Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the first spiritual teachers I seriously engaged with in my adult life. The gentleness with which he reminded me that any activity could be spiritual if done with mindfulness was the antithesis of the legalistic religion of my youth. Simply being in the moment, the only moment we will ever have, is enough. So Thich Nhat Hanh’s death last week was a blow. Though I once got to meet him completely by chance, I’m sad that I’ll never get to hear him teach again.
When I reflect on the legacy of his life, it’s a reminder that renewal is always possible. We just need to recognize it and create the conditions necessary for it to happen.
When people find out how much I’ve studied Buddhism, though, they often reflect back that they don’t know if they could ever engage with the level of meditation needed to seriously engage. Their minds wander, they reflect, and they don’t believe that they can ever really empty them.
But that’s the beauty of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings: a reminder that here, in this present moment, is where enlightenment can be found. Monkey mind is not something to be fought against. Indeed, it’s when we stop fighting and accept that each and every one of us experience a mind that wanders when we don’t want it to, that we’re able to find that peace never truly left.
Indeed, there’s nothing less Buddhist than fighting against our thoughts. Instead, Hanh encouraged us to view them as friends and make peace with them. They need a chance to express to us what they hope to tell us. After that, it’s up to us what we do with them, and we can say goodbye or not now to them much easier if they have the opportunity to be heard.
To me, this democratizes a deep spirituality and makes it available to everyone, regardless of how long we practice or how much time we have. Sure, it’s nice to have more time for spiritual practice and the more we do it, the more we’ll build experience that will serve us well. But we can all start in the here and now, with what we have. That’s the essence of the beginner’s mind that Shunryu Suzuki spoke of, the ability to sink into the present without any expectations of it, including the imposed rule that we must engage perfectly in spiritual practice.
So I’m honoring Thich Nhat Hanh today by being mindful, and trying to be mindful of when I’m not mindful. But, most of all, I’m letting go of expectations for myself of perfection, of realizing that I don’t need to be that perfect person but can, instead, just be Chris, an imperfect being doing my best to live a happy, healthy lives.
And it’s truly liberating to realize how many of my self-imposed rules I can let go of, even if I don’t live in a monastery.
Last modified: 23 January 2022