Thich Nhat Hanh’s Guidance on Reducing Tension and Upping Focus

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Guidance on Reducing Tension and Upping Focus

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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.

Now Shambhala has condensed Hanh’s teachings in to a tidy volume, “The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh.” (They’re not kidding when they say “pocket”: the book is about as long as an iPhone, and just barely wider.) It makes an ideal survival guide for college students navigating the thrills and anxieties of campus life as the fall semester gets underway. Here are six pieces of Buddhist wisdom which tackle some of the challenges students may face, from homesickness to the “freshman 15.”

“Your true home is in the here and now”
One of the most common hardships college students face is homesickness. Communal showers and paltry cafeteria offerings have a way of calling up only the rosiest memories of life under mom and dad’s roof. But Thich Nhat Hanh challenges readers to consider a different, more rewarding, concept of home. Instead of “an abstract idea” or a physical “limited to time, space, nationality or race,” home is what happens when you fully embrace your current circumstances and consciously engage with the present moment. “With mindfulness and concentration,” Hanh writes, “you can find your true home in the full relaxation of your mind and body.” Distance makes the heart grow fonder, it’s true; but the sooner you let go of your longing for home, the more motivated you’ll feel to seek out the comforts and joys of new surroundings.

Stop stressing and just focus
If you’ve spent all night cramming for a test or writing a paper, you know that total, uninterrupted focus is elusive to the point of seeming unattainable. But how much of the anxiety and frustration of schoolwork is due to the actual assignment at hand, and how much is caused by extraneous worries on your radar (i.e., fear of getting a bad grade, or annoyance at not being able to go out with your friends)? Hanh argues that paying full attention to the task at hand—and not the pressure to do it well, or on what activities you could be doing instead—frees you to perform with precision, relaxation and even enjoyment. While outside expectations and consequences might seem like motivating factors, they only detract from the work itself. “Life is too precious for us to lose ourselves in our ideas and concepts, in our anger and despair,” Hanh writes.

Practice the art of resting
Opportunities to sit back and do absolutely nothing at college shouldn’t be taken lightly. “Resting is a very important practice,” writes Hanh. But “not many of us know how to allow our body and mind to rest.” According to Hanh, most people have what he calls “habit energy”: a tendency to continue talking, thinking, worrying and planning even while purportedly taking it easy. True restorative rest, though, requires a total temporary relinquishment of struggle and responsibility, says Hanh. “Sitting,” he writes, “first of all is for the pleasure of sitting. Walking first of all is for the pleasure of walking…. The art is to be there 100 percent.”

Eat (and drink) mindfully
College students frequently deal with their stress by eating and drinking—a lot. Whether sedating anxieties with comfort food or dissolving worries with alcohol, students tend to consume mindlessly until further problems, such as weight gain or alcohol dependency, develop. Learning to eat mindfully doesn’t make the stress of the world go away, but by separating emotions from food and drink, you can bring new clarity and wisdom to your inner state. “Eat with gratitude,” Hanh writes. “And when you put [a] piece of bread into your mouth, chew only on your bread and not on your projects, worries, fears, or anger. This is the practice of mindfulness.”

Take a day off
It’s difficult to apply mindful insight to everyday life with consistency. That’s why Hanh urges everyone to devote one day per week to the practice of mindfulness, “a day,” he writes, “during which you are completely the master.” Functioning as a kind of “reset button” for the rest of your week, this “day of mindfulness” should be free of responsibilities, social obligations and, most importantly, work. Hanh suggests beginning with some morning breathing exercises and a long bath, followed by simple household chores or low-key diversions like reading. The goal is to maintain a spirit of aimlessness and abstain from any worrying or thinking outside the present moment.

Don’t wait to be worry-free to have fun
While the bulk of Hanh’s advice is aimed at alleviating anxiety and cultivating inner peace, the fact is that the pressures of life on campus will never disappear. Hanh urges readers not to wait until their problems are solved to enjoy life. “Even while you have pain in your heart,” he writes, “you can enjoy the many wonders of life…. Don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.”

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