Thich Nhat Hanh on sitting, resting, and not worrying

In this short teaching from the Plum Village App, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about sitting meditation, the art of resting, and how to take care of the habit energy of worrying. This is an excerpt from a Dharma talk that took place in 1997 during a Buddhist Psychology Retreat. 

In a society that tells us time is money and values us according to our daily level of productivity, it’s easy to overlook the importance of rest for our mental and physical well-being.

Under these circumstances, the simple act of sitting and doing nothing except enjoying your breathing can be considered a revolutionary act:

“Sitting also can be very enjoyable. Sitting and doing nothing. Just enjoying your sitting, enjoying your breathing. Feel that you are alive.

“The president of South Africa, Mr Nelson Mandela, visited France some time ago. When the press asked him what he would like to do the most, he said, ‘What I want to do the most is just to sit down and do nothing. Since the time I was released from prison,’ he said, ‘I have not had a chance to sit down and to do nothing.’ For him, sitting down and doing nothing is great. He could not afford to do it.”

To be alive is already a miracle

Our constant pursuit of things that await in the future robs us of the wonders of being alive. By dwelling in the present moment, we touch these wonders of life. Sitting meditation helps us to dwell in the here and the now.

“Sitting meditation is not to become someone else, or something else. It’s not a struggle. You just enjoy your sitting. Sit and become aware that you are there, alive. To be alive is already a miracle. And if you can touch the fact that you are there alive, that is already enlightenment. Because many people around us, they live the daily life but they’re not truly alive. They always run. They are not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touch[ing] the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now.”

Sitting is an art: the art of resting

“When you sit with a cushion or in a chair, allow yourself to be comfortable. You may like to choose a kind of cushion that fits you, but it will be very pleasant if you can sit upright. And our head is on the same line with our back. And when you sit like that, allow all the muscles in your body to relax. Give up the struggle. Smile.

“When you smile, you help many hundreds of muscles on your face to release, to relax. And you allow the muscles on your shoulders to relax. […]

“Sitting is an art. The art of resting first. It’s very important that we learn how to rest. Many of us have lost our capacity of resting. We know that our body has the power of healing itself. But we just don’t give it a chance to heal. We work our body too hard. We don’t know how to allow our body to rest. By eating, by drinking, by working, we make our body suffer. We do not allow our body to rest. If only we know how to allow our body to rest, our body would know how to heal itself.”

We have to trust our body and its capacity for healing

“Remember when you got a cut on your finger. You didn’t have to do anything. You just clean the wound. You are not worried because you know that the cut will heal by itself alone. Your body has the capacity of healing. You trust your body. This is very important.

“We have to trust our body. To trust the power of our body to heal itself, we should learn how to allow our body to rest.

“The animals in the forest, when they get wounded, deeply wounded, they know what to do. They find a place, a quiet place, and they lie down [for] many days. Not thinking about eating or anything else. There is wisdom in that. Because they know that resting is the only way by which they can heal themselves.”

Re-learning how to allow our bodies to rest

“And we humans, we have lost that wisdom. We are over-worried. We don’t have the trust in our own body. And therefore, to learn how to allow our body to rest is very important.

“Many of us understand this in principle. And yet, we do not have the methods in order to allow our body to rest, including the method of not eating. Not eating, fasting, is a very wonderful practice. But we are afraid that if we don’t eat, our body will not get the energy it needs. It is exactly that kind of worry that is responsible for the situation. There are many things you can learn in order to allow our body to rest in order for it to heal itself.”

How to allow our consciousness or spirit to rest

Just as we need to rest our body to help it heal, we must do the same with our spirit. People’s worry habit-energy is generally strong, probably more so during troubling times like the current pandemic. Worry prevents the healing of body and spirit.

“The same thing is true with our spirit. There may be a zone of pain in our body. There are also zones of pain in our spirit, in our consciousness. Our consciousness has the power of healing itself also. But we don’t allow it to heal. Every day, we bring into it a lot of toxins, a lot of worries, a lot of anxiety. We force it to do so much. We don’t know how to allow our consciousness, our spirit to rest. Because we seem to have lost our confidence, our trust in our spirit. Our spirit, our soul, it has the power of healing itself, if only we know how to allow it to rest.

