The Art of Mindfulness


Imagine the power of our actions if each one contained one hundred percent of our attention.

Many large companies spend significant resources on research and development departments because they know that for their business to thrive, they must constantly improve and stay on top of the latest information. The same is true of figuring out how to create a mindful business: it takes an investment in developing insight that will guide you, protect you, and put you and your business on the right path.

Everything is related to everything else. Your well-being and the well-being of your family are essential elements in bringing about the well-being of your business or of any organization where you work. Finding ways to protect yourself and promote your own well-being is the most basic investment you can make. This will have an impact on your family and work environment, but first of all it will result in an improvement in the quality of your own life.

The foundation of your investment, the key to transforming your professional life, is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the energy of attention. It is the capacity in each of us to be present one hundred percent to what is happening within and around us. It is the miracle that allows us to become fully alive in each moment. It is the essential basis for healing and transforming ourselves and creating more harmony in our family, our work life, and our society. The fruit of mindfulness practice is the realization that peace and joy are available within us and around us, right here and right now. Mindfulness is one of the five spiritual powers, but it is also the foundation for acting in the world in a way that reflects our true power. Our family and professional lives will be poisoned if we don’t know how to create and maintain a mindful home and a mindful workplace. Many businesses intuitively understand this truth.

Political and financial power can’t fully satisfy us when we don’t have mindfulness. We need the energy of mindfulness to help us come back to ourselves and look deeply into our situation. We work in a profession, but we bring to the work our own individual difficulties, pain, and suffering. Mindfulness practice allows us to embrace and understand our suffering. This is the basis for personal transformation and healing.

So how do you do mindfulness? It is very simple and also very challenging. The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense. As a novice monk, several times a day I had to light incense to offer on the altar of the meditation hall. I was taught to pick up the stick of incense with both hands, the left hand on top of the right hand, which picks up the stick of incense. A stick of incense is very light. Why do you have to use both hands? The idea is that you have to invest one hundred percent of yourself into this simple act of picking up an incense stick. When you strike the match and light the incense, or put the tip of the incense stick into the flame of a candle, you have to be with the act of lighting one hundred percent. This is the practice of mindfulness.

When you pour tea, the act of pouring the tea into the cup can become an act of meditation if you pour with mindfulness. Don’t think about the past. Don’t think about the future. Don’t think about what you’re going to do the next day. Focus entirely on the act of pouring the tea. Invest yourself entirely in the here and now.

Everyone knows how to pour tea, everyone knows how to drink tea, but not everyone pours tea mindfully and drinks tea mindfully. This is because we have a tendency to run away from the here and now—we are driven by our habit energy. Our habit energy is strong, so we need to practice to transform it. The more we free ourselves of our habit energy, the more we will be capable of living fully every moment of our daily life.

In our work, we may be responsible for many people, a few people, or just ourselves. It’s good to be responsible. We may also have the desire to be successful. But because we lack mindfulness, we allow ourselves to be carried away by our desire for success. It becomes a habit. It pushes us all the time. We’re no longer capable of drinking our tea in the here and now. Even when the tea is in our mouth, we aren’t conscious of it. We’re drinking our projects, we’re drinking our problems.

According to the Buddha, life is available only in the here and now, the present moment. He said, “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment.” If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life. It’s so clear. Mindfulness is the energy and practice that helps you go back to the here and now so that you encounter life. It is a practice that requires time and support. Without training and without the support of a community of fellow practitioners, you won’t be able to do it. There may be people you work with who are willing to become your copractitioners.

You may have a beautiful house and yard that are perfectly taken care of. There are many flowers in your yard. You know these beautiful flowers are there, but you are never able to enjoy them. When people look at your yard, they may envy you very much. They would like to have a yard like yours where they could walk and enjoy the grass, the flowers, and the trees. But you don’t have time to enjoy it because you are obsessed with finding answers to questions, solving problems, overcoming difficulties, and being number one at work.

From time to time, you have a flash of insight: “I have a beautiful yard and I must make time to enjoy it.” So you decide to go into the yard. You take a few steps and look at the flowers, the trees, and the grass. You have good intentions. But after four or five steps, you give up, because your preoccupation with your work is too strong. It’s like a dictator. It prevents you from being present to enjoy the wonders of life that are available in the here and now.

When I was a sixteen-year-old novice monk, my teacher taught me to open the door and close the door with one hundred percent of myself. One day, my teacher asked me to get something for him. Because I loved him very much, I was eager to do it, so I rushed to do this task and closed the door quickly.

