We moved when I was in fifth grade, and I started to study French in my new school. After three years at this grammar school, I wanted to continue to learn French in high school. I was upset when I was assigned to a beginning French class, as I had already learned some French. But over time I realized how helpful it was to learn the basics again as if the language was entirely new to me. Because I had dropped into a school midstream where some of the kids had been learning French since first grade, I had missed many things. Reviewing the fundamentals again provided a firm rooting from which to understand and practice the language. Forty years later, I still enjoy French (and would benefit from another basic course as a refresher).
The notion of going back to the basics has been helpful in my meditation practice as well. My practice has progressed over the years—it has deepened, widened, and I have learned new techniques. Yet being reminded of the core practices has also been extremely helpful. Some people take an introductory meditation class several times, which may be a good idea. Each time I hear a basic practice presented again, I get to hear how someone else approaches it and usually learn something new and deepen my own practice.
This Thursday, we will focus on mindfulness of our bodies, which is the first of the so-called four ways of establishing mindfulness or Four Establishments of Mindfulness. When we come back to our breathing and feel and follow our breath, we are coming back to our bodies. We are grounding ourselves in our physical being and reminding ourselves we have a body and are not simply a stream of thoughts and emotions. Sitting and being aware of our body, sending gratitude to our body, scanning our body for tension or warmth, and other practices are all wonderful ways not only to ground ourselves, but to come to see that our body and mind are inseparably interdependent. What happens to one happens to both, and cultivating health in one cultivates health in the other. Similarly, seeing the impermanent and constantly changing nature of one helps us see the impermanent and constantly changing nature of the other. And sitting with our body, we can look deeply into it and see it is not separate and independent from everything else, but is instead wholly composed of and the product of the earth, the sky’s oxygen and nitrogen, water, and our parents, and that it will shortly return to its composite elements. By looking deeply through our bodies, we can touch Thich Nhat Hanh’s words that “we are life without boundaries.”
Becoming aware of my body, tending to it, listening to it, and learning from it have been wonderful instructions on and fruits of the practice. This Thursday, the first Thursday of the month, we will start our sitting with a guided body scan meditation. During our Dharma discussion, we will practice some of the very simple mindful movements often used in the Plum Village tradition, and then share how mindfulness of our bodies figures into our practice—what the joys, challenges, and learnings around this first establishment of mindfulness are in our practice. You can find a version of the Plum Village mindful movements here. A short reading from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Sun My Heart that discusses how to follow our breath and work with our bodies is below.
I hope you can join us,
“Breathing Rhythmically” from The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh
When you are too restless or under too much strain to follow your breathing, you can count your breath instead. Count “one” during the first inhalation and exhalation. Do not lose the thought “one.” During the next inhalation and exhalation, count “two,” and do not lose it. Continue in this way until you reach “ten,” and then start again with “one.” If you lose the thread of concentration at any time, you can start again at “one.” When you are calm and concentrated, you will be able to follow your breath without counting.
Have you ever cut grass with a scythe? Five or six years ago, I brought a scythe home and tried to cut the grass around my cottage with it. It took more than a week before I found the best way to use it. The way you stand, the way you hold the scythe, the angle of the blade on the grass are all important. I found that if I coordinated the movement of my arms with the rhythm of my breathing, and worked unhurriedly, while maintaining awareness of my activity, I was able to work for a longer period of time. When I didn’t do this, I became tired in just ten minutes. One day a Frenchman of Italian descent was visiting my neighbor. He was much more adept than I, but for the most part he used the same position and movements. What surprised me was that he too coordinated his movements with his breathing. Since then, whenever I see a neighbor cutting his grass with a scythe, I know they are practicing awareness.
Even before having a scythe, I used other tools—picks, shovels, rakes—coordinating my breath and my movement. I have found that except for very heavy labor, such as moving boulders or pushing full wheelbarrows (which make full awareness difficult), most jobs—turning the soil, making furrows, sowing seeds, spreading manure, watering—can be done in a relaxed and mindful way. During the past few years I have avoided tiring myself and losing my breath. I think it is better not to mistreat my body. I must take care of it, treat it with respect as a musician does his instrument. I apply “nonviolence” to my body, for it is not merely a means to practice the Way, it itself is the Way. It is not only the temple, it is also the sage. My gardening and bookbinding tools, I like and respect them very much. I use them while following my breathing, and I feel that these tools and I breathe together in rhythm.