“To worry too much has become a habit energy in us. In the beginning we did not worry too much. But we have learned to worry. And with time the energy of worry, the habit energy of worry, has become too strong. That energy called worry is preventing the healing of our body, and of our spirit. Therefore we have to learn how to recognise that habit energy in us, in order not to let it overwhelm us and to stand in the way of the healing.

“We have the habit energy of running. We do not seem to believe that happiness is possible in the here and the now. Therefore we have the tendency to run ahead, looking for happiness. Conditions of our own happiness do not seem to be there, to be enough. We believe like that. That is why we are always on the run. And that makes it impossible for us to enjoy what is there in the present moment. The habit of running within is responsible for our restlessness. Rushing, becoming restless is a very negative energy in many of us. We have to recognise them.

“We know that if we become restless, peace cannot be possible, and happiness cannot be possible either. Therefore, how to embrace the energy of restlessness, how to stop running, is very important. And Buddhist meditation can help us deal with these matters. Every time the energy of running, the habit energy of running is pushing us, every time we feel that energy of restlessness in us, we should know how to deal with them, how to recognise them, how to embrace them, how to smile to them, how to help them.

“The Buddha said it is possible to live happily in the present moment. That teaching of the Buddha does not seem to be very well known to people. ‘Drsta dharma sukha vihara’ is the Sanskrit expression. ‘Drsta dharma’ means the present moment, the here and the now. ‘Sukha’ means happy. ‘Sukha vihari’: living happily. And the Buddha also said that even if you have pain and sorrow within yourself, still it is possible for you to live happily in the present moment.”

Cultivating the energy of mindfulness in daily life

Sitting meditation is not the only way that we can be mindful and rest our body and spirit; the energy of mindfulness resides in daily activities like walking, speaking, drinking, and eating. We can train ourselves to do everything mindfully. We can practice either with a sangha or alone.

“Many of us believe that unless we take the block of pain and sorrow out of us, happiness would not be possible. But the Buddha is saying something different. Suppose we throw into a river a rock. The rock will sink into the river. But if we have a boat, we can carry hundreds of pounds of rocks. And yet, we don’t sink into the river of suffering. Therefore it’s very important to secure a boat. And that boat can be seen as the energy of mindfulness that we can generate within us.

“The energy of mindfulness is something we cultivate by the practice of Buddhist meditation. And the secret of the practice is just to learn how to live each moment of your daily life mindfully.

“When you drink your water, drink it mindfully. And by drinking your water mindfully, you generate the energy of mindfulness, called mindfulness of drinking. You have the capacity of drinking your water mindfully. There’s no doubt about it. Anyone would have the capacity of drinking mindfully his or her water. The only thing is whether you want to do it, [whether] you want to train yourself in the art of drinking.

“Everyone has the capacity of walking mindfully. You make one step with your left foot; you are aware that you are making one step. That is called mindfulness of walking. And all of us have the capacity of walking mindfully. But if we are determined to train ourselves in the art of mindful walking, we’ll be able to stop running, and to go back to the here and the now. […]

“And if we continue to train ourselves like that, the seed of mindfulness in us will grow every day. And it will be very easy to touch that seed, in order to invite the energy of mindfulness to come up and to guide us, to support us.

“And then, around us, there are people who practice the same. My Dharma brothers, my Dharma sisters, every one [of you] are doing the same, because you practice the same kind of teaching. And everyone generates the energy of mindfulness.

“A practitioner always needs the support, the nourishment of his or her sangha. Sangha means the community of brothers and sisters who practice with you. So if you are surrounded by a sangha, where members practice mindfulness, and if you can generate the energy of mindfulness by yourself, then you have the two elements of the boat that you need, the two components of the boat that you need. And sticking to your mindfulness practice and sticking to your sangha, you’ll never sink into the river of suffering.”   

You can watch the full teaching below.

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