January is, in many ways, a time to start over. Not just for the calendar, but for people as well. Starting fresh in the new year, making goals and resolutions, returning slowly to the season of spring after the season of winter. While this is true for me, it’s also a time that reminds me of the importance of mindfulness and self-care. It is a season that marks the passing of one of the most influential people from my life. On January 22, 2022, mindfulness author and social justice advocate Thich Nhat Hanh passed away.
I recall recommending his book on Anger to someone only months beforehand. They had read it and loved it. They were the one that informed me he had passed away. For a brief moment it felt like a betrayal. How had I missed the news?
Then, in a small way, my mind returned to some of the many wise words I had read.
“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize the condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”
The clouds of doubting myself and feeling as though I should have been more attentive passed.
When I think about the life of Thich Nhat Hanh I can’t help but think about the presence of mind, a kind of carefulness, that he seemed to have constantly. I imagine him describing eating and being mindful of each bite. I imagine him calmly facing death as his health gradually got worse in the years prior to his passing. I imagine him smiling despite having lost the ability to speak.
I think for many people January comes as a time to set lofty goals. It follows then that February and March must be the time that for some, they realize they will never meet these goals. Maybe instead we should heed the age old advice of “being more but doing less”.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, another pivotal figure in mindfulness, is often quoted as saying “As long as you are breathing there is more right with you, than wrong with you.” It is endlessly fascinating for me to think about all the biological processes that go on inside our body just to keep us alive. Respiration, digestion, blood blow, and electrical signals in our brain just to name a few. How often do we lose sight of what is right in front of us?
I often encourage people to think of their bodies like a tool or instrument. If I was a carpenter I would likely have a chisel in some amount of frequent use. It would be important for the tool to be able to perform well. If I allowed it to become rusty, dull, or used to open cans of paint or stain then chances are it may not be able to.
What do I do to take care of my body? The tool that allows me to do so much and to interact with the rest of the world. Do I eat well, rest, exercise, or even just appreciate my body for what all it does?
We are more than tools meant for a job and just like the tool or instrument can be appreciated when it is not in use, we can appreciate ourselves when we are not “in use”. So often we sink into some level of depression when we aren’t doing, achieving, or “being” what we feel like we should be. I wouldn’t disparage the guitar or piano for the moments of silence, so why do I rake myself over the coals for a moment of rest?
I’d like to share an excerpt from Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm that powerfully changed my life:
Imagine two astronauts go to the moon, and while they’re there, there’s an accident and their ship can’t take them back to Earth. They have only enough oxygen for two days. There is no hope of someone coming from Earth in time to rescue them. They have only two days to live. If you were to ask them at that moment, “What is your deepest wish?” they would answer, “To be back home walking on our beautiful planet Earth.” That would be enough for them; they wouldn’t want anything else. They wouldn’t think of being the head of a large corporation, a famous celebrity, or the president of the United States. They wouldn’t want anything but to be back here—walking on Earth, enjoying every step, listening to the sounds of nature, or holding the hand of their beloved while contemplating the moon at night. We should live every day like people who have just been rescued from dying on the moon. We are on Earth now, and we need to enjoy walking on this precious, beautiful planet. Zen Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on water or fire. The miracle is to walk on the earth.” I cherish that teaching. I enjoy just walking, even in busy places like airports and railway stations. Walking like that, with each step caressing our Mother Earth, we can inspire other people to do the same. We can enjoy every minute of our lives.
Far too often we’re swept away with thoughts of grandiose things, what we could or should be doing and wonders that we could be experiencing. Equally as often we’re dragged into the past to relive the worst moments of our lives. These things are not reality and being stuck somewhere between these dreams and nightmares we forget the treasures at our feet.
There’s a tale in mindfulness culture of a businessman who passes a monastery every day on his walk to work. The same monk stands sweeping the pathway to the monastery each day. As the businessman hurries by one day he pauses for just a moment to remark “It must be so peaceful to have the time to sweep this same path every day”. The monk looks up and replies “busy mind, busy life”. The truth is that we’re all given the same amount of time in a day and it can be so tempting to have a busy mind and to not allow ourselves to, in the words of the venerable coach Nick Saban, “be where our feet are”.
During this season of starting over I would challenge you to put aside the demands of playing a symphony or building a house for the much deeper goal of cleaning the instrument and sharpening the tool. Perhaps most importantly, returning to the present moment. Don’t get caught between the mistakes of the following year or promises of the new one.
It takes some work to fully embrace and accept the present moment, as it isn’t perfect, but it is often satisfactory. How much more could we do if we took the time to care for ourselves instead of working to find the edges of our capacity to perform? What would it look like to be captivated by our ability to eat, drink, move, breath, and smile? Don’t leave your instrument out of tune or your tool dull and rusted because another moment seems more lofty. Take care of your body, your tool for interacting with the world around you. Come home to the present, come home to yourself.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy”
If you feel like life is constantly a race and you can’t catch your breath, reach out to one of our mental health professionals to help you find the tools you need to be happy in these moments and many others. This isn’t to say there won’t still be difficult moments, but it is to say that so often we allow our minds to steal away the happiness of small moments each day that we need to empower us to face the darker moments of life.