It’s an unusually mild and sunny day in the middle of a very gray, bitter-cold, and snowy February, the day after Parinirvana, which marks the Buddha’s departure from his body. This is a day to recall words attributed to the Buddha, handed down generation after generation as instructions for the living: Make of yourself a light.
A well-lit life often comes about through the honest vulnerability of strife and sorrow, through monster pain and heartache, through scary encounters when you feel like crap because too much has happened too fast and for too long. I’m thinking about the last twelve months or so: my marriage coming to an end; my brother dying, then his wife; then the global pandemic; the street protests in the United States and around the world for racial and social justice; political polarization, leading to insurrection at the US Capitol; and then just when I’d mustered enough nerve to begin dating, getting dumped twice by the same guy.
But it’s still early in the new year, and I have the Buddha’s instructions. Make of yourself a light.
Those words point toward an inner direction of transformation, toward finding a channel of light and generosity, a channel of love, and another channel for the outrage, anger, sadness, and despair. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than one hundred books and offered countless dharma talks all over the world, and all of them contain a very basic message: The energy and practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight help us embrace suffering, calm the body and mind, and be peace and create peace in the world. When faced with suffering, Nhat Hanh advises us to take very good care of afflictive emotions that can overtake us and to return to the body, the breath. Sometimes I think of inviting these emotions in for a cup of tea, of getting to really know them. There is something empowering and connecting in recognizing the universality of suffering, not the sameness of suffering, each is unique. It is knowing that, like me, everyone faces moments when life feels brutal, when we are hurt and want to retreat into tiny-heartedness, and at those times, like the weather things change and the sun breaks through overcast skies.
The practice of mindful breathing is an act of self-love, a declaration of gratitude for this life, and a political act of empowerment in which we choose the present moment, even when that moment is filled with mourning. The golden rule of grief, one of the many lessons I relearned over the last twelve months, is that grief contains love. Loss contains love. Grief is an expression of the loss of something meaningful, which means I had, at least for a time, the opportunity to experience love—true, real, meaningful, heartfelt love.
And again, the Buddha’s instructions: Make of yourself a light.
In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village we learn breathing as a form of art, the art of mindful living, which is particularly important for moments when life feels turbulent. Mindful breathing can be done throughout the day. In the morning as you get dressed, set aside one or two minutes to stop, pause, and breathe. Before you eat breakfast, again take a moment to breathe. Throughout the day, step away from your devices and pause to breathe mindfully. Go outside. Look up at the sky and connect with your breath. Before you go to bed, return to your breathing and feel the breath. This way of breathing is an exquisite reminder that the breath is an elemental gift of life. This is not an intellectual exercise but a full embodiment of humanness.
The practice can be done in four parts:
- Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
- Breathing in, I follow the in breath all the way. Breathing out, I follow the out breath all the way.
- Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I recognize that I have a body, and I am so grateful.
- Breathing in, I recognize tension in my body. Breathing out, I release tension, calming my body.
Breathing in this way we make a light of ourselves. Shine on, brightly.