January 7th, 2017


In some other world ...

This book came to me via the Early Reviewer program over at LibaryThing.com … whose “Almighty Algorithm” determined (fairly predictably) that my library was a good match for it. Frankly, this is something that I'm surprised that I hadn't picked up at some time previously, as I've read a number of the author's books over the years. However, I was a bit perplexed at how/why this ended up in the LTER program, which is theoretically targeted to allow publishers to get some pre-release buzz for upcoming titles. Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation was written in 1975, the current translation dates to 1987, and it's still in print in a 1996 hardcover and 1999 paperback. This, however, is bring marketed as a “gift edition”, although it's not got any of the enhancements (deckled edges, bookmark ribbon, deluxe binding, etc.) that such designation brings to mind. According to the flap on the dustcover (it is a hardcover) “This gift edition features Thich Nhat Hanh's inspiring calligraphy, photographs from his travels around the world, and a revised afterword.”, so I guess that's it. I feel a bit churlish being somewhat underwhelmed by the 8 pages of B&W photos and the “fortune cookie” calligraphy (example: “breathe you are alive”) that precedes each chapter here, but when I read “gift edition” I was expecting something more (oh, something like this), and I have to wonder what the thinking was on releasing a second hardcover edition (at the same cover price as the existing one) of this. I mean, it would be one thing if this was, say, the 50th anniversary of its initial publication or something, but, apparently, no. This, of course, has nothing substantive to do with the book itself … and it's certainly a nice little book, that I'm happy to have a copy of in my collection!

If I had one notable “take-away” from reading The Miracle of Mindfulness it was something of an “aha!” moment with one of the things the author presents here … something which I'd recently encountered in my DBT work which has exercises about manifesting a “half-smile” (and which, honestly, I thought was total B.S.), the details of which are almost lifted word-for-word from this book. Given that this initially came out over a decade before DBT was evolved out of CBT, it's pretty obvious to me that that was blatantly cribbed from Thich Nhat Hanh … and it certainly makes more sense in a book that includes such hard-to-get-into-a-real-schedule items as a “slow motion bath” than it does (at least to my thinking) in a therapy situation. Interestingly (to me), all my little bookmarks show up in the sections before the introduction of the half-smile (and bath) stuff … I guess the author sort of lost me there.

I suppose a secondary take-away relates to some of the above … a lot of what is covered/suggested here would be a lot easier or practical for those living at a retreat center. While there are certainly elements that could be wedged into a busy Western urban day, a lot of whats in here just sound “pie in the sky, by and by” to me … but I've never been the “peaceful reflection” kind of guy, and, unless I'm really being diligent with my inner “monkey mind”, I find most attempts at meditation (although not those in an organized setting, where they are the activity, and not something delaying anticipated activities) very difficult to fully engage with. That, I suppose, is a caveat to keep in mind when I'm kvetching about stuff in this!

The book starts out oddly, with the author talking about visiting with friends, and asking about their children, etc., then relating stories about other associates and things they'd done. Now, as any regular readers of these reviews will appreciate – I simply do not get “teaching stories” – whatever mental circuitry that's necessary to extract meaningful stuff out of those, I'm evidently lacking ... so I'll cede the possibility that there might be some significant material being imparted in these tales, but I don't see it. Fortunately, the author does frequently “cut to the chase” rather than leaving the reader to infer his intent. One place I marked here was in the middle of an story about traveling with a guy by the name of Jim, who had volunteered to do the dishes, TNH challenges him on if he knows how to wash dishes – which Jim, predictably, bristles at. TNH tells him:
“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”
He goes on to say that if we are thinking of the cup of tea that we'll be having after finishing up the dishes, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes”, and he further suggests that we'll not be present for the tea either, thinking of other things. He goes on to chastise Jim for not being mindful in eating a tangerine, and is obviously not a fan of mentally multi-tasking (and obviously has all the time in the world – as his instructions for eating that tangerine would likely make a 2-minute “feeding project” into a half-hour of “thoughtful chewing”). I hate to be so bitchy about this (and I'm obviously being “reactive” about the mindfulness stuff – which is why I need to read things like this), but when TNH tells students that an hour of meditation a day is “nowhere near enough”, and I have a hard time getting organized to be able to try to sit for 5-10 minutes, there's obviously a disconnect between my universe and his.

I had another marker in the section where he starts addressing the breath, this starts with an odd parable then gets into a technical spiel that also kind of lost me:
Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind, the element which reconciles our body and mind and which makes possible the one-ness of body and mind. Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm.
He does move from this into discussing how breath is simply a tool of mindfulness, and then returns again to the dishes:
When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you're drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you're using the toilet {yes, seriously}, let that be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising the cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. ...
He goes from here into a couple of chapters discussing practical (in a retreat center setting) issues around meditation practice, that managed to avoid getting any bookmarks from me, and then turns to more philosophical topics:
      While you sit in meditation, after having taken hold of your mind, you can direct your concentration to contemplate on the interdependent nature of certain objects. This meditation is not a discursive reflection on a philosophy of interdependence. It is a penetration of mind into mind itself, using one's concentrative power to reveal the real nature of the object being contemplated.
      Recall a simple and ancient truth: the subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. … When the object of knowledge (the something) is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge. The practitioner meditates on mind and, by so doing, is able to see the interdependence of the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. ...
I found the next bit quite fascinating, as these are very close to what I'd come up with for “labeling” (and dismissing) mental traffic in those infrequent (and brief) times when I've been able to get myself to sit for meditation … these are what TNH presents as the “five aggregates”:
      Every object of the mind is itself mind. In Buddhism, we call the objects of the mind the dharmas. Dharmas are usually grouped into five categories:
                  1. bodily and physical forms
                  2. feelings
                  3. perceptions
                  4. mental functionings
                  5. consciousness
He goes from this into looking at some classic Buddhist concepts around “suffering”, birth and death, etc. These are followed up by some classic stories that then dove-tail into material about “service” (which is a theme for a lot of the material about his various travels and associates), and into a long section of “Exercises in Mindfulness” (where the half-smile stuff is). The last third of the book is a piece about Thich Nhat Hanh, which I'm guessing is by the dish-washing and tangerine-eating “Jim” (Jim Forest), followed by a number of Buddhist Sutras (relating to mindfulness), followed by a fairly detailed timeline of TNH's life.

I'm somewhat irritated with myself that I didn't interface with The Miracle of Mindfulness in a more constructive manner, but that's no doubt on my current “work on myself” creating a lot of points where I was “reactive” (if not “Mr. Crankypants”). I'm guessing that most folks (or at least most folks who are interested in delving into a Buddhist meditative tradition) will find this quite a pleasant and informative read. As noted up top, this is available variously, with this “gift edition” just coming out a couple of months back, and other editions still in print. Oddly, given that this has been kicking around for a long time in a number of forms, there don't seem to be any particularly cheap options out there (well, the on-line big boys currently have the paperback at 44% off, which makes it competitive with the used guys) … so you're on your own on that. And, again, I probably enjoyed reading this more than my digging into it sounds like!

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