“Every twenty-four-hour day is a tremendous gift to us,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh in the opening chapter of his book You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment. “Breathe in and tell yourself that a new day has been offered to you, and you have to be here to live it.”
The art of living in the present moment, Thich Nhat Hanh explains, lies in the ability to master the art of mindful breathing. We need to light up the lamp of our awareness to illuminate the breathing and everything that is happening around us in the present moment.
Observing our breath can be difficult because we might try to control it or influence it in some other way. This is a mistake, Thich Nhat Hanh warns us, because Buddhist practice is based on nonviolence and nondualism. We don’t have to struggle with our breath, our body, or difficult emotions:
Do not intervene or force either your in-breath or our out-breath. It’s like looking at a flower: letting it be as it is, mindful of the fact that it is there, a kind of miracle. See the flower as it is. See the breath as it is. We let the flower be as it is, and we should not do violence to our breath either. …
Whatever happens in the mind affects the body, and vice versa. If you generate peacefulness in your breathing, that peacefulness permeates your body and your state of mind. If you have practiced meditation, you have already discovered this. If you have been able to embrace your in-breath and your out-breath with tenderness, you know that they in turn embrace your body and your mind.
The first miracle of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh explains, is that you are here, your own presence, your authentic presence. Some people don’t really live; they walk around like corpses, consumed by their past, afraid of the future, and locked in their jealousy and anger. We have to look at them with mindfulness and cultivate compassion because they do not know that life is accessible only in the here and now. In other words, we have to practice resurrection, and this is an everyday practice. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
This is something everybody can do. Don’t underestimate yourself: you have the ability to wake up. You have the ability to be compassionate. You just need a little bit of practice to be able to touch the best that is in you. Enlightenment, mindfulness, understanding, and compassion are in you. Very simple practices — such as meditative walking, mindful breathing, or washing dishes mindfully — make it possible for you to leave hell and touch the positive seeds that are within you.
If you are really here, then the second miracle of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh continues, lies in the presence of the other. The other can be your heart, your body, or your in-breath. The other can be sunset, the song of the birds, or the sound of the nearby river. The other can be your significant other, your spouse, your child, or your best friend. Loving is recognizing the presence of the other with your love, and it’s not a theory — it’s an everyday practice. Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
When the other person realizes that his or her presence has been recognized and confirmed, he or she will blossom like a flower. To be loved is to be recognized as existing. Have you looked at others in this way? If you embrace them with the energy of mindfulness, with your true presence, this energy is completely nourishing. It is like water for a flower. A flower needs water to live, and the person you love needs your presence! Your presence is the most precious gift you can give him or her. “Dear one, I am here, really here, for you.” All of us can practice this mantra.
The third miracle of mindfulness lies in maintaining your own presence, mindfulness of the other, and working with positive and negative elements around you. You have to keep hold of the things that are refreshing and healing and embrace any negative elements with your mindful attention:
Perhaps you are in contact with too many negative elements. You have looked at, listened to, and touched things that are negative in nature, such as fear and despair. These negative forces are everywhere. When you turn on the television, for instance, you run the risk of ingesting harmful things, such as violence, despair, or fear. At that moment, say to yourself with mindfulness, “I don’t need these things. I already have suffering, violence, anger, and despair in me. I refuse to watch these programs. I am going to seek out things that are refreshing in nature, healing and helpful things. I will practice walking meditation; I will make contact with the blue sky, with spring, with the song of birds. … You need to recognize that these kinds of positive elements exist and that you can benefit from their refreshing and helpful presence.