Imagine you're standing with a group of people, contemplating a beautiful sunrise. Whereas others drink in the view, you struggle.
You're preoccupied with your projects and worries. You think about the future and the past. You're not really present to appreciate the experience. So rather than enjoy the sunrise, you let the richness of the moment slip by.
Suppose, instead, you took a different approach to the moment. What if, as your mind wanders, you direct your focus to your in-breath and out-breath? As you practice breathing deeply, you bring yourself to the present, freeing yourself from thoughts of the past and future. Your body and mind come together as one, allowing you to be fully available to witness, contemplate, and take in the scenery. By "going home" to your breath, you regain the wonder of the moment.
Awareness of the breath is the essence of mindfulness -- a source of happiness and joy, according to the Buddha, and a way to appreciate life. For instance, imagine that an old friend has come from a long way to visit you. You welcome him or her in and offer tea. With mindfulness, you can focus your attention on the moment -- on just you and your friend -- rather than thinking of other things. Engaged in the act of sharing tea, you taste the joy very deeply. You establish yourself in the here-and-now to completely live in the moment.
The practice of mindfulness (referred to as smrti in Buddhism) leads to concentration (samadhi), which in turn leads to insight (prajna). The insight you gain from meditation can liberate you from fear, anxiety, and anger -- allowing you to be truly happy. It all starts with being mindful. You can practice mindfulness using something as simple as a flower. When I hold a flower in my hand, I'm aware and mindful of it. By observing my in-breath and out-breath, I concentrate on it, rather than becoming overwhelmed by other thoughts, whether pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or mixed. By sustaining my enjoyment of the flower's beauty, concentration itself becomes a source of joy. This is why the Buddha proposed the practice: to bring us the feeling of joy.
If you want to fully enjoy life's gifts, practice mindfulness at every turn. Brushing your teeth, cooking your breakfast -- every step, every breath should be an opportunity to bring joy and happiness. Life is full of suffering. If we don't have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair. With mindfulness, we can preserve a certain amount of inner joy, so that we can better handle the challenges in our lives. We then create a foundation of freedom, peace, and love within ourselves.
When Pain Crowds Out Joy
If you're experiencing a difficult time in life, you'll need to bolster your feelings of happiness before you can work on your challenges. It might seem as if the reverse were true. But by nourishing yourself with happiness first, you lay the groundwork to address your pain. The following meditation can help.
Sit still in a quiet spot and bring your awareness to your breath. Use the first of the two meditations that follow to create a sense of inner joy. The second meditation will then give you the courage to address your feelings of pain.
1. Breathing in, I am aware of the feeling of joy in myself.
-Breathing out, I smile to the feeling of joy that is in myself.
-Breathing in, I am aware of the feeling of happiness in myself.
-Breathing out, I smile to the feeling of happiness that is in myself.
2. Breathing in, I am aware of the painful feeling in me.
-Breathing out, I release the tension within that painful feeling in me.
Text by Thich Nhat Hanh; photograph by Ngoc Minh Ng