How Do We Practice Mindfulness?

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Dear Still Water Friends,

When I first started meditating, I focused primarily on sitting meditation. I had an ideal image in my mind of sitting in lotus posture with a kind of intangible golden shield of calm all around me. I wanted to stop feeling scattered and swayed emotionally by every fluctuation in my life.

As I sat with my Sangha over those first weeks, I began learning about following my breath, walking meditation, and dharma sharing. I quickly realized that mindfulness practice encompasses many more facets than sitting meditation. Feeling overwhelmed, I asked experienced practitioners which aspect I should focus on. Everyone suggested I first focus on following my breath, becoming open to what was present in my body and mind as I sat or walked. This would help me touch joy.

Their answer simultaneously frustrated and reassured me. I felt frustrated by the elusive vagueness of the word “joy.” But I was reassured that I could explore the wealth of practice resources I was discovering at my own pace. Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of joy also reassured me. He wrote,

Mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, not work or effort. Do you have to make an effort to breathe in? You don’t have to make an effort. To breathe in, you just breathe in. Suppose you are with a group of people contemplating a beautiful sunset. Do you have to make an effort to enjoy the beautiful sunset? No you do not have to make any effort. You just enjoy it.

The same thing is true with your breath. Allow your breath to take place. Become aware of it and enjoy it. Effortless. Enjoyment. The same is true with walking mindfully. Every step you take is enjoyable. Every step helps you to touch the wonders of life, in yourself and around you. Every step is peace. Every step is joy. That is possible. (“Thich Nhat Hanh on The Practice of Mindfulness,” Lion’s Roar, 2017)

As many people have commented, Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom on practicing mindfulness is simple but not easy. Breathing, sitting, and walking meditation, the steps of mindfulness practice, sound simple— but practicing consistently takes focus and commitment over time. To me, having a mindfulness practice means to show up for myself over and over again, especially on my emotionally wobbly days! In my early days of practicing, I soon let go of the ideal lotus position and golden shield of calm. Now when my life changes, I feel the fluctuating emotions, but I have an underlying sense of being rooted and centered. I can be with my difficult emotions instead of wanting to cut them off or protect myself from them. Through practice, we make the choice repeatedly to be aware of our breath, opening to the lightness of joy amidst our tender awareness of suffering.

This Thursday night after our sitting and walking meditations at Crossings, we will share our thoughts about what the word “practice” means to us.

  • How has our practice changed and shaped us over time?
  • What questions about practicing mindfulness do we have for each other?

Below are more of Thich Nhat Hanh’s insights about practicing mindful breathing.

You are warmly invited to be with us!

Many blessings,

Eliza King

Practicing Mindful Breathing
from “Thich Nhat Hanh on The Practice of Mindfulness,” in Lion’s Roar, 2017:

When you contemplate the big, full sunrise, the more mindful and concentrated you are, the more the beauty of the sunrise is revealed to you. Suppose you are offered a cup of tea, very fragrant, very good tea. If your mind is distracted, you cannot really enjoy the tea. You have to be mindful of the tea, you have to be concentrated on it, so the tea can reveal its fragrance and wonder to you. That is why mindfulness and concentration are such sources of happiness. That’s why a good practitioner knows how to create a moment of joy, a feeling of happiness, at any time of the day.

First Mindfulness Exercise: Mindful Breathing

The first exercise is very simple, but the power, the result, can be very great. The exercise is simply to identify the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as the out-breath. When you breathe in, you know that this is your in-breath. When you breathe out, you are mindful that this is your out-breath.

Just recognize: this is an in-breath, this is an out-breath. Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself. What is recognizing your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind—the object of your mindfulness—is the in-breath. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing.

So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don’t think anymore. You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.

It gets even better. You can enjoy your in-breath. The practice can be pleasant, joyful. Someone who is dead cannot take any more in-breaths. But you are alive. You are breathing in, and while breathing in, you know that you are alive. The in-breath can be a celebration of the fact that you are alive, so it can be very joyful. When you are joyful and happy, you don’t feel that you have to make any effort at all. I am alive; I am breathing in. To be still alive is a miracle. The greatest of all miracles is to be alive, and when you breathe in, you touch that miracle. Therefore, your breathing can be a celebration of life.

An in-breath may take three, four, five seconds, it depends. That’s time to be alive, time to enjoy your breath. You don’t have to interfere with your breathing. If your in-breath is short, allow it to be short. If your out-breath is long, let it to be long. Don’t try to force it. The practice is simple recognition of the in-breath and the out-breath. That is good enough. It will have a powerful effect.