Tag Archives: Thich Nhat Hanh

The five spiritual principles that lead to true power

Power is an inescapable aspect of modern life. Our work places, social lives and even families are often made harder by the struggle for power, status, money and control. Everyone hates “office politics” but we all get sucked in to the dynamics of human power far more often than we would like. But sometimes the path to power is as indirect as the steps we take to wholehearted living.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most respected teachers of Buddhism. A Vietnamese monk who was exiled from his country because of his activism during the American war, he has since gone on to found monasteries and teach Buddhism to millions around the world. Hanh’s work in the Zen Buddhist tradition is deceptively simple, focusing on every day tasks like walking, or washing the dishes, as gateways in to the present moment.

The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh

In The Art of Power, Thich Nhat Hanh puts forward a radically different definition of power. To be powerful is not to have a big house or car, is not to control armies, lead a Fortune 500 corporation, or be a billionaire. We pursue these things only because we believe – quite falsely – that once we have them we will be happy. But it is happiness itself that is true power.

“When you are happy, it is not difficult to earn enough money to live comfortably and simply. It is much easier to make the money that you need when you are solid and free. If you are happy, you are more likely to be comfortable in any situation. You are not afraid of anything. If you have the five spiritual powers and you lose your job, you don’t suffer much. You know how to live simply, and you can continue to be happy. You know that sooner or later you will get another job, and you are open to all possibilities.”

The five spiritual powers that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches are at the core of Buddhism, but expressed in such simple and down to earth ways that even the most most skeptical atheist can likely find some guidance in these spiritual principles:

ONE – Have faith in happiness. Unless you have some faith that you can be happy, and that being happy can come before having money, fame and status, you’ll never stop believing that money, fame or status need to come first. You have to take a leap of faith, and trust that your own happiness will catch you.

TWO – Be diligent in cultivating happiness. It’s hard to be happy when you keep doing things that make you unhappy. Gambling, drinking, arguing, negativity of all kinds, is addictive. While positive actions like eating well, exercising or growing friendships can feel much harder. But if you’re diligent in pursuing happiness, it will grow.

THREE – Be in the here and now. Mindfulness – being present in the moment, rather than lost in thoughts of past or future – is central to Buddhism, and increasingly widely understood beyond Buddhist teachings. But it’s hard! It’s only in the present moment that we can notice our thoughts, and sense our bodies, to really see the causes of our unhappiness – and our happiness.

FOUR – Get concentrating. The more time we spend in present awareness, the better we are able to concentrate on specific tasks. Anything from drinking a cup of tea, to performing a violin concerto. The better we concentrate, the better we do our tasks, and the happier we are.

FIVE – Insight is the goal. Faith, diligence, mindfulness and concentration build on one another to help us arrive at insights. These can be personal – realising that a relationship has become bad and needs to be fixed. Or they can be more universal – understanding a complex idea like interbeing. It’s these insights that make our happiness long term and lasting, far beyond the transitory “happiness” we assign to wealth or great fame.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas as I have described them are simple, and he continues to expand up them in The Art of Power. The full book is a short but tremendously valuable read. It is well accompanied by his early text Peace Is In Every Step, and the excellent After The Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfield.

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I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.

Yesterday I spent the evening with the Green Papaya sangha at the Yoga Tree in Chiang Mai. Around forty people where there, many regulars, some visitors like me. The sangha – a Buddhist term for a spiritual practice group – are in the Plum Village meditation tradition. A little different from vipassana meditation, which trains students to analyse their thoughts, Plum Village is more slanted towards engagement with the present moment.

We did three sessions of meditation – one guided, one walking, and one silent sitting. For the walking meditation the meditation leader recited a chant to help pace our footsteps.

I have arrived.
I am home.
In the here.
In the now.

Being in the here, in the now, is at the heart of – not just meditation – but all spiritual practice. But it is soooooooooooo hard! And another load of oooooo’s and it’s sill harder than that. The mind – my mind, your mind, our mind – isn’t very good at being where it is. It likes to be in either the past – remembering what has already happened – or in the future – imagining what is to come.

If you have some spare minutes, sit quietly for a while and watch what your mind dos. Label the thoughts that arise. Are they of of the past? Of the future? Are you perceiving the present moment? You’ll find that very little of your time is spent in the here and now.

What you remember of the past is not real, just a memory. What you imagine of the future is not real, just a projection of your hopes or fears. The only thing that is real is where you are, in the here, in the now. There is no past or future, just the ever changing now.

