In the middle of a very distracting city, a mixed group of religious followers manage to keep their breath steady and their brains trained on the present.
Ghan Chee has been living in the moment since 1995. At least, that’s when she and nine other Torontonians—including her husband, David Frank—formed the first English-speaking group devoted to practicing mindfulness as taught by the movement’s forefather, Thich Nhat Hanh.
“Most of us daydream through our lives,” said Chee, who discovered the Vietnamese zen master when she and Frank received one of his books as a wedding present. “We’re either worried about the past or are concerned about what will happen in the future. Our mind is bouncing between these two and not staying the only place we have to live, which is the present moment.”
This central tenet that we should focus on what is directly in front of us—such simple logic, yet so difficult to achieve—will be the theme of Nhat Hanh’s talk on August 17, when the 86-year-old speaks publicly in Toronto for the first time in 20 years. His address to the 3,000 in attendance follows a five-day retreat in St. Catharines at Brock University, which is meant to encourage mindfulness in education. “Happy teachers will change the world,” he has said, and over half of the 1,400 attendees at the retreat will be from the education field.
Nhat Hanh’s modern practice began during the Vietnam War. To the dismay of elders in the monastery where he lived, the Buddhist monk decided that he could no longer simply sit by while his countrymen suffered. Coining the term “engaged Buddhism,” he began combining his meditative life with peace activism. Nhat Hanh is credited with influencing Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak out against the war, and in 1967 was nominated by the civil rights leader for a Nobel Peace Prize.
True Peace—the group Chee founded in 2001 alongside The Mindfulness Practice Community of Toronto, her original group—meets every Friday evening at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. Although mindfulness philosophy stems from Buddha’s teachings, True Peace includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those of little or no faith. The only requirement to attend is a desire to follow one’s breath and, as Chee puts it, “be aware of your thoughts when you’re thinking them and your feelings when you’re feeling them.”
On a recent Friday this summer, 25 members gathered as usual to practice. Intermittently, as the group meditated, facilitator Cindy Carroll gently rang a large bell, the sound of which was meant to remind them to bring their minds back to the present if they had wandered. As Chee later explained, when Nhat Hahn came to the West, he suggested that the bell didn’t have to be the only cue to be mindful, but that we could use other signals from our daily city life. “When there’s a red light, we stop in our car and get irritated,” she said. “Instead, we should say, ‘This is a bell of mindfulness.’ Things that ordinarily would be an irritation can be pleasurable.”
Later, as if to point out how time can be a subjective concept, Carroll directed members to pace around the room, walking for the sheer enjoyment of walking. The slow rotation of each person mimicked the hands of a clock, each step forward the true unit of time, and as silence filled the room, the sunlight coming in from the window seemed to linger for longer.
To wrap up, the members were given an opportunity to tell a story (“dharma sharing,” they call it) that illustrated being taken out of the moment and showed how they found their way back to it. Whether about conflict with a family member, a workmate, or even with oneself, the stories had one thing in common: pain from the past crept up to influence current interactions. Mindfulness is often cited as one of the most beneficial things a person can practice in order to reduce stress, but as the group’s stories indicated, it doesn’t mean one lives stress-free. “Our practice goes a little deeper than that,” explained Carroll. “You may think you’re doing well, but when you sit for an hour, you can see what’s below the surface. It can be old pain or suffering. When those things are brought to your awareness, you can then take care of them so they’re not haunting you anymore.”
Then again, there are times when one sits for an hour and becomes mindful that everything’s fine. “Yesterday, a friend and I went up to my roof very early in the morning,” one man at the meditation recounted. “And I remembered how amazing a thing it is just to sit and watch the sun rise.”
True Peace Toronto, truepeacetoronto.ca.