If you could attend a workshop with Gandhi, the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King, Jr., you’d sign up just as fast as you could, wouldn’t you? I felt just as excited when I heard that Thich Nhat Hanh — a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, master meditation teacher and renowned advocate for peace — was offering a day of mindfulness near my home. The day-long program was put on by the Omega Institute at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, meaning all this Brooklynite mom had to do was arrange for childcare and get on the subway. Done.
The power of meditation in numbers
We began the day by meditating for 20 minutes, led by a nun from the Blue Cliff monastery, which Hanh founded in the Catskill region of New York. It felt a little odd to be meditating in the same spot where I once saw the Allman Brothers in concert. But I was quickly reminded how powerful it is to meditate in the company of others — how the energy of so many people focusing at once makes the act feel almost effortless and yet more profound. After the first 18 months of motherhood, where nearly all my practices have taken place in the middle of my living room with only the company of a baby sleeping in the next room, it felt incredibly supportive.
Once we’d all fully arrived in the moment, Hanh came out and gave a dharma talk. He discussed his meetings with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the late 60s, when he encouraged King to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. He said that King spoke about something he called the “beloved community,” which Buddhists refer to as sangha. Hanh explained that when we join up with others who share our commitment to an ideal — whether it’s meditating, developing compassion or working for world peace — we strengthen our efforts and give ourselves the support every single person (even people who seem to have all the fortitude they could ever need, such as King) needs to be their best.
Mindful eating looks surprisingly familiar
Then it was time for lunch, which Hanh explained was the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness, even in the midst of a busy day. After giving thanks to the universe and every living thing that contributed to the food we were currently holding in our hands, we simply ate lunch together, all 2,000 of us. Hanh and his monks and nuns ate their lunch on stage while we ate in our seats. I am happy to report that mindful eating, even when performed by professionals, looks a lot like normal eating. Just a person sitting, chewing and swallowing — it doesn’t call for doing anything out of the ordinary, such as closing your eyes, chanting or smelling each bite.
Walking meditation is a way of being peace
After lunch, Hanh gave us some instruction on how to walk mindfully: Inhale for two steps while repeating, “I have arrived.” Exhale for three steps while repeating, “I am home.” He explained that we are always home when we are in the present moment. As long as we are aware that we are living life now, we are always where we need to be. “People think it’s a miracle to walk on air or on water,” he said, “but the real miracle is to walk on the earth.”
Armed with those insights, we all poured out of the building for a walking meditation around the block as New Yorkers gawked at our procession. (I overheard one guy shouting into his cell phone, “I just saw the Dalai Lama!”)
Moving slowly on the streets of Manhattan was a new experience for me. At first, I kept stepping on the heels of the poor woman in front of me. But by the time we’d rounded the first corner, the energy of the group had calmed down. It seemed like even the crowds watching us and the horns of cars racing by got quiet, too.
As we walked, we wore yellow ribbons to symbolize our compassion and support for the monks of the Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam, which was founded by followers of Hanh who are being persecuted by angry, violent mobs that are unchecked by the government (learn more at helpbatnha.org).
Before we began, Hanh told us that when we walk in mindfulness — our focus firmly rooted in the present — we create peace with every step. If we could have the effect that we did on Manhattan traffic by simply walking around the block, I firmly believe that we could also influence the peace process throughout the world if we got enough people to walk in mindfulness regularly.
Deep relaxation really (really) relaxes you
The day ended with a deep relaxation led by another Blue Cliff nun. She talked us through scanning the body for tension and releasing it with every exhale. I promptly sank into a deep sleep (which was quite something considering the fact that I can never sleep sitting up and thus avoid red eye flights at all costs). I woke up feeling refreshed — a sensation that was only minorly dented when my seatmate told me I had been snoring (mindfully, of course).
You are always home — no matter where you are
Since the event, whenever my thoughts start spiraling to stressful topics, I tell myself, “I have arrived, I am home.” It’s such a comforting thought, particularly if you get judgmental or upset when you realize you’ve gotten pulled down into a wormhole by your thoughts. Whether you’re sitting on the meditation cushion, tossing in bed or daydreaming at your desk, tell yourself, “I have arrived, I am home.” May we all find our beloved community that reminds us we are always at home, no matter where we are.
To find a real-world community of people who are dedicated to living mindfully, click here.
For more information about Thich Nhat Hanh’s fall 2009 Teaching Tour, click here.