Living Mindfully —
Through All the Hours of Our Days

Once upon a time, in a time that is never and always, a young prince in India learned of a pearl of great price – a pearl that would bring all good things. He wandered far and wide over the world — through kingdoms and cities, over mountains and across seas. And, though many had heard tales of such a jewel, no one could say where it could be found. After many years seeking, the prince returned home, exhausted and disappointed. Before entering the palace of his father and mother, he stopped in the courtyard to wash away the dust of his journeying. As he gazed into the mirror-like water, he caught sight of the pearl. The pearl he sought shone forth from this forehead.

Was the pearl there all along? Did the seeking serve to make it manifest? Was it only evident after the striving ceased and the prince returned to himself, to his place, to elemental realities such as the water in the crystal-clear pool?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.1

The story I have told has many variants. All lead back to this: Where is the mystery to be found? In us. In the ordinary. In what lies before us and around us. In the here and in the now. Present moment, wonderful moment. There is paradox here as well. As one Zen saying has it, “No one will find it by seeking yet only the seekers will find it.”

Perhaps our progress lies in going from noun to adjective to adverb. Are we seeking mindfulness (a noun)? Are we seeking a quality such as mindful living (where “mindful” is now an adjective)? Or are we seeking a way of living where we focus as much on how we act as on what we do? In other words, are we seeking to live mindfully (an adverb)? I believe that the humble adverb points the way.

Living Mindfully in the Morning of our Life2

Our principal guide to living mindfully will be the gentle Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He is affectionately called by the many who have learned from him “Thây” (pronounced “tie” and meaning "teacher" in Vietnamese). During the Vietnamese War, he stood for peace, and thus both sides came to suspect and oppose him. At the war’s end, he was forced to go into exile in France. There he set up a monastic community called Plum Village. He took as his work to care for the children of war. For his engaged peace work, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. In October of 2008, on what he would call his Continuation Day (rather than Birthday), he will be 82. He is one of the truly great-souled figures among us.3

Because Thây loves to work with children, his teaching bears the mark of a great simplicity. How might we start, as beginners? Start with breathing. Start with smiling.

Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.

Simple mantras. Simple practices. Conscious breathing is entry point. With conscious breathing, mind and body come together much as, in the Buddhist tradition, a person brings palms together before making a bow. As one Plum Village song has it: “I have arrived. I am home. In the here and in the now.” To live mindfully is to bring awareness into the present moment.

Beginners at meditation might be taught in this way: When you are meditating, you may notice thinking arising. Say to yourself “thinking” and return to the breathing. When you notice sensations arising, name the sensation and return to the breathing. When you notice emotions such as irritation or anger or loneliness arising, name the emotion and return to the breathing. In this way, you are aware of stories and emotions arising. You note them. You do not identify with them. The thoughts and emotions are like geese flying over the still waters of your mind. As the Zen proverb puts it: “The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection. The water has no mind to receive their image.”4

This attentive mind that is not caught by the inner or outer weather is called in some traditions "the observing self" or "the witness mind." We might also call it the "listening mind." Cultivating this capacity to observe with discernment but not judgment, to observe with compassion, to listen with loving kindness is a part of mindfulness training. Our aim is to bring awareness to whatever is happening and also notice the stories we are generating and the emotions we are calling forth. The instructions are neither to act out the stories and emotions nor to repress the stories and emotions. Allow them to come and go without your becoming caught up in them. This form of meditative mind can be brought to whatever we do. We can walk mindfully, eat mindfully, converse mindfully, prepare supper mindfully, wash the clothes mindfully and on and on.

Will we remain steady? Most likely not. We may find ourselves seduced by personal and cultural stories that lead away from the here and the now. We may find ourselves buffeted by likes and dislikes. Attracted to this and repelled by that. Then it is so wonderful to realize that we have simply to begin again. Return to our bodies and our breathing. Return to the present moment, wonderful moment. Calming and smiling. As we return deliberately to beginner’s mind, we begin again each morning of each day.5 At the dawning of the day, we commit again to live mindfully for the sake of all beings, for what is before us and for the community that surrounds us. So it is in the morning of our life.

Living Mindfully in the Daytime of our Life

At midday, we are householders busy about many things — concerned with work and family, sensitive to praise and blame, seeking to be admired, rewarded, striving to be "somebody" that has a place in the social world. Can we resolve conflicts mindfully? Meet deadlines mindfully? Engage in intimacy mindfully? Care for children mindfully?

In the morning of a day or life, we set an intention: to live mindfully. This may indeed remain our practice. Yet by midday, it is often life’s issues that prompt our practice. The bell of mindfulness rings in the very distractions that beset us. Some may be outward events. The car breaks down. The raise did not come. A sickness in the family. Not as we want it to be.

