste a single drop because there are so many people in the world who don’t even have enough to drink. While brushing our teeth we can make a vow to use loving speech. Before turning on the engine of our car, we can prepare for a safe journey by reciting the gatha for starting the car:
Before starting the car
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
The gatha brings our mind and body together. With a calm and clear mind, fully aware of the activities of our body, we are less likely to get into a car accident. Gathas are nourishment for our mind, giving us peace, calmness, and joy which we can share with others. They help us to bring the uninterrupted practice of meditation into every part of our day. There are many gathas available in our “Chanting from the Heart” book.
To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves--our past actions, speech, and thoughts--and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others. At the practice center, we practice Beginning Anew as a community every two weeks and individually as often as we like.
We practice Beginning Anew to clear our mind and keep our practice fresh. When a difficulty arises in our relationships with fellow practitioners and one of us feels resentment or hurt, we know it is time to begin anew. The following is a description of the four-part process of Beginning Anew as used in a formal setting. One person speaks at a time and is not interrupted during his or her turn. The other practitioners practice deep listening and following their breath.
Flower watering: This is a chance to share our appreciation for the other person. We may mention specific instances that the other person said or did something that we admired. This is an opportunity to shine light on the other’s strengths and contributions to the sangha and to encourage the growth of his or her positive qualities.
Sharing regrets: We may mention any unskillfulness in our actions, speech, or thoughts for which we have not yet had an opportunity to apologize.
Expressing a hurt: We may share how we felt hurt by an interaction with another practitioner due to his or her actions, speech, or thoughts. (To express a hurt we should first water the other person’s flower by sharing two positive qualities that we have truly observed in him or her. Expressing a hurt is often performed one on one with another practitioner rather than in the group setting. You may ask for a third party that you both trust and respect to be present, if desired.)
Sharing a long-term difficulty & asking for support: At times we each have difficulties and pain arise from our past that surface in the present. When we share an issue that we are dealing with we can let the people around us understand us better and offer the support that we really need.
The practice of Beginning Anew helps us develop our kind speech and compassionate listening. Beginning Anew is a practice of recognition and appreciation of the positive elements within our sangha. For instance, we may notice that our friend is generous in sharing her insights, and another friend is caring towards plants.
Recognizing others’ positive traits allows us to see our own good qualities as well.
Along with these good traits, we each have areas of weakness, such as talking out of our anger or being caught in our misperceptions. When we practice “flower watering” we support the development of good qualities in each other and, at the same time, we help to weaken the difficulties in the other person. As in a garden, when we “water the flowers” of loving kindness and compassion in each other, we also take energy away from the weeds of anger, jealousy, and misperception.
We can practice Beginning Anew every day by expressing our appreciation for our fellow practitioners and apologizing right away when we do or say something that hurts them. We can politely let others know when we have been hurt as well. The health and happiness of the whole community depends on the harmony, peace, and joy that exist between every person in the sangha.
When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many to reconcile with each other--fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.
We may practice hugging meditation with a friend, our daughter, our father, our partner, or even with a tree. To practice, we first bow and recognize the presence of each other and enjoy three deep, conscious breaths to bring ourselves fully there. We may then open our arms and begin hugging, holding each other for three in-and-out breaths. With the first breath, we are aware that we are present in this very moment and we are happy. With the second breath, we are aware that the other is present in this moment and we are happy as well. With the third breath, we are aware that we are here together, right now on this earth, and we feel deep gratitude and happiness for our togetherness. We then release the other person and bow to each other to show our thanks.
When we hug in such a way, the other person becomes real and alive. We do not need to wait until one of us is ready to depart for a trip; we may hug right now and receive the warmth and stability of our friend in the present moment. Hugging can be a deep practice of reconciliation. During the silent hugging, the message be very clear: “Darling, you are precious to me. I am sorry I have not been mindful and considerate. I have made mistakes. Allow me to begin anew. I promise.”
A Lazy Day is a day for us to be truly with the day without any schedule activities. We just let the day unfold naturally, timelessly. It is a day in which we can practice as we like. We may do walking meditation on our own or with a friend or do sitting meditation. We might like to read lightly or write to our family or to a friend.
It can be a day for us to look more deeply at our practice and at our relations with others. We may learn a lot about how we have been practicing. We may recognize what to do or what not to do in order to bring more harmony into our practice. Sometimes we may force ourselves too much in the practice, creating disharmony within and around us. On this day, we have a chance to balance ourselves. We may recognize that we may simply need to rest or that we should practice more diligently. A Lazy Day is a gift for us and the sangha to enjoy in our own time and space. It is a very quiet day for everyone.
A lazy day is a wonderful way to get enough rest and nourishment which can give you enough strength to all the challenges you will face throughout the week.
Tea meditation is a time to be with the others in a joyful and serene atmosphere. Just to enjoy our tea together is enough. It is like a “good news” occasion, when we share our joy and happiness in being together.
At times, when we are drinking tea with a friend, we are not aware of the tea or even of our friend sitting there. Practicing tea meditation is to be truly present with our tea and our friends. We recognize that we can dwell happily in the present moment despite all of our sorrows and worries. We sit there relaxed without having to say anything. If we like, we may also share a song, a story, or a dance.
You may like to bring a musical instrument or prepare something ahead of time. It is an opportunity for us to water the seeds of happiness and joy, of understanding and love in each one of us.
Everyone who comes to practice is a member of the sangha. Even if we come to a practice center for only one week, our presence and our practice can contribute to the vitality and harmony of the sangha.
In society, much of our suffering comes from feeling disconnected from one another. We often don’t feel a real connection even with people we live close to, such as our neighbors, our co-workers and even our family members. Each person lives separately, cut off from the support of the community. Being with the sangha can heal these feelings of isolation and separation. We practice together, share a room together, eat side by side, and clean pots together. Just by participating with other practitioners in the daily activities, we can experience a tangible feeling of love and acceptance.
Thay often says that the sangha is a garden, full of many varieties of trees and flowers. When we can look at ourselves and at others as beautiful, unique flowers and trees, we can truly grow to understand and love one another. One flower may bloom early in the spring and another flower may bloom in late summer. One tree may bear many fruits and another tree may offer cool shade. No one plant is greater, lesser, or the same as any other plant in the garden. Each member of the sangha also has unique gifts to offer to the community. We each have areas that need attention as well. When we can appreciate each member’s contribution and see our weaknesses as potential for growth, we can learn to live together harmoniously. Our practice is to see that we are a flower or a tree, and we are the whole garden as well, all interconnected.
Taking Care of Anger
Thay often compares our anger to a small child, crying out to his mother. When the child cries, the mother takes him gently in her arms and listens and observes carefully to find out what is wrong. The loving action of holding her child with tenderness already soothes the baby’s suffering. Likewise, we can take our anger in our loving arms, and right away we will feel some relief. We don’t need to reject our anger. It is a part of us that needs our love and deep listening just as a baby does.
After the baby has calmed down, the mother can feel if the baby has a fever or needs a change of diaper. When we feel calm and cool, we, too, can look deeply at our anger and see clearly the conditions allowing our anger to rise.
When we feel angry it is best to refrain from saying or doing anything. We may like to withdraw our attention from the person or situation which is watering the seed of anger in us. We should take this time to come back to ourselves. We can practice conscious breathing and outdoor walking meditation to calm and refresh our mind and body. After we feel calmer and more relaxed we can begin to look deeply at ourselves and at the person and situation causing anger to arise in us. Often, when we have a difficulty with a particular person, he or she may have a characteristic that reflects a weakness of our own which is difficult to accept. As we grow to love and accept ourselves this will naturally spread to those around us.