Yet another of my great spiritual teachers has died. Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh died on January 22nd at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam. I have found wisdom in so many of his books, but it is his The Miracle of Mindfulness that has become almost a daily guide. I discovered it sometime in my four-year wait for a new heart after being put on the transplant list following my second cardiac arrest in my 30s. In that time of living with the ever-present fear of sudden cardiac death, it probably saved my life, and certainly my sanity and spiritual well-being.
During that time, traditional meditations that required me to focus on my breath became exercises in anxiety as every irregular heartbeat intruded on my breathing and invaded my awareness. And then the miracle – mindfulness. While many mindfulness exercises focus on the breath, Thay’s book opened up many more possibilities. Washing the dishes, chopping carrots, cleaning, reading a bedtime story to my son all became exercises in mindfulness. “Wash the dishes relaxingly, as though each bowl is an object of contemplation. Consider each bowl as sacred. . . . Consider washing the dishes the most important thing in life.” That line has stuck with me, reminding me that whatever I am doing, whoever I am with, is the most important thing in my life at that moment in time. Being fully present to the actions, thoughts, surroundings, people, and the many beings in any given moment has been a precious gift. I don’t always remember. I have to remind myself rather continually. But every time I do, I am immediately more centered, and more present not only to my own life, but to the other people and beings in my life.
Of all the mindfulness exercises, the one that was most helpful to me at that time, and continues to be, is mindful walking. I used to be a very fast walker. I loved a brisk pace. But when my heart, and the defibrillator attached to it to shock me if my heart went too fast, commanded me to slow down, mindful walking turned what had felt like an impediment into a gift of awareness. Walking oh so slowly, I noticed the feel of the ground beneath my feet, the sound of the wind in the trees, the warmth of the sun on my back, all the variety of mosses and ferns, the bends and twists of tree trunks, the songs of spring warblers and so many varieties of frogs, the patterns in the rocks, the way the snow squeaks at certain temperatures, the shifting shapes of clouds, the sweetness of my child’s hand placed in mine. A miracle indeed.
Years later, mindfulness exercises became a regular part of my Women and Spirituality classes. I would bring in a trayful of fruit – segments of oranges, slices of apple and banana, grapes, and the classic raisin, along with some chocolate. Each student would choose one thing to eat, slowly, with full attentiveness to the smell, taste, sound, and texture of the fruit or chocolate as they chewed, sucked, swirled, and swallowed the piece. When they were finished, they would share all they had discovered, things they had never before noticed in something they had eaten routinely – the way the taste of an apple changed from the pulp to the skin, the way the pulp of the orange lingered long after the juice trickled down their throat, how long bits of raisin could stay stuck in the crevices of their gums, the silky velvet of a slowly melting piece of chocolate. What everyone noticed the most was how full and satisfied they felt after eating one small piece of fruit. Another miracle.
I would also ring a bell at random times throughout the class, and then ask the students where they were. About a third would be present in the class, but the rest were somewhere else — reviewing a conversation they had earlier in the day, thinking about a homework assignment they had to do, looking forward to the weekend; some were hundreds of miles away or ten years in the past. Students would laugh or demure self-consciously about not paying attention in class. Many were startled to discover how often they were not actually “in class.” How many of us are either in the past or the future, or someplace else entirely in any given moment of the day? Yet it is here, in the present, that we are fully alive to the miracles happening all around us. At this moment, as I write, miracles abound – the way each vein of the poinsettia leaves are illuminated in the sun, the way the snow cushions the earth in a peaceful softness, the way the sun pouring through the window can warm me even on this subzero morning, the tenderness that arises as I watch my dog soundly sleeping curled up in his chair, that the tapping of my fingers on this keyboard creates shapes on a screen that have meanings, and that I can share them with others by sending them on invisible waves of energy through the atmosphere.
The practice of mindfulness has given me a gift of centeredness and calm that I can draw upon at those times when I’m feeling scattered, unfocused, or anxious. It has made me a better teacher, a better listener, and hopefully a better friend. It has given me precious moments that might otherwise have slipped away unnoticed. Today, I will walk with mindfulness and gratitude for all the ways that Thich Nhat Hanh’s generous sharing has centered my being, deepened my awareness, and awakened me to walk in wonder.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness, Rider Books, 1991.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.