Thich Nhat Hanh on the Art of Stopping

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy-” Danish philosopher Søren the heart of the buddha's teachingKierkegaard once reproached with contempt for his culture’s rampant obsession with productivity.  Half a century later, German novelist and poet Herman Hesse likewise condemned the modern industrialized West’s preoccupation with factory-like efficiency: “the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry hurry as the most important objective of living,” he said, “is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”  Today this notion reverberates with particular poignancy as the driven and ambitious resolve to “get things done” and devour self-help books that promise to “optimize” their “productivity.”  Ours is a culture of haste, one that prioritizes product over process, the mechanical over the mindful, quantity over quality.  Most of us squander our lives dutifully crossing tasks off a to do list- starving, instead of nourishing, our desire for exuberant spontaneity.

In our era of mindless rushing, we’ve lost the art of mindful presence, of pausing.  The art of stopping has no more poetic a proponent than Buddhist monk and prolific peace activist Thich Naht Hanh, the gentle voice behind such mindfulness manifestos as Peace is Every Step, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and How to Eat.  In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation– the most approachable beginner’s guide to Buddhism I’ve ever come across– Hanh examines the hazards of hurrying through life too haphazardly.  A sage shepherd leading us along the windy path to enlightenment, Hanh relays an old Zen parable of a man and his horse to illustrate the ways we default to habit rather than live attentively:

“There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse.  The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important.  Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know!  Ask the horse!”  This is also our story.  We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop.  The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless.  We are always running, and it has become a habit.  We struggle all the time, even during our sleep.  We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.”

What Hanh calls “habit energy” is our compulsive tendency to act without thought.  Though habits can take the form of elevating, life-affirming rituals (the first cup of coffee in the morning, saying “I love you” to your significant other the last thing at night), they can also- by their numbing repetitiveness- deaden our senses and desensitize our spirits.  When we too strictly abide by our routines, we’re simply not present.  And what happens?  We relinquish our better judgement.  It’s so much easier to lose patience at people’s pettiness, to lash out at an assault, to retaliate at a slight (real or imagined) when we’re acting routinely.  An emotion overcomes us and-rather than realize all emotions, like waves, rise but eventually crest and fall-we allow ourselves to be governed by their momentary intensity and permit bitter feelings like fear and anger to dictate our behavior, which only adds to the store house of human suffering.  

So how do we break the cycle of unintentional living and, thus, halt the unconscious perpetuation of suffering?  Hanh prescribes a simple remedy: be mindful.  Being present is a super vitamin for the soul.  When we pause to ponder instead of instantly react, we act from our noblest, most magnanimous selves.  Such presence, Hanh believes, can heal a hostile world:

thich nhat hanh

“We have to learn the art of stopping-stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us.  When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace.  We turn on the TV and then turn it off.  We pick up a book and then we put it down.  How can we stop this state of agitation?  How can we stop our fear, despair, anger and craving?  We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand.  When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.

But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition.  We say and do things we don’t want to and afterwards we regret it.  We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage.  We may vow not to do it again, but we do it again.  Why?  Because our habit energies (vashana) push us.

We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction.  With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests.  “Hello, my habit energy!  I know you are there!”  If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength.  Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.”

Pema Chodron on Learning to Stay

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion; only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life,” Henry David Thoreau once mused.  Who hasn’t had the unsettling experience- in the hush of an ordinary morning, on the unremarkable commute home from work, amongst friends and the convivial chatter of dinner- of being physically present yet somehow not there?  As the wonderfully erudite Maria Popova articulates, the tragedy of our times is that we routinely show up for life but are rarely present.  In our restless age of instant communication, we’re bombarded by a ceaseless onslaught of distraction, not living but simply existing in a sort of half-conscious stupor.  Like pinballs, we mindlessly ricochet from one meaningless diversion to the next, compulsively checking the ding of every text message until we lose what little sanity we have left.  

