When I realized a few days ago that today would be a solo day for me I decided to have a 1/2 day of mindfulness to and for myself (which wound up being from about 10:00am-2:30pm). With my stepson at his mom’s, my husband out on a paintball adventure with friends, and my having no set plans or scheduled to-do’s I had the wonderful opportunity of an open, free day.
You may wonder, “What is a day of mindfulness?” In the Plum Village tradition (led by Thich Nhat Hanh) the monasteries, at least the ones here in the states, typically offer 2 days of mindfulness each week, which are open and free for people to attend. They are a day, or rather 1/2 a day because they tend to go from 9:00am-1:00pm, of intentional community practice and often include listening to a dharma talk, having dharma sharing in small groups, outdoor walking meditation, and sharing a silent meal together. We are encouraged as OI members (Order of Interbeing. which is another name of Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) to practice a certain amount of days of mindfulness throughout the year as part of the ordination vow we take. There are many ways in which we can create our own day of mindfulness. For me it involves slowing down, discontinuing certain things such as using the computer or listening to music (which I do A LOT), and setting an intention to do and enjoy one thing at a time. I’ve recently started reading Brother Phap Hai’s book that just came out called Nothing To It. A day or two ago I was reading a part in the introduction where he talks about the practice of Lazy Days, which are part of the Plum Village tradition. Lazy Days are practiced at our monasteries and usually occur once a week, often on Mondays. They are a day of no scheduled activities other than meals, not even morning sitting meditation. Phap Hai writes about Lazy Days in this way:
Laziness is one of the hardest things for people in our modern society all over the world to practice. We think we’re being “lazy,” but we spend all our time watching TV and reading books and writing emails and catching up on errands and paying that bill and seeing this or that person. Laziness, in the Plum Village practice, means to allow the world to be as it is and to allow each moment to unfold just as it unfolds: to experience beauty, as I am right now, of the morning sun coming up; to watch the sky changing; to see the wind blowing in the leaves.
I very much liked his description of a Lazy Day so I decided to blend its spirit, as Phap Hai offered, with the energy of a day of mindfulness and see what unfolded.
My husband left the house just before 10:00am so that’s when the concentrated time of my day of mindfulness began. I started with my usual daily practice of singing the morning chant before 20 minutes of sitting meditation, followed by three gratitude prostrations to the earth. I had eaten breakfast before he left and did so without multi-tasking – which for me meant not checking email, scrolling through the news online, listening to music, or talking. After my sitting and prostrations I turned on my computer and hopped on youtube in order to follow along with Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh) instructions for the Ten Mindful Movements. I thought about doing them on my own but find that having Thay’s slow rhythm and gentle approach to follow is very nourishing and helpful (I tend to do them much faster when I go through them on my own). The video is just shy of 15 minutes long, click here to check it out.
After the Ten Mindful Movements I went to Plum Village Online on youtube and watched two different recent dharma talks offered by the monastics as part of the mindfulness retreat tour happening right now in the U.S. I wound up watching 20 minutes of a talk by Sister Dieu Nghiem (often known as Sister Gina) that she gave on September 25th at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi and an hour long talk by Brother Phap Hai that he gave on September 1st at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. To check out all of the Plum Village Online videos click here.
I took a few pages of notes while listening to the talks. Not only do I find note-taking helps me to stay focused and present while listening but it also sometimes comes in handy later on too when I read through my journal and remember something I had wanted to remember but had since forgotten. There’s also the added bonus of being able to share my notes with others here on my blog in the hopes that it may prove helpful for others as well. Here are some notes I took during Phap Hai’s talk:
One word that is synonymous with mindfulness is listening. When we listen not only with our ears but our whole body we open a space of presence within ourselves. We open a space of availability for what’s taking place and this is the role of developing this energy we call mindfulness. Developing the capacity to be there. To be present. To be awake. To be fully ourselves.
When we develop the capacity to be present we develop concentration. Not the sort of concentration we use when taking a test, the kind that wears us out. In Buddhism concentration is a deepening of mindfulness. In the Pali language concentration is likened to a traveler who’s come a very long way, sits down under a shady tree, and rests his back against the trunk. It’s a dwelling with – a resting with. Once we develop mindfulness and concentration then insight can emerge. Seeing something we haven’t seen before – having something revel itself to us.
