Mental Health & The Miracle of Mindfulness
I recently finished reading The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by celebrated Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Here’s why I think it should be required reading for everyone, not just those with mental illness.
Thich Nhat Hanh is perhaps the most prolific peace activist of our time. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and called him ‘an Apostle of peace and nonviolence’. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation spreads Nhat Hanh’s teachings and provides humanitarian aid to those suffering from poverty, starvation, and natural disaster.
In Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the basic tenets of mindfulness. Here are some of the most powerful lessons from the book.
Appreciate life’s countless miracles.
The core idea in the book is that life is a miracle, and should be treated as such.
In chapter one, Nhat Hanh recalls his days as a young novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda. Novices had to cook and wash dishes for more than a hundred monks at times. There was no hot water or soap. The novices used ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks to wash the dishes.
He transitions to the modern dishwashing station: liquid soap, dish scrubbers, a dish rack, hot, running water, towels. Why would anyone dread washing the dishes when we have such a convenient station for it?
Upon contemplating it, I took this concept a step further. Not only do we have these things, but we also enjoy the luxury of the supermarket. When we run out of dish soap or scourers, we can go buy more.
Nhat Hanh was correct when he wrote, ‘The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality.’ Once you realise that, not only will you enjoy washing the dishes, but you’ll see the same principle applies to all the seemingly mundane chores of modern life — mopping the floors, doing laundry, driving to work, shopping for groceries.
We live in an era of miracles. Rather than stressing about them, we should appreciate them.
Acknowledge your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours without judging them.
In chapter four, Nhat Hanh describes a concept called ‘mindfulness of mind’. He likens the human mind to a guard at an emperor’s gate. The guard stands between the entrance and the exit, and monitors everyone who enters and leaves the palace.
In the analogy, the ‘visitors’ are one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The guard, of course, is the ‘mindfulness of mind’, the ability to monitor one’s own thoughts without judgment.
He points out, ‘…the image has a shortcoming: it suggests that those who enter and exit the corridor are different from the guard. In fact, our thoughts and feelings are us.’ When we feel angry, we are anger. When we feel sad, we are sadness. We treat these negative emotions like enemy forces. Rather than battling them, we should learn to accept them.
Achieving ‘mindfulness of mind’ — that is, the ability to acknowledge and accept all thoughts, feelings, and behaviours — takes a lot of practice. It’s difficult to simply accept how we feel. But, once we develop a habit of acknowledging our feelings, we are better able to control them, and identify the root of our suffering.
Wash the dishes to wash the dishes.
‘If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”
‘What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either.
‘While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.’
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Everyone — myself included — is too focused on what they have to do next that they don’t appreciate what they’re doing right now: breathing, existing. The Miracle of Mindfulness made me realise that every aspect of life, down to its microscopic elements, is nothing short of miraculous.
Look, I’m not trying to sell you something. This isn’t some advertisement disguised as an article. I just want to spread the word about this wonderful book.
I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but the book changed my life all the same. Following Thich Nhat Hanh’s guidance is perhaps the best decision I’ve ever made, both for my mental health and my overall wellbeing. I hope it does the same for you.
Want to read it? Here’s a free PDF. [Don’t say I never do anything nice for you. ;)]
All images are my own.