Thich Nhat Hanh (often referred to as Thay), renowned Buddhist teacher, peace activist and spiritual leader, passed away on 22nd January 2022. He has been an exceptional teacher who bridged the gap between individual suffering and larger societal and environmental concerns and provided hope and guidance to millions of people worldwide.
Dr Nivedita Chalill, who has studied Buddhist psychology and is a counsellor and arts-based therapist, says that "nothing can do justice to a life that has been that exemplary and a heart that has been that kind and wise". She adds, "So, I will take my cue from the condolence message by HH the Dalai Lama that said the best way of honouring Thay's memory is to take the practice forward."
According to her, Thay's practices have also been distilled into the following: A reverence for life; true happiness; true love; loving speech and deep listening; nourishment and healing. She goes on to share mindfulness and contemplative practices from one of the most powerful books she has read: The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh.
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Our minds are restless, often planning for the future, thinking about the past or simply jumping all around the place. To start with, we can aim to create some stillness. For example, you're probably sitting somewhere reading this article on a paper or device. Can you sit comfortably and rest your awareness on anything, say the sound of the fan or the wind? Don't try to force anything; you don't need to think about it in any way or judge the sound as too loud. Simply allow the body and mind to settle down.
We are breathing all the time, in and out. And most of this breathing is not conscious. However, we should allow ourselves to breathe mindfully. Continuing from a settled space, breathe with a gentle awareness of your breath. What this means, quite simply, is that as you are breathing in, know you are breathing in; and as you are breathing out, know that you are breathing out. You don't have to become 'tight' or use a lot of concentration to focus, nor make any effort to change how you breathe. Simply allow your awareness to stay with your breath. And when your mind drifts off with thoughts, gently bring it back to the breath without chiding yourself.
You can start practising this by just looking at your hand. Our first thoughts may be critical or vain about its appearance, but try and move deeper. What do you see? Is this hand 'you'? Or is this hand 'yours'? If it is 'you', what about all the non-you parts of the hand, such as the microbes that live on your skin, the oxygen running in your arteries that came from our environment, the nutrients that came from the food you consumed? Also, does your hand not carry the imprints of your parents and your ancestors. Do you see your hand as a continuation?
Chalill reveals that Thay uses the term 'interbeing' in the context of deep interconnectedness. He says that we don't simply exist in isolation or a vacuum, but rather are deeply interconnected with one another and all of life itself. And just as our hand is interconnected, so are our lives and every other thing. We must therefore try to deepen our insight into interbeing.
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Can we stay with the exploration of impermanence without fear or worry? For instance, because things are impermanent, there is a possibility that a pill can end your headache, or your body can utilise the nourishment from your meal. So we first recognise that nothing is static or fixed, and then we try and bring that insight into our daily lives, during the easy and the tough times. For instance, the truth is that our bodies are constantly in the process of transformation and embracing that can allow us to live more consciously. We can make choices that influence this inevitable transformation more healthily instead of feeling helpless, or we can be more equanimous when we see signs of ageing or illness. And similarly, in relationships, we can appreciate some changes and work on others; we can recognise that we have the power to nourish the seeds of positive elements in ourselves and our loved ones so we can create more joy, peace, understanding and love. The insight from impermanence can also help us keep the bigger picture in mind, so we stay less caught up with daily strife.
As we try to deepen our understanding of who we are and how we exist, Thay speaks of our 'continuation' body. He invites us to think of our thoughts, speech, and actions as an energy that we send out into the world, which has ripples of effects that continue far beyond us and 'after' us. Can you think about the last interaction you may have had and what would those ripples be like? We can train our minds to be more compassionate and nurturing so that our continuations help those around us. Thay says, 'My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. They are the ground upon which I stand.'