At no other juncture in human history has it been more vital to carve out periods of stillness.  For many, meditation offers this much-needed repose from modern life’s madhouse.  Once sanctified as the path to enlightenment in Eastern spiritual traditions, today meditation has metamorphosed into something far more secular-not an impossibly serene Buddha sitting under a lotus tree, but a practical exercise whose avid proponents include everyone from top-performing athletes to Oprah.  So why has this ancient religious practice seen a resurgence in popularity in our decidedly non-religious culture?  Perhaps it has to do with the abundance of scientific evidence demonstrating its wide-ranging physical and psychological benefits: not only has meditation been shown to improve self-control, lessen anxiety and depression, and decrease stress, it’s been proven to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and actually boost the immune system.  Meditating as little as twenty five minutes a day can literally restructure the brain, increasing gray matter in the hippocampus, the hub of human memory and learning, and forever transforming its architecture. 

Why we meditate is the question at the heart of The Places That Scare You, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron’s endlessly wise but endearingly accessible guide to cultivating courage in difficult times.  Of all meditation’s far-reaching benefits, Chodron asserts the greatest is its capacity to teach us a kind of spiritual grit.  Though many imagine the goal of meditation is to achieve a blissful state of trance-like tranquility, its chief aim is not to silence thoughts but to learn to sit still amidst the noise:

Why do we meditate?  This is a question we’d be wise to ask.  Why would we even bother to spend time alone with our selves?

First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good.  To think that’s why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure.  We’ll assume we’re doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences physical and psychological pain.  Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and sanity.”

pema meditation

Just as running instructs us in the invaluable art of perseverance, meditation teaches us to persist- even when we think we can’t go on.  To meditate is to observe the disarray of the mind from the watch tower of detachment- without getting swept up by the tumult of every tempest.  We look upon our mental landscape as a spectator would a play: interested but not involved in the drama unfolding before us.  Worries, anxieties, obsessions: all are but stars on the stage of a never-ending saga.  Rather than shriek in terror at the sight of our countless neuroses (or too brutally, unmercifully judge them), we learn to courageously confront our demons:

When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves.  No matter what comes up- aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions- we develop a loyalty to our experience.  Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t run screaming out of the room.  Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong.  This is no small task.  Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt.” 

 A portal to grasping the mysterious workings of our own minds, meditation also sheds light on the universal human psyche- particularly our shared tendency to retreat into the reassuring realms of imagination and fantasy so as to elude the present in all its dismaying insecurity.  Though the present has the profound power to transport us to transcendent heights of rapture, to exist completely in the here and now- or, as patron saint of presence Thoreau once said, to realize there is “no other land but this”- is to come face to face with life’s startling uncertainty.  Unadulterated life is both torture and bliss, torment and rhapsody:

In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness.  Sometimes we get up and leave.  Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds are far away.  This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay.  Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it means to be human.  All of us derive imaginary security and comfort from the imaginary world of memory and fantasy and plans.  We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of present experience.  It goes against the grain to stay present.”  

While the idea of sitting cross-legged atop a mountain sounds wonderfully replenishing to many a weary spiritual seeker, meditation practice is just that- practice, in other words, hard work.  Instead of a few stolen moments of calm restorative bliss, meditating is most often a terrifying submergence into the storm-tossed seas of our subconscious.  “God, how much longer do I have left?”  “I’m hungry…what am I going to eat for lunch?”  “Crap…I still have to walk the dog!”  This chronic mental chatter brings about a startling- if distressing- revelation: we very rarely are where we are.  But rather than castigate ourselves for our hopeless inability to stay present, Chodron pleads with us to be compassionate toward our shortcomings as self-love is the most priceless lesson meditation can impart.  Only when we develop an attitude of loving-kindness, can we learn to “stay” with both our selves and the world at large:

The pith instruction is, stay…stay…just stay.  Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog.  If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible but rather terrified dog.  The dog may obey when we say “Stay!” “Come!” “Roll over!” and “Sit up!” but he will also be neurotic and confused.  By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.

So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to stay and settle down.  Are we experiencing restlessness?  Stay!  Discursive mind?  Stay!  Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay!  Aching knees and throbbing back?  Stay!  What’s for lunch?  Stay!  What am I doing here? Stay!  I can’t stand this another minute!  Stay!  This is how we cultivate steadfastness.”

