Thich Nhat Hanh's Wisdom on Change
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, political activist and one of the world’s leading teachers of Zen Buddhism, has written more than 80 books of prose and poetry over the course of his long career. At the root of all his teachings and writings is the Buddhist concept of mindfulness: the practice of maintaining full awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings to better absorb the beauty of the present moment.
We take a look at what Hanh has to say about personal change. These books offer guidance on undoing bad habits and negative thinking—be it anger, fear or overconsumption—with mindfulness.
Acknowledge your demons
In order to effect real personal change, one has to recognize the fears, insecurities and bad habits that require adjustment. And there's no better way to do this, Hanh argues, than by practicing mindfulness. In "The Miracle of Mindfulness," an introductory guide to the Buddhist practice, Hanh instructs readers on how to observe their thoughts with clarity and non-judgment and, as a result, detach from them. The method is especially useful to those who tend act on emotions—say, by withdrawing or lashing out—without careful consideration. Mindfulness helps us to articulate the root of certain thoughts and perceptions and to loosen their emotional hold over us.
Get to the root of your fears
Whether it's a lifelong, deep-seated phobia or an anxiety about the future, fear is a fact of life for most of us. And more than anything else, says Hanh, fear is what isolates us, propels us to hurt others and keeps us chained to old habits. In his latest book, "Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm," he writes: "Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connection to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion." Hanh shows readers how to use mindfulness to untangle fears so that we gain greater insight into our motivations and open our minds to change.
Tune in to your body
In "Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames," Hanh observes that anger is one of the three states of mind that the Buddha cited as causes for our unhappiness. To be sure, nobody likes to be around a hothead; but even more problematically, a single act of intense anger can permanently damage lives and relationships. Arguing that the seeds of anger are sown in our bodies as well as our minds, Hanh guides readers in how to reevaluate their eating, drinking and exercising habits. Digestive problems from overeating, he says, can lead to anger, as can drinking and remaining too sedentary. Combining this physiological insight with a mindfulness program specific to anger issues, Hanh marks a path to cooler thinking for even the most habitually short-fused.
Keep emotions in their place
Many emotions besides anger find their way into our eating habits; insecurities and neediness drive us to over-consume, while body-image issues and perfectionism compel us to under-nourish. In "Savor," Hanh applies mindfulness to eating, teaching readers to establish a healthier and more clear-sighted relationship with food and drink. Detaching our emotions from our eating habits is essential, he argues, to undoing harmful consumption habits. "When you put [a] piece of bread into your mouth," he writes, "chew only on your bread and not on your projects, worries, fears, or anger. This is the practice of mindfulness.”
Remember that every struggle is surmountable
"Taming the Tiger Within" presents wisdom distilled from some of Hanh's other takes on transformative negative emotions, including wisdom on grieving from his classic book "No Death, No Fear." He also delves into his exile from his homeland of Vietnam (as punishment for his supporting peace during the Vietnam War) and his remarkable struggle to transform his feelings of alienation and loss.
Honor your rough patches
While the goal of mindfulness is to recognize and work through negative habits and emotions, it's important not to disown your own past pain and failings. Fear, anger, addiction and loss, once transformed, lead to love and compassion, and those who have passed through dark periods emerge with arguably greater insight and wisdom than those who have never strayed from the path. In "The Heart of Buddha's Teaching," Hanh observes that the transformation (not the absence or evasion) of pain forms the core of Buddhism wisdom and is what gives us the strength to perpetuate our own liberation from bad habits.
Spread the change
Once you've managed to change bad habits or patterns of negative thinking, it's important to remember that others who are struggling will benefit from the wisdom of your experience. In this classic, Hanh offers guidance on tuning in to the peace and beauty of the present moment and spreading that peace to others. "If in our daily lives we can smile," he writes, "if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit with it."