Live and Recorded Talks from Summer Retreat in Plum Village

The first talk of the first week of the Summer Opening in Plum Village with Thich Nhat Hanh is live now (…now over – but keep an eye on his facebook page for updates about live talks). You can see this, and other live and recorded talks from this and other retreats, at the Plum Village YouTube channel:

Highly Recommended.

You can also listen to the talks as podcasts here:

Finally, Thich Nhat Hanh will be touring Spain in spring 2014


Stopping… Not Needing…

Today while walking through the park I saw a little road-sweeping truck crossing my path ahead of me, kicking up a huge amount of dust. I stopped in the middle of the road I was walking along to let it pass on its way, and to wait for the dust cloud to clear.

I stood there, nothing to do, nowhere to go for a bit, and noticed ahead of me a vast tree, one of the park’s giants. I remembered how illuminating that tree had been for me in the past, such a masterwork of nature, but I never see it any more. But now I’d stopped I’d seen it again, and marvelled once more at its size and beauty.

The Great Unfolding of the Energy of The Universe as I like to think of it.

Only when I stop can I see anything. Not just physical things, but other realisations or insights too. Nothing becomes clear until I stop, then things have time to appear with clarity on their own.

But seeing as we humans rarely stop these days, it’s usually hard to see anything clearly at all.

So I’m stopping more. Observing. Enjoying the view!

Not Needing…

Yesterday I walked past a huge electronics store in the center of town, a place I’d bought a computer and endless peripherals years ago. And I found myself automatically thinking “there must be something I need. What could I need that they’ve got?”

And then I remembered, “I have everything I need, I don’t need another thing in my life!” It felt like an old habit had been clicked into action, a pavlovian reaction – see shop, must need something! We are trained to buy!

I’m finding that the truth that I already have everything I need to be happy can be applied to so many different areas of life. There’s no need for more of anything. No more things. I have everything I need to be happy already.

In fact I’m releasing things again as much as I can. Stashes of old art materials, more books, projects, plans, old ambitions… I have an idea about reducing everything I personally own (not including shared family items like our car, just my stuff) to what fits laid out neatly on our dining room table, clothes included, and I think that would be about the right amount of stuff to own.

Less stuff, less plans, less running around, gives me more space. And I’ve discovered how much I need space to feel calm. A long time ago my wife and I made a decision never to put more than one plan into a day. Like going somewhere, eating out, meeting friends. Whenever we break that rule and fit two or three things into a day, we are overloaded again!

But back to things… I have been reading about non-hoarding in the anthology of Ghandi’s writing, Soul Force. His ideas are very strong:

In observing the vow of non-hoarding, the main thing to be borne in mind is not to store up anything which we do not require.

…Non-hoarding refers to stocking of things not needed. Non-stealing refers to the use of such things. If I need only one shirt to cover myself with but use two, I am guilty of stealing one from another. For, a shirt which could have been of use to someone else does not belong to me. If five bananas are enough to keep me going, my eating a sixth one is a form of theft. Suppose we have a stock of 50 limes, thinking that among us all we would need them. I need only two, but take three because there are so many. This is theft.

…The principle underlying all these vows in truth. By deceiving oneself, one may refuse to recognize an act of stealing or hoarding as such. Hence, by taking careful thought we can ensure at every step that truth prevails. Whenever we are in doubt whether a particular thing should be stored or not, the simple rule is not to store it. There is no violation of truth in renunciation. When in doubt about the wisdom of speaking, it is the duty of a man who has taken the vow of truth not to speak.

This seems terribly fierce to our western eyes, so used to abundance. But it reflects so clearly on a global scale. So much over here, so little in developing countries. The more I take, the less someone else has somewhere else – it all seems to me to be an obvious matter of equilibrium. Ghandi seems so fierce because his version of truth makes me feel uncomfortable.

But putting it into practice makes me happy. Giving away my hoard of unused art materials to the old ladies that collect and redistribute things at the local church, and thinking that someone else is using them, makes complete sense.

