Brother Pháp Lai is one of the senior monastics in the Plum Village tradition. He has been actively involved in bringing Plum Village mindfulness practices into education through the Wake Up Schools initiative, and most recently through guided meditations in the Plum Village app.
Mindfulness is an energy that connects us to the miracle of life. To generate the energy of mindfulness we need to simply stop, breathe, and become aware that, “Here I am – in this present moment; this is my body, these are my feelings, this is my state of mind, here in this present moment”. Awareness without judgement or analysis – a simple recognition of being in the here and now.
In doing this, we bring our mind and body together. We come home to ourselves. We can let go of anxious thoughts, relaxing both body and mind. In this way, mindfulness is already a source of happiness – but there is more. At home in our body, our five wonderful senses allow us to connect to life around us – to the birds and bees, the sky and stars, the green grass under our feet. The wonders of life become available for us – or rather, we become available for the wonders of life!
The story of the man on a horse
There is an old zen story of a man who sees a horse rider racing by. The man shouts out, “Where are you going?” “I don’t know,” replies the rider. “Ask the horse!”
The horse is our habitual energy for racing away and losing ourselves in the business of life. We may have something important to do or somewhere important to be, but an energy to keep busy and keep going has also built up. This energy has gained a life of its own; this is the horse. It doesn’t even occur to us that we might benefit from taking time to stop and check in with ourselves.
And if it does occur, we might say “wonderful idea” – yet we feel we have no time. We may have lost a sense of our direction; we started out very intentionally, but at some point we lost our original purpose and now have only momentum. We feel we cannot dismount the horse because it is going too fast – but where is it going? If we could stop the horse and take stock of our situation, we might re-evaluate our priorities. We might wish to change our direction. By practicing mindfulness, we are learning the art of stopping. The change in direction will then be up to us, and will be a conscious choice.
1. The Art of Stopping: Making a ‘To Be’ List
We all make ‘to do’ lists to ensure we get round to important tasks. If we see mindful living and training mindfulness as important, perhaps we should also make a ‘to be’ list. ‘To be’ is to experience life as it is – to reconnect to ourselves. Scheduling some time into our daily routine to simply be might mean doing nothing. Learning the art of stopping, to get back in touch with our body, to enjoy simply being, is a great gift to give ourselves. To truly do nothing for a time can be wonderful and healing.
Yet we might also want to experience being in the doing. In principle, there is no reason why we cannot be mindful in all our actions. Our ‘to do’ lists are never-ending. And yet we often think, “Once I have completed this, achieved this last thing – then I might have time for some mindfulness and meditation.” But by thinking like that, we will never make time for mindfulness practice.
The practices offered here are for our joy – for us to experience the miracle of mindfulness in the midst of our daily life and routine. Be creative and kind to yourself – make a ‘to be’ list.
2. Mindful Breathing
The in-breath can be a celebration of the fact that you are alive, so it can be very joyful.Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing in, I calm my body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.
Breathing in, I know I am alive. Breathing out, I smile.
The simple act of becoming aware of the breath can be very powerful, putting us directly in touch with the miracle of life. So how to practice? In principle, mindfulness breathing can take place at any time, including while we are walking or working.
However, to first experience the joy of mindful breathing, give yourself a dedicated time – this can be just five or 10 minutes in your day – for doing nothing but sitting still and breathing. Choose somewhere – a room or a corner – where you will not be disturbed. Sit down and adopt an upright posture that feels stable, allowing you to be both relaxed and alert.
Now, bringing your attention to the in-breath and out-breath, allow the breath to be – just as it is. Be wholehearted – give all your attention, maintaining awareness throughout the whole length of the in- and out-breaths.
Enjoy the cycle, the rhythm of the breath. As we continue to “follow the breath” in this way, the quality of our breathing improves. If the breath began as shallow and rapid, perhaps reflecting some anxiety in our body and mind, we can observe the breath become slower and deeper, reflecting the calming of our mind and body.
This can happen within just a minute or two of mindful breathing. The longer we have to enjoy the practice, the more benefit and joy one can experience.
In the beginning, you may need support from our mindfulness app, which includes hundreds of guided meditations, but ideally you will become so comfortable with the practice that you can do it anywhere, at any time.
3. Walking Meditation
Wherever we walk, whether it’s the railway station or the supermarket, we are walking on the earth and so we are in a holy sanctuary. If we remember to walk like that, we can be nourished and find solidity with each step.Thich Nhat Hanh
Walk as a free person
Walking meditation need only differ from normal walking in terms of attitude. We might be walking to work or dropping the kids off at school, but if we can walk as a free person while doing so, we are practicing walking meditation. If we can let go of our preoccupation with where we have to be, or what we have to do when we arrive, the mind can be free to enjoy the journey, savouring each step in a relaxed and open manner. Much joy can arise when we do this. Once we have touched this joy, we will cherish the freedom we have to practice and wish to make further opportunities.
