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The Miracle of Mindfulness

The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh

I read this book in a single sitting before work this morning. It was an easy read. For the most part, it confirmed what I already knew about Buddhism. But the focus of this book was on “mindfulness,” hence the book’s title. The author, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a Vietnamese pacifist.

In the last book that I read, C. S. Lewis talked about his conversion from Atheism to Christianity. Along the way, in his pursuit of truth, Lewis considered Buddhism and Christianity to be the most acceptable religions. He thought that Buddhism was a credible religion but that it lacked some of the critical features offered by Christianity. Thus, Lewis chose Christianity. It is not clear to me whether Thich Nhat Hanh is also a Christian. In his book, he refers often to Jesus and the Biblical scriptures. He also seems to think that Christianity can serve as a foundation for Buddhism. If I understand correctly, Judaism or Christianity or other religions, can all act as the foundational religion for Buddhism to be built upon. This is interesting! It seems like Buddhism is a credible doctrine, according to C. S. Lewis, and that Buddhism and Christianity can be combined, according to Thich Nhat Hanh. Is it true that Buddhism and Christianity can co-exist within a single person, without conflict? I don’t know, but it might be a thought worth pursuing, a question worth answering, in the future. Right now, my gut says that there will be some irreconcilable differences between the two religions, and that consequently they cannot both be “right.”

Back to Vietnam. This book piqued my interest in Vietnam. Again, Vietnam is one of those countries that I am ignorant about. One thing that reading does for me, is it highlights all of the subjects that I’m ignorant about. To combat my ignorance, all I can do is read one book at a time - one pedal stroke, one step, one book, one breath, one day at a time. I would love to visit Vietnam! The culture and people and landscape all seem very interesting. And if this book can serve as an accurate guide, then it seems that the Vietnamese people would be open to discussions about Christianity. Which would be incredible! In this book, the author actually talks about his work with Christian organizations in America. Part of the author’s “day job” is reviewing applications for the adoption of Vietnamese children. Also part of his “day job,” is handling the donations from American Christian organizations that are sponsoring Vietnamese children. What’s super cool is that my church in San Antonio is one of those churches that financially supports families in Vietnam. Furthermore, they do regular mission trips to Vietnam! Seeing the connection between my church and Vietnam in this book definitely piques my interest in a mission trip.

This book also piqued my interest in Mozart and the piano. Which is odd. But I suppose that I’ve always been fascinated with skilled piano players. It is one of those skills that I never learned, but I would like to learn one day. Again, I’m ignorant about classical music and piano pieces. I don’t know what makes a great piece of music versus a mediocre piece. But I do know that the piano can be a powerful instrument. In “Lucifer,” the show does an excellent job of using the piano to express emotions.

One of the points in this book that I did not agree with was the author’s view on imagination. Thich’s argument is to focus on the now, to focus on reality. This means not allowing your imagination to work. Much like Buddhism teaches you to disregard emotions, it also teaches to discard your imagination. If you always focus on your present circumstances, then you eliminate imagination. And much like I think that emotions are essential, I also think that imagination is essential. Imagination is like a playground. It allows us to cultivate ideas, escape the harshness of reality, and exercise our minds. But I guess the point of mindfulness is to focus on reality. The point of imagination is to escape reality. Thus, these two contradict one another. Flexing your imagination seems like such a critical skill for being successful in today’s economy. Eliminating imagination is not an acceptable practice. I cannot fathom how a child would be raised, if he was not permitted to play and pretend.

Lastly, I should discuss the practical recommendations that Thich offers in this book. To practice mindfulness, the author spends a lot time discussing breathing. He provides exercises that get you to sit and focus only on your breaths. Count the number of times you breathe. Count the length of your breaths. Focus on the movement of your chest. To practice your breathing, he recommends a very specific sitting position. Sit with your legs crossed in the full lotus position. If you cannot achieve the full lotus, then a half lotus or knees under your butt is acceptable. In your sitting position, keep your back straight and put a half-smile on your face. He also recommends smiling every morning when you first wake up. At first, it is acceptable to practice meditation for only one hour at a time. But you should work towards the goal of being mindful all day long, every day. For example, when you are washing the dishes, your mind should be focused on the dishes. You should not be focused on the tea that you are going to be drinking afterwards. Similarly, when you are drinking tea in the evening, focus only on drinking the tea. Do not think about tomorrow’s actions. If you are always looking forward, then you will never find pleasure in the present moment. When you have mastered mindfulness, you will see unity in everything. You will recognize life and death as the same thing. You will see your body as just one part of the whole. Everything will be interconnected. In addition to mindful breathing, Thich also suggests the following exercises to practice mindfulness:

  • Take a slow-motion bath. It should last 30-45 minutes

  • Focus your attention on being a pebble. Pretend to be a pebble that is drifting through a river and eventually settles on the bottom. Be the pebble.

  • Set aside one day per week to practice mindfulness. Do nothing on this day but simple house chores. And during your chores, do them 3 times slower than usual.

  • Contemplate the question, “Who am I?”

  • Maintain a half-smile in all your actions

  • Contemplate the person that has caused you the most suffering. Examine the person’s motivations and perceptions. Try to find what makes this person happy and sad. What are the reasons for this person’s actions?

  • Examine your talents, virtues, and failures. Why did you fail? Seek to understand how the interdependence of your surroundings caused your failure.

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