My teacher called me back: “Novice, come back here.” I went back to him. I joined my palms and looked at him. He said, “Novice, this time go out mindfully and close the door behind you mindfully.” That was the first lesson he gave me on the practice of mindfulness. At that moment, I began to walk mindfully and became aware of every step I took. I touched the doorknob mindfully. I opened the door mindfully. I went out and closed the door behind me mindfully. My teacher didn’t have to teach me a second time how to close the door.

When you hold the hand of a child, invest one hundred percent of yourself in the act of holding her hand. When you hug your partner, do the same. Forget everything else. Be totally present, totally alive in the act of hugging. This is the opposite of the way we’ve been trained to lead our lives and run our businesses. We’ve been taught to do many things at once. We answer an e-mail while we talk on the phone; while in a meeting for one project, we work on our notes for another project. Every new technology promises to help us do more things at once. Now we can send e-mail while listening to music, talking on the phone, and taking a picture, all with the same device. With your energy that dispersed, where is your power?

Instead of always multitasking, we must teach ourselves to unitask. Mindfulness needs some training. We may be very intelligent. We may understand this right away. But that doesn’t mean we can do it. To do it, we have to practice and train ourselves.

First, we use our practice of mindfulness to focus on ourselves. Once we have done this, then, with mindfulness, we look at our family. Our family, however we may identify it, is our home. We can’t go straight to looking at our work life without first looking at our home base. There may be suffering, fear, or anxiety in our family. Mindfulness helps us recognize this suffering, and embrace and transform it. You can say to your loved ones, “I’m here for you. Let’s embrace the pain together and transform it.” Mindfulness is the capacity of being there, fully present. When you love someone, the most precious gift you can give your loved one is your true presence. You can’t buy the ability to bring joy and transform suffering.

Then mindfulness will help us understand the situation at our workplace. We may be entrepreneurs—executives responsible for hundreds of people—or we may be employees, working alone or in a team. With mindfulness, we can look deeply and recognize the strengths as well as the difficulties and suffering in our organizations. When we look at our workplaces, we recognize the fears, the pain of our co-workers or employees, and we say, “I am here for you, I know you are suffering. Together we can embrace this suffering and transform it. We will do whatever we can to remove this suffering.” It’s the same practice we have done with ourselves and our family. With the energy of mindfulness and the capacity of looking deeply, we will find the insights to transform and heal the situation.

Mindfulness is the capacity to be present with one hundred percent of ourselves. The energy of mindfulness enables us to recognize the presence of what is. What is there is yourself, what is there is your loved ones. If you aren’t capable of being in the here and now, you won’t be able to recognize yourself, your happiness, or your suffering. Without your full presence, you won’t be able to recognize others, and they will feel unseen, misunderstood, and unloved. They will begin to suffer, and that suffering in turn will make you suffer more. Without mindfulness, we can’t help ourselves or our loved ones or succeed in our workplace. Without mindfulness, any power we have will be fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying.

Mindfulness is concrete. It can happen in a single breath. As you breathe in, keep your awareness with your breath. It may help to silently say “in” as you breathe in. And when you breathe out, silently say “out.” With this simple act, your mind comes back to your body and you are truly present. It can happen in a footstep. You invest one hundred percent of your attention into taking a step. Allow your breathing to be natural, don’t force it or try to change it. Be aware of how many steps you take with your in-breath, and how many you take with your out-breath. If you’re practicing inside at home, you can walk very slowly, taking one step for each in-breath and one for each out-breath. If you’re at work or outside, you may want to take two, three, or four steps for each in-breath and each out-breath. It may help to say “in, out” silently as you walk. For example, if you take three steps when you breathe in and four steps when you breathe out, you can say, “In, in, in. Out, out, out, out.” Keep your mind completely with your steps and your breath. This practice is very easy and profoundly effective. With mindful breathing and mindful walking, you can go back to yourself and be really present and alive.

To understand mindfulness, we need to understand it on a physical level. We can learn how to go home to our bodies. We can start simply by recognizing that our bodies are there and embracing them tenderly with the energy of mindfulness. You generate mindfulness through the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking. “My dear body, I know you are there, and I will take good care of you.” Your body becomes the object of your love.

If you don’t know how to take care of your body, how to release the tension in your body and give it permission to rest, you don’t love your body. We all know that our bodies have the capacity of self-healing. When we cut our finger, we know that we don’t have to do anything besides clean it; our body will take care of the rest. We panic when we forget that our bodies have the power of self-healing. If we simply allow our bodies to rest, our bodies can heal themselves without a lot of medicine.

