Thich Nhat Hanh said six words to me

On this day, 17 April, six years ago (2012) Thich Nhat Hanh said six words to me. It was a big day that’s why I can remember his words. I shall explain. I have been a ‘super-fan’ of Thay (as he is known to his followers) since first seeing him in Plum Village, France in July 2005. His peace and his presence blew me away. I was overwhelmed and in a way I fell in love with this old man (he’s now 91!) who has been a monk since he was 16.

 

I was already practising mediation and teaching yoga, I stayed on ashrams and Buddhist centre’s around the world, but Plum Village was on a different level it was full of sunshine, pink lotus and joy! How wonderful! I immediately signed up and took the Five Mindfulness Trainings (Buddhist precepts) and was given the name ‘Peaceful Gift of the Heart’.

 

I vowed to return to Plum Village every year and I did. In 2006 attending the neuroscience week, in 2007 I went to Vietnam with Thay and the Sangha, and to Plum Village and a retreat in Nottingham and even to Blue Cliff (Plum Village in New York!), and I did it all again in 2008. I was on a roll, I’d discovered my ‘thing’.

 

In 2007 I’d also found Mindfulness Ireland (Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in Ireland) and started a sangha in my house. I continued to go on regular Plum Village retreats and had started teaching mindfulness and studying for my Masters in Mindfulness, at Bangor University, Wales.

 

In May 2011 I was on retreat in Dublin with some visiting Plum Village monastics (I was on the Mindfulness Ireland committee at this point) and all the excitement was about Thay’s proposed visit to Ireland. I wanted to mention Northern Ireland in the invitation letter but I never dreamt that he’d actually come ‘up North’!

 

As short a time ago as 2011 mindfulness practice was seen as bit of cult! I was teaching a regular Thursday night mindfulness class at Namaste Yoga Centre in Belfast and I had the only small sangha in Northern Ireland but I really didn’t think that there would be enough interest and understanding to have Thay visit us. But on this retreat I spoke to Brother Phap Lai or Brother Ben as he is also known. Brother Ben is a monastic in the Plum Village tradition and he is from Yorkshire, so he knew about Belfast and our ‘troubles’, he asked me “are you not going to invite Thay to Belfast?” I was like, “Well I’d love him to come but I didn’t think he would…” Brother Ben said that indeed he just might and that I should invite him. So mindfulness Ireland very kindly let me put a paragraph in the invitation letter inviting Thay to Ireland asking him to also come to Belfast.

 

In June 2011 I got word back – he said YES! I nearly died, OMG now this was going to really happen, how could I make it happen?! I made an appeal on Facebook (how else?!) and many people replied offering to help. I had a meeting at my house and in the end a small committee was formed with myself and Karen Lynch and Peter Doran as the main activists. Of course, we had the help and support of many others including those in Mindfulness Ireland but it was a very exciting time to be organising such an exciting event. Thay was coming to Belfast and just any old place but to Stormont and Parliament Buildings.

 

A lot of energy and work went into the event organising, Thay would be giving a talk in the Senate Chamber to invited guests including politicians, business people and journalists. This was a big deal! I also happened to be working in Stormont at the time, as Civil Service Press Officer. I was placed in the Department of Social Development and the Minister was Nelson McCausland of the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).

 

The day before the event I happened to meet Nelson on the famous steps in the hallway of the building – “will you be coming to see my monk tomorrow?” I asked him (invitations had gone to every MLA). “Why would I do something like?” that he replied. I was too overcome with excitement to give a coherent answer. Why wouldn’t you he’s amazing or something like that is probably what I replied. But I really didn’t care who would be there in the audience, the mere fact that Thich Nhat Hanh would be in Belfast talking to local people walking on our soil seemed unbelievable to me and if others couldn’t see how wonderful it was well that was their misfortune! As far as I was concerned it was dream I couldn’t even dare to dream come true.

 

Later that day at the Stormont Hotel, Thay arrived, driven by the husband of one of the Dublin sangha – he got out of the car and he was exhausted. He’d just come from a teaching tour of the UK and Ireland. Giving a public talk to 2000 people in Dublin and his only retreat in Ireland to 500 people in Kilarney. I had attended both events too and could understand why he was looking quite old and tired and tired at this point. He didn’t say anything and the other monastics accompanying just took him into the lift and up to his room. I was worried – was he ok? Will he be able to talk tomorrow?

 

The next morning bright ‘n’ early at Parliament Buildings everything was in order, people were starting to arrive for the event, many volunteers were helping. I went to the side door to wait for Thay to arrive. His car pulled up and he got out and came over to the door where I was waiting with some concern. “Sunshine” he said smiling and gesturing to the sky. I was flooded with relief; he is ok! And yes, it was a sunny day, all would be well. That was word no.1!

 

I took him (with some of the other monastics including Sr Chan Khong, if you are a Plum Village fan you will know her) down to meet the Speaker of the House, Willie Hay, DUP.  They chatted and exchanged gifts and I was just amazed! Then he sat with the Monastics in a waiting room where a few people asked him to bless candles and things like that – obviously I wasn’t the only person in Northern Ireland to know who he was! J I went down to the Senate Chamber to check if everything was ready for him and then went back to escort him.

