Four Simple but Powerful Practices to Cultivate Peace and Love in the Body
Four Simple but Powerful Practices to Cultivate Peace and Love in the Body
by Sister Dang Nghiem
What is Buddhism?
Not long ago a young man came to visit Blue Cliff Monastery on a lazy day. I had just come back from a long walk, and he said to me, “Would you help me get acquainted with the monastery?” I was willing to walk him around, and we had just taken a few steps when he asked, “What is Buddhism? I want to know more about Buddhism.”
I started to describe walking meditation. I shared how I just went walking on a loop and how I could enjoy it because I was aware of my breathing, of my steps, of being nourished by the awareness of my body and also by the awareness of nature.
As I was talking to him, he interrupted me a few times with questions about other topics. I answered him, and then I came back to the practice of walking meditation. At one point, he became evidently impatient. He said, “Can we skip all of that? I just want to know about Buddhism!”
I replied, “This is Buddhism! When you walk and you have the awareness that you are walking, it is Buddhism. When you sit and you have the awareness that you are sitting, it is Buddhism. When you are lying down and you have the awareness of your body and what is arising in your mind in that moment, then that is Buddhism. Buddhism is in every act of our daily life, in every movement of our body and of our mind. In practicing mindfulness, we learn to be aware of that.”
He was taken back for a moment, and then he tried to ask a few more theoretical questions. Gently, I said to him, “Perhaps you are not ready to receive what we have to offer you—maybe another time?” He left right after that.
In the time of the Buddha, many people came to him to ask questions. When questions were theoretical or philosophical, the Buddha chose to remain silent.
As teachers, we do not simply transmit knowledge—people can go online to take a course. As teachers, we are practitioners, and we transmit the Dharma to others from our direct experience with the practice. We each offer our whole being—the way we move, the way we stand, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we listen, and the way we are living our lives. All of our actions and our knowledge is rooted in practice. So, when the young man asked me, “Can we skip all of that [practice]?” I felt that I had nothing else to offer him.
Four Establishments of Mindfulness
The Buddha taught the Four Establishments of Mindfulness as the foundation of our practice of awakening and enlightenment: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the feelings, mindfulness of the mind, and mindfulness of the objects of mind. The first establishment—mindfulness of the body—if practiced diligently, encompasses the second, third, and fourth establishments of mindfulness. All four establishments of mindfulness inter-are; that is, each is constantly reflecting and strengthening the others.
In medical school, I learned from inside out the anatomy and physiology of the respiratory system. I learned all about the breathing patterns. Yet I never applied that knowledge to my own life. Only when I became a nun did I learn to be aware of my own in-breaths and out-breaths, recognizing that I was still alive and breathing. Only as a practitioner of mindfulness did I stand in awe of the fact that I have a body.
By being aware of my breath and my body, I experience deep peace and acceptance within myself. Through my practice, I am able to help other people come back to themselves and to cherish this one beautiful life that they have right now.
I Am Breathing
To practice with mindfulness, we begin with awareness of the breath, as covered in the first two exercises of the 16 exercises in the “Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing”:
“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
“Breathing in, I follow my in-breath all the way through. Breathing out, I follow my out-breath all the way through.”
We apply the same energy of mindfulness used to recognize the in-breaths and out-breaths in order to identify the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that are arising at any moment. When there is anxiety, we also simply recognize that it is anxiety; we recognize jealousy or worry or pleasure or joy in the same way. This is the practice of simple recognition. We identify and acknowledge our feelings as they come and go, without either pushing them away or grasping and attaching to them.
Often we are not aware of our feelings and thoughts. The practice of noticing the in-breaths and out-breaths trains the mind to dwell in the present moment and to be aware of what is. So, when a feeling or perception arises, we can also be aware of it just as it is. We can practice at any time—while we are working, whether sitting at the computer or serving others, or as we go about the daily tasks of our lives.
Many practitioners create intentional mindfulness reminders. You may install a program on your computer that sounds a bell every 15 minutes. You may stop and breathe two or three times when you hear a phone ringing or take a moment to enjoy your breath at stoplights. In class or in meetings, instead of doodling or thinking of counter-arguments, you may choose to remain anchored in you breathing.