When an animal in the forest gets seriously wounded, it knows exactly what to do. It looks for a secluded spot and just lies down for several days, not concerned with eating. It has wisdom. Only when the wound has healed does the animal return to foraging or hunting for food. We once had this kind of wisdom, but now we have lost our capacity to rest. We panic every time we experience something uncomfortable in our body. We rush to the doctor to get a prescription for all kinds of medicine because we don’t realize that just allowing our body to rest is often the best method of healing.

There are people who complain they don’t have time for a vacation. The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest, but even when people go on vacation they don’t know how to rest. They may do lots of things and come back even more tired than before. We have to learn the art of deep relaxation. You lie down and pay attention to and relax the different parts of your body, beginning with your head and going all the way down to the soles of your feet. “Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. Breathing out, I release tensions in my body.” “Breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.” You continue like this with each part of your body. You scan your body, not with an X-ray but with the ray of mindfulness. When you come to an organ or a part of your body that is ailing, you can stay with it longer, using the energy of mindfulness to embrace it and smile to it. This will speed the healing. You can practice this every day, alone or with your family. When you are used to it, you can lead a total relaxation session for yourself, your partner, your family. You can also encourage others in your family to lead total relaxation for the whole family. Children are very capable of guiding others in this practice. When you are able to embrace your body, release accumulated tension, and help your body heal, you will be able to go home to your feelings and emotions.

Each of us experiences pleasant feelings and painful feelings. One of the core practices of mindfulness is to take care of our painful emotions. Many of us run away from ourselves, from our pain. Usually when we have pain, we don’t want to face it because we don’t know how to take care of it. We also think that if we are powerful, we shouldn’t feel pain. So we try to cover it up with other things. Rather than changing the peg and helping positive seeds arise from our store consciousness, we try to escape our feelings through unmindful consumption. We turn on the television, pick up a book, or talk on the phone. We try to do something to ignore the pain, fear, sorrow, or despair we feel. But while consuming things that help us temporarily forget our pain, we bring more elements of distress into our bodies and minds. We bring in the elements of craving, fear, and worries. This makes the situation worse every day.

Instead, we can go home to ourselves. We can use the energy of mindfulness to recognize the pain inside and hold it tenderly, like a mother holding her baby. Mindfulness is the mother. Your pain, your sorrow, your despair, is your baby. There is no fighting. The energy of mindfulness does the work of recognizing, embracing, and bringing relief. When a mother hears her baby crying, she puts aside what she’s doing, goes immediately to pick up her baby, and holds the baby tenderly. She may not know what is wrong with the baby at first, but the fact that she’s holding him tenderly like this already brings relief to the baby. You may not know what is causing your pain, your despair, your depression, your fear, but if you know how to hold that pain with the energy of mindfulness, you immediately get relief, because the energy of mindfulness begins to penetrate the energy of pain, of sorrow.

Imagine a flower in the morning. The flower is not yet open. The sunshine embraces the flower, and the energy of the sunshine begins to penetrate the flower. The sun doesn’t just go around the flower. The light naturally penetrates the flower, and an hour later the flower has to open itself to the sun. The sun is our mindfulness, embracing the flower of our feelings.

If we allow our anger, fear, and despair to be alone and unsupervised in us, they will be destructive. If we generate mindfulness, it will recognize and embrace these painful feelings. The practices of mindful breathing and mindful walking not only nourish and refresh us, but they also help us recognize and embrace the pain in us. Instead of using our energy, our power, to suppress our pain, we help our body become more integrated. By embracing our suffering, we are much stronger.

If our loved ones sit or walk with us, we become even stronger because the other person lends us their energy of mindfulness. We can say, “Darling, please come and do mindful walking with me. I need your presence.” Then she will come and walk with you. Together, we combine our mindful energies, and there is plenty to embrace our suffering.

If we have several friends sitting with us, the positive, collective energy of mindfulness will be even stronger. It will be much easier for us to allow our pain, sorrow, and despair to be embraced by the collective energy. That is why it is so pleasant and helpful to practice in a community where everyone knows how to do the same thing. The energy is powerful. If you allow yourself to be embraced by that collective energy, you feel much better and healing happens quickly.

The energy of mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. When you breathe in and you know that you are breathing in, this is mindfulness of breathing. When you drink your coffee or tea and you know that you are drinking coffee or tea, this is mindfulness of drinking. When you walk and you know you are walking, and you enjoy every step you take, this is mindfulness of walking. So these kinds of practices generate the energy of mindfulness, helping you be fully alive, fully present to touch the wonders of life for your nourishment and healing.

The Art of Mindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh

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