 

At this point I could barely breath with the excitement, surely once people heard Thay speak they would like me fall in love with him, convert to Buddhism and there would be peace in the land? I really think I was thinking something like that… Anyway, I stood at the doorway of the room he was in with the other monastics and basically said ok everyone let’s go.

 

They all deferred to him, so he was at the start of the group and I had to lead because I knew the way. I didn’t want to walk in front of him so I walked beside him and I was overjoyed to be so close to this wonderful man who to me is simply the Buddha incarnate!

As a Press Officer at the time I was wearing one of my customary wee ‘outfits’, a red and white dress with a black jacket and red high heel shoes. Things I hardly ever wear now in my life as full-time mindfulness teacher. Parliament Buildings is all marble floors and I clippity clopped along beside him positively vibrating nervous excitement. He put his hand at the small of my back and said “walking mediation.”

 

Wow. Words 2 and 3. A powerful reminder to slow down, breathe and enter the present moment. I did my best…

 

We got to the private area outside the back entrance of the chamber. Things weren’t quite ready, I checked and we had to wait. Thay said “photo?” Word 4. Wow again – I really didn’t have the presence of mind to think of such a thing! How very lucky I was to have my trusty iPhone 4 at the ready, we sat together and one of the monastics took the photo above. Amazing.

 

He gave a wonderful talk which you can watch here (it would be a whole new blog to talk about that – maybe next anniversary!) and we went again out to the back, waiting area. There was also to be a walking meditation after the talk. About 300 people from the general public had shown up – I’m sure if he was able to do it now we would at least triple that figure. Nowadays even in Northern Ireland mindfulness is much more well-known and understood.

 

I said “Thay, there are lots of people waiting for you to do the walk along the Stormont mile. There are TV cameras too. Would you like to have a rest before you go (I’d been told he may like a rest) or we could go now? So rest or go?” He said “We go!”  Words 5 and 6! And with that he took off walking mindfully but honestly quite fast! I clippity clopped along, keeping up, and was stunned by the sunshine, journalists and crowds as we walked out the front doors of Parliament Buildings.

 

I moved back into the middle of the crowd then, my work was done. My dream had come true, I was so happy. Other people could walk closer to him. This was enough and I couldn’t ask for more. There was positive media coverage of the event in the local media, and the whole event had been a huge success. I can’t say anything changed immediately but in the years after his visit it is clear that the seeds of mindfulness we planted that day are blooming.

 

Months after at a Ministerial event in Derry as part of my then day job, I met Willie Hay again: “What did you think of my monk?” I asked him. “There was something about that man, there was something about that man,” he replied. 🙂

“Sunshine

Walking Meditation

Photo

We go!”

Sounds like a plan or a poem to me. x

Two bad bricks

If I had a pound for every time someone from my classes decided to buy the book “Who ordered this truck load of dung?” by Ajahn Brahm I’d be a rich lady! I frequently read stories from this wonderful book to my different groups and workshops – EVERY.single.time someone comes up at the end and says ‘what’s the name of that book again?’. Often I tell them to take a picture of it with their phone as I know they want to go home and order it online. Frequently people have told me they’ve ordered multiple copies for friends and family. One women told me she bought ten copies for friend and another bought ten copies for all her work colleagues at Christmas. Yes I only have the best and loveliest of students who seem to do kind and random things like that!  (You may have to search for the book under it’s other, perhaps more acceptable title ‘opening the door of your heart’.)

 

Ajahn Brahm being a renunciate or poor Buddhist monk doesn’t actually make any money either instead all the profit goes into the Buddhist Monastery he heads up in Perth, Australia. He’s one of my few heroes that I’ve never actually met in real life, one day I will meet him and tell him solely responsible for the sale of hundreds of copies of that book! Maybe that’s why you can’t even buy it from Amazon these days (though you can buy it there via resellers).

 

Of course I’m actually not responsible for the sale of the book, it is the wonderfully funny and simple stories that must take that credit. The varied stories illustrate points that touch people and that they can remember them. One of my many favourites (that I could almost recite without looking at the book) is ‘Two bad bricks’.

 

In this tale Brahm tells the story of his time building the Perth, Australian monastery and how they had to do everything themselves even building walls. Learning the skills of bricklayer was not easy for a former academic, but eventually he succeeded in building a brick wall, but as soon as he had finished he realised – oh no! – there were two mistakes in the wall, two bad bricks! He wanted to destroy his work and start again, but the Abbot wouldn’t allow it, so for months he avoided going past that wall and when he did all he could focus on was the two bad bricks.

 

One day a visitor to the centre causally remarked that his wall was ‘a very nice wall’. Brahm thought the man had gone mad! Could he not see those two awful and glaring mistakes?! What the visitor said next changed his life, yes he could see the two bad bricks but he also the 998 good brick too and since the 998 far out weighted the two bad ones he choose to focus on them and see the big picture! It was in fact a good job and a very nice wall.

