The Miracle of Mindfulness

I bought my first copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh years ago, long before yoga was a part of my daily life. Thich Nhat Hanh, of course, is a global spiritual leader and Vietnamese monk who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. In his nomination, Dr. King wrote, “Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.”

Nhat Hanh wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1974 as a long letter to another monk in charge of a school that trained students to help rural villagers deal with the effects of war in South Vietnam. Including about 40 pages of Buddhist sutras, or verses, the whole volume is only 140 pages.

If I expected any quick or easy fixes to soothe my overactive brain, I was immediately disappointed. References to being a beginner and exercises about counting your breath that should go on for months were overwhelming. A person could get faster results from Western pharmaceuticals, I thought.

Maybe for that reason, it was hard to take any of it seriously. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the page and decided to listen to the audio instead, thinking maybe the lack of effort was what I needed to internalize the content. The spoken words, unfortunately, were no different from the written words. I remained unenlightened.

The second time I bought Nhat Hanh’s book was for yoga teacher training. I dutifully read the whole thing and underlined passages that spoke to me. And I got the audio.

Written or spoken, the monk asked me to be present while I was washing dishes or eating the wedge of a tangerine. He told me a mere hour of meditation each day was not enough; I would need to practice mindfulness every waking moment.

Here are a few of the underlined passages and ideas spoke to me:

  • Meditation on interdependence, how all things and beings are connected, was to be constantly practiced “as an integral part of all ordinary tasks.”
  • “Meditate on the corpse until you are calm and at peace, until your mind and heart are light and tranquil, and a smile appears on your face. Thus, by overcoming revulsion and fear, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living. And it is not just our own lives that are recognized as precious but the lives of every other person, every other person, every other being, every other reality.”
  • To look after oneself means to look after both of us.”
  • Smile like the Buddha while meditating and throughout your day, like when someone angers you—smile like the Buddha and breathe.
  • The breath connects the body to the mind and the mind to the soul.
  • Correct breathing is more critical to health than sleep.

All good and wise and true. But not life-changing. It was a lot like getting the cheat sheet to the secret of the Universe but not knowing the steps to work the actual problem. The journey from student to master (and thus any significant benefit from meditation) seemed to be only practical for monks and nuns.

In late 2016, I opened this small purple volume once again. I believed what it said. I had no doubt. Still, I needed a voice to hold my hand, my heart, my mind. And I found a beginning mindful meditation on youtube by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Then a small miracle happened.

One early morning before dawn, I lit a tea candle, an incense, sat on my mat and I listened through to the end. It was just a 20-minute meditation–well, not just. It was quite hard this practice of attending to the breath as if your life depended on it. The practice of being swept away by your thoughts–over and over–noticing and intentionally steering the attention back to the breath.

The effort altered my whole day, bringing immediate benefit. I felt better, more grounded, more hopeful. I felt a little less a victim of my wild mind. I felt the same well-being I experienced after my very first yoga class several years ago. The ah-ha stuck with me just as it had in the physical practice. Meditation is indeed a miracle.

Now, I have over a year and a half of daily practice as a beginning student under my belt. Meditation is now as much a part of my day as eating or breathing or brushing my teeth. I do 20 minutes in the morning and often return to meditation briefly in the evening, too.

I listened to the audible version of the book over the past couple of days. Unlike past attempts, this time, I heard things I could try (meditations on your enemy, on emotions, emptiness, detachment) and instead of feeling overwhelmed and not up to the task, I now feel hopeful and infused with joyful anticipation.

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