And from there it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion not to buy and hoard anything unnecessary in the future. I discovered that one of the books I had given to the homeless guy who sells books in the park had ended up being bought by a friend of mine who had enjoyed it. My wasted hoards become someone else’s pleasure.

This is a line of experimentation that I have a long way to go with, I still hoard many things and it will take a long time to release everything I don’t really need (and I come from generations of hoarders, so the habit-energy is very strong!), but it feels like a healthy way of life. Non-hoarding, and Not-needing. With very little I can be very happy.

Finally, I was at first amazed to find reference to hoarding in Lao Tzu’s wonderful Tao Teh Ching, but then I wasn’t surprised at all – as Ghandi says, these truths ‘are as old as the hills’:


…The sage does not take to hoarding.
The more he lives for others, the fuller is his life.
The more he gives, the more he abounds.

Tao Teh Ching, Lao Tzu, Translated by John C. H. Wu, Shambala Dragon Editions

And now to stop writing for a while. It’s very hot, and the season dictates a slowing down…

Breathing in I know it is hot…
Breathing out I smile at the heat…

I leave you with two great reading recommendations:

1. The above mentioned Tao Teh Ching, by Lao Tzu, Translated by John C. H. Wu, Shambala Dragon Editions. So perfectly brief, such wisdom.

2. Two Treasures, by Thich Nhat Hanh – which includes and comments on two fantastically named texts: The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of Great Beings, and The Discourse on Happiness.

And a contrary recommendation that I will be taking up myself – read less, practice it all more!

All The Conditions I Need To Be Happy

I’ve been using a very simple meditation recently:

‘I have all all the conditions I need to be happy right now’.

It’s true that I do have an awful lot of reasons to be happy – some money in the bank, a good job (with a good boss – me), all the material comforts I need, food in the fridge, but that is never enough to stop wanting more…

I might have a good camera, but I can always lust after a better one, a good house, but want a bigger one… even if I had a million euros in the bank (I don’t!), I could want 2 million, or a Ferrari, or a holiday home… so having everything you need is always relative to your desires. Modern western society makes sure there’s always a next level to aspire to.

But the meditation, ‘I have all all the conditions I need to be happy right now’ helps solve this for me. Another way I sometimes put it is, ‘I don’t need anything else to be happy, I have everything I need’.

And best of all is when I say this to myself out in the park, and it means I have the sun (or the clouds), and the trees, and my walk, and that I’m alive, and I realise that I don’t need anything else than a few simple conditions like that to be happy.

No need to buy anything else. No need to be chasing after the next line of work that will make me supposedly feel more realised and successful. I already have everything I need. I already have all the conditions I need to be happy in this wonderful present moment, in the very here and now.

And it works when things look blue. The other day I was on my way to the post office and I felt a little low, a little stressed… and I realised how silly that was. I tried a version of this meditation that I like:

Breathing in I look at the lovely blue sky.
Breathing out I smile…

And it worked, I instantly felt better and realised I had more than enough reasons to be happy, and that the first was something as simple as a beautiful blue sky. I carried on my walk feeling infinitely better.

But I still run a lot… Where this simple life-changing meditation is concerned, I’ve still got a lot of practicing to do!

I learned all this from Thich Nhat Hanh, I can hardly hope to put it better than he does:


The Shimmering of Trees

I spend a lot of time looking at trees, and especially love seeing and hearing their leaves flutter in the breeze. Seeing the leaves fluttering makes me think about the underlying energy of it all, of us all – they shimmer in the light with the grace and flow of whatever makes all life flourish and grow.

Once while watching leaves in the park, I thought:

The waving leaves are applauding us for stopping to notice how beautiful they are!

Today it’s very hot in Madrid. My wife and I went driving around new neighbourhoods to see if any of them appealed to us for a house move we have pending. After an hour of stopping and starting, and driving around in circles with the air-con on, I was hot, slightly car-sick, and grumpy.

