On August 14th I had the opportunity to hear Thich Nhat Hanh speak at a public talk in Vancouver. “Thay” (as his students refer to him) is a Buddhist monk well known for his inspirational writings, drawings and speeches on the subject of mindfulness and peace.
In his talk, the venerable meditation master reminded us that the past has already happened and the future is not here yet. The only aspect of our life that we really have access to is the present moment. This is such a simple concept and yet most of us would agree that it’s not so simple to accomplish! Our minds are often caught up in thoughts that review past events and still more thoughts that preview what’s coming in the future. Very rarely are we just attending to what’s happening right here, right now.
The Power of the Present Moment
Remember the last time you were fully present?
You know what I mean. A time when you were really there…in the moment…completely engaged. Perhaps you were in a beautiful place. Or having fun with a child or a good friend. Or maybe you were eating something delicious.
Try to remember what that experience was like. What were you seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and thinking? There was something really PURE about it, right?
Being fully present in the moment is powerful because we are simply experiencing.
We’re not caught up in analyzing. We’re just having the experience. This is called “direct experience” and involves the suspending of judgement and reactivity. We aren’t thinking about what we are experiencing – we are simply experiencing it directly. When we are in this state of conscious awareness we are more likely to see the good around us and even feel good about the good around us.
Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about finding pleasure in the simplest of moments as being the path to cultivating happiness in our day to day life. When the mind is missing the “now” by searching the past or future for happiness, he says we move away from a state of mindfulness and the possibility of happiness into a state of forgetfulness.
The Purpose of Living Mindfully in the Present Moment
So what’s the big deal about this anyway? It’s a great question and one that comes up in counselling all the time. The big deal is, when your mind is caught up in review of the past; it’s usually judging and finding fault with yourself and others. Your mind can get caught here going over and over the past painful events causing even more pain and suffering. This kind of ruminating negative thinking can lead to depression.
Thich Nhat Hanh talked about the “two arrows”. The first arrow is the one that comes at us from the outside. The pain or suffering we feel from a negative life event. The second arrow is the one we shoot ourselves. When we amplify the the pain by focusing on and exaggerating it through endless judgement and review, we hurt ourselves with our own thinking. We can’t prevent life from offering us difficulties from time to time, but we can definitely prevent ourselves from furthering our own pain through negative rumination.
In the same way, when the mind is caught up in preview we can get stuck in worry and fear about life ahead. When this becomes an endless loop, we can lose confidence in ourselves and some sleep too! This kind of ruminating can lead to problems of chronic anxiety. Both depression and anxiety are common complaints in today’s fast paced and demanding lifestyle.
One of the most valuable purposes of practicing mindfulness is learning how to soothe ourselves.
We do this by setting aside self-recrimination and practicing self compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh described this practice by having us think about what happens when a baby cries. The caregiver typically reaches for and picks up the baby offering comfort by holding, rocking, and gently speaking to the infant. The goal is to soothe, not to question or judge. Learning how to attend to ourselves in the present moment helps break the habit of ruminating thinking and develop the habit of self-soothing.
Being more in contact with your direct experience in the present moment without judgement or reactivity will help you accept more about your life, let go of past hurts and feel less anxious about future events.
A Simple Mindfulness Practice
Thich Nhat Hanh told us to breathe mindfully. “When I breathe in I am aware of breathing in. When I breathe out I am aware of breathing out.” He teaches how to become aware of the present moment simply by becoming aware of the breath.
Try this Mindful Breath Awareness Exercise
If you are like most people, this exercise will show you how you can easily shift your attention to experience feeling a little more relaxed. In just a few moments you can have a mini experience of mindfulness. If you do this regularly you can help train your mind to be more present, more compassionate and alleviate the suffering attached to ruminating negative thinking.
- Take 1 or 2 minutes and sit down wherever you are
- Breathe in and out slowly and gently
- Shut your eyes
- Bring your attention to following the breath as it moves in and out
- Allow whatever sensations you may have, thoughts or feelings that are going on, to just be there – without judgment or commentary
- Take another few mindful breaths
- Then open your eyes and see how you feel
When we consciously shift our focus away from past or future thinking and place our attention on the breath in the present moment we are more available to gather energy from the small moments of pleasure and happiness in our lives. This is Thich Naht Hanh’s central message.
I have found the practice of mindfulness meditation most helpful in my own life. And I enjoy teaching mindfulness to clients in my counselling practice.
If you would like to find out more about how mindfulness can benefit you please contact me https://ruthshell.com/contact
If you would like to learn more about Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas I found this interesting article… http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3490&Itemid=0
Your comments are welcome here. Were you also at this event or have you heard Thich Naht Hanh speak at another time? What are your thoughts regarding the power and purpose of living in the hear and now?