Over the past two weeks as most of us in the US have necessarily entered into various forms of shelter in place or stay at home conditions, life has become more simple, more immediate, and in many ways more intensely intimate.
I’ve heard heart-warming stories from clients about closer connections with spouses and children, more time for healthy eating, and creative ways to manage co-existing in close quarters with children and spouses who are now home all day. Challenging!
Human nature — being what it is — constantly looks to what is outside to satisfy, to comfort, to distract, and to soothe.
In an era of excess, with abundant opportunities, a dizzying selection of distractions, and more stuff than we know what to do with, finding ourselves in this simpler, slower, scaled down existence is a wonderful opportunity to come back to ourselves, and the present moment.
For most of the 1990s, I was a devoted student of Vietnamese Zen Master, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. As many of you know, Thich Nhat Hanh is most well-known for coining the term “Engaged Buddhism” and embodying its practice, as well as bringing mindfulness and meditation out of the monastery and into mainstream American culture.
I remember being on a retreat with him in 1999 in Key West, Florida, where many of his long-time students were deeply troubled, even angry, at what they saw as a denigration of a sacred practice for the purpose of bringing it to the masses. But Thȃy (Vietnamese for “teacher”) was right.
The ubiquitous presence of mindfulness in American culture today is largely due to his vision and his influence.
During the Vietnam War and before he was exiled from Vietnam, he began holding what he called Days of Mindfulness to allow the monks, nuns, and lay people to take one day out of each week to rest and restore themselves from the trauma of the war. Days of mindfulness were intended to be spent largely in silence, having a silent meal together, meditating, and refraining from working — a kind of Buddhist Sabbath.
I spent months over several years in Thȃy’s monastic community in southern France (Plum Village) and in retreats and days of mindfulness throughout the US. What I experienced, learned, and practiced remains with me today.
A few days ago as I was preparing my new office to welcome clients once it is safe again to meet in close quarters, I found a small meditation bell that I have always kept in my office. As is (too) often the case, I was in a hurry preparing to start a virtual session — not very mindful!
When I saw the bell, I immediately knew what to do. Even though there wasn’t much time, I was stressed, and I could have told myself I had “better things to do,” I decided to stop.
In Thȃy’s tradition, one doesn’t ring the bell. Bells are “invited.” So I “invited” the bell three times, took three conscious inhalations and exhalations, and recited a short verse I had learned 30 years ago:
Listen, listen this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.
In an instant, I was transported back to the experience of sitting in silence in the company of hundreds of other people practicing the simple art of mindfulness. The sound of the bell, and this short verse, completely calmed me and my whole nervous system.
We are now in a particular season that invites us to wake up to our true self — to return to the authentic truth of who we are, and to find pockets of time where we don’t focus on the virus, or death, or fears and worries about the future.
What are the practices that nourish you and bring you back to your true self? I invite you to discover them, and put them into practice.
If you’d like to experiment with the simple practice of the bell, set a timer for once an hour on your watch or a device, or use a clock that chimes on the hour. When the timer goes off, or the clock strikes the next hour, stop, breathe in and out three times and say silently to yourself, “Listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”
May all beings be safe, peaceful, and free.
Life can only be found in the present moment
—Thich Nhat Hanh
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2020)