Dear Still Water Friends,
The central theme in the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh is to live in the present moment — to be aware of what we are doing as we are doing it — and to live our lives in accord with our deepest aspirations. Some years ago I was among a group of lay people accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh on a teaching tour in China. As we were leaving one of the monasteries someone asked Thich Nhat Hanh about his plans for the future. In his reply he said: “It is not of great concern to me how many more years I live. It is, however, of great concern how I live today.”
That moment came back to me this past week while I was on a retreat at the Blue Cliff Monastery in New York state. Above the altar in the main meditation hall is a large calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh that contains only 8 letters: “This is it.” The implicit counsel that came to me was: “We don’t get a second chance on this moment or this life.”
A complementary perspective on the importance of living our lives fully comes from Bronnie Ware, an Australian hospice nurse. As she cared for her dying patients, she talked with them about “regrets they had or anything they would do differently.” Later she wrote about what they told her in a blog entry: “The Regrets of the Dying.” According to Ware, five themes commonly surfaced:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
"This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it."
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."
During our Dharma discussion this Thursday evening, we will reflect on Thich Nhat Hanh’s "This is it" and Bronnie Ware’s "Regrets of the Dying." Are we present for and fully living our lives? Are there changes we could make that might ease or release our current or future regrets?
You are also invited to join us this week for a brief orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.
A related excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh on living fully in the present moment is below.
Still Water Special Tour of the Freer Gallery Buddhist Collection, May 18, 2013, at Freer Gallery, Washington, DC
Touching Life Deeply: A Day of Practice, June 2, 2013 at Blueberry Gardens, Ashton, MD
Living in the Present Moment
From a Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, August 6, 1997.
Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is there in the present moment. When I drink some water, I can drink mindfully or I can drink while thinking of other things. When I drink my water mindfully I am real. I am myself, body and mind together, 100 percent. Because I am there 100 percent of myself the water reveals herself to me 100 percent also. So both me and the water are real and in that moment of water drinking life is real. By drinking my water in mindfulness, I am going home. In that home I touch myself and I touch the water I drink. It’s not abstract. In our daily life we eat, we drink, we shake hands, but we are not really there. We are lost in the past, in the future, lost in our worries, our fear. We are not really there. Everything is superficial, everything is like a ghost. To practice mindfulness is to produce your true presence. Your true presence means the presence of your body and your mind together in the here and the now. You can train yourself by drinking your water. Drink your water in such a way that you become real – 100 percent. . . .
Your home is in the here and the now, because life is in the here and the now. This is a very important teaching of the Buddha that many people neglect. In a sutra the Buddha said “Don’t cling to the past, the past is no longer there. Do not get upset about the future, the future is not yet there. Only the present moment is available, and the wise person lives mindfully and happily in the present moment.” That is a text teaching us how to live deeply each moment of our daily life. According to the teaching, life is available only in the present. Your appointment with life is in the present moment. If you get lost in the past and the future and miss the present moment, it means you miss your appointment with life. What a pity. We miss our appointment with life so many times a day. We are not truly there.