Oct 28, 2022
Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Four Mindfulness trainings.
Think about the word, “training.” What comes to mind? Hard work? Discipline? And yet, when we think about spirituality, we often eschew any discipline or work because we value our freedom. There’s nothing wrong with that, until we see how many of our choices lead us to craving and suffering.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh often wrote about how we should be aware of how each decision we make has the potential to effect peace or suffering. In other words, we can contribute to the peace within ourselves and the world, or we can contribute to the suffering.
And yet, Buddhists understand that life does bring suffering. There is the suffering we cannot control, such as the death of a loved one or the destruction of land after a natural catastrophe. There is also the suffering we can control. This is the mess we get ourselves into by clinging and aversion. We suffer when we lose ourselves in a romantic relationship, and we suffer trying to avoid the truth about something or someone.
We therefore need to take a deeper look at the choices we make at each moment and train ourselves to make more fruitful choices.
In his book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hahn outlines five mindfulness trainings to curb the suffering we can’t control. We can think of these trainings as a lifelong process of maintaining a healthy mind, body, and spirit. You might not be able to control the choices of others, but you can control how you respond to the world.
This is reverence for life. This means all life--people who look like you, people who don't look like you, and people you don't like. This also includes the birds, the trees, and the environment. We all can be a little more at peace with ourselves when we stop being at war with others. See the yoga practice of ahimsa.
Don’t be greedy. People aren’t commodities, stop seeing the world as your marketplace—instead see the world as a community where there is even exchange and win-win. Think of others, and be mindful of how your actions might be selfish.
This one’s going to piss some people off because it goes against liberal ideas of sexual freedom and freedom of expression. Thich Nhat Hanh says that this is irresponsible. If we respect the lives of others and don’t want to cause harm, we don’t do things to manipulate them. We give love freely to others. However, he says that when we don’t bring mutual love into a sexual encounter, we lose respect for the other and ourselves.
He writes: “The industry of sex is something very shameful for our society. The sex industry, the production of sounds and images that water the worst kind of seeds in us, is a shame of our civilization" (p. 130). This also includes the movies and ads we see—how is our consumption perpetuating this lifestyle?
Choose words carefully
Speak truth, but also inspire others. Listen to others and help relieve their suffering. Avoid gossip and speaking words that harm others or a community. Try not to exacerbate division—instead promote unity. He also makes calls out leaders of nations:
“These people are the cream; they are selected by the people of the country to represent them. If they are not able to listen to each other or to communicate with each other, how can our country have a future? How can the people of the country be understood by the government?" (p. 133)
In other words, people look up to leaders—government, business, educational, and religious—to tell the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear. We shouldn’t use words to try to win. We should use words to bring people together.
This includes toxins from your food, mind, and lifestyle. I like to eat Ben & Jerry’s so much that I can’t keep it in my freezer. It always manages to creep out on my counter and get a spoon. But I know that a diet of ice cream makes me feel physically and mentally sluggish.
We can also lose hours of our lives by watching videos that are toxic to our minds. We might not notice it at first, but consider why you watch certain programs. What are they feeding you—inspiration or validation? What do these teachings inspire you to do—continue along a sluggish or hedonic path, or do they inspire you to respect your life and those of others who disagree with you?
Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
The Buddha always reminds us that nothing can survive without food, our ill-being too. If we know how to cut off the source of nutrition for our ill-being, it will have to go away (p. 134).
In other words, without mindfulness, you could be feeding the negativity within you.
1 Hanh, Thich Nhat. Going Home (p. 130). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Hanh, Thich Nhat. Going Home (p. 133). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
3 Hanh, Thich Nhat. Going Home . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.