“I remember one morning contemplating a mountain in the early light of dawn. I saw very clearly that not only was I looking at the mountain, but all my ancestors in me were looking at the mountain as well.
“As dawn broke over the mountain peak we admired its beauty together. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We were free. We needed only to sit there and enjoy the sunrise. Or ancestors may never have had the chance to sit quietly, peacefully, and enjoy the sunrise like that.
“When we can stop the running, all our ancestors can stop at the same time. With the energy of mindfulness and awakening, we can stop on behalf of all our ancestors. It is not the stopping of a separate self alone, but of a whole lineage. As soon as there is stopping, there is happiness. There is peace.” (1)
When Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story, he shows us ‘mindfulness’ as an art of living. He stops, looks at a mountain at dawn. His contemplation becomes a relationship, and the relationship is extended to the ancestors. For him, mindfulness sits together with interbeing, his word for interconnectedness. It is not a personal accomplishment, but the portal to an expanded, more inclusive, experience of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a great advocate and teacher of formal sitting meditation. But he didn’t fetishise it. The Mahayana Buddhist world view, and particularly its ethics, mattered more. I once heard a senior Vietnamese follower (also a psychiatrist) say that she was cautious about teaching meditation in Vietnam. She said that even in the 21st century, decades after the Japanese, French, American and Chinese wars, with elements of civil war thrown in, many people in Vietnam are too traumatised to benefit from meditation. What works best is participation in the Buddhist community and its ceremonial life, in a spirit of generosity and compassion. Mindfulness is essentially a value, not a contemplative technique.
I stop for my own ancestors, of both blood and other inheritances. I become aware of holding them in my heart. I let them in as I let in the world around me, and I experience that world with them and for them. We share a brief period of deep peace, and then let it go. For me, it feels mindful, Druidic, and very natural. Something to return to, whenever the moment feels right.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017 (Rider is an imprint of Penguin Random House UK)