Resting in the River
Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
My dear friends, suppose someone is holding a pebble and throws it in
the air and the pebble begins to fall down into a river. After the pebble
touches the surface of the water, it allows itself to sink slowly into the
river. It will reach the bed of the river without any effort. Once the pebble
is at the bottom of the river, it continues to rest. It allows the water to
pass by. I think the pebble reaches the bed of the river by the shortest path
because it allows itself to fall without making any effort.
During our sitting meditation we can allow ourselves to rest like a
pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink naturally without effort to the position
of sitting, the position of resting. Resting is a very important practice; we
have to learn the art of resting. Resting is the first part of Buddhist
meditation. You should allow your body and your mind to rest. Our mind as well
as our body needs to rest.
The problem is that not many of us know how to allow our body and mind
to rest. We are always struggling; struggling has become a kind of habit. We
cannot resist being active, struggling all the time. We struggle even during
our sleep. It is very important to realize that we have the habit energy of
struggling. We have to be able to recognize a habit when it manifests itself
because if we know how to recognize our habit, it will lose its energy and will
not be able to push us anymore.
Ten years ago I was in India visiting the ex-untouchable community of
Buddhists. A friend who belonged to the caste organized the trip for me. I was
sitting on the bus, enjoying the landscape outside, contemplating the palm
trees and the vegetation. Suddenly I turned and I saw him looking very tense.
There was no reason why he had to be tense like that. I thought that he was
trying to make my visit pleasant and maybe that was the reason he was so tense.
I told him, "Dear friend, I know that you want to make my trip pleasant,
but I am already very happy. I've already enjoyed the trip. So why don't you
sit back, smile, and relax?" He said, "Okay," and he sat back
and he tried to relax.
I was pleased and I turned my face toward the window again and I enjoyed the
palm trees and other things. But just a few minutes after when I looked back at
him he was as tense as before. He was not able to relax, to allow himself to
relax. I knew that he belonged to that section of the population that had been
struggling for many thousand years. He was discriminated against. He had
suffered so much, his ancestors and himself and his children. So the tendency
to struggle has been there for many thousand years. That is why it was very
difficult for him to allow himself to rest. We have to practice in order to be
able to transform this habit in us. The habit of struggle has become a powerful
source of energy that is shaping our behavior, our actions and our reactions.
When an animal in the jungle is wounded, it knows how to find a quiet
place, lie down and do nothing. The animal knows that is the only way to get healed-to
lay down and just rest, not thinking of anything, including hunting and eating.
Not eating is a very wonderful way of allowing your body to rest. We are so
concerned about how to get nutrition that we are afraid of resting, of allowing
our body to rest and to fast. The animal knows that it does not need to eat.
What it needs is to rest, to do nothing, and that is why its health is
In our consciousness there are wounds also, lots of pains. Our
consciousness also needs to rest in order to restore itself. Our consciousness
is just like our body. Our body knows how to heal itself if we allow it the
chance to do so. When we get a cut on our finger we don't have to do anything
except to clean it and to allow it the time to heal, because our body knows how
to heal itself. The same thing is true with our consciousness; our
consciousness knows how to heal itself if we know how to allow it to do so. But
we don't allow it. We always try to do something. We worry so much about
healing, which is why we do not get the healing we need. Only if we know how to
allow them to rest can our body and our soul heal themselves.
But there is in us what we call the energy of restlessness. We cannot be
at peace with ourselves. We cannot be peaceful. We cannot sit; we cannot lie
down. There is some energy in us to do this, to do that, to think of this, to
think of that, and that kind of restlessness makes us unhappy. That is why it
is so important for us to learn first of all to allow our body to rest. We have
to learn how to deal with all our energy of restlessness. That is why we have
to learn these techniques of allowing our body and our consciousness to rest.
I would like to offer you some instructions about walking meditation. The first
thing we shall do early tomorrow morning is to practice walking together, which
we call walking meditation. Walking meditation means to enjoy walking without
any intention to arrive. We don't need to arrive anywhere. We just walk. We
enjoy walking. That means walking is already stopping, and that needs some
Usually in our daily life we walk because we want to go somewhere. Walking is
only a means to an end, and that is why we do not enjoy every step we take.
Walking meditation is different. Walking is only for walking. You enjoy every
step you take. So this is a kind of revolution in walking. You allow yourself
to enjoy every step you take.
The Zen master Ling Chi said that the miracle is not to walk on burning
charcoal or in the thin air or on the water; the miracle is just to walk on
earth. You breathe in. You become aware of the fact that you are alive. You are
still alive and you are walking on this beautiful planet. That is already
performing a miracle. The greatest of all miracles is to be alive. We have to
awaken ourselves to the truth that we are here, alive. We are here making steps
on this beautiful planet. This is already performing a miracle.