 

Wow, such a metaphor for how we view ourselves, how harshly we judge ourselves. Do you find yourself judging and condemning yourself for a gaffe you’ve made? Writing yourself off completely because of a flaw? Feeling horrified by mistake like Ajahn? Well the moral of the story is that we all have our two bad bricks. We are all human, we all make mistakes – nobody, not even a Buddhist monk is perfect, but all of us also have our 998 good bricks.  Above, below and all around the bad bricks of our life or personality are the good bricks, the kinds acts, the talents and abilities, the fortitudes and disciplines, the love and the compassion. We are more than our flaws, missteps and mistakes. This story reminds us to remember that lest we condemn ourselves to misery.

 

There is of course more detail to this story than I have summarised here and like many of the stories in this book it ends with a funny little anecdote – but you’ll have to buy (or borrow) the book to read it! I’m sure I’ll get my commission in another form J

Mindful of sleep

Last Friday 16 March 2018 was world sleep day.  To celebrate I gave a lecture at Queens University, Belfast for staff, organised by the QUB staff wellbeing department.

I was asked to par-take in the lecture was by Dr Gerry Gormley as was Stephen Herron (BABCP Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist Lecturer at Queens and Chair Irish Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies) who also offered his wisdom at the illuminating session.

 

Dr Gerry is a Clinical Senior Lecture at Queen’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences and a GP in Carryduff.  He has a particular interest in sleep and how it impacts our wellbeing.  Northern Ireland is the only area of the UK without a regional sleep centre and he would like to change that. Insomnia is as much of a problem here as it is everywhere else in fact the world over lack of sleep is a huge and growing problem.

 

Since the iPhone was launched in 2007 the rates of insomnia have rocketed. Coincidence? I think not – I’m also partial to taking my phone to bed sometimes! If you are in this bad habit consider downloading the ‘moments’ app from the app store. It will tell you just how much time you are using your phone everyday.  Probably a lot more than you think – we’ve become addicted to screens and the cost of our sleep.

 

During the information session on Friday Dr Gerry and Stephen gave us many tips on how to improve the amount of sleep we get, after telling us how dangerous it is if we don’t get enough. Lack of sleep is linked with obesity, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, mental health issues and cancer! I then led the attendees in a mindfulness session, I’ve outlined the details of my session below plus lots of very helpful and mindful tips for better sleep.

 

  • The number one thing to do is to get the phone out of the bedroom – buy a real alarm clock. The blue light from screens goes to the back of our brain and keeps us awake, you should stop using screens at least an hour before bed.  Put the phone on charge in another room.

 

  • Establish an 8-hour window for sleep and stick to it. The majority of adults need at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. It’s not possible to catch up at weekends if we don’t get it on the night we lose it – forever! Prioritizing or ring fencing sleep time is crucial.  Sleep consistency is crucial too so aim to sleep and wake up at the same time every day – even on weekends.  If you’re going to have a lie in do it on a Saturday so you can get back into your normal rhythm by Monday. Spend some time in daylight everyday and get some exercise. Sleep is a fundamental part of our body clock or circadian rhythm (Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young have won the highest accolade in science the 2017 noble prize for their work on this, read more about it here). Our biological clock helps to regulate sleep patterns, feeding behaviour, hormone release and blood pressure.

 

  • Ensure the room temperature is not too hot, we sleep better in a cool environment.

 

  • How old is your mattress – maybe it’s time to replace it? Do you have black out blinds or curtains, noise reductions strategies like good quality ear plugs and eye masks may be worth investing in.

 

  • It’s best not to eat too close to bed time. There are some foods that are considered helpful for sleep you can explore these and perhaps having a milky drink. There is also evidence that Cherry Juice is helpful!

 

  • Writing down your to do list before sleeping is a really helpful practice to stop the worrying mind. You can be reassured you won’t forget as you have written it down.

 

  • Another really helpful pre-sleep activity is the practice of gratitude. You can also write down at least five things you are grateful for at the end of the day. If you don’t want to write it down you can call to mind five things that you are grateful for.  This is a really powerful practice that will incline your mind towards happiness and enable you have a more peaceful sleep.

 

  • Mindfulness – of course! At the lecture on Monday I lead the attendees in a short mindfulness practice – if it had of been any longer they may have fallen asleep! First I asked them to place a hand over the heart in the gesture of self-compassion. The brain perceives this practice as soothing and comforting.  I then asked them to place a hand on their belly.  This practice is helpful to encourage the breath to go deeper.  I then asked them to focus on their in-breath. As they consider the in-breath I asked them to realise how with each in-breath the body is being nourished.  With each in-breath new fresh oxygen is coming into the body to nourish and replenish every cell in the body.  After a while of focusing on the in-breath I asked them to begin to focus on the out-breath. To begin to notice that with each out breath their body is soothed and comforted.  The exhale is soothing. Then I asked them to focus on both the inhale and the exhale at the same time saying the word ‘nourishing’ with the in-hale and the word ‘soothing’ with the exhale.  Nourishing and Soothing.  Nourishing and soothing over and over. Focusing on the breath like this will activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) it will lower the blood pressure and heart rate and activate soothing hormones in the body.  Soon you will fall asleep and if you don’t you will be able to accept it without adding more worry on top.

 

Try this meditation it and let me know how you get on. Bxx