Pema Chodron on How Pain Enlarges Our Heart

German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s pithy aphorism “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so oft uttered it borders on cliche.  But, like all timeless platitudes, his words endure because they capture a truth abiding and incontrovertible: pain- though unpleasant- is essential.  As satirist Russell Baker quipped, “I’ve had an unhappy life, thank God.”  Though most of us would happily forgo crisis and catastrophe, adversity fortifies the soul; indeed, it is the life tormented by hardship and misfortune, trauma and woe that builds the most resilient, courageous individuals.  Those unfortunate enough to lead a blissful existence never develop real moral character.  Not only that, but it’s a fact of life that to fully experience any emotion, one must experience its converse: there can only be satisfaction if there’s discontent, enchantment if there’s disillusion, hope if there’s despair.  After all, we wouldn’t giddily anticipate Fridays unless we had to return to the office three days later.  “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” Nietzsche once wondered.  To sidestep suffering, then, is nothing short of denying ourselves the magnificent heights of human potential.

young pema chodron

Though philosophers have preached the value of suffering for millennia, it remains our natural inclination to avoid pain at all costs.  Rather than meet the behemoth of pain boldly and stout-heartededly, we cowardly retreat, erecting all kinds of barriers to protect us from the intolerable discomfort of vulnerability.  But it is pain, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron suggests in her slim but imponderably insightful volume Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears, that reminds us of our shared human predicament and connects us with bodhicitta, the Buddhist term for “enlightened mind” or “open heart.”  In Buddhist tradition, pain is not something to flee but rather something to embrace as an inevitable part of life.  Despite our cultural aversion to anything difficult, hardship is crucial because it sheds light on the conundrum of the human condition and makes us kinder and more merciful.  When her mother dies and she has to sift through box upon box of her things, Chodron comes to the dispiriting realization that- though her mother cherished these belongings- they, in themselves, possess no objective meaning.  But rather than let such a distressing insight send her into an existential tailspin and ponder the grim futility of life, she uses pain as a portal to better understand the human plight.  Warm and boundlessly wise, Chodron comes to feel compassion for all the people who-like her and her mother- suffer because they attribute too much significance to the inconsequential:

Before we know what natural warmth really is, often we must experience loss.  We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted.  Then we or someone close to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if the blinders have been removed from our eyes.  We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.

When my mother died and I was asked to go through her personal belongings, this awareness hit me hard.  She had kept boxes of papers and trinkets that she treasured, things that she held on to through her many moves to smaller and smaller accommodations.  They had represented security and comfort for her, and she had been unable to let them go.  Now they were just boxes of stuff, things that held no meaning and represented no comfort or security to anyone.  For me these were just empty objects, yet she had clung to them.  Seeing this made me sad, and also thoughtful.  After that I could never look at my own treasured objects the same way.  I had seen that the objects themselves are just what they are, neither precious nor worthless, and that all the labels, all our views and opinions about them, are arbitrary.

This was an experience of basic warmth.  The loss of my mother and the pain of seeing so clearly how we impose judgements and values, prejudices, likes and dislikes, onto the world, made me feel great compassion for our shared human predicament.  I remember explaining to myself that the whole world consisted of people just like me who were making much ado about nothing and suffering from it tremendously.”

The miracle of pain is that it enlarges our hearts.  When we lie shattered after our partner deserts us, for instance, we join an infinite chain connecting millions of love lorn.  Suddenly, we can sympathize with anyone who has suffered a broken heart.  Empathy, tenderness, understanding: all are profound lessons pain can teach us:

When my second marriage fell apart, I tasted the rawness of grief, the utter groundlessness of sorrow, and all the protective shields I had always managed to keep in place fell to pieces.  To my surprise, along with the pain, I also felt an uncontrived tenderness for other people.  I remember the complete openness and gentleness I felt for those I met briefly in the post office or at the grocery store.  I found myself approaching the people I encountered as just like me- fully alive, fully capable of meanness and kindness, of stumbling and falling down and of standing up again.  I never before experienced that much intimacy with unknown people.  I could look in the eyes of store clerks and car mechanics, beggars and children, and feel our sameness.  Somehow when my heart broke, the qualities of natural warmth, qualities like kindness and empathy and appreciation, just simultaneously emerged.”

pema chodron

“How far that little candle throws his beams!” exclaimed Shakespeare when contemplating the far-reaching reverberations of a small, ordinary act of kindness.  However much we loathe its lessons, pain illuminates the world by instructing us in the vital ways of having a warm heart.

