In the blog category “Book Reviews”, I will review many classic books written by teachers and practitioners of mindfulness meditation. I have been reading such books for more than 2 decades now. I will systematically review these books, one by one, so that it may help readers of this blog make informed decision about purchasing them and learning from them.
Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist who lives in southwest France where he is in exile for many years. At the time of writing this review (Jan 2016) , Thay (as he is affectionately known to his many hundreds of thousands of followers) is making slow and steady progress in terms of recovering physical strength and movement after suffering from a severe brain hemorrhage about a year ago. He is still unable to speak.
During this time, it is a privilege for me to write a review of his early classic book on mindfulness meditation entitled “The Miracle of Mindfulness” where he offers gentle anecdotes and practical exercises as a means of learning the essential skills of mindfulness. As is true of most of his books; this one too is written in a style that is gentle, peaceful but also very profound. His books appeal to novice students as well as advanced practitioners of mindfulness meditation.
“The Miracle of Mindfulness” was first published in 1975 and was originally a long letter written by Thay to a main staff member of a school that he had founded. This short book has seven short chapters followed by a long chapter detailing many mindfulness meditation exercises, starting from very simple to complex ones where one needs to remember the sequence of activities. The chapters have sections with sweet Zen titles like ”The cup in your hands”, “Eating a tangerine”, “The guard – or the monkey’s shadow”, “The water clearer, the grass greener”, etc.
In the first four chapters, Thay talks about the reasons for doing the practice as well as the advantages accrued from it. He embellishes all these with examples of people who benefited greatly from it. He asks a question rhetorically and then answers it : “… Then how are we to practice mindfulness? My answer is: keep the attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness”. If you substitute “work” with “breath” in the answer above, you will immediately get a sense of the practice of mindfulness. Within these chapters, Thay gives many examples of mindfulness of breath meditation.
The fifth chapter in the book deals with the more complex and somewhat arcane subject of the five aggregates. The five aggregates, according to Buddhist teachings, are objects of the mind. They are bodily and physical form, feelings, perceptions, mental functioning and consciousness. The crucial thing to understand is that the aggregates directly point to those realities underneath the surface appearance of “self” or “I” or “being”. The “self” is no different from the assembly of the five aggregates themselves. Since the aggregates themselves are conditioned and impermanent, it implies that the “self” we identify with is itself impermanent. Clinging to anything outside of “self”, hoping that it will provide the “self” with long lasting happiness therefore results in suffering because the “self” is changing all the time.
The eighth chapter is entitled “Exercises in Mindfulness”. In my opinion, this is the most important chapter in the book because it lists various exercises that individuals can adopt, practice and understand experientially the concepts highlighted in the book. Thay has adapted them from various other methods and has often used them himself. Some of the exercises like “half-smile when you wake up in the morning”, “half-smile when listening to music”, etc. are simple and easy to understand as well as to perform. However, other exercises like “contemplation on interdependence”, “yourself” etc. are complex and difficult to perform completely without some guidance of some sort. I believe that there is a need for someone to create guided meditation instructions for some of these exercises otherwise there is a risk that one may start to practice them on one’s own only to get carried away by raging streams of thoughts, moods and emotions thereby losing sight of them.
To conclude, this book will remain a classic in the broad literature on mindfulness meditation. It is very easy to read, easy to understand (except for the five aggregates) and will continue to inspire countless lay people to understand and implement this practice in their lives.
If you have any questions on this book or if you would like to seek clarification on some of its contents or if you have your own suggestions to offer me, then please do so by filing out the contact form below. In a blog category entitled “Website content feedback – Book reviews” I will publish my answers to your questions as well as your suggestions wherever appropriate. Thank you !!!