A month or so ago when I came upon a book at the public library called Mindfulness in the Garden: Zen Tools for Digging in the Dirt I thought it would be something I’d like very much. And it is. But, the book turned out to be nothing except meditations to do in the garden. They are lovely, for instance:
Looking deeply at the tree,
I feel its presence.
In its stillness,
I find my true being.
you mirror my heart.
With each beat,
a flower blooms.
Each meditation has a short explanation following, telling how you are supposed to do the meditation, when you are supposed to breathe and whether it should be an inhale or an exhale, that kind of thing. And reading this I realized I knew pretty much nothing about zen meditation. Sure I’ve meditated before but nothing so directed or specific. So, as things happen, one book took me to another and I borrowed The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh from the library.
Oh what a lovely book this is. Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese and now lives in France. He is a Zen master and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. He is not the sort of spiritual leader who advocates withdrawal from the world to seek enlightenment by sitting under a bodhi tree like the Buddha. He is a peace activist and believes in being engaged in the world. And it turns out the thing about meditation is, it can be practiced any time, and any where for an hour or more or for five minutes. It can be done while in the garden or washing dishes or waiting for the bus or waiting in line at the grocery store.
Of course, Nhat Hanh advocates a practice of regular, long, quiet sessions the short ones worked in throughout the day. The Miracle of Mindfulness was originally written as letters to Brother Quang at the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam in 1974. The style is friendly and matter of fact, easy to read, hard to put into practice. The essence of Zen meditation is breathing. The amazing thing is something as simple as paying attention to your breathing is really hard to do! The mind wanders and before you know it you are writing your grocery list in your head or thinking about what book you are going to read when you are done meditating.
The subtitle says manual and it really is, explaining how to breathe, how to sit, how long one should sit, how often, what to do when you realize your mind has wandered away, and why anyone might want to try meditating to begin with. There are also a number of guided meditations for walking, washing the dishes, even cleaning the bathroom. And of course there are meditations for relaxation.
It is a short book that will take a couple hours to read and a lifetime to master should you choose to pursue that goal. It helped me make sense of the meditations in the garden book. And while I haven’t been diligent at practicing meditation every day, the time I have given to it has felt good. It really does help one pay attention, be more mindful. And in these days of multitasking, being always connected and perpetually in a hurry, it is amazing how paying attention to your breath for five minutes brings focus and clarity and relieves stress. It’s the best kind of self-help.