What is Mindfulness?
To be mindful is to be really alive, fully aware of our body and mind and of our surroundings in the present moment. We practice mindfulness by acting with awareness and without rush, aware of each step and each breath. Moving more slowly and calmly allows us to give more time and attention to ourselves and to life. Actions done in mindfulness and with a little smile bring feelings of lightness and joy.
"Those who practice mindfulness will inevitably transform themselves and their way of life. They will live more simply and have more time to enjoy themselves, their friends, and their natural environment, and to offer joy to others and alleviate others’ suffering."
- Thich Nhat Hanh
What is Mindful Breathing?
Our breathing is the stable, solid ground in which we can take refuge and find peace. Regardless of our internal weather - our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions - our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. When we feel carried away, caught in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we can return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.
We feel the flow of air coming in and going out through our nostrils. We feel how light and natural, how calm and peaceful our breathing can be. At any time, while we are walking, gardening, or typing, we can return to this peaceful source of life. 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 focused awareness, it will naturally become slower and deeper. Mindful breathing is the key to uniting body and mind and bringing the energy of mindfulness into each moment of our daily life.
"Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh…
Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid…
Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are…
Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free…"
-Thich Nhat Hanh
Sitting meditation is like returning home to give full attention to ourselves. Like the Buddha, we can radiate peace and stability. We sit upright with serenity, and return to our breathing. We are able to maintain a relaxed and upright position when our posture is stable. Using the right cushion or bench will enable us to be steady by allowing our weight to be balanced and supported on three points: our buttocks and our two knees. 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 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. We let it come, let it stay a bit, then gently let it go as we return to our breath. No need to react, to run away from or to push away, to suppress, or to ignore. We observe our feelings, and the thoughts and images of our mind with an accepting and nonjudgemental attitude. We are free to be still and calm despite the storms that might arise within us.
In our sangha gatherings we sit for a period of approximately 20 minutes. If our legs or feet fall asleep or begin to hurt during the sitting, we focus our attention on the area of discomfort as we continue to breath mindfully, and may notice that the discomfort dissipates. If it continues, we are free to quietly adjust our position. We maintain our concentration and support others in their practice by following our breathing as we slowly and attentively change our posture.
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Zen Master Lin Chi once said that the miracle is not to walk on water or burning charcoal, but to walk on the Earth. With each step, we arrive in the here and now, becoming solid and free. Whether walking outdoors or in a meditation hall, we can coordinate our steps and our breathing as we walk. For example, outdoors we may take two steps with each in-breath and two steps with each out-breath. In the meditation hall it may be slower - one step with each breath. We can mentally say to ourselves, "In, in... Out, out" to help us to be aware of each in-breath and out-breath. As in sitting meditation, while walking, we breathe naturally.
As we walk, we are aware of the contact between our feet and the Earth. We enjoy and are nourished by Nature. Look around and see how vast life is, the trees, the white clouds, the limitless sky. Listen to the birds. Feel the fresh breeze. Life is all around, and we are aware of the miracle that for now we are alive, healthy, and capable of walking in peace.
“You can enjoy every step you make. The earth that you tread becomes the Kingdom of God, becomes the Buddha Land ... If we are full of sorrow, of fear, of anger, of violence, the very ground that we walk upon becomes hell. But if we are a free person, if we have the energy of love, compassion, understanding, and freedom in our heart, then that place will become the Kingdom of God, the Buddha Land."
Thich Nhat Hanh
Listening to the Bell
When we hear the sound of the bell, we listen with our full attention. It is a bell of mindfulness. We relax our body and mind and become aware of our breathing. This is the practice of stopping: we stop talking, moving, and thinking and go back to our breathing, naturally and with ease. We take three mindful breaths, releasing the tension in our body and mind and returning to a cool and clear state of being. By stopping to breathe and restore our calm and our peace, we become free, our activities become more enjoyable, and the friends around us become more real. In everyday life we can use the sound of our phone, the local church bells, the birds' singing, or the cry of a baby as a bell of mindfulness.
The sound of the bell calls out to us:
"Listen, listen, this wonderful sound
Brings me back, to my true home."
Listening to a Dharma Talk
Please listen to a dharma talk with an open mind and a receptive heart. To listen deeply, we do not engage our intellect. If we listen only with our intellect, comparing and judging what is said to what we already think we know or what we have heard others say, we may miss the chance to truly receive the message that is being transmitted. When our ears are filled with the din of our own thoughts, it is hard to hear the bird's song. Similarly, we need to empty our mind, and be free of thoughts, ideas, and preconceptions in order to listen to a dharma talk. Comparing what we hear with something we already had in mind, and drawing "right" or "wrong" conclusions, is a mental habit that limits our capacity of listening. To agree or disagree with what is said does not help us learn anything new.
The Dharma is like rain. Let it penetrate deeply into our consciousness, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already there. Absorb the talk openly, like the earth receiving a refreshing spring rain. The talk might be just the condition our tree needs to flower and bear the fruits of understanding and love.
The Value of Silence
Silence is essential for deep transformation. It allows the practice of conscious breathing to become deep and effective. Like still water that reflects things as they are, the calming silence helps us to see things more clearly, and therefore, to be in deeper contact with ourselves and those around us. If we find it necessary to speak during Sunday morning sangha gatherings at times other than during dharma sharing, we do it discreetly to help preserve the contemplative atmosphere.
Eating can be a source of great happiness which we tend to take for granted. When we take time to sit down and enjoy every morsel of our food, we know we are very fortunate to be nourished and embraced by the whole universe.
The Five Contemplations are a helpful tool for reflection before sharing food together:
This food is a gift of the whole universe - the earth, the sky, numerous beings, and much loving work.
May we eat with gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
May we recognize and transform our unwholesome states of mind, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, and help to preserve our planet.
We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, and nourish our ideal of serving living beings.
To be worthy to receive the food is to really enjoy and appreciate it. By eating mindfully we nourish ourselves, our society, and many generations with understanding and love. Upon finishing our meal, we take a few moments to be aware that we have finished, our bowl is now empty, and our hunger is satisfied. Gratitude nurtures us as we maintain awareness of how fortunate we are to have had this nourishing food to eat, supporting us on the path of understanding and compassion.
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