October 21st, 2020
For years I've been striving to find ways to achieve a soothing state of calm. I wanted to have a way to maintain a state of serenity, no matter what the situation. Even the calmest of people can have their feathers ruffled, it's unavoidable. I wanted to be able to choose what I do after the feather ruffling, to make sure I can be serene from within.
After dabbling with a few different methods I came across a book written by Thich Nhat Hanh, called Peace is Every Step.
If you didn't already know, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk. A buddhist teacher who is known for being a zen master. He’s a peace activist and has written philosophical books focussing on mindfulness and compassion. Reading one of his books makes you feel so many things at once; the desire to be better, the urge to be altruistic, and a gentle longing for peace.
So I've taken some of the key ideas from the book to share you with you all. I practice these principles in my daily life as much as I can, until I forget to. Then I just go back to the notes I made on the book (or the video I shared about it on YouTube) and I pick up where I left off.
In Peace is every step, Thich Nhat Hanh shows you how to make use of situations in your daily life to help get to a state of inner peace. And once you have this inner peace you can then extend it to the world around you.
He starts by explaining that 3 factors form the fundamental basis for peace:
If you can focus on developing and growing these 3 qualities, then you have the power to create an atmosphere of peace around you. Once you have this inner peace, it then extends to the atmosphere around you. First, to the people around you like your family, then to the wider community (e.g. neighbours and colleagues), and finally to the rest of the world.
Yes... by focussing on yourself and your own state of peace, you have the power to change the world around you.
Compassion is at the heart of it all. For true inner peace we should always be looking to be kind and compassionate, especially at challenging or difficult times, which is when it’s the hardest.
Picture being really annoyed with your partner or your children, you need to be able to step back from the anger and really try to understand why they may have done what they did to upset you. Really think about the needs, aspirations and suffering of the person you’re frustrated with, to be able to feel true compassion.
If I I feel myself starting to feel anger or annoyance towards my kids or my husband, I make an effort to pause and think about their needs or aspirations. 9 times out of 10 it's helped me look at the situation differently and feel compassion towards my offender. I either realise that I was overreacting OR i’m able to communicate my concerns with them in a positive way. Which ends up being much more effective than if I gave in to the anger.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains that to achieve any of this
"We need to practice conscious breathing".
Conscious breathing is inhaling and exhaling and being conscious of each breath in and out. In those moments of anger you take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. You can say a few words in your head when you breath in and when you breathe out, which helps to bring you back to the present moment. For me, it’s enough to just repeat the words INHALE and EXHALE in my mind. You could also use what Thich Nhat Hanh says:
"Breathing in I'm Calm, Breathing out I Smile"
I've tried this one too, while being out for a walk, and it worked wonders. It truly does bring you back to the present moment, and when you're focussed on the present moment, you're not thinking about what your offender said 10 minutes ago.
Experiencing life in the present moment, helps us experience a vivid and enjoyable life. It helps prevent wasted or destructive thoughts and it helps recover ourselves.
In our modern technology-driven world, it's so easy to be distracted and never really be present. We can be physically present with our children by building lego with them after school, but our minds can wander off as soon we spot a notification on our phones. If our minds are always on, and always context switching, we never give ourselves time to recover and reconnect with what's truly important - the present moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how our senes are our windows to the world, and sometimes the wind can blow through them and disturb everything within us.
"We need to know when to open and close our windows".
This is an important point to remember because we all have triggers that disturb our inner peace and we need to be aware of them in order to create a wall of protection from them. I keep a list of triggers in my bullet journal. Sometimes I have an unsettled few days or week, and I think back to the triggers that may have caused this feeling and jot them down on my triggers list. Having this awareness of the triggers helps me be ready to stay calm, if they ever show up again.
Equally, we also need to know when to let in the light. Reflection and journalling help me really understand what makes me happy. Writing down a few things I'm grateful for each day or recording moments in my journal, help me open my windows to the light, keenly waiting to pour in.
