Mindfulness: a mantra for turbulent, uncertain times

January 4, 2021 | 05:03 pm PT
Hoang Anh Suong Journalist, author
As we move from an extraordinarily turbulent year to a new year of uncertainties, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness gain deep relevance.

One of the greatest fortunes of my life has been to be able to travel to many places that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has been to around the world.

My latest such trip was to his "Sitting Still Hut" in France’s Plum Village, where a simple wooden house spanning just 30 square meters keeps to itself in a corner of a forest in south-western France. As I cast my gaze towards the horizon, nature itself expanded before me, imprinting green mountains and endless fields on my eyes.

Like its resident, the Sitting Still Hut was humble and ordinary. A single bed with some clothes on hangers. A small desk, topped with brushes and bottles of Chinese ink, where Thich Nhat Hanh read and wrote. Another table with tea sets to receive guests. Shelves full of books, pictures of the zen monk with his disciples and his own calligraphy works.

The only hints of modern conveniences inside the hut were an electric stove and a small fridge for one person.

But the one thing that stayed in my mind was an old clock on his table. It was round and made of wood, a bit smaller than your typical rice bowl. What made it special was that it was not only used to tell time, but to pace Thich Nhat Hanh’s own breathing. Its tiks and toks, like a metronome, served to guide how the lungs fills and contracts with a soft, consistent rhythm.

The clock is at the heart of what makes Thich Nhat Hanh so well-known the world over as a master of mindful breathing, and also explains how, after he suffered from a stroke in 2014 and fell into a deep coma for six months, the Master’s breaths remained gentle and steady even without mechanical breathing support, confounding all his doctors in France.

We are now only a few days into the new year. While we leave behind 2020, an extraordinary year for all of humanity, we have no idea what lies ahead in 2021. Something no less extraordinary, I presume.

However, I know now that it is always possible to be calm amid the storm. As the pandemic rages around the world, I find the practice of mindful breathing more relevant than ever – not the kind of breaths we take with our primal instincts, but deep ones, conscious and regulated with every flow. It renews the cells in our body, calms our mind and fuels our spirit. It makes us steadfast and enduring, capable of withstanding life’s toughest challenges.

People practice meditation next to a lake in downtown Hanoi, June 10, 2017. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam.

People practice meditation next to a lake in downtown Hanoi, June 10, 2017. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam.

In 2020, Vietnam proved its resilience as it faced one of the most turbulent years in modern history. It has successfully contained Covid-19, retained economic growth and has been lauded as one of the world’s best pandemic challengers. The Economist ranked Vietnam as one of 16 most successful emerging economies, while the World Bank named it among the top 10 growing countries thanks to a positive 2.91 percent GDP growth that contrasts with the contractions in many major economies.

This year, Vietnam is expected to leverage its recent successes to grow and attract even more foreign investment, and boost both domestic demand and exports, even in Covid-19’s shadow.

But we should also be aware that Vietnam hasn't come out of its Covid-19 fight unscathed. Over 62 percent of the nation’s businesses have had to suspend production, while nearly 14 percent have stopped operations entirely. Around 8,500 businesses have been going off the market every month, rendering thousands of employees jobless.

In these trying times, people look to a higher existence for hope and solace. Their destinations are pagodas and temples, where they pray and complain about the wrongs in the world, blaming their problems on outside circumstances. But that is not the way.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said that our success in the coming decades hinges on our ability to be mindful, to return to the oasis that is our self. But how do we do that?

There is no other way other than constantly renewing ourselves, he says. From the steps we take to the words we talk, from the way we work to the thoughts we think, we can renew ourselves. If we let too much stress, ambition and earthly desires to overflow the dams in our souls, how can we be mindful? If we strive to be anyone else other than who we actually are, how can we make ourselves anew?

I believe that the practice of mindfulness applies to everyone, not just individuals, but also groups as a whole: families, organizations and entire nations. The way to conquer difficulties and make peace with uncertainty is to be mindful of our actions and to foster happiness and love within our communities.

Thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh, we know that the 12 months ahead give us another great opportunity to become mindful and tap the calm within.

*Hoang Anh Suong is a journalist and author with interest in Buddhism and meditation. The opinions expressed are his own.

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