I want to share with you the following excerpts from a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk, teacher, author, and peace activist. He has has written extensively about mindfulness. While I believe his words can be meaningful to any of us, I was also struck by their relevance to the application of mindfulness to trauma recovery and therapy. You can read the talk in its entirety here.
It is common for survivors of complex trauma to have problems with their feelings. And yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, our feelings are us. The goal of trauma therapy is that you will ultimately be able to embrace all of who you are, all your feelings included. That this is challenging for those whose main coping option is dissociation is an understatement. This talk provides an example of how to approach being with your feelings with gentleness.
I also saw an example of what secure attachment can look like in the story of the mother’s responsiveness to her infant. This illustrates how the early connection paves the way for the child to develop so many important skills: the ability to tolerate distress via self-soothing, the ability to regulate intense emotions, and ultimately self-love. This is what goes wrong, is lacking, in the ineffective family environment.
Mindfulness practice can be one tool for repairing these deficits; one way to learn to self-soothe, manage your emotions and become fully present in your life.
Mindfulness of Ourselves
Mindfulness of Others
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Peace Walk 2002
September 28, 2002
Anger. There’s a seed of anger in every one of us. There is also a seed of fear, a seed of despair. And when the seed of anger manifests, we should know how to recognize it, how to embrace it, and how to bring [ourselves] relief. When the seed of fear manifests itself as energy in the upper level of our consciousness, we should be able to recognize it, to embrace it tenderly, and to transform it. And the agent of transformation and healing is called mindfulness.
Mindfulness is another kind of energy that is in us in the form of a seed also. If we know how to practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, then we should be able to touch the seed of mindfulness in us and transform it into a zone of energy. And with that energy of mindfulness, we can recognize our anger, our fear, our despair. We practice recognizing and embracing.
When a mother working in the kitchen hears the cries of her baby, she puts anything she is holding down and goes to the room of the baby, picks the baby up and holds the baby dearly in her arms. We do exactly the same thing when the seed of anger and fear manifest in us; our fear, our anger is our baby. Let us not try to suppress and to fight our fear and our anger. Let us recognize its presence; let us embrace it tenderly like a mother embracing her baby.
When a mother embraces her baby, the energy of tenderness begins to penetrate into the body of the baby. The mother does not know, yet, what is the cause of the suffering of the baby, but the fact that she is holding the baby tenderly can already help. The energy of tenderness and compassion in a mother begins to penetrate into the body of the baby, and the baby gets some relief right away. The baby may stop crying. And if the mother knows how to continue the practice of holding the baby mindfully, tenderly, she will be able to discover the cause of the suffering of the baby.
…Our fear, our anger are not our enemies; they are us. We have to treat our fear, our anger in a most non-violent way, the most non-dualistic way, like we are treating our own baby.
…Mindfulness has the power, has the capacity of helping us to recognize what is there in the present moment. When anger is there, we recognize the fact that anger is there. When fear is there, we recognize the fact that fear is there. And the practice is not to fight, to suppress, but to recognize and to embrace.
“Oh my little anger, I know you. You are my old friend. I will take good care of you. Oh my little fear, I know you are always there. I will take good care of you.” That is the attitude of non-duality, the attitude of non-violence, because we know that mindfulness is us; love is us; but fear and anger are us, also.
Let us not fight. Let us only take care and transform. The organic gardener doesn’t have to fight the garbage placed in (or created by) the garden. She knows exactly what to do in order to handle the garbage, in order to transform it back into cucumber, into tomatoes, et cetera.
…If you are an organic gardener, you know how to handle the garbage. You know the techniques of transforming the garbage back into compost and into flowers. You don’t have to throw away anything at all. So, the energy of fear, of anger should be considered to be the garbage. Let it be produced, because it can become the art of mindful living.
So, now we should learn how to handle the garbage in us, namely, craving, anger, fear and despair. We should not be afraid of the garbage in us if we know how to transform it back into joy, into peace.
Thich Nhat Hanh also describes a simple mindfulness exercise in the midst of his talk. I will share it here. It is a good place to start if you would like to explore a mindfulness practice for yourself:
The first exercise on mindful breathing is:
Breathing in–I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out–I know I am breathing out.
You can reduce the length of the sentence to one word. In. Out.
While you are breathing in, you just recognize that this is your in breath, and you use the word, in. And you are wholly concentrated on your in breath. Nothing else.
You become your in breath. You’re not thinking of anything. You’re not thinking of the past, of the future, of your projects. You release everything. You just follow your in breath, and you become one with your in breath. And the energy of mindfulness is generated together with the energy of concentration.