Thich Nhat Hanh offers a guided meditation to relax our body and mind and return to the here and now. Fully present, fully alive, we find we are already home.
Do you remember anything from your stay in your mother’s womb? All of us spent about nine months there. That’s quite a long time. I believe that all of us had a chance to smile during that time. But who were we smiling at? When we’re happy, there’s a natural tendency to smile. I have seen people, especially children, smiling during their sleep.
Our time in our mothers’ wombs was a wonderful time. We did not have to worry about food or drink. We were protected from heat and cold. We didn’t have to do homework or housework. Protected in our mothers’ wombs, we felt quite safe. We didn’t have to worry about anything at all. No worry is wonderful. I believe many of us still remember that time spent in our mothers’ wombs. Many people have the impression that they were once in a safe and wonderful paradise and now they have lost that paradise. We think somewhere out there is a beautiful place without worry or fear, and we long to get back there. In the Vietnamese language the word for uterus is “the palace of the child.” Paradise was inside of our mothers.
In the womb, your mother took care of you. She ate and drank for you. She breathed air for you, in and out. And I guess that she dreamed for you as well. I imagine you dreamed your mother’s dreams. And if your mother smiled, I think you smiled too. If your mother dreamed about something difficult, and she cried in her dream, I guess that you probably cried with her. You shared her dreams and her nightmares, because you and your mother weren’t two separate people. You were physically attached to your mother through the umbilical cord. And your mother channeled to you through that umbilical cord food and drink, oxygen, everything, including her love. You mother probably took care of her body differently when you were in it. She may have been more careful while walking. She may have stopped drinking or quit smoking. These are very concrete expressions of love and care. You were there, you had not been born, and yet you were the object of love.
Your mother nourished you before you were born, but if you look deeply you will see that you also nourished your parents. Because of your presence in her body, they may have smiled more and loved life even more. You hadn’t done anything to your parents yet, and yet they were nourished by your presence. And their life changed from the moment of your conception in your mother’s womb. Perhaps your mother talked to you before you were born. And I believe, I am convinced, that you heard her talking with you and you responded. Perhaps it happened that occasionally she forgot you were there. So perhaps you gave her a kick to remind her. Your kick was a bell of mindfulness, and when she felt that she may have said, “Darling, I know you are there and I am very happy.” This is the first mantra.
When you were first born, someone cut your umbilical cord. And quite likely you cried aloud for the first time. Now you had to breathe for yourself. Now, you had to get used to all the light surrounding you. Now, you had to experience hunger for the first time. You were outside of your mother, but still somehow inside her. She embraced you with her love. And you embraced her at the same time. You were still dependent on her. You may have nursed at her breast. She took care of you day and night. And although the cord was no longer whole between you, you were linked to your mother in a very concrete, intimate way.
As an adult, you may fight very hard to convince yourself that you and your mother are two different people. But it’s not really so. You are a continuation of both your parents. When I meditate, I can still see the cord connecting me to my mother. When I look deeply, I see there are umbilical cords linking me to phenomena as well. The sun rises every morning. And thanks to the sun, we have heat and light. Without these things, we can’t survive.
So an umbilical cord links you to the sun. Another umbilical cord links you to the clouds in the sky. If the clouds were not there, there would be no rain and no water to drink. Without clouds, there is no milk, no tea, no coffee, no ice cream, nothing. There is an umbilical cord linking you to the river; there is one linking you to the forest. If you continue meditating like this, you can see that you are linked to everything and everyone in the cosmos. Your life depends on everything else that exists—on other living beings, but also on plants, minerals, air, water, and earth.
Suppose you plant a kernel of corn and seven days later it sprouts and begins to take the form of a corn stalk. When the stalk grows high, you may not recognize it as the kernel you planted. But it wouldn’t be true to say the kernel had died. With Buddha’s eyes, you can still see the corn seed in the corn stalk. The stalk is the continuation of the kernel in the direction of the future, and the kernel is the continuation of the stalk in the direction of the past. They are not the same thing, but they are not completely separate, either. You and your mother are not exactly the same person, but you aren’t two different people either. This is the truth of interdependence. No one can be one’s self alone. We have to inter-be to be.
When we are inside our mothers, there is no tension in our bodies. We are soft and flexible. But once we are out in the world, tension creeps in, sometimes from our first breath. Before we can release the tension in our bodies, though, we have to release the tension in our breath. If our bodies are not peaceful, then our breath is not peaceful. When we generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace our breath, the quality of our in-breath and out-breath will improve. As we breathe in mindfulness, our breathing becomes calmer and more profound. The tension in our breathing dissipates. And when our breathing is relaxed, we can embrace our bodies and we can relax. The exact word that the Buddha used translates as “calm.”
