Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald met Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately known as Thây) in 1982 when they were students at the San Francisco Zen Center. In the 1980s they founded Parallax Press and the Community of Mindful Living to share Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of engaged Buddhism. This article was adapted from an interview conducted by Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Arnie Kotler: When Thich Nhat Hanh was a young monk, he realized that mindfulness is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. As Theravada practitioners, that may be obvious to you, but for a Zen monk in a primarily Mahayana country, that was a breakthrough. All of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings center around this insight. At the core is mindful breathing, which, as you know, is part of the first foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of the body. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings emphasize “embodiment,” dwelling in our bodies in the present moment.
Therese Fitzgerald: Mindful breathing helps us bring our body and mind back together; it brings us back into our bodies to be fully present with ourselves and whatever we are doing. At the Community for Mindful Living and Parallax Press office, we practice telephone meditation. When the telephone rings, we stop whatever we are doing—all our conversation, all moving around—and bring our awareness to our breathing.
If I’m upset about something, the telephone bell reminds me to breathe and become aware of what I am doing, saying, and thinking. Then I can proceed freshly when I continue working or speaking or listening to someone. Coming back to my breath, I remember why I am here, what I am doing, who I am. This basic practice of mindful breathing helps us return, as Thây says, to our “true home.”
AK: When we practice phone meditation and other mindful breathing practices, we feel the calming effect in our bodies. In the office, our work is mostly mental and we experience ourselves primarily above our necks. We actually feel a buzz; the temperature in our heads rises. When we practice telephone meditation, breathing mindfully for three rings, we quiet ourselves and we can feel our center going back down below our navel. We regain the perspective that everything we’re doing is not an emergency.
TF: Mindfulness of breathing extends to mindfulness of our whole body, our speech, our thoughts, our feelings, and our surroundings, including other people. Telephone meditation helps us cut through our habit patterns. Becoming conscious about our speech and our actions is a step toward diminishing our suffering and guards against causing more suffering. Thây always asks, “Does your practice transform your suffering so you are a happier person, available to be of service to others and to help make the world a better place?”
AK: The mindfulness practices Thây teaches are to help people transform their suffering and heal their wounds, to become healthier and freer, and eventually to be strong enough to be resources for other people. This is the bodhisattva path for “earthlings.”
Walking meditation is another contribution to embodied practice. You follow your breathing and, at the same time, are aware of your steps. You can practice at any time or place—between phone calls, between appointments, walking to the car, walking down the street. It is very enjoyable and refreshing. When we see a beautiful tree, if we continue to follow our breathing, we can stay with the tree. If we lose our breathing, we’ll get caught up in our thinking and lose the tree, and everything else.
Another embodied practice introduced by Thich Nhat Hanh is “hugging meditation.” In 1966, when he came to the United States to speak out for peace, he visited many cities. After he spoke in Atlanta, an assistant of Dr. Martin Luther King took him to the airport. When they got there, she said to him, “I know you are a Buddhist monk, but I’d really like to hug you.” Thây thought for a moment and then said, “Okay.” But when she hugged him, he kept his arms limp, straight down at his sides. Aboard the plane, he knew, “That was not correct,” and he began to think about how he could make his peace with being in the West, where our customs are so different. So he invented hugging meditation.
TF: Hugging meditation is breathing consciously while hugging. It is a great time for stopping and calming yourself and simply being present. You are aware of your breathing, and you may even become aware of the other person’s heartbeat and your own. It is a kind of joining of stillness.
AK: Thây also teaches gathas, verses to encourage mindfulness, to accompany many of our daily activities. One gatha for hugging meditation is: “Breathing in, I know I am holding my precious friend (or my beloved). Breathing out, I know we are both alive.”
TF: Thây often lectures on bringing awareness into relationships, on realizing love in the family. He isn’t afraid of words like “love.” In fact, he encourages us to renew the word love. One of his translations for bodhichitta is “mind of love,” and he calls Maitreya, the future Buddha, “the Buddha of love.”