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Remembering Thay

Like many of my anti-Viet Nam war generation, I was introduced to the idea of mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.  I never met him, not sure now if I ever even saw him in person, but I read him. He was important to me in the days when Zen was mostly a reading practice for me. All of my study with Thay (literally “master,” as he was lovingly called by his students) was through his books. Thay was an authentic anti-war hero. He taught me a lot. 

I devoured his seminal work, Being Peace (Parallax Press, 1987). Parts of the book blew me away, and I was completely taken by the example of his life and his teaching. There I was, as if only days before I had been marching in the streets of Washington chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

We were angry. I could still feel the anger.

Thay asked us what we thought the President’s reaction was when he heard our roar through the windows of the White House. Did we imagine him thinking, “You know those are good kids out there, patriotic Americans. I think I should listen to their advice and stop the bombing?"

Thay helped me see how dysfunctional my expressions of anger might be, however good they might feel. Thay said other things though that in my days of book Zen I couldn’t understand at all. Some things struck me as totally hokey. The most memorable was his injunction to smile. It reminded me of all the songs we sang in elementary school.

“When you smile, the world smiles with you.”

“When you walk through the storm…”

Little Mary Sunshine.

Why should I smile? The world was full of suffering. The Buddha said so. I would sit stern-faced, I would learn to relate differently to my anger, but I didn’t need to smile.

I tried to remember his suggestions for improving mindfulness. I loved the idea of mindfully washing the dishes. I just didn’t do it. I loved his suggestion to treat the telephone ring as a meditation bell. “Take a conscious breath at the sound of the bell,” he advised, “and then pick up the phone.” I loved the idea, but I seldom remembered to do it.

Ironically, the way to mindfulness, for me at least, was through mindlessness. Roshi Jishu Holmes showed me the way. She challenged the participants in her Ox Class on the Paramitas (part of the Zen training program which Roshi Bernie Glassman had developed with his students at the Greyston Mansion when he first returned to New York from LA) to pick an activity in our daily lives that we did mindlessly and to devote ourselves for the four months of the class to working with this mindlessness. 

Jishu told us she was going to do this practice with us. She was going to work with brushing her teeth. I remember Jishu’s account so vividly — it was hilarious — as if it were yesterday. She described her mindless tooth brushing, finding herself in the kitchen talking on the telephone, her toothbrush still in her mouth, having been distracted by a ringing phone, mid-brushing, no awareness. I am still smiling. I am still in awe of Jishu’s humility.

I chose to work with my mindless eating. Not at every meal. Not at those meals when I was eating with a friend. Those meals were about companionship and conversation, but at meals when I ate alone, generally once or twice a day, I would pay attention to what I was eating and to my mindlessness. I knew I was always eating and reading at the same time. I always made sure that I had a book or newspaper when I sat down to eat alone, whether I was eating at home or in a restaurant. Absorbed in the book or newspaper, I would find suddenly that the meal was over and that I hadn’t tasted anything.

For the next four months, when eating alone, I would sit down without my book, without my newspaper. I would pay attention to what I was eating, the chewing, cutting the food carefully, paying attention to the texture and the taste of the food. I would be aware of each fork or spoonful of food as it went into my mouth, chewing, swallowing. I became aware of my tendency to shovel food into my mouth, the next forkful before the previous forkful had been fully chewed and swallowed.

Paying attention to what I was eating turned out to be a difficult and fascinating challenge. The easy part, the relatively easy part, was not bringing a book to the table, only to discover that at home I was carefully reading and rereading the side panels of the milk cartons or cereal boxes or in restaurants carefully reading, really studying, the Heimlich Maneuver poster. 

I have maintained this practice now for more than 25 years despite an occasional lapse. I sit down sometimes at the kitchen table alone with the best intentions only to find that someone has left the Times on the table. Something catches my eye. I begin to read. But mostly I am appreciating my meal.

These days, as part of my morning routine, I have breakfast alone in the car, my morning cappuccino from Dunkin and two egg-and-cheese Wake-Up Wraps. I park where I am looking at trees, classical music on the radio. I really enjoy those wraps and the coffee. I usually finish half the cappuccino with the wraps, and then I do my morning pages. I finish the cap while I am writing. I pause the writing to take a sip. Shifting my attention from the writing to the coffee, I am enjoying it.

It was only after Jishu had gotten me to pay attention to my mindless eating that I was able to come back to Thay’s dishwashing advice. I started to practice really paying attention to the dishes I was washing, to the water, the temperature, to my hands as I washed the dishes. It was mind blowing to become aware of the thoughts that kept coming up. “As soon as I’m done here, I’m going to…” “I’m already late.” Just noticing took the rushing out of dish washing. Suddenly what had been burdensome became joyful. And voila, I stopped breaking dishes.

Fast forward, eight years after my mindlessness practice with Jishu, two years after her passing, I was taking advantage of an early retirement buy-out to leave my state job. At the party for the three of us who were retiring, I was confronted by a psychiatrist who I was pretty sure didn’t like me.

“I am really going to miss you,” she said. I was shocked.  “And you know, the thing I am going to miss the most is that no matter how bad things got, you never stopped smiling.”

I was bowled over. Thay’s advice echoed. It’s a strange thing, this Zen practice: even though I thought the intention to smile absurd when I first came across Thay’s advice, here I was ten years later smiling. Even when things got tough, the joy of being alive and awake was present.

I stopped multi-tasking. I admit it. I’m a bit of a recovering multi-tasking addict. I try to keep others from multi-tasking when they are with me. I have so little patience with those who are still addicted.

Conversations are richer.

Washing dishes is joyful.

Food tastes better.

My morning cappuccino is a joy.

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Thanks Ken for your words which I will do my best to keep in mind.

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