Yet how we choose to relate to what is before us makes all the difference. And this leads us to notice that there is always more than one way to relate to anything. In fact, there are usually multiple ways. Some are larger-minded ways and some are smaller-minded ways. When we have an observing self, we have a choice and we see that it is much more helpful to all when we choose large mind.6

Yes, the trigger often seems to come from without. Yet one person in the face of such disappointing news is devastated; another can proceed quite differently, with less unnecessary suffering and more possibility for all. So we notice that even when the prompting event arises outside us, we are the ones who interpret the event and tell stories we tell about it (and us). Even when the prompting event is outside us, we are the ones who generate the added emotional charge to it. So living mindfully is noticing what is happening and also noticing how I am labeling and telling stories about what is happening. Noticing what is happening and also noticing how I am producing emotions around what is happening.

  • In the midst of our busyness, the advice at railroad crossings becomes a mindfulness bell, saying: Stop, Look, and Listen. Returning to our breathing aids us to stop. Looking with compassion at what is happening and how I am adding meaning and emotion to what is happening opens the heart. Listening to our deeper nature places surface disturbances in fuller context.

  • In the midst of our busyness, we may find ourselves replaying the past or rehearsing the future. Then we may find the antidote in the poison, letting the upset lead the way to a gentle noticing. “There I go again. Doing that. Not very helpful. Yet quite human.” A compassionate smile and a return to the breathing.

  • In the midst of our busyness, we may find ourselves justifying and defending ourselves, blaming others and complaining about situations. Again, find the antidote in the poison. Let the upset lead the way to a gentle noticing. Return, as the Sufis say, to the root of the root of yourself.7

Stop, Look, and Listen. Here from Thich Nhat Hanh is a song to remind us:

Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Nowhere to go, nothing to do
No longer in a hurry.
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Somewhere to go, something to do
But I don’t need to hurry.8

Living Mindfully in the Evening of our Life

We are frightened of decline. Even in our final years, we turn away. So here is a story to give us courage.

Another prince from India, Gautama Siddhartha was destined to become the Buddha (literally, the one who awakened). His father had marked him for kingship and provided him with all pleasures. The one thing forbidden was to leave the vast precincts of the palace. One day, the young prince left the palace precincts and he noticed a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a monk. He learned that in the world there was not only health, but sickness, not only youth but age, not only life but death. How could he live his life, aware of both realities? The monk provided a glimpse of another way to be. Gautama, who had followed the path of self-fulfillment, would now experiment with the path of self-denial. Yet neither gave the answer. So he determined to meditate until he broke through to a middle way. And so he did. After his enlightenment, the Buddha taught the Five Remembrances:


There is sickness and no way to escape this.


There is aging and no way to escape this.


There is death and no way to escape this.


All we know and love will change and there is no way to escape this.


All we do will persist and there is no way to escape this.9 

We might say: Can we face sickness and aging and death mindfully? Can we be with change mindfully? Can we enact all our thinking and speaking and doing mindfully and peacefully and gratefully, realizing that all we do endures?

The grandfather of western philosophy, Socrates, once said that philosophy — in its root sense of love of wisdom (philo=love; sophia=wisdom) — is the art of dying. Dying to expectations, we return to life as it is – in its surface and depth manifestation. In a certain sense, we let life be as it is and realize that the mystery is much more vast than we can imagine. Call it the Great Unfolding of the Cosmos. Call it the will of the Holy One. Call it the Tao – the Way of the Universe. When we align to these deeper currents, we realize more fully the words of another song dear to Thây’s followers:

I have arrived. I am home.
In the here and in the now.
I have arrived. I am home.
In the here and in the now.
I am solid. I am free.
I am solid. I am free.
In the Ultimate I dwell.
In the Ultimate I dwell.

So in the end what we are seeking is always with us, before us everywhere we go. As close to us as a pearl embedded in our forehead. Present before us in the here and in the now, seen deeply and loved ever so tenderly. I see the Chinese poet Wu-men Hui-k’ai (1183-1260) revealing the pearl of great price when he writes:

Ten thousand flowers in spring,
            the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
            snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded
            by unnecessary things,
THIS is the best season of your life.10

1 See T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), p. 145.

2 I structure this essay using the metaphor of morning, daytime, and evening of a life. In writing, I was reminded of a song by Barry Gibb (1966) titled “In the Morning” and made famous by the great Nina Simone.

3 Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than one hundred books, sixty in English.  I would suggest beginning with his Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) and his Being Peace (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987).

4 From the Zenrin Kushu, quoted in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen (New York: Random House, 1960), p. 258.

5 The notion of returning to Beginner’s Mind is prized in Zen teaching.  See Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970).

6 For more on this way of speaking about practice, see my book Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Press, 2004), especially chapters 1-4.

7 Here I am alluding to a poem of Rumi, titled “The Root of the Root of Yourself.”  See Love is a Stranger, translations of Rumi by Kabir Helminski (Brattleboro, VT: Threshold Books, 1993), pp. 16-17.

8 Many of the chants used at Plum Village are published. See Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, compiled by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2000).  However, this “Happiness is here and now” song and the “I have Arrived” song that I quote later are songs I learned either from seasoned practitioners of Thây’s teachings or at a retreat with Thây at Stonehill College in Easton Massachusetts, August 12-17, 2007.

9 The wording here is mine, based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s rendering in his more advanced treatise, Understanding Our Mind (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2006), p. 218 and following.

10 See The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper and Row, 1989), p. 47.