As you begin the practice, there are some additional cues that can be helpful. For instance, when you breathe in, you can gently move your hand upward to signal it as an in-breath, and then as you breathe out, you gently relax your hand on your lap. As you breathe, you can smile softly to parts of your body that are tense or in discomfort. If you become engrossed in the talking of your thoughts, you may forget about your breathing; when you remember, simply start following the breath all over again. Again and again, you patiently train your mind to dwell in your breath and in your body. Again and again, you come back to yourself, to your life.
You will discover something happens to the quality of your presence and of your listening. The light of mindfulness on the breathing enables the mind to be much more aware, present, and attentive to everything else that is going on in the present moment. This can save us a lot of time and effort by preventing us from having to re-do or re-learn things. Mindfulness also helps us to be truly present for ourselves and our beloved.
I Have a Body
As we cultivate awareness of our breathing, we eventually move to awareness of the rest of the body, which is covered in the third and fourth exercises in the “Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing”:
“Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body”
or, as I have often practiced,
“Breathing in, I am aware that I have a body. Breathing out, I am aware that I have a body,”
“Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.”
These statements are poignant and alarming at the same time. Some days, you may go through a whole day without paying attention to the simple and awesome fact that you have a body!
You may use and abuse your body until it becomes sick and debilitated. As a result, you will likely get angry, frustrated, or scared, wishing that you could have a healthy body again. Cultivating an awareness of your own body can bring a lot of discovery, gratitude, and tenderness to your own life as it is in every moment.
There are different aspects to the awareness of the body. First of all, the breath belongs to the realm of the body. There is also the awareness of the four basic positions of the body, which include standing, walking, sitting, and lying down. When you sit down, you can mentally notice that you are sitting down, “Sitting down, I am aware that I am sitting down” or “I am aware of the transition from standing to sitting down.” You simply become aware of how your body is shifting from position to position.
In our modern time, we all have a touch of splitting—separation within our awareness—as our minds wander in a thousand directions, often away from our bodies. “Come back. Come back,” you can gently call your mind to return to your breath and your body. “I am here. I am here.”
Mindfulness Can Heal
We have learned that an emotion hormone has the half-life of only about 69 seconds. Why are we not angry for just 69 seconds, but rather a whole day or many years or our whole life? What makes anger last so long? Our thoughts continue to feed the anger. We find ways of repeating something someone once said to us thousands more times to ourselves. Someone hurt us, and we then hurt ourselves year after year by replaying and rehearsing those images, sounds, touches, and thoughts. As we replay them, more hormones are secreted, causing physiological stress response in our body. The replayed memories and the stress responses that follow them are then encoded in the short-term and long-term memory.
The store of our consciousness—where we keep our past experiences—is like an immense ocean. We are aware of our consciousness through only a few occasional waves. When we are busy working or preoccupied with external objects, the mind continues to operate at deeper levels. Without the mindfulness practice, we are usually unaware of what is going on underneath the surface of the sea. Unbeknownst to us, certain feelings and perceptions will eventually arise as waves, and they trigger us to say or to do certain things that are surprising even to us. Something that may look, sound, smell, taste, or feel similar to what we have experienced will trigger a deep neural pathway to that memory immediately.
Sometimes, but not always, these deeply ingrained memories and habit energies become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). War veterans with PTSD may see a child or hear a loud sound, and, immediately, their minds will associate the new experience with the battlefield. Many of us undergo smaller scale versions of the physiology that underlies PTSD every day without being aware of it.
On the one hand, the past is gone, and, on the other hand, the past is right here in the present moment through our association with external and internal stimuli. We can, therefore, learn to heal the past by learning the ways to experience the present moment more calmly and peacefully. “Breathing in, I am aware of the strong emotion arising in me. Breathing out, I smile and relax it.” “I am here for you, my dear.” This is literally laying down a new neural pathway that can be called the “peace response”—an antidote to the habitual “stress response.”
Mindfulness of our breath and of our body will enable us to detect the waves of thoughts and emotions sooner and more effectively. By being able to take care of the present moment, we can actually transform our relationship with the past and help ourselves to be present for the people around us.
Practicing with these four simple but profound exercises, we can help create a more peaceful, hopeful world, not just for ourselves, but also for so many others. §
Sister Dang Nghiem was born in Vietnam in 1968 and raised by her grandmother. She came to the United States in 1985, earned two college degrees, graduated from medical school, and began working as a doctor. She was ordained as a nun by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2000. She has published two books with Parallax Press, Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun and Mindfulness As Medicine: A Story of Healing Body and Spirit.