Sunday, September 29, 2019

Peace Is Every Step

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness In Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh (1990)

This slim volume is basically a collection of short essays about finding peace, compassion, and harmony in everyday life by slowing down and living mindfully. It's divided into three sections. "Breathe! You Are Alive" is very much about the everyday: how to live in the moment and focus on the little things like breathing, walking, eating, or even doing the dishes. "Transformation and Healing" applies these principles to dealing with difficult emotions like anger and transforming them into more productive ones. It talks a lot about dealing with other people, such as parents or romantic partners, and emphasizes the importance of community. "Peace Is Every Step" takes this philosophy even farther outside of ourselves to look at world problems with a lens of kindness, compassion, peace and justice.

 At this point I've read a few things about mindfulness and about Buddhism and it's starting to get interesting to see how they complement or contradict each other. For instance, one thing that has stuck with me from The Wise Heart is noticing your feelings but realizing that they are not part of you, and will come and go like the weather. Here, in a piece called "Mindfulness of Anger" Nhat Hanh says "When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress it or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self." He compares it to garbage and compost: you can take something unwanted and transform it into something useful and nurturing. I'm not sure that the two perspectives are actually contradictory in terms of what Buddhism is about because the important thing, I think, is being aware of your emotions and recognizing that some of them are not helpful. Perhaps whether you wait for them to pass or transform them is not important.

He uses garbage in his writing a lot actually. Another passage I liked is about how if you want to live peacefully with a person you need to recognize the whole person. He says "We do not expect a person always to be a flower. We have to understand his or her garbage as well."

I also like how he talks about engaging with the world. Buddhism isn't all about staying inside your own head all the time, despite the emphasis on meditation. Meditation is to help with focus and clarity and should help you see the world. Once you see it, you need to act on what you see. And he sees us as all interdependent. In a passage entitled "Flowers and Garbage" (I told you he likes garbage!) he writes about prostitution and how we look down on prostitutes and how prostitutes may feel badly when they compare themselves to "good girls" from good family. Nhat Hanh says that the prostitute is the way she is because others are the way they are and asks "How can a 'good girl,' belonging to a good family, be proud? Because the 'good family's' way of life is the way it is, the prostitute has to live as a prostitute. No one among us has clean hands." The same is true with wealth and poverty.

He talks about war and peace and the environment. He talks about writing positive letters to our congressional representatives, letters they will want to read and not just throw away, and he acknowledges the need for understanding the constraints of doing their jobs. He talks about all the little ways that what we do every day affects the world; the way we speak to people, what we throw in the trash. He talks about looking at people who do bad things - like pirates who rape young girls - and considering what conditions in the world contributed to them becoming how they are; he thinks that if he had faced the same conditions in his life, perhaps he would also have ended up a pirate.

Thich Nhat Hanh is very well-known and popular for his views and his writing, and this book feels like one it would be good to own and turn to now and again to try and soak up more of his advice. It's the first book by Nhat Hanh that I've read but I am interested in reading more as I really like how he views the world, and the way he writes about it.

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