We pulled over in the shade and started bickering a bit about the whole move thing. I saw this was largely my fault for letting grumpiness set in, and that our whole day (a trip planned up to the hills later with our son) was in jeaopardy, so I got out of the car. And found myself staring across the road at some trees, just watching their fluttering leaves shimmering in the sunlight.

And I felt instantly connected to the present moment, and saw how in the right-here and the right-now, bickering, house moves, doubts, negativity, troubles, woes – none of them matter at a very deep level. They fade away in the absolute timelessness of the present moment, where there is just light, and the shimmering of the trees.

So I got back in the car and apologised. Soon we found out all sort of other things that had been making us both a bit grumpy – the recent death of my wife’s uncle that we still haven’t had time to process properly and let settle. And we left the car and checked out another few streets on foot, and drove up to the hills later with our son and had an incredible day, walking through sierra woodland, beneath more shimmering trees.

Wring Out My Clothes

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
When I get

– St. Francis of Assisi

Waking Up

Every morning when I wake up, I say the same thing, a verse from the Plum Village practices of Thich Nhat Hanh. The original verse goes like this:

Waking up this morning I smile, 24 brand new hours before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, and look at beings with eyes of compassion.

But I’ve adapted it a bit over time, so what I say is this:

Waking up this morning I know I have a brand new 24 hours ahead of me and I smile. I smile to life, I smile with every cell in my body.

I promise to life every moment deeply and mindfully, and look at others with eyes of compassion and love.

And saying this helps my day immensely! When I say the words ‘I smile’, I really smile. When I smile to life, I smile to life, and when I smile with every cell in my body, I really feel that I do.

Not many years ago I would wake up every day in a terrible state. Sometimes with a stabbing pain in my stomach, sometimes with terrible hypochondria. Nowadays, thanks to everything I write about here, those have gone, but I still wake up sometimes feeling all over the place after crazy wild dreams that I can’t for the life of me decipher.

And saying this verse helps a lot. It readjusts the start of the day with a whole-body smile. A recognition that there’s another day ahead, and that’s a wonderful thing. A Plum Village monk told me once that he had chagned this verse after the Japanese Tsunami disaster a few years ago, and that he had begun to say, ‘…24 brand new hours ahead of me, perhaps’… in recognition of the fragility of existence, that anything can happen at any time, that it’s worth enjoying and really living every moment.

The second part of my version of the verse is an aspiration. ‘I promise to life every moment deeply and mindfully, and look at others with eyes of compassion and love.’

I really do aspire to live every moment deeply and mindfully, in the here and now. Noticing all the wonderful details of life. Of course it’s impossible. My mind spends most of the day wandering, planning, looping around in circles, but increasingly I do stop and look. Focus on my son’s face, on what he or my wife are saying, on nature, people, life. I think staring out the day with this intention helps.

And looking at others ‘with eyes of compassion and love’… For me this is about seeing that we are all essentially the same. That we all come from the same starting block. I like the analogy of the seeds. That every single person contains good seeds, like love, kindess, generosity, and difficult seeds, like anger, hatred, jealousy, unkindness.

We all start with the same bunch of seeds, but some of them are watered more than others, depending on our upbringing, our families, our ancestors. If someone is cross with me, then I can’t really blame them for being a cross person, I can’t even hate dictators or terrible politicians or pickpockets… if I’d been born in the same cicumstances as them, and certain seeds had been watered more intensely in me, then that would be me.

And the very first person I have to be compassionate and loving towards is myself. I have all the same seeds of anger, jealousy, self-destruction, as anyone else. And slowly I have to make time to understand where they come from, and how not to water them, but to water the good seeds instead.

Thinking about these things every morning by reciting this verse, and really smiling with my whole body as I start the day, helps a lot. Sometimes it isn’t enough and I still put my foot in it before we’ve even sat down to breakfast. But in general, it makes a tremendous difference. It’s a really wonderful way to start the day.

