Just recently I saw a wonderful film called “Walk with Me” which is about the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. For those of who may not have heard of him, Thich Nhat Han (pronounced Tick Nat Haan) is a renowned global spiritual leader, author and peace activist, who is revered for his powerful teachings and best-selling writings on mindfulness. He has travelled around the world, teaching and holding retreats. In 1975, he was refused permission to return to his native country because of his peace activities by the North Vietnamese army who took control of South Vietnam. This resulted in him setting up a monastic community in France which is now home to some 200 monks. It’s also a centre where lay people can go on retreat to absorb the practices, learn from the teachings and unwind from the stresses of 21st century living.
Filmed over the course of three years, it shows aspects of monastic life and some of the community activities which are offered to the many visitors who go to the centre, as well as glimpses of Thich Nhat Hahn leading meditation practice and answering questions. There are also some beautiful shots of the changing seasons which help to instil in the viewer the powerfully calming effect that nature can have upon us. In one memorable scene, we see some young monks lying on their backs in the grass, gazing up into a night sky dotted with a million stars. It made me want to be there as well, lying in the darkness with the infinite silence of the universe above me!
Walking home in the mizzly rain afterwards, I mused upon how important it is for us to find regular moments of peace and quiet in our lives as a respite from worldly pressures and the noise that goes on all around us daily. This din intrudes upon whatever quietness we have, disturbs our mental processes and irritates the nerves. We live with noise 24/7 in the cities and are not immune to suffering from it in the countryside. Worse still, we are incredibly adept at generating our own inner noise with the thoughts, worries, fears and projections we have tumbling around inside our minds.
Many of us just accept the endless chatter that goes on in our heads as a normal part of life and don’t seek to try to quieten it down and give ourselves pause from its relentless activity even though we may be well aware of how this jumble of thoughts and ideas can play havoc with our emotions and make us unhappy and even depressed. We have a tendency to allow ourselves be swept along by the tide of thoughts and feelings trying to surf the turbulence.
However, there are a number of very practical things one can do to gain a sense of inner calm and be less affected by mental turmoil. EFT tapping would always be the first resort I would recommend. But there’s also meditation, though sadly, a lot of us shy away from doing this for one reason or another.
No doubt many of you have a meditation routine already, but some of you may not. Others may have tried it, found it difficult and given up, and some of you may have thought about it, but never tried to do it.
Wherever you fall in this spectrum, it’s good to remember that there are many forms of meditation and there’s bound to be more than one that’s right for you. Meditation doesn’t have to be about sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed mentally reciting a mantra, or following a guided meditation. This may work for some of you but not for others. It doesn’t need to take up a lot of time either – especially in the beginning – and most people can easily slot short periods of contemplation into their daily routines however busy they are.
It may surprise you to learn that meditation is a perfectly natural practice. Yes! Here are some examples: Recall a time when you sat and looked at a beautiful view or sunset and noticed how peaceful it made you feel. Recollect how calming it is to sit and stroke a cat and listen to its purr. Remember how relaxing it is to mind and body to lie on a beach soaking up the warm sun as you listen to the waves lapping on the shore. Do you recognise any of those moments? Well, they’re all forms of meditation!
Any time you have momentarily noticed your mind go blank as you gaze up at the moon and stars, or watched a river flowing past you is meditation. Equally, if you’ve had a hard day of physical and mental work and you get back home and flop down with exhaustion, unable or unwilling to do anything except stare into space – that’s also meditation! Even the brief focus you can give to making a cup of tea can be a meditation!
We’ve been doing it since we were born! Have you ever offered a finger to a tiny baby to hold and noticed that when it grasps it in its little fist, it seems totally mesmerised by the experience? That’s meditation. We are all capable of doing it, and we do it more frequently than we are aware. You see, meditation is when your mind has naturally found a balance between relaxation and alertness and it happens automatically when you are one hundred per cent here and now. Meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts and having a totally empty mind because the mind never really stops! It’s about resting in the spaces between thoughts. And when we do that, we can experience the mind as a vast space where turbulence doesn’t exist and enjoy the sound of silence..
So if you’d like to take your first steps into meditation, spend some time reminiscing about what sort of things you’ve experienced in the past which have brought you to a tranquil place along the lines given above. Then make a commitment to practice recalling how it felt it to be in that space at regular intervals every day. Think of several examples when it’s happened so you can chop and change from time to time and prevent yourself from getting bored! To recap: you don’t have to go out and find a view or a river to look at or a beach to lie upon. You can close your eyes and remember times when you did that (or other similar things) and simply allow yourself to re-experience how it made you feel. You may only be able to do this for a few moments at first. But if you make a commitment to repeating it several times during the day, you can build up to meditating for any length of time between 3 and 10 minutes. When you get better at this practice, you could then move on and try other techniques. In this way, you will grow your ability to meditate an be able to go deeper with it over time.
Meditation moments take us to a place of peace. And when we’re at peace, we don’t have negative thoughts. We’re in a state of pause and neutrality, not pulled one way or another – and such balance can generate equilibrium and happiness which is incredibly good for our health and well-being. But you have to do it a few times each day to begin to make it work for you. The change is subtle – but noticeable over time!
For those of you with a more seasoned practice, why not branch off from your usual routine occasionally and try simply observing your thoughts as they pop up like bubbles rising to the surface of water? Just watch the thoughts arise and then let them go. This way, you can prevent yourself from getting caught up in them and following wherever they may lead. Be kind and compassionate to yourself about how restless the thoughts are and just accept that this is what the mind does. Notice it flitting around but don’t chase after it! Try doing this at intervals throughout the day and let yourself come in and out of it, again – meditating for anything between three and ten minutes. Do it several times a day. Over a period of time, you will begin to notice changes in your well-being which is very helpful in engendering a state of balance, stability and content.
One of the best books I’ve read about meditation is called “The Joy of Living” by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche who is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and master. It’s a fascinating and very easy read, covering many things like the way Buddhist practices mirror scientific findings about the nature of the mind to echoing the Dalai Lama’s belief that all beings are essentially striving towards happiness. In the second part of the book, Rinpoche takes the reader through a number of different meditation practices – and there’s a lot of them, so plenty to choose from!! I recommend it highly for anyone from a wannabe meditator to those who have been practicing for some time, as it provides a whole new view of what the practice can do for you. I have personally been working with various meditation practices for over 40 years now, and found the book gave me plenty to think about and I benefitted hugely from trying new forms of meditation.
So why not consider either beginning to meditate, or trying some new ways of doing it to refresh the practice you already have? Embarking upon something different is a great way to get the energies flowing and a wonderful way to start a new year!
And if you have a chance to catch the film “Walk with Me”, do go and see it. Here’s a link to the trailer on YouTube:
Also, if you’d like to find out more about Thich Nhat Hahn and Plum Village, here’s a link for that:
Wishing you all a very happy and fulfilling new year!