True love and happiness? Is that a fairy tale? Not according to fearless 86-year-old social activist monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (pronunced "tik nyat hawn"), who's sitting serenely cross-legged onstage.
I'm about to get some very simple how-to advice, but right now I'm not happy. I'm tired, and frankly, some family drama just erupted and has taken over my brain. Of course it happened right before this Brock University retreat with Nhat Hanh that preceded his Toronto talk last weekend.
When I decided to jump at the chance to spend six days learning from one of the world's few living legends of non-violence, I wasn't thinking ahead to the 5:30 wake-up call and the school-cafeteria vegan. Or sitting inside a giant gym impressively stuffed with 1,300 silent others. (Noble silence in effect from evening to lunch and during meals.)
I had wanted to feel the live spiritual presence of Buddhism's second-most revered teacher. But as fate and being human would have it, Nhat Hanh would have to teach me how to be in the here and now enough to actually feel the present first.
Like the Dalai Lama, Nhat Hanh's artfully simple Buddhist take on peace and reconciliation was forged in the cauldron of political violence, oppression and unspeakable pain. During the Vietnam War, he was the founding father of a movement of "engaged Buddhism" that inspired thousands of monks and nuns in that country to leave their contemplative monastic life to support devastated war- and poverty-racked communities. They were committed to non-violently waging peace from the inside out. This was his mission, and it has jumped many borders and never ended.
While Nhat Hanh was finally barred from returning to Vietnam in 1966 after two decades of social activism for his vastly challenged generation, he continued his efforts to build opposition to the war in the U.S. and around the world. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. King became fully committed himself to opposing the war through conversation with this radiant Prince of Happiness sitting here in front of me.
He doesn't show his age. He is monk-bald and a bit Spock-like in long brown robes, with dark triangle brows dancing over the dazzle in his deep-set eyes. He is about to offer a teaching on what he calls the art of suffering.
So apparently I will have to get busy with my broken heart.
But first, anyone who has read one word of this man's 80-plus books (not to mention CDs, videos and more -- this whole retreat is available on YouTube), knows that everything Nhat Hanh teaches begins in one simple way: an in-breath, an inhalation breathed with attention all the way down into the body. He says that is all it takes to get back to the wonder of being alive in present-moment happiness.
I try it, and my in-breath really does connect me with my body. Wow. I definitely feel that. I breathe in and then follow it down ("I have arrived," he says to say inwardly), and then enjoy letting it out -- the full, relaxing out-breath ("I am home"). He calls that mindful breathing.
Okay. I admit my heart's wrenching still commands most of my attention, but this instant pathway to mind-body connection is profound.
For the duration of that breath I shift out of the cacophony in my head into a different awareness. This is what the present feels like. I cannot believe that despite my decades of research, I have just discovered this instant way to connect so simply.
"The art of suffering" requires that same breath-aware energy of mindfulness.
"There is suffering inside every one of us," he says gently. "And with the energy of mindfulness, you go home to yourself and you can recognize the suffering. [Yeah, I have done the first step.]
"Usually people fear being overwhelmed with their suffering and try to run away or cover up their loneliness, their anger, their fear, their despair. We do anything to get busy, not to go home to ourselves and touch the suffering inside. But with the energy of mindfulness you can go home in strength. You can hold the suffering tenderly, like the mother holding her baby."
Okay. I will try to breath and tenderly hold my emotional hurt like a baby.
"Within us we carry the suffering of our father, of our mother, of our ancestors," he explains.
I am definitely feeling the ancestors alive in me and motivated to stop this circuit I'm stuck in.
Here is even more motivation for me. "Holding the suffering inside of us, we will come to understand the nature and the roots of that suffering. Understanding suffering always helps the energy of compassion to be born. And compassion is the kind of energy that can heal us and heal the world."
I really worked it, and I think it took about 24 hours. I didn't notice for a while that my angst had lifted; I did just feel lighter.
But here's the key: You haven't finished with your processing if you haven't gotten to the point where you don't want to punish anyone. Period. Never.
Nhat Hanh's non-violence is so radical, it boggles the mind. But so does the reward: freedom, happiness, true love, nirvana. All these await us in the here and now, according to Nhat Hanh.
In fact, he says, "Nirvana isn't on the way. It is the way." And only as my time is winding up do I realize that is why it's so affecting to be in his presence. Thich Nhat Hanh is teaching from his resting place in the here and now of nirvana.
I am going to keep working on that.
This article was first published in NOW Magazine.
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