The first time I encountered this idea was through the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. It’s the pivotal idea in his now world famous book The Power of Now. But I heard it in a recording of a four day retreat conducted by Tolle, published as the Journey In To Yourself. I was 30 and, by any measure, deeply unhappy. I’d been pushing down a lot of horrible emotions from a damaging childhood, grief from many losses, and had trapped myself in a life I didn’t fit in to from a desperate need to fit somewhere, anywhere. I had no kind of spiritual practice at all. I was a standard issue atheist, and any encounter I had with religion was edged with inherited and unexamined scorn. Consequentially, I really had no tools to process the pain I was feeling. Today, my argument with the radical atheist rhetoric of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – both of whom I had read heavily at university – is that it leaves the bulk of its believers utterly amputated from their own emotional reality. It certainly had me. I was miserable, and in trying to escape from the causes of the misery I’d driven myself, repeatedly, to the borders of emotional collapse where I had, at long last, collapsed.

So downloading a talk by an odd sounding German guy from Audible was probably, on the level of latent spiritual instinct, a last ditch attempt to pull myself out of a very dark place. For some reason I lay down on the floor of my apartment to listen to Eckahart Tolle’s characteristically odd voice as it pipped out of my laptop. And the next thing I knew, I was caught up in uncontrollable laughter…not that I was making any effort to control it. Not the laughter of scorn and anger that so much modern humour is rooted in. Not truly the laughter of humour at all. But the laughter of release. Massive, explosive, unexpected release, like a lock had been unpicked to the chain holding my emotions in place. And the key was Eckhart Tolle’s words about past and future, and our mind’s obessive need to escape to one or another, away from the present.

Walking in meditation with the Green Papaya sangha I remembered that first moment of radical contact with the present. The first time I had arrived, home, in the here and the now. And in the studio of the Yoga Tree, I found myself there again. “Home” is a very good word for the here and now of the present moment. When you come back to the present, even for a second, and regardless of where you are, however foreign it may be, it feels like arriving back at home. It’s why I think meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices are so common among travellers. Once you have found the present moment, you carry your home with you wherever you choose to travel.

It is easy to wander off the path and loose your home though. For some months after getting there, with the help of Eckhart Tolle, I felt elated, ecstatic, barely part of the world any more. Liberated, in a very real sense, from the sadness I had been carrying around. As I later discovered from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, this is a common period in a meditation practice. Inevitably, it is followed by a return to normality. I spent the next four years trying to understand that experience, reading widely about Buddhism and other spiritual paths, and learning to meditate. That period culminated on a trip to California in late 2011, where I spent most of three weeks meditating and running on the beach in San Diego. In the two years since then that spiritual practice and meditation have settled in to the background of my life. I’ve returned to more worldly pursuits, spending more time on my writing career again.

Padding in circles at the Yoga Tree, I realised I had lost the moment for a long time. In day to day life it’s so easy to stay wrapped up in your memories and imaginings of past and future. It’s easy to sit down and meditate and spend an hour thinking through your hopes,fears and ambitions and never hit the here and now once. This is both natural and sad. It’s like being right outside the front door of your home, but never going in, staying on the cold steps outside instead. Last night, for a while at least, I came home again.

I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.

There is a 21 day meditation retreat at Doi Suthep, the temple above Chiang Mai. Later this year, I’m going to go and do it.

The poem above is by Thich Nhat Hanh. You could read it and an extended talk by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher here.

Wisdom 2.0 and the growth of mindfulness

What would Christianity be like today if someone had videoed the Sermon on the Mount and put it on YouTube? Would Jesus get more views than Justin Bieber? Unlikely. But I believe that if such a video appeared today, our understanding of Christianity would be profoundly transformed.

We don’t have the Sermon on the Mount. But there are sources of wisdom available today via the wonders of the interwebs that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.

Wisdom is an underused word these days I think. We talk about intelligence and knowledge. But to quote from buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield from the video below – we are technological giants and ethical infants. If intelligence is the ability to build a nuclear bomb, wisdom is the ability not to use it.

Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn are two people that I would qualify as genuinely ‘wise’. Today I found a video of them speaking together at the Wisdom 2.0 conference just a few days ago. The video is over an hour long, so you might want to watch it when you have time to give it some attention.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/20411862]

The topic of their discussion is mindfulness. If any single idea is emerging from the viral spread of wisdom through the internet, it is mindfulness. It’s an idea that can be found in all the worlds spiritual traditions, but belongs to the dogma of none of them. It’s a simple idea. To be mindful is to be aware of the moment you are in, and through that awareness become able to make better, wiser decisions. And it is an idea that is quickly being adopted in medicine, psychology, education and politics.

I would argue that many of the problems we as a world face today – environmental destruction, economic collapse, the continued spread of warfare and violence – are not caused by a lack of intelligence, but a lack of wisdom. Maybe then the solutions are not to be found either in grand political ideologies, or in forceful revolution, but simply in every single one of us learning to be mindful of the moment we are in. The consequences of that might be truly revolutionary.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh also talking on mindfulness.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/14176868]