My heart suddenly unbuttoned
Mind Moves: I was home; at least my heart felt at home, writes Tony Bates.
“With love we can face anything; but many of us have not known true love and so the question we must ask is how love is born. Without being able to do this for ourselves we can’t heal, and without doing this first, we can’t heal others.”
THESE WERE the opening words of Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thay, meaning teacher in Vietnamese, as he is known) when he spoke in the House of Lords last week. There was a ripple of excitement in the room as the audience became hushed and we stood to greet him when he entered the chamber.
After Lord Richard Laird’s moving introduction, Thay had remained still for several minutes, his face expressionless. For a moment I worried that he didn’t want to be there. And then I realised he was taking time to connect with himself and to take the pulse of this particular gathering.
Cultivating love for ourselves, he continued, begins with the breath: “When we focus attention and breathe in, a miracle happens. We go back to ourselves, we remember we have a body, we see there is tension in our body. We notice it with our inbreath and we let it go with our outbreath.”
His words caught me in the gut; some deep muscle relaxed. Normally the road from my head to my heart is long and winding. I rely way too much on my frontal lobes to stay on top of things. But here I was with my heart suddenly unbuttoned. I was home; at least my heart felt at home.
“New possibilities arise when we breathe mindfully. We discover what we have to be thankful for, the wonders of life that are available to us. We also connect with our pain and we stop running away. Being mindful generates an energy that allows us some distance from our suffering, where we can hold it in awareness, listen to it, and take care of it. We begin to understand our pain. Compassion is born when we begin to understand suffering. With compassion we can transform pain.”
He went on to say many things I had heard him say before, but it was as though I was hearing them for the first time. I had changed. My life had moved on. His words were landing in a new place, a place where old wounds had healed and new possibilities were opening up.
Mindfulness is easy to write or talk about, but you feel its power when you’re in the presence of people like Thay, who live this practice through thick and thin. The spirit of this slim, fragile 86-year-old man was fierce. His presence gave his message its power. I knew that when it came to dying, what would matter was whether I had managed, even for one day, to live with that kind of courage and integrity.
One man asked what he could do for someone who was in deep pain, but who had shut himself off from any possible experience of healing. There was a tone of desperation in his voice that made it clear his question was not academic.
Thay answered that we need to be careful not to be too eager to change people. That sometimes what is needed is our presence and our patience. A person who has shut himself off from the world is hurting; they have lost trust in everyone.
If we love them with a steadfast presence that is not requiring of them that they change, they may in time see that our love is real; that it is safe for them to open up.
In 2004, I first visited Thay’s monastery in Plum Village, France, where I worked at turning compost, and packing paper and cardboard for recycling. I learned that really, there are no “negatives” in life; that even those experiences we feel ashamed of and want to throw away can help us to wake up and become more real.
At that time, mindfulness seemed a somewhat esoteric concept, but today it has become a household term. This simple practice has shown us a different way of relating to the jolts and sorrows we encounter, and living together.
Hopefully Thay’s trip to Ireland this week will re-introduce us to the “wonders of life” that are available to us, right here, right now, when we stop running and give our hearts room to breathe.
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, www.headstrong.ie.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times. Headstrong would like to thank the Irish Times for their ongoing support.