“The way to take care of the future is also to take good care of the present moment.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The sign is posted on the trunk of a live oak tree at the entrance of the parking lot of Deer Park Monastery in Escondido. We had arrived fairly early to attend a Day of Mindfulness with the famous Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, but two miles from the mountain top retreat center, traffic had come to a standstill. My husband was in disbelief. “There must be a church service; these people can’t all be going there.” Ten years earlier we’d attended the same event and had no problem parking at the top. It moved me to see so many people drawn to “Thay,” as he is affectionately called, and to witness the growth of interest in mindfulness. After 15 minutes at a slow crawl we realized the lots were full. People were abandoning their cars on neighboring side streets and beginning to walk towards the 2000′ two mile hill. Just as we were about to turn around, a monk waved to us and said if we were willing to taxi three women, there would be a parking spot at the top for us. The parking Gods were with us! If we’d made the trek at that point, we would have missed the beginning of Thay’s talk.
We felt like VIPs as we dodged swarms of people hiking up the winding narrow road lined with cars. People who had from afar looked like ants on a march up a hill, became pilgrims of every age, race, and economic background as we made our way past them. It was 80 degrees already and many were ill-prepared for walking. Teens with flip flops and tight jeans, ladies with church dresses and heels, men in silk dress shirts carrying their wives designer purses, older couples pausing to catch their breath, children running alongside baby strollers pushed by their parents. It was a sight to see. And a beautiful one to be part of.
We chose a spot under the shade of a pink blossomed orchid tree with a view of the hillside. There were still folding chairs available, which was a relief, as sitting on the ground or standing for a two hour dharma talk would not be as relaxing. All the seats inside the monastery hall were taken, but there were speakers set up outdoors, where I preferred to be, especially on such an unusually warm October morning. Monks sang a song and chanted, bells were rung, and a sister led a meditation to warm us up for Thay’s talk. It was inspiring to be in his audience and feel his natural goodness. His voice was warm and gentle and his English seemed better than last time. I closed my eyes to focus and to block out the distractions of others. People were walking by trying to find seating but otherwise it was peaceful. I felt very meditative and relaxed, lulled by his slow delivery pace.
His talk centered on bringing mindfulness into work and home, and how critical it was to set a healthy example for children. He feels they are suffering from not receiving the attention and love they need from their parents, so they turn to the internet for escape and company. He has been talking to heads of major corporations to encourage them to provide workplace mindfulness training and habits, such as stopping work at 6 – no matter how much is left – to go home and be with family. Work can wait, relationships and health cannot, as he emphasized with a few poignant stories. He said “People think they will get happy from power or success or money. But the rich are not happier. The need for compassion is so important.”
In support of Thay’s suggestions are new research results that show that compassionate action activates pleasure and reward circuits in the brain and lowers stress hormones in the blood, strengthening the immune response. Here are a few reminders to help guide us through this holiday season:
- Spending money on others makes you happier than spending on yourself.
Spending money on experiences makes you happier than material spending.
Spending time on other people is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.
When I read those words I am home again. I can go to this sanctuary in my mind and reconnect to my breath and recreate the peace I felt as I entered the spiritual grounds of the monastery, visualizing the grove of live oaks creating a shelter from the sun and from the elements of the outside world. My senses recall the comfort of the warm breeze buffeting my skin, as I sat under the pink blossomed tree, smelling the sweet clean air, being lulled by the sound of Thay’s soft slow words.
This is a hectic season wrought with mixed emotions and too many obligations and too little time. It’s a perfect season to create your own escape sanctuary, or to practice another of Thay’s suggestions: Take time for 3 deep breaths as often as possible throughout each day. Maybe before each meal, or when at a stop light in your car, or every hour at your desk. Inhale relaxation and exhale guilt or stress. Whatever you feel caught up or consumed in. And make time for people in your life by giving them your attention – be fully present – and guilt-free (don’t be thinking of what else you “should” be doing). Yes, we are much more challenged than monks because we live in a world of many distractions and many more mindless people caught up in it. But we don’t have to give in to it. We do have a choice.
For more on how mindfulness can help you manage stress and make guilt-free choices read “Twelve Mindful Months: Cultivating a Balanced & Fit Body, Mind & Spirit” by Carol Tibbetts. Stay on the mindful path with me by signing up, above, right, to get future blog posts delivered directly to your inbox.