Nearly one month ago, at exactly midnight on January 22, 2022, Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh transitioned in his homeland of Vietnam at the age of 95. Thầy (informal Vietnamese word for “teacher”), as he was known by his students, was considered the founder of “applied Buddhism.” In addition to being a peace and environmental activist, he was a global spiritual leader, author, poet, and artist. I never had the privilege of studying with him in person, but I consider him to be one of my first spiritual teachers. In my early 20s I picked up one of his many books, Living Buddha, Living Christ. It was my introduction to mindfulness, although I wouldn’t routinely practice until years later.
At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the resident nuns at Plum Village (the first monastic community founded by Nhất Hạnh in the West) compiled his tips for “staying sane in challenging times.” These are key teachings on how monks and nuns structure their day, balancing meditation, work, and rest.
The list is simple, but it is not necessarily easy, and is most certainly deeper than it first might appear. For example, how many of us “guard the morning”? How do you wake up? Do you leap (or force yourself) out of bed when the alarm goes off, your mind instantly racing with a laundry list of to-dos or worries? Do you hit the snooze button and try to eke out a few more minutes of sleep, only to find your mind already starting to engage with aforesaid laundry list? Practicing gratitude when we awake sets a peaceful tone and encourages a sense of ease throughout the day.
The last tip is to listen to the audio tracks for these practices on the Plum Village app. I use this app regularly and highly recommend the guided meditations. There are many to choose from, depending on your desired length and area of focus.
1. Guard the morning (and start it gently). Train yourself to begin the day with a few gentle breaths and a smile, *before* even getting out of bed (or checking the phone). Make the vow to live every hour of the day deeply, with compassion.
2. Savor your tea or coffee, slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves. Follow your breathing, relax the body, look out the window, listen to your heartbeat (this is nothing less than meditation).
3. Enjoy every step of breakfast-making. Life is made of small moments. There is nowhere to hurry to, nothing to get done. This is it! Enjoy the presence of your loved ones, and the wonder of having enough to eat.
4. When you’re ready to work, work. Free yourself from distractions, and cultivate one-pointed mind. But don’t forget to take care of your body while at the computer! Set a bell to sound so you can stretch every 30 minutes or so.
5. Take time to walk in mindfulness. If you can go outside and get in touch with nature, wonderful. If you’re indoors, no problem: you can practice slow walking meditation, a powerful way to release tension and anxiety.
6. Take a nap after lunch for 20 minutes, or practice deep relaxation (body scan) while lying down. Even just 10 or 15 minutes of releasing tension can set you free and refresh you before you keep working.
7. Nourish yourself. Nothing can survive without food. Fear, anxiety and despair may be “fed” by what we read, see and hear. Likewise, our compassion, trust and gratitude can be fed by choosing inspiring books, music, audio and conversations.
8. Sweat every day. In our practice centers the monastics do physical exercise or sport every day. It’s essential to circulate our energy, stay healthy, and release tension and feelings that are stored in every cell of our body.
9. Reach out to loved ones. Let them know you are there for them. Ask what their deepest hopes and fears are. Write them a love letter. Forgive those who need forgiving. Do not miss this stark opportunity to heal wounded relationships.
10. Listen to audio tracks of Thầy and his monastics guiding these practices on the Plum Village Meditation App (free).