After listening to the talks I got something to eat and then went for a walk outside. In everything that I was doing I was practicing to take my time. Whether I was opening up a cupboard door or walking through the house or brushing my teeth I practiced the art of being with what I was doing while I was doing it. And I practiced to do one thing at a time with joy and ease. While I practice to bring mindful attention, joyfulness, and ease into my daily life every day of the week this Day of Mindfulness differed slightly because of the level of focus I was generating. I can compare it to the difference of driving my car verses riding my motorcycle or, to go with something maybe more relatable, driving a car verses riding a bike or walking. When I’m driving my car there’s a certain level of focus involved, of course, but when I’m riding my motorcycle more of my senses are engaged and I have to be a bit more in tune with my surroundings and my movements as I sift through traffic. The same is true when you bike or walk somewhere, as opposed to driving. A Day of Mindfulness is a lovely chance to develop a more concentrated time for the practices of stopping, slowing down, connection, and presence. It’s a time when we can interact more fully with all of our sense impressions and have the spaciousness to go with the flow of what unfolds.
When I was walking outside around my neighborhood I did so without my ipod pumping loudly through my earbuds, as is usual for me when I’m out taking strolls. I slowed down my regular pace and connected my breath with my steps. My personal pace amounted to about 4 steps per inhalation and 6-7 steps per exhalation. Once in a while, when the wind would pick up, I stopped and closed my eyes to listen to the autumn leaves rustling on the branches and absorb the sounds around me. I find it to be very important to practice letting go of our self-conscious tendencies and for me this is one of the ways in which I do that. We may be reluctant to walk around our neighborhood at a relatively slow pace, connecting with our breath and steps, and stopping to listen more fully to the sounds around us or feel the sensations of the breeze on our face and body. We may get swept away in the false assumption that people are staring at us or judging us for our strange behavior. Self-consciousness is a sign that we need to keep practicing the art of being and embracing ourselves just as we are. Thay teaches us that 99% of our perceptions are false (and the Buddha taught that 100% of our perceptions are false). When we start allowing what we think OTHERS are thinking to influence our experience or actions we would do well to look more deeply into the situation. The truth, most of the time, is that people aren’t looking at us or thinking about us at all! How can we possibly presume to know what someone else, let alone a stranger, is thinking or feeling at any given time? It’s really quite absurd to think that we have any knowledge whatsoever into the nature of someone else’s thoughts. For me, transforming self-conscious tendencies is an ongoing engaged practice.
Earlier in the day, soon after my husband left the house to go paintballing, the wind started blowing quite swiftly. In our backyard stand two very large stately elm trees – I think they’re Siberian elms. Our elms have been on a slow decline for the past few years. Most of their leaves have multiple insect holes and in the spring these tiny worms float down on fine thread and land everywhere. The elm tree that stands further away from our house has been dropping huge limbs at least once a year over the past 4-5 years. This morning I was greeted with a freshly fallen limb that had come down sometime in the night (which was our 3rd large one of the year). Whenever large winds roll through town we have a wealth of sticks of varying sizes rain down in our yard and the distinct possibility of another large tree branch crashing down. I tend not to go out back when these types of winds occur and feel rather on edge when sitting inside, nervous that soon another huge, destructive limb will damage the chicken coop or our garden fence or the tree house or our roof. So far all the big limbs that have come down have been from the further of the two elms and not from the one closest to the house. However, it seems like it could be only a matter of time before we get into real trouble with these falling tree parts. I tell you all of this to paint a picture of how I was sitting a bit nervously inside while going about my day of mindfulness this morning, as I listened to the wind whip through the trees. But after a few minutes I realized that I was indeed feeling nervous and instead of looking at the wind as some kind of disruptive force to my otherwise pleasant day I took it as an opportunity to practice embracing the nature of uncertainty. Rather than being carried away by my own stories of how a tree limb would crash into the house or hurt the chickens or how much work it would take to clean everything up (and borrow a chainsaw from someone to cut the limb apart and get it out of the yard and on and on) I practiced to let go of my need to have things controlled and came back to my breathing in and breathing out. I looked more deeply into the situation and saw clearly how my fretting served absolutely, positively no benefit. I thought to myself, “There is nothing I can do to prevent a limb from falling down – so I might as well enjoy the day!” And…I did.
There are moments when the swaying elm trees of our lives hold our attention and carry us away from the here and now. Things we can do nothing about. But we always have influence over our response. We have the choice to decide how we want to spend our time and energy. And I’m grateful for the practice in our tradition of Days of Mindfulness, of Lazy Days, of developing the capacity for mindfulness, concentration, and insight, and for the teachings of living more fully in the present moment. This practice is how I chose to spend my time because I continue experiencing the miracles of mindfulness.