But we have to be here in order for the miracle to be possible. We have to
bring ourselves back to the here and the now. Therefore each step we take
becomes a miracle. If you are able to walk like that, each step will be very
nourishing and healing. You walk as if you kiss the earth with your feet, as if
you massage the earth with your feet. There is a lot of love in that practice
of walking meditation.
The Buddha said that the past is gone and the future is not yet here. Let us
not regret the past. Let us not worry about the future. Go back to the present
moment and live deeply the present moment. Because the present moment is the
only moment where you can touch life. Life is available only in the present
moment. That is why walking meditation is to go back to the present moment, in
order to be alive again and to touch life deeply in that moment. In order to be
able to touch the earth with our feet and enjoy walking, we have to establish
ourselves firmly in the present moment, in the here and the now.
In walking meditation, we walk like a free person. This is not political
freedom. This is freedom from afflictions, from sorrow, from fear. Unless you
are free you cannot enjoy walking. I would like to propose to you a short poem
that you might like to use for walking meditation:
I have arrived. I am home.
In the here. In the now.
I am solid. I am free.
In the ultimate I dwell.
You might like to take two steps and breathe in and say, I have arrived,
I have arrived. And when you breathe out, you take another two steps and say
silently, I am home, I am home. Our true home is really in the here and in the
now. Because only in the here and the now can we touch life. As the Buddha
said, life is available only in the here and the now, so going back to the
present moment is going home. That is why you take one step or two steps and
you awaken to the fact that you have arrived. You have arrived in the present
If you are able to arrive, then you will stop running-running within and
running without. There is a belief in us that happiness cannot be possible in
the here and the now. We have to go somewhere. We have to go to the future in
order to be able to really be happy.
That kind of thinking has been there for a long time. Maybe that feeling
has been transmitted to us from our ancestors and our parents. That is why we
have to wake up to the presence of that habit energy in us and to do the
reverse. The Buddha said that it is possible for us to be peaceful and happy in
the present moment. That is the teaching of trista dharma sadha vihara. It
means living happily right in the present moment. When you are there, body and
mind united, you have an opportunity to touch the conditions of your happiness.
If you are able to touch these conditions of happiness that are already
available in the here and the now, you can be happy right away. You don't have
to run anywhere, especially into the future.
When we practice walking, we might be aware that we have strong feet. Our feet
are strong enough for us to enjoy running and walking. That is one condition
for happiness that is available. When I breathe in and I become aware of my
eyes, I encounter another condition for my happiness. Breathing in, I am aware
of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes. This is an exercise, a very
simple exercise to help you realize that you have eyes which are still in good
condition. You need only to open your eyes to see the blue sky, the white
cloud, the luxurious vegetation. You can see all kinds of forms and colors just
because you have eyes still in good condition. Your eyes are another condition
for your happiness. We have so many conditions like that for our happiness and
yet we are still unhappy. We still want to run away from the present moment,
hoping we'll find some happiness in the future.
Breathing in, I'm aware of my heart. Breathing out, I smile to my heart. That
is another exercise. When you practice like that you touch your heart with your
mindfulness. If you continue a minute, you realize that you still have a heart
that functions normally. It is wonderful to have a heart that still functions
normally. There are people who don't have a heart like that and their deepest
desire is to have a heart like you. So conditions for happiness may be more
than enough for us to be happy, but we are not able to be happy because of that
tendency to run away from the present moment.
To take an in-breath, to smile, and to touch the conditions of happiness that
are available, is something that all of us can do. Because of that we can stop
and establish ourselves in the present moment. That is the teaching of living
happily in the present moment. Please train yourself to make the present
moment, the here and the now, into your true home. That is the only home that
we have. That is the only place where we can touch life. Everything we are
looking for must be found in the here and the now. In that way walking
meditation can be a great pleasure and can be very healing.
Do you have to make any effort to practice walking meditation? I don't think
so. It is like when you drink a glass of orange juice. Do you think that you
have to make an effort in order to enjoy the orange juice? No. Walking is like
that. To really enjoy a glass of orange juice, you have to be there one hundred
per cent mind and body together. If you are there, mind and body firmly
established in the present moment, then a glass of orange juice will become a
real thing for you. You are real; therefore, the juice is real. And there life
is real. Life exists. Life is deep during the time you drink your orange juice.
When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, do you have to make any effort? I
don't think so. You don't have to make any effort in order to enjoy a beautiful
sunset. You need only to be there, to be there mind and body together. But if
your body is there and your mind is in the past or in the future, then the
beautiful sunset will not be there for you.
There is a kind of energy that helps you to be there body and mind
together. That energy is called mindfulness. Mindfulness is the capacity of
being there body and mind united. When you drink your orange juice, drink
mindfully and you will enjoy your juice because you are really there one
hundred per cent. If your body and mind are united when you contemplate the
beautiful sunset, it means that you are mindful. Mindfulness helps you to be
there in order for the beautiful sunset to be there too. While you walk, if you
allow yourself to be there mind and body together, then walking will become
mindful walking; it will be healing, refreshing and nourishing.
