How To Gain Inner Peace, According To A Zen Master
Illustration by Mr Adam Nickel
You arrive at your desk on edge from your commute and the daunting prospect of the day’s to-do list, or compulsively check your inbox on your phone before you get there. Either way, you’re confronted by an email from a client or colleague that can only be interpreted as passive-aggressive, if not openly hostile. Perturbed, even affronted, you spend precious time and energy drafting a reply or your resignation, mentally or otherwise.
Then you remember the teachings of Buddhist monk Mr Thich Nhat Hanh. Described as a “holy man” and “a scholar of immense intellectual capacity” by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigning during the Vietnam War, Mr Nhat Hanh was forced to live in exile for five decades. During that time, he established monasteries and practice centres in the US, France and Thailand. The subject of the documentary Walk With Me, narrated by Mr Benedict Cumberbatch, the Zen master has sold millions of copies of his 100 or so (concise) books and done as much as any person or app to promote mindfulness. But what exactly is mindfulness? According to Mr Nhat Hanh: “Mindfulness requires that we bring all our attention to whatever we’re doing, whether walking or breathing, brushing our teeth or eating a snack. When we concentrate on our breath and the steps we’re making, we can see the beauty of the Earth around us more clearly. We can take each breath and each step with awareness and gratitude.”
Now 92, Mr Nhat Hanh, unable to speak after a stroke, was recently granted permission to move back to Vietnam to live out his final days in the monastery where he was ordained as a 16-year-old. He can still see, however – something most of us can’t do properly, despite possessing the corresponding sensory faculty. His latest book, How To See, is all about the pervasiveness and perniciousness of misperceptions and how, through mindfulness, you can achieve genuine insight and the inner peace that in turn precipitates the outer variety. These five eye-openers will take you closer to Zen.
Whether it’s mistaking a rope for a snake or a neutral email for a negative one, we frequently confuse our fake mental images with reality. “Our perceptions are often inaccurate and can bring about strong feelings and reactions and cause much unnecessary suffering,” writes Mr Nhat Hanh. “Mindfulness increases concentration, which allows us to see things more deeply and clearly, and we stop being victims of wrong perceptions.”
Simplistically thinking that something or someone is good or bad is the wrong way to approach life. Good events can lead to bad outcomes and wrong views seem right from a different perspective. “We need to look deeply into the ones who have made us suffer to see that they, too, are victims – of their own suffering, delusion, anger and fear,” writes Mr Nhat Hanh. “We see the other no longer as our enemy, but as someone who needs help.”
Before you scarf the office feeder’s latest offering, ask yourself if you’re really hungry. “You may discover that there is some worry, loneliness or irritation in you, so you’re automatically reaching for something to eat to cover up the unpleasant feeling,” writes Mr Nhat Hanh. By being mindful, you can break the unconscious habit and create a new neural pathway to insight and happiness. “One in-breath can make all the difference.”
If you do snack, savour the interconnectedness of things with a “tangerine meditation” (NB: tangerines are not the only fruit). Look at it in the palm of your hand even for just a few seconds, visualising a tree, blossom, sun, rain, the transformation from baby to full-grown, green to orange. “You will see that everything in the cosmos is in it,” says Mr Nhat Hanh. “Peeling the tangerine, smelling it and tasting it, you can be very happy.”
Meditation isn’t confined to sitting cross-legged or cradling tangerines. “When you walk, know that you’re walking,” writes Mr Nhat Hanh. “Don’t think about arriving anywhere. Know that you’re putting your feet on the Earth. If an irritation arises, simply recognise it... and come back to your steps.” Assuming you’re not also listening to a podcast or compulsively checking your inbox on your phone, you’ll arrive at your desk less wired.
Image courtesy of Penguin