Heather Conn Blogs

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Open Mind, Open Heart: Finding mindfulfulness every day

From reconciliation to quantum physics to suicide, suffering, and death, the topics recently covered by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh always returned to four things: mindfulness, love, understanding, and meditation practice. I was one of the lucky people who attended his sold-out talk “Open Mind Open Heart” on Aug. 14, which the inspirational Buddhist offered at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. I’ve long admired this insightful Vietnamese monk for his books of wisdom, his commitment to nonviolence, and his role in urging Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the Vietnam war. Hanh is one who truly walks the talk, literally and figuratively, when it comes to bringing full presence and loving speech to life.

He sat onstage, legs folded on a simple cushion, in his floor-length brown gown and characteristic shaved head. About a dozen male monks stood to his left and about 20 Buddhist nuns to his right, all in the same brown gowns, visiting from his Plum Village retreat in France. Hanh spent one-and-a-half hours sharing Buddhism’s “noble truths”, simple stories, and ways to exercise mindful breathing to help handle challenging conflict. He spoke calmly and fluidly, with no notes, and left room for humour despite his serious subject. He laughed after saying: “If you’re suffering when you’re sitting, breathing, and walking, your [meditation] practice is wrong.”

Any summary provided here will barely do justice to the value of his words, which prompted me to begin reading his book on anger, and wanting to meditate more regularly. One reason why I like Hanh’s approach is that he practices “engaged Buddhism,” which  transforms meditation practice into activism.

Manifesto 2000: Six steps to peace

As Hanh pointed out, it’s a lot easier to talk about deep listening, loving speech, and compassionate behavior than to live it. He mentioned Buddha’s Five Precepts embedded in the Manifesto 2000, written by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, which UNESCO circulated and the United Nations accepted. The pledge, aimed to make individuals feel responsible for creating peace at the personal level, includes these responsibilities, in brief:

1.  Respect all life.

2.  Reject violence.

3.  Share with others.

4.  Listen to understand.

5.  Preserve the planet.

6.  Rediscover solidarity.

Sounds simple, right? Obviously, the world at large is not reflecting that. Yet each of us can begin with making our own behaviour, every day, more peaceful and mindful. Hanh outlined regular exercises in mindful breathing, such as recognizing a painful emotion, scanning one’s body for tension, then smiling and releasing the tension. He said that within three months, this practice would generate a feeling of happiness and joy.

“A cloud can never die”

He spoke of suicide, chosen by so many young people who cannot bear painful feelings. Yet, an emotion can last for only a half-hour if we bring our attention down to the level of the abdomen, feel it in our bodies, and release it. This takes ongoing practice. Hanh spoke of common dilemmas in life: “Many of us sacrifice the present for the future” and “Many Buddhists think they will only be happy when they are reborn.” Yet, he reinforced that joy and happiness are available right here, right now by being in deep contact with others and all around us. To love someone, he said, you have to understand your own suffering and theirs, which gives rise to compassion. This requires deep listening and loving speech, and can lead to reconciliation, even between parents and children who have had no contact in many years. He gave several examples of this from people who have attended his retreats.

Hanh reinforced that the concept of something moving into nothing, such as the common societal view of death, is not true. “A cloud can never die,” he said; it simply becomes rain or hail.

The event began with music, song, and interactive exercises, performed by the monk “choir”. It ended with a beautiful, plaintive song, performed in French and English by an elderly nun with a gentle, lined face, which invited listeners not to fear death. Overall, the afternoon was a wonderful communal experience, one for which I feel tremendous gratitude.

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August 25, 2011 at 11:53 am Comments (2)