To meditate means first of all to be there, to be on your cushion, to be on
your walking meditation path. Eating also is a meditation if you are really
there, present one hundred per cent with your food. The essential is to be
there. So please when you practice walking meditation, don't make any effort.
Allow yourself to be like that pebble at rest. The pebble is resting at the
bottom of the river and the pebble does not have to do anything. While you are
walking, you are resting. While you are sitting, you are resting.
If you struggle during your sitting meditation or walking meditation, you are
not doing it right. The Buddha said, "My practice is the practice of
non-practice." That means a lot. Give up all struggle. Allow yourself to
be, to rest.
I sit on my meditation cushion. I consider it to be something very pleasant. I
don't struggle at all on my cushion. I allow myself to be, to rest. I don't
make any effort and that is why I do not get any trouble while sitting. While
sitting I do not struggle and that is why all my muscles are relaxed. If you
struggle during your sitting meditation, you will very soon have pain in your
shoulders and back and things like that. But if you allow yourself to be rested
on your cushion you can sit very long, and each minute is light, refreshing,
nourishing and healing.
It is not sitting in order to struggle to get enlightenment. No. Sitting first
of all is for the pleasure of sitting. Walking first of all is for the pleasure
of walking. And eating is for the pleasure of eating. And the art is to be
there one hundred per cent. When I was a novice I learned how to light a stick
of incense in mindfulness. You see, when you light incense you think that the
purpose of lighting incense is to have the incense pervading the Buddha's home.
But lighting the incense is just for lighting the incense. You pick up a stick
of incense mindfully and you enjoy that, because it is by itself an act of
meditation. During the time you pick up the stick of incense you are mindful,
you are concentrated, you are real, because your body and your mind are
together. And the stick of incense is real. When you strike a match, you do the
same thing. During the time you strike a match, you only strike a match. You
don't do anything else. You don't think of other things. You are perfectly
mindful of striking a match. You are concentrated on it, and you enjoy the act
of lighting the incense.
When you hold a stick of incense, it is the same. When I stick it into the
incense burner, I put my left hand on my right hand. That is the tradition.
Everyone in the Buddhist tradition lights incense in that way. The stick of
incense is very light; one hand is enough in order to hold it. Why do you have
to put your left hand on your right hand? Because it means that you are doing
it with one hundred per cent of your body and your mind.
Be there truly. Be there one hundred per cent of yourself. In every
moment of your daily life. That is the essence of true Buddhist meditation.
Each of us knows that we can do that, so let us train to live each moment of
our daily life deeply. That is why I like to define mindfulness as the energy
that helps us to be there one hundred per cent. The energy of your true
Breathing in-in the here, in the here. Breathing out-in the now, in the now.
Although these are different words they mean exactly the same thing. I have
arrived in the here. I have arrived in the now. I am home in the here. I am
home in the now.
When you practice like that, you practice stopping. Stopping is the
basic Buddhist practice of meditation. You stop running. You stop struggling.
You allow yourself to rest, to heal, to calm.
And after a few minutes of practice you might switch into doing the
third line-I am solid, I am free. This is not auto-suggestion. Why? Because if
you have succeeded in arriving in the here and in the now you are much freer.
You are free from the past, from the future, from your worries, from your fear.
And you become much more solid; your steps become more solid and you become
more solid in your body and in your mind. Solidity becomes a reality after a
few minutes of arriving, of being home. Solidity and freedom are two
characteristics of nirvana. Nirvana is not something abstract. The Buddha said
we can touch nirvana with our own body. So while you practice walking
meditation you can begin to touch nirvana already with your body and your
spirit. When you feel you are a little bit more solid, a little bit more free,
then you begin to touch nirvana with your body and spirit. Solidity and freedom
are the true base for your happiness and well being. No happiness, no well
being, is possible without solidity and freedom.
The last line of the poem is wonderful. In the ultimate I dwell. In the
ultimate. In the ultimate. I dwell. I dwell. The ultimate here is the true
foundation of your being.
Let us visualize the waves on the ocean, several waves appearing on the
surface of the ocean. Some waves are big, there are those that are small, and
each wave seems to have its own life. A wave may have ideas like, "I am a
wave. I am only a wave among many waves. I am smaller than the other wave. I am
less beautiful. I last less than the other wave." Ideas like that. A wave
can be caught in jealousy, in fear, in discrimination.
But if the wave is able to bend down and touch the water within herself,
it will realize that while it is a wave, it is at the same time water. Water is
the foundation of the wave. While waves can be high and low, more and less
beautiful, the water is free from all these notions. That is why if we are able
to touch the foundation of our being, we can release our fear and our
Touching the foundation of our being means touching nirvana. Our foundation is
not subjected to birth and death, being and non-being. A wave can live the life
of a wave, but a wave can do much better than that. While living the life of a
wave, a wave can live a life of the water. The more our solidity and our
freedom grows, the deeper we touch the ground of our own being. That is the
door for emancipation, for the greatest relief.