A contract with the stairs
Choose a stretch of a road or path you walk every day. Make a contract with that path, or a flight of stairs you use daily. The contract is that you will always walk that particular part of your journey in mindfulness.
If you are halfway up the stairs and realise that you were not taking each step in mindfulness, come back down and begin again. You may treat this as an experiment, but after only one week you will find yourself looking forward to that particular part of the journey to or from work, as a safe and restorative place. And of course you do not have to limit your walking meditation to these particular areas.
The capacity for mindfulness is part of our human heritage; we all have it – but as with any capacity, it requires development. Training the mind helps us slow down our normal pace of walking. In doing so, we counteract the habit of rushing. Since mind and body are connected, the mind relates our normal walking pace with the habit of rushing.
Although it may feel unnatural to begin with, slowing our pace means that the mind realises something new is going on, and that there is more openness and flexibility in switching to a different mode.
In a public place, we may feel too self-conscious to walk slowly – a reason for practicing alone in nature. But we also want to bring the practice into the street, the office, and the home. So be a little brave; don’t worry too much how you are perceived. Everyone shares a desire for a change of culture from fast-paced hecticness. So, far from judging you, people may well be inspired by seeing you enjoying your leisurely stroll.
Linking the breath to your steps
It can be very helpful to connect the practice of mindful breathing to your walking. Count the steps you take as you breathe in and then out. This synchronisation, harmonising steps with breathing, should feel pleasant, not forced.
You can use an inspiring couplet to accompany the steps taken with your in- and out-breaths. For instance, for each step taken with the in-breath, say silently to yourself: “Mother Earth”, and for those with the out-breath: “Here I am”.
Connecting to the Earth
When we see that the earth is not just the environment, that the earth is in us, at that moment you can have real communion with the earth.Thich Nhat Hanh
Every step can deepen connection to yourself and to Mother Earth. We want to walk in such a way that we feel relaxed and open, resting and sinking into each step. As you walk, try to feel that you are in your body, looking from behind your eyes out to the world that is to be grounded. To be, as TS Elliot said, in touch with “the still point of this turning world”.
We may not be in a spectacular site of natural beauty, but wherever we are, we are walking on this blue planet: Mother Earth; a precious jewel and haven of life in the cosmos.
4. Accepting ourselves as we are
It is important to create conditions conducive to our mindfulness practice, such as walking meditation or mindful breathing while sitting. The most vital condition is intentionality. But even with the best intention to practice well, the mind naturally wanders, always searching for something more interesting or familiar to grasp onto.
Whether we find ourselves ruminating about a past hurt or flying off into the future, chewing over some very important project or thinking about the plot of a movie watched recently, once we recognise that the mind has wandered, we have a choice:
We can either choose to follow the wandering mind, like watching a monkey jumping from branch to branch, or we can choose to reconnect our attention, our mind, to the present. Each time we choose to come back to the present moment, whatever we are doing, we are cultivating the habit of mindfulness.
A fundamental part of any mindfulness practice is to recognise and accept how we are at any given time. Therefore, if you notice that you are feeling agitated and distracted, you can smile at that feeling with loving kindness. There is no need to fight to become peaceful; the mind will naturally calm itself and become more peaceful as we persevere with the practice.
5. Smiling as a practice
Waking up this morning, I smile! Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.Thich Nhat Hanh
A Smile of Presence and Gratitude
Remember to smile. Your smile proves you are present and that you appreciate the gift of life. There are always conditions present that we can be grateful for. Even when all is not going well or feeling good, bring attention to these positive conditions. For instance, bring to mind a close friend and a smile of gratitude will come.
To smile when feeling despondent or heavy is a powerful act. When you wake up, can you smile? Sometimes this comes naturally, sometimes not. It can be all the more powerful when you’re not feeling it. The phrase above is there to use; if we can say these words upon waking, we can transform our day ahead. Imagine how good transforming a grumpy morning feeling into one of gratitude would be, by appreciating that “I have another day given to me to live and love”.
A Smile of Friendship and Compassion
A smile offered to a loved one is a beautiful thing. It is a way to say, “I see you are there and I am very happy.” It is also a way to say, “I am here for you.” After all, to love is to be there for someone. And sometimes we see someone we love during a difficult moment; we want to smile at them and say, “I see you suffer – I am here for you.”
This is quite natural. However, we tend not to offer the same loving kindness to ourselves. Smile to your own self and say, “I know you are there and I am happy.” And, as with a loved one or a friend, when you are experiencing a difficult moment or painful emotion, smile with loving kindness to yourself and say, “I know you are suffering – I am here for you.”