Mindfulness retreats with world renowned meditation expert and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (referred to as “Thay,” which is Vietnamese for “teacher”) always include a question and answer session. Participants are invited to pose a question to the wise teacher to get his advice and guidance. Typically, the questions revolve around managing anger, how to communicate with loved ones about politics, or using mindfulness to not take that extra cookie. But, there is also the occasional question that is very challenging or provocative.
On one retreat, I recall Thay’s sharing about an instance with a nuclear physicist who came up to the front of the retreat hall that contained 950 eagerly attentive attendees and 100 monks and nuns to ask a question.
The physicist explained:
“I have been practicing mindfulness every day for a few weeks. My practice has deepened. I feel a lot more joy in my heart as a result. But, I am concerned about my job. My mindfulness practice has led me to think deeply about the type of work I do. As a nuclear physicist, I realize that I am part of creating something very dangerous. I’m part of a process that could cause enormous destruction. I fear I’m no longer helping to create a better world. This is causing me a lot of suffering. I’m thinking I should quit my job. What do you think I should do?”
Thay took a few deep breaths in silence. He had listened carefully and now breathed deeply as he reflected.
Thay then spoke to the man:
“I encourage you to keep your job.”
The man and the audience seemed surprised, not expecting that response.
“It is better to have someone in your very serious position practicing mindful awareness than to be replaced by someone who might behave carelessly or mindlessly. Being reactive has no place in that kind of work. It is important you continue your practice of mindful breathing, mindful reflecting, and mindful working. This will help keep you sharp and may help you in making wise decisions when the time comes.”
A core theme of mindfulness emerges from this story: whatever you are doing, do it mindfully. This means to use your senses to pay attention to what you are doing, what you are thinking, and how you are feeling. Pause (often) to breathe, to let go, and to reconnect with yourself, the people around you, and the Earth.
To practice with awareness is to practice cultivating our own insight. This means we think more deeply. We feel more deeply. We can then express ourselves from a place of greater clarity and purpose. Each decision we make matters – some seem mundane or trivial, while others may create a ripple effect that can be felt around the world.
Your mindfulness practice isn’t just about you. It’s about all of us.