We can practice meditation gently and steadily throughout our day. Not just in a 30 minute session. He talks about a few ways you can do that:
Take your time and be present while washing dishes. Live fully in the present moment, even while doing chores. It truly has a calming effect and washes away the unhelpful thoughts.
While doing chores like vacuuming or mowing the lawn, you can time your breathing with it. Breathe in as you pull back, breathe out as you push forward.
You can do walking meditation. Don't walk to arrive somewhere but instead walk aimlessly, just to enjoy the walk. Coordinate your breathing with your steps and repeat your INHALE, EXHALE mantra as you walk.
Do your breathing when you sit down to eat, to bring us back to ourselves and to the people at the table. Look around the table and the people that you are eating with and stay present with them.
Conscious breathing while hugging (e.g. hugging your children) can help you live fully in that moment and enjoy it even more.
It's not always easy to remember to do conscious breathing throughout the day, to bring you back to the present. Often, temple bells ringing are a reminder for people to do their inhales and exhales. Look for a prompt in your own life, like every time you receive a notification on your phone. You can use it to prompt you to do your conscious breathing, when you hear the notification sound.
There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don't practice mindfulness we don’t fully appreciate them.
Feelings can often take over and disturb your peace. To transform your feelings, you can do your conscious breathing to become fully aware of the feeling, to observe it and accept it. You can even say something in your head to help, like:
“Breathing in, I’m aware of an unpleasant feeling in me, breathing out I am aware of an unpleasant feeling in me”.
Some steps to take when dealing with unpleasant feelings are:
First recognise the feeling (for example it could be fear)
Become one with it, so you fully own it rather than rejecting it. Don't try to push it away.
Calm the feeling with your breathing
You can then release. When you fully accept the feeling as part of you, the feeling won’t be able to grow. So you can trust that after steps 1-3 the feeling won’t be able to overwhelm you.
Finally, look deeply to understand the root cause of the feeling, so it doesn’t resurface again. This is where my bullet journal helps. Writing down thoughts and reflections and why you may have felt what you felt, can really help to understand the root cause of the problem. I like to ask myself "why" 4 or 5 times to get to the real reason. The first few reasons scratch the surface, but when you break them down further, there is usually a much deeper cause for why you felt what you did.
Anger is a powerful emotion, that can stem from seeds of negativity in ourselves. We can proactively take care of those seeds, in advance of anger-inducing events occuring. Simply doing things to reconnect with ourselves regularly, can make us better able to handle tough situations. Also, through being fully self aware and knowing what causes these seeds of negativity to form, you can be ready for them and address them.
Once you have looked after the seeds of negativity in yourself, you can then be in a position to help or guide others who are struggling to find their peace. So again, if you want to help others, you need to help yourself first.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about a term called internal formations. These are knots inside our body that are formed when we don’t fully understand why something has happened or our reaction to it. Sometimes we find that we overreact to a situation or we feel intensely angry or sad about it. Often the cause of this is the internal formation - the knot that has formed because we don't really understand why it happened or why we reacted that way to it. If we practice the 5 step process above, we can recognise these knots when they are formed and find a way to transform them. This will keep the anger emotion from forming and growing.
We can also take every opportunity in daily life to plant positive seeds, so that they outweigh the negative seeds during difficult times and keep anger and sadness at bay.
You can plant positive seeds by doing the things that make you feel happy or calm, distancing yourself from things that make me really unhappy, taking the time to appreciate the simple things in your life and nurturing the relationships that encourage positivity.
Once you have mastered these things internally, you are in a much better position to extend it to others and create an atmosphere of peace around you and in your home.
True compassion is the way to understand and help others, and to experience real love. Thich Nhat Hanh says to always look to water your lettuce. For example, if your family are your lettuce, then in difficult situations don’t look to blame, find opportunities to help them grow.
Conscious breathing will bring you fully back to the present and will help you feel true compassion. And that’s the way to find and maintain your inner peace and to foster peace in the world around you.