It is in the sanctuary of silent places, with mindful attention, that the liberation of the heart can be gained.
“It is a joy to find oneself in the midst of a sangha, where people are practicing well together. Each person’s way of walking, eating and smiling can be a real help to us. She is walking for me, I am smiling for her, and we do it as a sangha. We don’t have to practice intensively or force ourselves. We just have to allow ourselves to be in a good sangha where people are happy, living deeply in each moment, and transformation will come, without much effort.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Each session begins with the sound of three bells, which helps us to calm our bodies and minds and return to the present moment. We usually sit silently for 20-30 minutes. In our daily lives, we often get lost in our thinking, worrying about the past or planning for the future. Our mind is in one place while our body is in another, creating stress and disharmony.
During sitting meditation we learn to follow our breathing consciously, reuniting body and mind, bringing peace and joy to the moment. Whether you sit on a cushion or a chair, sit comfortably with your back straight enough to allow the air to enter and leave your lungs easily. Breathing naturally, inhale through your nostrils and notice your abdomen expand.
One way to help maintain awareness of breathing is to say silently “in” when you breathe in, and say silently “out” when you breathe out. If you need to move during the sitting period, do so slowly and mindfully. When changing positions this way, we maintain our mindfulness and do not disturb others.
Occasionally guided meditations will be offered, phrases spoken aloud for the purpose of focusing our attention. Sometimes the phrases help us experience calm, happiness and nourishment. Sometimes the guidance will be to look at difficulties in our lives, with the purpose of gaining deeper understanding. It is important to listen and follow these offerings as much as they are useful, and to simply let them go if they are not useful at the time.
“The practice of mindful breathing is the sun shining continuously, helping the fruits of understanding to grow.” Thich Nhat Hanh
We walk all the time, but usually without full awareness. When we walk that way, we lose our chance to be fully alive in that moment. In sangha, we practice walking in a way that brings peace and serenity. Mindful walking is making peace with every step, and helps us practice following our breathing as we begin to move through the world. We walk together, taking one step as we inhale and one step as we exhale. We walk with no destination or goal; we walk for the simple enjoyment of walking. We are aware of the feeling of each foot as it touches the floor. We are also aware of our position in the group and adjust our steps to keep pace with others so our spacing is consistent.
Bells of Mindfulness
The sound of the bell is used to mark the beginning and end of meditation periods as well as during reading and discussion. When we hear the bell we bring our awareness to our breath as we breathe in and out three times. You may want to use this gatha (verse) while you listen to the bell: ‘Listen, listen (silently while breathing in); ‘This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self’ (silently while breathing out). A small bell is used to signal when to stretch, to stand after sitting, during walking meditation, and to bow to the altar and to one another.
Bowing signifies our acknowledgment of the awakening nature within each of us. Even when bowing to the altar or to a statue, we are acknowledging the potential in all of us to wake up and live in the present moment. To bow, we bring our hands together in prayer position at the level of our hearts, and bring our attention to our breath. We use bowing as another way to bring us back to the present moment.
Dharma Reading and Dharma Talk
There are many ways to study and learn the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. Sometimes we read a teaching from the Buddha or Thich Nhat Hanh, or listen to a Dharma talk from a Sangha member. We practice deep listening to empty our minds of thoughts, ideas and perceptions. Comparing what we hear with something already in our mind or drawing conclusions limits our capacity to truly listen. To agree or disagree with what is said does not help us learn anything new. Instead of engaging our intellect while listening, we allow the “Dharma rain” to fall and let the soil of our consciousness do its work.
“When the rain falls on the earth, the soil knows how to absorb the water, allowing seeds to sprout and flowers to bloom. When the bird sings, a free-minded person knows how to enjoy and become relaxed. When a cup is full, it cannot receive more, not even one drop of water." Thich Nhat Hanh
This is an opportunity for us to learn from one another's experience and to connect with the wisdom within ourselves. Rather than a time for debate, problem solving, or intellectual discourse, it is a personal sharing from the heart. We offer each person uninterrupted time to share, and we listen deeply without judgment or comment. When someone wishes to speak, she or he bows to the group, who return the bow. When the speaker is finished, he or she bows again to the group, who return the bow. In between sharing, we follow our breathing as we enjoy being together in silence. This time of contemplative conversation provides great support and nourishment for the speaker and the listeners.