What exactly is “mindful living” and how can it improve the quality of our lives?
During the Kindness Challenge I wrote about zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk that spent his life teaching the art of mindful living.
He points out that the capacity to enjoy peace matters more than simply having the peace itself. Peace takes many forms, occurs daily, and comes to us through the senses:
- the sight of a loved one after an extended separation
- the sound of a melody that stirs an old memory
- the scent of freshly brewed coffee when we wake up in the morning
- the taste of our favorite dish after a long workday
- the feel of cool sheets on a warm summer night
Most of the time they’re small things, but there are so many. If we’re not conscious of them, how can we possibly appreciate them?
Thich teaches that the practice of meditation and mindful living enables us to have that capacity. We are better able to recognize the beauty that surround us everyday. If we don’t live mindfully we become easily distracted and miss the joyful opportunities in our lives.
He illustrates this point with the story of the “non-toothache.” Most days we wake up without the pain of a toothache (or some other ailment) and that’s a wonderful thing. However, we don’t realize it’s a wonderful thing until we wake up with a toothache. Only then do we understand how lucky we’ve been; enjoying good health for all those other days. We’re reminded that NOT having a toothache is pretty great! Having good health is a true gift, yet we don’t acknowledge it very often. Like so many things, we take it for granted.
So, how do we enjoy peace in the present moment?
Thich instructs us to begin with the sutra (text/scripture) of conscious breathing. This simple exercise consists of breathing in and breathing out. Inhale, exhale.
He tells us that saying or calling something by its name is an important part of mindfulness and makes that particular thing become more real. This aids in concentration and helps focus our attention on breathing and off other things. Thich advises us to silently say “in” and “out” as we breathe in and out.
This act of conscious breathing stops our thinking and gives the mind a rest (and who doesn’t need that a few times a day?) We have a tendency to immerse ourselves in the daily distractions and forget the blessings that we enjoy. Except that we forget to enjoy them.
“Thinking is often less than breathing.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn
I was prompted to write this post after receiving some troubling news from home. We all face occasional problems and unhappiness in our lives. Some people deal with far more than others. Often, these issues concern our past. Whatever the case, it’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety of the moment. We become preoccupied with the issue and that can magnify the negative aspects, as well as our angst.
When we become overwhelmed with our sorrows we catastrophize and lose our focus. The molehill quickly becomes a mountain. We can no longer see the goodness that surrounds us.
Thich reminds us that we have the seeds of joy in us; planted many years ago as children. If we don’t practice mindful living, we lose touch with these seeds.
Instead of thinking about what is wrong, we have to also consider what is NOT wrong.
Mindful living helps us keep things in a realistic perspective. Reality is easier to deal with compared to the overblown phantoms we create in our minds. Try the conscious breathing exercise; it will give your mind a break and help you see the whole picture, not just a small section.
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