Alan Watts on Consciousness, Ego & the Myth of the Fixed Self

the wisdom of insecurity
Beautifully paraphrasing an author whose name I’ve now long forgotten, one of my most beloved professors once said the saddest word in the English language is “temporary.”  No other word has inflicted more despair, more torment, or more misery.  In fact, no struggle in human history has been more unrelenting than the struggle against impermanence.  It is an indubitable law of the cosmos that life is flux: just as peonies blossom under the renewing spring sun but one day disintegrate to rejoin the soil from which they came, all things must end- a fact that necessarily includes man.  The idea that we- creatures of such astonishing intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities-are still earthly beings whose bodies must perish along with the brutes and beasts is petrifying.  Nothing is more harrowing than confronting the inevitability of our own death.  So we spend our lives endeavoring, as Buddhists throughout the millennia have observed, to get an “I” out of our experience- a sense of stable security in a world that is hopelessly transitory.  
But it is our very attempt to sculpt an “I” from the clay of our day to day lives, our strong-willed effort to solidify our sense of self as separate and other, that estranges us from the awe-inspiring ecstasy and raw immediacy of simply being alive.

In his brilliant 1951 volume The Wisdom of Insecurity, British writer and popularizer of Eastern philosophy in the West, Alan Watts, mourns man’s regrettable inability to remain present.  Unlike animals, who are largely driven by the basic instinct to survive, man is blessed with the miracle of consciousness, or the ability to be aware of both the world and itself- a cognitive operation that’s been both exalted as a gorgeous fever and condemned as a thing to be subdued.  Watts would undoubtedly agree with this latter view as it is this very capability that divides the self and alienates us from the now.  Rather than truly hear music and surrender to all its evocative rhythms and beautiful cadences, for example, we bring our rational, egoistic self to the task, spending the course of the song analyzing and evaluating, judging and quantifying.  This ceaseless interior monologue satisfies our desperate longing for a solid self- an “I,” an ego, an experiencer who represents the part of our psyche that must comment on experience, not participate in experience itself.  But the tragic irony, of course, is that by trying to forge an “I” and fortify ourselves against the transience of life and the certainty of death, most of us forfeit living and simply exist:

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger.  The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.  Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.  To understand music, you must listen to it.  But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.”

Alan-Watts

For Watts, metacognition- mankind’s uncommon ability to think about thinking- is a means of fleeing the present moment in all its terror and uncertainty.  Although this self-defense mechanism supplies us with the steady sense of identity we so hopelessly crave, it divorces us from the love affair that is life.  It is a tragedy that is distinctly pertinent to our age, an anxious era of endless distraction and ceaseless Twitter feeds: we mistake the oblivious stupor of existing in our minds for the exuberance of actually being alive.  After all, to think, “The sky is spectacular!” is to not fully savor the stunning colors of a sunrise:

“While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it?  Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer?  Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it?  You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief second stop reading.  The first experience is reading.  The second experience is the thought, “I am reading.”  Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, “I am reading?”  In other words, when present experience is the thought, “I am reading,” can you think about yourself thinking this thought? 

Once again, you must stop thinking just, “I am reading.”  You pass to a third experience, which is the thought, “I am thinking that I am reading.”  Do not let the rapidity with which these thoughts can change deceive you into the feeling that you think them all at once.”

So why is it that men rally so vehemently against remaining present?  To inhabit each moment fully, to be completely awake and alive is to confront the unsettling reality that “I” is nothing more than a psychological construct meant to alleviate our fears of impermanence- there is no such thing as a fixed self.  What we think of as “I” doesn’t exist beyond the present moment and is in a constant state of flux.  “Who are you?” the protagonist of my favorite novel demands to know of her eccentric mother.  “I am who I say I am and someone completely different the next,” she replies.  Or to borrow James Joyce’s poetic phrase, “Me. And me now.”  Though our capacity for memory gives us the illusion of a permanent, immutable self, at both the empirical level of behavior and the most fundamental level of molecules and atoms, “I” is continuously shifting, perishing only to transform itself:

“The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes.  It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire.  If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time.  This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences.  You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience.  If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.

But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience.  You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience.  When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.

[…]

To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.”