There is a Pali text called the Kayagatasati Sutta, the Sutra on the Contemplation of the Body in the Body. In it, the Buddha proposed an exercise for releasing the tension in each particular part of the body, and in the body as a whole. He used the image of a farmer who went up to the attic and brought down a bag of beans. The farmer opened one end of the bag and he allowed all the beans to flow out. With his good eyesight, he was able to distinguish the particular kind of beans and see which were kidney beans, which were mung beans, and so forth. The Buddha recommended that, like this farmer, we learn to pay attention.
To begin, you can lie in a comfortable position and scan your whole body, and then focus on different parts of the body. Begin with the head, or the hair on the head, and finish with the toes. You can say: “Breathing in, I am aware of my brain. Breathing out, I smile to my brain.” Continue with the rest of your body. Like the farmer with his seeds, scan the body—not with x-rays but with the ray of mindfulness. Even fifteen minutes is enough time to scan your body slowly with the energy of mindfulness.
When the fully conscious mind recognizes a part of the body and embraces it with the energy of mindfulness, that part of the body is finally allowed to relax and release its tension. This is why smiling is such a good way to help your body relax. Your first smiles in the womb were completely relaxed smiles. There are hundreds of muscles in your face, and when you get angry or fearful they get very tense. But if you know to breathe in and to be aware of them and to breathe out and smile to them, you can help these muscles release the tension. With one in-breath and out-breath, your face can transform. One smile can bring a miracle.
If, during your scan, you come to a part of your body that is sore or ill, stay focused on that part longer. We tend to hurry past pain. But this hurrying causes more tension instead of healing. If we spend more time with what hurts, using the energy of mindfulness, we can smile at our pain and release some of the tension. If we know how to help release the tension in that part of the body, the healing will take place much more quickly.
You may be in real physical pain. Mindfulness will tell you that it is only a physical pain. The Buddha spoke about the second arrow. He tells the story of a person struck by an arrow who is in a lot of pain. Suppose a second arrow hit the man in exactly at the same spot. The pain would be a hundred times more intense because he was already wounded. Worry, fear, exaggeration, and anger about an injury act as a second arrow, aggravating a part of the body that is already wounded. So if you are struck by one arrow, you can practice mindfulness so that another arrow of fear or worry doesn’t hit you in that same spot.
In the Sutra on the Contemplation of the Body in the Body, the Buddha advises us to become aware of the four natural elements within the body. In the womb, these elements of water, fire, air, and earth are completely balanced. The mother balances the womb for the baby, sending in oxygen and nutrients as the baby rests in water. Once we are born, if we have a balance within the four elements, then we are in good health. But often these elements are out of balance; we can not get warm or we find it difficult to take a full breath. Often, our mindful breath can naturally bring these elements into balance.
The Buddha also recommended that we become aware of our body’s positions and actions. In sitting meditation, the first thing is to be aware that you are in a sitting position. Then you can sit in a way that brings you calm, solidity, and well-being. In each moment we can notice the position of our body, whether we are sitting, walking, standing, or lying down. We can be aware of our actions, whether we are getting up, bending down, or putting on a jacket. Awareness brings us back to ourselves, and when we are fully mindful of our body, and living in the here and now, we are in our true home.
Did you know you had a true home? This question touches everybody. Even if you have the feeling that you don’t belong to any land, to any country, to any geographical spot, to any cultural heritage, or to any particular ethnic group, you have a true home. When you were in your mother’s body, you felt at home. Perhaps you long for a return to that place of peace and safety. But now, inside of your own body, you can come home.
Your true home is in the here and the now. It is not limited by time, space, nationality, or race. Your true home is not an abstract idea. It is something you can touch and live in every moment. With mindfulness and concentration, the energies of the Buddha, you can find your true home in the full relaxation of your mind and body in the present moment. No one can take it away from you. Other people can occupy your country, they can even put you in prison, but they cannot take away your true home and your freedom.
When we stop speaking and thinking and enjoy deeply our in- and out-breath, we are enjoying being in our true home and we can touch deeply the wonders of life. This is the path shown to us by the Buddha. When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality. Your true home is a solid reality that you can touch with your feet, with your hands, and with your mind.
It is fundamental that you touch your true home and realize your true home in the here and the now. All of us have the seed of mindfulness and concentration in us. By taking a mindful breath or making a mindful step, you can bring your mind back to your body. In your daily life, your body and mind often go in two different directions. You are in a state of distraction; mind in one place, body in another. Your body is putting on a coat but your mind is preoccupied, caught in the past or the future. But between your mind and your body there is something: your breath. And as soon as you go home to your breath and you breathe with awareness, your body and mind come together, very quickly. While breathing in, you don’t think of anything; you just focus your attention on your in-breath. You focus, you invest one hundred percent of yourself in your in-breath. You become your in-breath. There is a concentration on your in-breath that will make body and mind come together in just one moment. And suddenly you find yourself fully present, fully alive. There is no more longing to return to the womb, to your perfect paradise. You are already there, already home.
This article was originally published in the March 2006 issue of the Shambahala Sun, and is excerpted in our 30th-anniversary collection of the finest meditation teachings from the magazine, as printed in our January 2010 issue.