Gladdening the mind

I’ve been listening to a new podcast from Plum Village, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat center in France, where I spent many summer weeks with my family over a period of about 8 years from 2008 until 2016.

The podcast is called The Way Out Is In (you can find it in Apple Podcasts, Spotify etc), and it is hosted by a journalist named Jo Confino, and Phap Huu, a young monk who spent many, many years as one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s personal attendants.

One particular episode, number 14, has had a transformative effect on me, an interview with Sister Jina, who has been a Zen Buddhist nun for over 30 years, and expresses the absolute core of how to live a peaceful, joyful, simple, happy life through extremely simple practices.

I was particularly drawn to the following ideas:

The nutriments we consume make a huge difference to our happiness and peace. This means not only being mindful of what we eat and drink, but what we read, listen to, watch, the conversations we have, and strikingly, what we think about.

If I’m turning around troublesome thoughts in my head all day, I will be troubled. If I am thinking loving, compassionate or creative thoughts, I will be happier. How do we have any say over this? By learning to watch and understand our minds at work, and when the mind is stuck on negative, difficult, recursive themes, steer it back to clearer waters. This takes practice: meditation, and small periods of mindfulness or awareness throughout the day, help develop this skill enormously – in this I am an endless beginner.

Gladdening the mind. This is related to the point above. How do we gladden the mind? Gratitude works very well. In our house we have a round of gratitude before one of the main meals each day, each person says thank you for two or three things they are grateful or thankful about.

Another is to remember and note (mentally, or on paper) something wonderful, or a beautiful moment, from each day. Early this morning I saw sparkling frost gently falling in the headlights of the car as I waited for my son to put his coat on. After dropping him off, I stood in the road looking at a crescent moon, and realised somewhere far away the sun was rising over this planet and lighting that slither of vast planetary body. Wonderful, calm moments.

Uniting body and mind. Arriving in our body, being home in our body, is very calming. But most of the time, our brain is in one place, or all over the place, and our body is a forgotten vessel for getting us around, or keeping the head still while we are lost in thought or staring at a screen. Really feeling our presence in our body, our posture, or following the presence of our breathing within our body as a whole, brings mind and body back together and the effect is very calming.

I’ve been reading about this for years, but only recently have actually started practicing it (as the books kept telling me to do!), and it’s very, very nice. I do this in pre-breakfast meditation, and I’m prompted throughout the day by an hourly beep on my watch, and a 15 minute timer on the computer (a chrome browser extension). I stop, come back to my body, relax my body – it’s a calm place to be.

Realising the present moment is the only moment we have. When we live with this realisation as an indisputable reality, a lot changes. First of all, nearly everything we worry about is never happening right now this instant. “Right now”, is usually full of reasons to be happy. Secondly, we can reconsider how to use each moment. Lost in recursive thought by the fire the other day, I remembered this – this is the only moment I have – and went to sit on the sofa to chat with my son, realising, if this is the only moment I have, I’d rather interact kindly with him than be lost in mostly useless thought.

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