Books & Culture

Living in the Present with Thich Nhat Hanh

Living in the present is perhaps the most difficult task we have as humans on this planet. Exhausted by the memories of the past and terrified by the prospect of a future on a dying planet, I have found myself in recent days and weeks unable to sit still, inhabiting the present moment uncomfortably, if at all. Yes, even living in Hawai’i, one’s patience for rainbows, perfect blue oceans, and endlessly perfect waves, inevitably grows thin, and one eventually finds oneself retreating once again to that cramped and anxious hallway within. It has been the work of the Vietnamese poet, Zen master, and peacemaker, Thich Nhat Hanh to help his readers and followers learn how to better inhabit the present moment. But when I sat down to listen to one of his guided meditations yesterday, I had my doubts about whether he would be able to help me.

We have no need to invent a time machine to take us to the past or propel us into one of the multiverse’s possible futures. The imagination does that job just fine. I hardly sit down for a minute and already my mind travels to other continents. This week Portland, Oregon was as hot as Death Valley, and it doesn’t take perverse or even vast imaginative leaps to imagine every river and lake boiled dry while the ancient forests burn away around them. Portland reached 116 degrees last week. Water boils at 212 degrees, and at even lower temperatures than that at higher altitudes. My parents live there. My brother considered staging an air conditioner intervention for my parents.

Then there are more local issues to worry about. Where I live in Honolulu, Hawai’i, all signs indicate that the city is more likely than not to move forward with a project that involves dumping sand on a coral reef to create an artificial beach in front of one of the hotels. When I say I have been unable to sit still, I mean to say that I have been unable to do something as simple as exhale and inhale.

In Peace is Every Breath, Hanh writes that by reminding ourselves to return to the present moment when meditating, we can break ourselves of the habit of looking to the future where we believe we will finally have met all our “conditions of happiness”, and free ourselves from the prison of the past where we exist in a state of perpetual mourning or regret, haunted by blockages that don’t exist in the here and now. Hanh explains: “When you practice conscious breathing, you have a greater ability to recognize your habit, and every time you do, its power to pull you out of the moment diminishes. It’s the beginning of your liberation, your true freedom, your real happiness.” By fostering a practice, Hanh explains that “Mindful breathing lets us see clearly that the abuse, threats, and pain we had to endure in the past are not happening to us now, and we can abide safely here in the present.”

But before I returned to all of this, before settling in to listen to Hanh, I had tried several guided meditations to little avail. Sitting still and fidgeting feels stupid, so I got up, and stared blankly at my computer. I scrolled through social media. I went surfing and even the sea turtles wouldn’t get near me. Then, I found a mindful breathing meditation, which you can find here, where Thich Nhat Hanh explores the importance of focusing on the breath, and on the expansive, miraculous, ordinary wonder that exists in the present moment.

Perhaps the most moving moment in the meditation was when Hanh invites his listeners to “look at the tree,” as beautiful as a cathedral. How could I argue with him, I who have stood at the foot of the thousand-year old redwoods, who have gotten lost in bamboo forests up in Tantalus, who have climbed the trees of my childhood and found something like goodness there? But there is more to a tree than all that. The tree can also be a nexus of all the elements of life. The tree’s leaves absorb light and transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, which we then breathe when we focus on our exhale and inhale. In this way, we are connected to the tree, and the tree is connected to us, because without the tree’s work we cannot breathe. And in the process of making oxygen, the tree pulls carbon dioxide out of the air, the same carbon dioxide that’s slowly heating our planet. So in this way, the tree is a quiet hero in the fight against climate change, just by living, just by breathing. And when we root out feet on the ground, or sit beside the tree to meditate, we are supported by the tree’s roots, the same roots that put that carbon back into the soil, which supports the fungus and worms and water. The tree gives us the air we breathe and takes the carbon out of the air, and it does so just by being, and we can be connected to all of this just by breathing mindfully, just by being, too.

Trees within Trees. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Trees within Trees. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

In her luminous book, Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard writes about the immense capacity of nature to heal itself, and our own immense capacity to heal ourselves. She writes that we should all strive to make friends with a tree: “It is our disconnectedness—and lost understanding about the amazing capacities of nature—that’s driving a lot of despair, and plants in particular are objects of our abuse…Go find a tree—your tree. Imagine linking into her network, connecting to other trees nearby. Open your senses.”

This is radical thinking. What would it mean if we paused more, paid more attention to our own breathing, and made friends with a tree? According to Hanh, we might open our eyes and finally see the whole cosmos, and maybe ourselves, more clearly.

Peace is Every Breath by Thich Nhat Hanh at (affiliate link)

Peace is Every Breath by Thich Nhat Hanh at (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.