Digging for Simplicity: Thich Nhat Hanh

I read an article recently that suggested that a restrictive diet could drastically decrease the symptoms of ADHD in some children — in a number of cases eliminating restlessness and hyperactivity entirely.  For parents, the chance to get their children off large doses of medication could be a welcome release from the dependent cycle of prescription meds; likewise, children have the opportunity to feel the sense of autonomy that comes with dealing with their intense behavioral impulses sans medicine.  What’s amazing to me about this study is that a single aspect of a child’s life — diet — has the potential to bring about a drastic change in only a matter of weeks, something the parents have probably struggled with and prayed over for years.  A choice so simple  is, in this case, quickly powerful and effective.  In fact, the article uses the word “flabbergasted” to describe the researcher’s initial response to the results.

This is the closest story I’ve come across lately that offers a “simple cure” for something characterized by its frustrating complexity.  I often find myself looking for simple cures to some of my own “complexities,” digging around for the one thing I can do to drastically alter my experience of day-to-day life.  While I’m writing this, I’m confronting my unending lack of focus.  My life is characterized by constant movement, going from work to class to cooking to church and then finally to my husband who is likewise exhausted from his own endless cycle of activity.  We’ve accepted that this is just a busy time, and we’re slowly learning to carve out time for ourselves amidst the mayhem — time together and time alone.

Our lifestyle doesn’t lend itself very well to “focus.”  We’re asked to juggle a number of different “foci,” knowing that in a few hours we’ll be asked to shift once again.  But what is focus, really?  Defining it is a tricky thing.  In one sense, we want to view it as a through-line or a continual feeling of coherence.  We also see it as a single point of interest, something to return to again and again.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about “mindfulness,” a particular vision of focus that I like very much, in his popular book Living Buddha, Living Christ — a book that chronicles many of the ideological and spiritual similarities between two seemingly disparate religions.  What I appreciate about Hanh’s perspective is that it offers simplicity as a means toward confronting what’s normally perceived as an inscrutable, recurring problem.  Here’s Hanh’s take on mindfulness:

In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment — to know what is going on within and all around us.  When the Buddha was asked, “Sir, what do you and your monk’s practice?” he replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.”  The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats,” and the Buddha told him, “When we sit, we know we are sitting.  When we walk, we know we are walking.  When we eat, we know we are eating.”  Most of the time, we are lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns.  When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. (Living Buddha, Living Christ 14)

Hanh equates this sense of mindfulness with the Holy Spirit since both act as agents of healing.  I never considered “focus” or “mindfulness” in light of healing,  but my attempts at maintaining focus (a concept I still struggle to define) seem all the more important when there’s a chance that they could stir up some sort of convalescence.

For Hanh, focus/mindfulness is not contained in a single fixation on a particular thing or idea; instead, it is a deep cognizance of the present moment, not allowing ourselves to get “lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns.”  He explains that when we permit ourselves to practice mindfulness, we likewise learn to “touch deeply” the needs of others rather than remain selfishly focused on our own silly wants and frustrations.

My first question is always this: “Wow, what a great concept.  But what does a ‘concept’ look like?  How does it work?”  I love reading Hanh’s writing — it’s encouraging and prompts me to action, sometimes more so than many of the Christian texts I read — but my mind is always mediating a war between beautiful ideas and pragmatic action.  Fortunately, Hanh gets this.  A few pages later, he describes the Buddhist practice of “conscious breathing,” offering a short, do-able exercise that he equates with “drinking a cool glass of water”:

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

I recognize that for many people (myself included), these simple phrases almost sound silly, maybe even contrived, but I suspect there’s more meaning behind them than we’re initially willing to admit.  What if I really repeated this from time to time: while I’m waiting for water to boil, while I’m in the shower, while vacuuming or pumping gas.  Maybe walking.  Maybe driving.  Simply telling myself, “I know this is a wonderful moment” seems like a powerful move toward shifting my focus to the present, especially when I’m nose-deep in work for school and long overdue on cooking or cleaning.  Getting past the perceived “silliness” is, I think, just part of the process of stripping away the pretentiousness that accompanies a not-so-simple lifestyle.  Hanh asks his readers to get back to basics, and he suggests that the reward is the ability to relieve suffering in others.  Although it’s probably not as easy as changing your diet to affect change , the results Hanh promises are (absolutely) worth it.