I bought Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step so long ago that I can’t remember when I actually got it, but it must have been quite awhile ago because the pages are starting to turn yellow. If it’s that long ago, it must have been while I was still teaching, which would explain why I didn’t read it when I bought it. Too bad I didn’t, though, because it might have made my life more bearable then.
Thich Nhat Hanh probably doesn’t say anything I haven’t read before, but he says it so clearly and so concisely that the book makes a greater impression than I would ever have guessed from looking at its rather humble cover.
In fact the book begins with a chapter that perfectly describes most of my life:
We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.
This small book is offered as a bell of mindfulness, a reminder that happiness is possible only in the present moment. Of course, planning for the future is a part of life. But even planning can only take place in the present moment. This book is an invitation to come back to the present moment and find peace and joy. I offer some of my experiences and a number of techniques that may be of help. But please do not wait until finishing this book to find peace. Peace and happiness are available in every moment. Peace is every step. We shall walk hand in hand.
Most of my life has been devoted to preparing for the future, except for those moments in the summer when I was too exhausted to do much more than rest before preparing for the upcoming school year. I suspect I treasure my moments backpacking because they were one of the few times when there was nothing to do but enjoy the moment and the company of family, when I actually managed to do what Hanh is advocating here.
The first third of the book is devoted to showing ways that we can be happy by being mindful. Leslie was particularly fond of this quotation that I underlined in the first few pages:
If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily lives we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. If we really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile? Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.
How can you remember to smile when you wake up? You might hang a reminder-such as a branch, a leaf, a painting, or some inspiring words-in your window or from the ceiling above your bed, so that you notice it when you wake up. Once you develop the practice of smiling, you may not need a reminder. You will smile as soon as you hear a bird singing or see the sunlight streaming through the window. Smiling helps you approach the day with gentleness and understanding.
When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness. This half-smile, how many artists have labored to bring it to the lips of countless statues and paintings? I am sure the same smile must have been on the faces of the sculptors and painters as they worked. Can you imagine an angry painter giving birth to such a smile? Mona Lisa’s smile is light, just a hint of a smile. Yet even a smile like that is enough to relax all the muscles in our face, to banish all worries and fatigue. A tiny bud of a smile on our lips nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously. It returns to us the peace we thought we had lost.
Our smile will bring happiness to us and to those around us. Even if we spend a lot of money on gifts for everyone in our family, nothing we buy could give them as much happiness as the gift of our awareness, our smile. And this precious gift costs nothing.
Now, I’m not known for my smile, though I was generally pretty happy, even when I was teaching. I was a firm believer that school should be fun, but, of course, I thought thinking, reading, and writing were fun (would I be doing this otherwise?). I like to think that I spend most of my life with half-a-smile. I know that I do now that I’m retired and don’t have to discipline anyone.
I’d like to summarize all of Hahn’s ideas in today and tomorrow’s entries, but it’s not going to happen. He says way too much, and the ideas are generally presented in short, blog-like entries that make it difficult to summarize the book
Instead, I’ll quote a “chapter” that I found particularly enlightening, partially because the ideas in it are so appealing, but, perhaps more importantly, to show how the book is written:
In the West, we are very goal oriented. We know where we want to go, and we are very directed in getting there. This may be useful, but often we forget to enjoy ourselves along the route.
There is a word in Buddhism that means “wishlessness” or “aimlessness.” The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself. While we practice walking meditation, we do not try to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps. If we keep thinking of the future, of what we want to realize, we will lose our steps. The same is true with sitting meditation. We sit just to enjoy our sitting; we do not sit in order to attain any goal. This is quite important. Each moment of sitting meditation brings us back to life, and we should sit in a way that we enjoy our sitting for the entire time we do it. Whether we are eating a tangerine, drinking a cup of tea, or walking in meditation, we should do it in a way that is “aimless.”
Often we tell ourselves, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But when we practice awareness, we discover something unusual. We discover that the opposite may be more helpful: “Don’t just do something, sit there! ” We must learn to stop from time to time in order to see clearly. At first, “stopping” may look like a kind of resistance to modern life, but it is not. It is not just a reaction; it is a way of life. Humankind’s survival depends on our ability to stop rushing. We have more than 50,000 nuclear bombs, and yet we cannot stop making more. “Stopping” is not only to stop the negative, but to allow positive healing to take place. That is the purpose of our practice-not to avoid life, but to experience and demonstrate that happiness in life is possible now and also in the future.
The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. When we practice mindfulness, we come to cherish these things and we learn how to protect them. By taking good care of the present moment, we take good care of the future. Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.
This is the kind of book that even the busiest person should be able to find time to read. Heck, I left it in the bathroom for several weeks like I used to do with Reader’s Digest magazines. (I loved the jokes before the magazine became so conservative that I couldn’t bring myself to even look at it anymore.)
Of course, since I’ve retired I’ve also discovered the wisdom in this passage. Much of time is devoted to precisely this kind of “aimlessness” and I’m happier than I’ve ever been, though I occasionally feel guilty when I realize how little I’ve gotten done in a particular day, week, or month.
I suspect this is precisely the reason that a recent study found that retired people were the happiest people in society.