6 Practices for cultivating happiness, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh

When Buddhist teachers mention achieving ‘peace in every moment’ or ‘living deeply in the present moment’, they don’t refer only to sitting meditation, deep relaxation, or contemplation, which are intentional moments of mindfulness. Instead, they refer to every moment of our lives. 

Buddhism and Christianity both teach about living deeply in the present moment, and “getting in touch with the wonders of life within and around us” without worrying about the future. During this Dharma talk from 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes the Gospel of Matthew, which says that “you should take care of today because tomorrow will take care of itself.”

Practitioners of both these religions aim to reach a place of peace: the Pure Land of the Buddha or the Kingdom of God. Both can be reached through mindfulness and contemplation: “the kingdom is available to us, but we might not be available to the kingdom, so the practice is to make ourselves available to the Pure Land, to the Kingdom that is already there. And that practice is not too difficult.”

“Mindfulness helps us to be established in the here and now and that is the basic condition for us to touch life, to touch the Kingdom of God, to touch the Pure Land of the Buddha.”

Here are a few quick takeaways from this Dharma talk, to help us understand and practice cultivating peace and happiness in every moment:

1. Be more like children

Paying attention to how the children around us unknowingly practice being happy and joyful is a certain way to understand living deeply in the present moment.

Children are much better than adults at enjoying the here and now: “They don’t think too much about the future, they don’t make a lot of projects like we do, and they are not caught in the past.” 

So, in Thay’s words, “learning to be more like children is good practice.” To practice mindfulness as children also means fully enjoying doing so.

2. Look for happiness in the ordinary  

We needn’t consume anything special in order to be happy. By nourishing our joyful feelings and using the practice of mindfulness to remain aware of the miracle of life, we can find happiness in the present moment:

“You don’t need to consume anything: no alcohol, no cigarette, no wine, no expensive car – and yet there’s a lot of pleasant wonderful joyful feelings nourishing us. Mindfulness helps us to get in touch with the joy inside, with the wonders of life that are all around us. And Buddha advised us to nourish us with healthy, joyful, pleasant feelings, because if we are happy enough then we’ll be able to handle the negative, the unpleasant feeling.

“Because there are lots of pain and sorrow and fear and anger in us, and when they manifest we should be able to recognise them, to embrace them, to take care of them. If we don’t practice being happy and joyful, then we are too weak to do the work of handling the suffering in us.”

We don’t need to sit down for meditation to be mindful; it can be continuous and thus integrated into the most banal of daily activities. From brushing our teeth to putting on our shoes, washing the dishes, or taking a shower (“value each drop of water like a pearl, like a jewel”) – every action and inaction can be a moment of peace or meditation on the miracles taken for granted. It’s the collection of such moments of mindful existence which leads to happiness. It really is an inside job.

“In the morning, when you brush your teeth, brush them in such a way that happiness is possible during the whole time of brushing – which may last only one or two minutes. That is something I do every morning and after each meal: I brush my teeth in such a way that happiness is real during the time of brushing. I don’t say ‘let us brush it quickly in order to do this and that’. Brushing your teeth is a practice and you can be in the Pure Land during a time of tooth brushing. […] Do everything in your daily life in that kind of spirit and the Kingdom of God becomes available to you right away. […]

“If we are able to touch the Kingdom of God […] then we will no longer run after fame, wealth, power, and sex, because we already have happiness; we no longer want to run into that direction. Many of us have been running after these five kinds of craving and […] have suffered so much.”

3. Look at the practice of mindfulness as music

“Mindful breathing is like when you play violin. The music can be very soft, very soothing. Everyone will be happy.”

This is a beautiful analogy for the practice of mindfulness and the multitude of mental formations trying to take control of our mind. 

We have positive mental formations (like confidence, compassion, loving kindness, diligence, lightness, joy) and negative mental formations (like anger, despair, hate, jealousy). By breathing mindfully, we mustn’t struggle to eliminate the negative formations; we must ‘dance’ with them, embrace them, turning them into positive mental formations. 

Thay imagines a dialogue where we explain to our negative mental formations that they’ll have a chance to express themselves, but at this moment, “let’s listen to some music.” And the music we play is the music of mindful breathing: breathing in, breathing out. 

In other words, we cannot run away from suffering, but we can learn to transform it and not become overwhelmed by it: 

There is a river of feelings flowing day and night in us, and every feeling is a drop of water. […] We should go home to ourselves and recognise the feelings in us, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, and to take care of them.

4. Perceive our mind as a garden

Like a garden, all our mental formations are organic. And like the gardener, we must be aware of the importance of compost (organic waste) to healthy crops – by turning negative formations into ‘compost’ can nurture positive ones. In other words: no mud, no lotus.

“If you have a beautiful garden and if you are the gardener you know that in your garden there are flowers, of course, but there is [also] garbage – and so […] if there are flowers there must be garbage too. Flowers are to become garbage, but you don’t mind because you know that rubbish can be transformed back into flowers. Without garbage there is no flower. Without suffering there can be no happiness.

“If you don’t know how to take care of a flower it becomes a piece of rubbish very soon, and if you know how to handle the piece of garbage sometime later it becomes a lotus.

5. Keep a list of your moments of mindfulness 

This Dharma talk took place during a retreat where the participants were given a practice sheet every day for a week, on which they could keep track of their mindful moments. This was aimed at beginners, to help them stick to a mindful routine, but anyone who needs more discipline in their practice could try it. 

Washing dishes is not only for having clean dishes, but the time of washing dishes can be joyful. You can be in the here and now in the Kingdom of God during the time of dishwashing. And every bowl you wash, every dish you wash is sacred, as [if] you are giving the newborn baby Buddha a bath. It is very sacred. If mindfulness and concentration is there, everything becomes sacred, holy, because the energy of mindfulness, the energy of concentration: that is the energy of God, of holiness.

Daily practice on a retreat starts with waking up and acknowledging the light of the sun, and the joy of being gifted another 24 hours. It can continue with enjoying the morning routine: brushing your teeth, folding your blanket, preparing and eating breakfast, and even opening and closing the door – incidentally, one of Thay’s first lessons in mindfulness from his own master. 

You can enjoy every step. You can stop your thinking; you just focus the attention on just steps and your in-breath and out-breath. And the brothers and sisters who are doing that around you, and the mountains are there, the New Moon is there, the trees are there practicing with you – so every moment of your daily life can be seen as a miracle. And you continue to live miracles of life at each moment and if you can do like that, you no longer complain because you are no longer unhappy.”

6. Practice mindfulness in a sangha 

Being on a retreat with many participants, Thay pays special attention to the importance of practicing mindfulness with a sangha. This is seen as a refuge, but also as a place for teaching and practice: “Nowaday people feel cut off. People cannot relate to anything that is beautiful, good, and true; that is why building a good sangha is to provide people with a refuge.”

“If you bring your suffering to the sangha you will not sink. […] You profit from the collective energy of the sangha. When you practice walking meditation, when you eat lunch. […] And we are there for you; that is why [when] taking refuge in the sangha, the practice will be much easier, much more pleasant.

Given all this, we shouldn’t forget that ultimately, “happiness depends on us and not on the other person.”

And when you are happy, when you have had enough of this energy of mindfulness and concentration, you feel good within yourself; you feel that you are in the kingdom of God and [that] you are in a situation to help other living beings. You no longer complain of anything because you have enough compassion to embrace and to help other living beings.


You can watch the full Dharma Talk below, and study these other talks if you want to find out more about the Four Noble Truths and the Pure Land.

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