Highly Recommended Further Reading:

Twenty Four Brand New Hours – from the book Peace is Every Step.

Please Call Me By My New Names – The text that really helped me understand compassion more deeply.

The End Of The Tragedy

Recently my wife, my son and I set off for a walk to the park. I was nearly ready for a long time, while they were still a long way off from being ready to get out of the door. Then when they were nearly ready, I gave up, and went and lay on the bed playing with our son’s guitar.

At which point my son got distracted by me and the guitar, and lost all interest in collaborating with my wife’s desire to get his shoes on. Which lead to big stress on both their parts, no help from me (still on the bed with the guitar), and by the time we did all get out of the front door, tempers were frayed.

A typical family script set in motion. From the front door to the gate of the park 5 minutes away, a whole practically pre-rehearsed back-and-forth of blame and recrimination engulfed my wife and I, followed by a huge sense of guilt that we’d argued in front of our son again, ending up with no desire to be anywhere near each other, let alone go for a walk together. Which in the end, we didn’t.

Something clicked in my head as my son and I were walking on our own around the park 20 minutes later. “This has happened before… ruined family walk to the park…”… Followed by another, clear internal instruction, which for some reason popped into my head in Spanish: “Se acaba la tragédia” – The tragedy is over.

Becuase we were just running through, for the nth time, a perfectly practiced script. A mini play. ‘Lovely family plan degenerates into disaster due to dad’s dreaminess and mum’s reaction to it, and dad’s bad reaction to mum’s reaction, and her reaction to that…’ until, instead of a happy family story (nice trip to park), we have a tragedy (separate walk, anger, guilt, poor son).

It’s a script we’ve both picked up somewhere and refined. It’s a script that says, ‘in this family it’s hard to have fun’. It probably started out generations ago on both sides. Of course we have tremendous fun sometimes, but why not every time we set out together on a family plan? Why does the predetermined disaster story have to kick in so often?

Se acaba la tragedia – the tragedy is over.

That night I wrote it in a notebook I have, and it’s now a firm resolution. Two days later, we got another chance to put my new resolution to the test. My wife and I had a date. We got a babysitter for the first time in months. We were really, really excited.

While we were waiting for the lift in our building, she got a phone call from her sister, and so we had to wait before going down so she didn’t lose mobile coverage in the lift. I said, “call her back once we are downstairs! We are going to be late!” But she didn’t want to, and we spent 5 minutes standing outside the lift door before we could go down – by which time I was fuming.

And of course, following our favourite ‘we don’t have fun on dates‘ script, I let my frustration fly, “You could have called her back when we got downstairs, we’d be halfway into town by now….”, and stepping into her role in the story, she got cross with me in return.

By the time we got to the top of our street (and it’s not a long street!) we were arguing, and the date was looking like a total disaster… but alarm bells started to ring… ‘se acaba la tragédia!!’

And I stopped trying to defend myself. I stopped walking and put my hands on her shoulders. I became very present, and I very gently apologised. I told her that I thought we’d been here a hundred times before. That we’d turned so many of our few opportunities to go out together into arguments and ruined nights out. That I was sure we could change the script right here and now, and that I loved her very much and just wanted to have a lovely night out.

And by a miracle we did. We changed the script. ‘Ruined night out’ became ‘best night out ever’. By the time we turned the corner at the top of our street in fact, we were happily walking hand in hand. We went to a concert by Deva Premal (highly recommended!) and loved every minute of it.

Now I know for sure that these little life scripts that we’ve been unconsciously acting out for years can be abandoned. Shaken off and left behind. Scripts like ‘we don’t have fun on dates’, or ‘extended family meals never work out’. First I have to become aware of them, then aware of how I propagate them. Then simply say, enough is enough – the tragedy is over. There’s a much happier story. It’s script-less – we are free to make it up as we go along – and it’s the one I choose from now on.