“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”Thich Nhat Hahn
His body is gone, the great, gentle, Vietnamese Buddhist priest, Thich Nhat Hanh, who died this week at 95. No longer can we follow in the physical footsteps of the man who brought walking meditation to the West decades ago.
He taught us that presence is a day-by-day, footstep-by-footstep affair. Our feet, often homely, can be our source of connection with the earth.
In an article for the magazine Lion’s Roar describing walking meditation, Nhat Hanh wrote:
I take refuge in Mother Earth.
Every breath, every step
manifests our love.
Every breath brings happiness.
Every step brings happiness.
I see the whole cosmos in the earth.
As we place each foot in front of the next slowly, thoughtfully, it’s as if we bring our intangible, living spirit into contact with the physical earth.
So simple. And yet not easy. I am challenged to make each step mindful and slow, staying focused on my feet and breath, rather than the jillion other thoughts often dancing about in my head.
Honoring our feet
Many of our lifestyles aren’t conducive to staying connected to our bodies and our feet. Too many hours sitting in front of a computer can turn my body into something I’d rather forget (it hurts!). It’s too easy to retreat into a world that is mostly mental and forget my grounding in my feet and the earth.
Another challenge to feeling our feet comes when we’re fearful, anxious, or traumatized. Children who are abused will “leave their bodies” in order to endure the unbearable. When heavily stressed by personal challenges or the woes of the world, we may leave our sense of being right here, right now, in our bodies, and retreat into a “safe space” in our minds. Unfortunately, that space is often not safe at all, with a minefield of memories, messages, and fears that keep us trapped in the past.
Fortunately, our humble feet also offer a way to bring us back into the present moment. We can practice walking mindfully. We can focus attention on our feet and build awareness of them from the inside out.
When I want to feel more embodied, starting with my feet, I ask myself:
- Can I feel the weight of the feet on the earth?
- Are they cool? Warm? Sticky? Dry?
- Can I feel each toe? (Often a challenge!)
- Can I feel the pads, heels, bones, tendons?
- Can I feel the spaces between the bones and tendons?
- Can I feel my joints? Can I let them smile? (A bit odd, but it does help my connection.)
- Can I feel energy traveling from the crown of my head down through my feet into the earth?
- Can I feel energy moving up from the earth through my feet?
Not all of these questions yield answers or sensations, but in asking them I usually feel myself breathing more deeply, settling, and returning to a sense of being present, physically, in the moment.
If I’m in a stressful situation, say a Zoom meeting that has gone on way too long, I can reconnect to my feet just by wiggling my toes. As I feel more embodied, I relax. I return to a sense of the present, which is also where I’ll find the solutions to the problems I am facing.
RIP Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh was a peace activist for over seven decades. Meeting Nhat Hanh in 1966 moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the war in Vietnam. Because Nhat Hanh advocated for peace rather than siding with either North or South Vietnam, he was banned by both sides and spent forty years in exile.
He kept walking. teaching, standing for peace.
In his honor, I offer a video I shared last year. Choral director Shane Jewell (from my island!) gathered a chorus from across the globe, including monks from Nhat Hanh’s monastic home, Plum Village, in France. The chorus sang to a world in lockdown.
The song uses words from Wendell Berry and Nhat Hanh.
May they help his spirit rise, gracefully.