Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master who has become a global spiritual leader.

Being and doing: An opportunity for practicing mindfulness

Yme Woensdregt

I noted the idea for this column about three months ago, just before COVID–19 changed all our lives. What sparked the idea was a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: “We have a tendency to think in terms of doing and not in terms of being. We think that when we are not doing anything, we are wasting our time. But that is not true. Our time is first of all for us to be.”

These days, as we are living with the pandemic, as we self–isolate, as we stay home so that we can take care of ourselves and our neighbours, we are being given an opportunity to practice what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master who has become a global spiritual leader. He was the one from whom I learned about the concept of “mindfulness”, a spiritual practice in which we learn to be fully present to each moment. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of where we are and what we are doing and to be grateful for each moment, and not become overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “With the energy of mindfulness, any action in our daily life—including walking, eating, brushing our teeth, or doing the dishes—can become joyful, relaxed, and meaningful.” We pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and environment without judging them as to whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.”

And now, as we live in this new reality, we can also learn in a new way that our essence as human beings is to be. It’s such a foreign concept for us to think in terms of being rather than doing.

We are so accustomed to thinking about ourselves and others in terms of what we do, of what we produce, of what we achieve and accomplish. One of the first questions I hear when I meet someone new is, “So what do you do?” I also ask that question early in a conversation with a new acquaintance.

But it’s not quite as strange an idea these days as it would have been three months ago. This pandemic is a time when we can learn many new things. We have had to do things we never thought we would before. And one of the things we have had to learn … is to be. Simply to be.

We can’t go out and “do” as we are accustomed to it. We are being urged to go out only when necessary. Health authorities tell us to keep our distance from one another. Work from home if you can. Go out to shop only when you need to. Appointments they have been cancelled—I can’t get my hair cut, and I’m beginning to look a little shaggy. I can’t visit my chiropractor. I can’t go to the hospital to visit and give pastoral care for those who are now so alone.

And we’re spending more time alone, or with one or two people with whom we share a home. And we are learning simply to be.

It’s been difficult for many of us. There’s no denying that. We are so used to going out and doing, so that we can produce something or consume something. We used to go out for retail therapy when we were stressed, and that’s just another way of doing something rather than dealing with the reality we were living with.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Doing things has accomplished a great deal throughout history. We have learned new science. We have discovered new lands and more efficient ways of life. We have improved the quality of life for many people in the so–called developed world.

But doing has also led to problems. We have befouled the air with our smokestacks and factories. We have dirtied streams and rivers with our effluent. We have made the land unfit for growing crops as we paved it over for highways to get us somewhere else more quickly. And, at a much more personal level, we have ended up living lives which have been so busy that we were tired all the time, and we didn’t have the energy to be or the time to sit and think and just breathe.

And now we have more time than we are used to having. It’s been hard for some of us. We see some of the frustrations as people begin to protest in angry rallies and vent their frustrations at not being able to go out. They are complaining that “their freedoms have been taken away.”

Governments also are talking about how we need to get businesses going once again, so that the economy can recover and our lives can go back to “normal” … whatever that might mean.

But I want to plead in this column that we take this opportunity so that we might learn once again to just be.

Thich Nhat Hanh continues that quotation at the beginning of this column by asking, “To be what?”

He answers, “To be alive, to be peaceful, to be joyful, to be loving. And that is what the world needs most.”

They are poignant words for this time. Nhat Hanh wrote them many years ago, but they are so appropriate for this strange new land in which we find ourselves. As a meme on Facebook puts it, “Not everything is cancelled … sunshine, spring, love, relationships, reading, naps, devotion, music, dancing, imagination, kindness, conversations, hope … none of these are cancelled.”

We nurture those qualities as we take advantage of this opportunity to learn to be.

And then, when the pandemic has run its course, I pray that we continue to treasure what we are learning, and we work towards a new normal.

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