Note: elephantjournal.com received this book for free, in return for a guarantee that we would review said offering. That said, we say what we want—good and bad, happy and sad.
With an introduction by Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh, Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness got my attention from the first page.
I loved its directness and immediacy with practical examples that were literally at the kitchen-sink level.
Mostly though, I loved it because this was the perfect time for me to read this book as I’ve been making the transition from the more esoteric meditation practices of Tibetan Buddhism to mindfulness—after 16 years of searching, breathing and never being quite sure what is it I am trying to do here.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s introduction spoke directly to me when he said,
“Do not get caught in the form of a teaching, but let the heart of your own understanding guide your path… your best teacher is your own mindful awareness.”
It seems so simple, so direct, so real and so playful and as I turned the pages, I wondered if this could possibly be true.
Is it all really just about my awareness in the end? It really all begins and ends with me? Really?
In the first chapter, Rachel Neumann describes being at a retreat and looking longingly at a road leading away from the monastery. She’s desperate for a bar, music and a pool table.
I could relate—how many times have I sat there with my knees aching, my mind racing and looking around enviously at the serene faces of others? All the time, I am thinking a gin and tonic and some dancing to Ween would be really good right now. I think everyone feels like this at times and I was heartened by Neumann’s honesty.
Thich Nhat Hanh says all Buddhism is academic without practice. This really resonated with me deeply, as I’ve never been particularly academic about Buddhism or meditation, finding much of it far too esoteric and complicated for my mind.
I have however known deeply how good it is to be in the company of someone who is really practicing because there is something ineffable—they are really there, really listening and really engaged. It’s not academic, it’s real, it’s the present moment and that’s all.
I have known the flip side, too, of wanting to talk through a problem or question with someone I thought had it all figured out through years of Buddhist mediation practice only to realize they aren’t there at all and it’s impossible to connect, as for some reason they are terrified of the real emotions and experiences.
She recounts how after talks by Thich Nhat Hanh, people always ask the questions of life—how to be with difficult situations and with difficult emotions. This is the viscera of life we must all contend with and his response is simple and challenging: there is nothing to do—just be with it, sit with it, breath and don’t hold too tight.
It sounds easy but it’s so hard for us with our minds that want to recoil from pain and difficultly. We remember that the Chinese character for forbearance has two parts. One part signifies the heart and the other part represents a sharp knife.
The heart is so big that even the knife can’t destroy it.
Mindfulness is for everything in life—the good, the bad and the ugly, without judging. It’s not just for walking along the beach, washing the dishes or peeling an orange, even though these simple acts of mindful awareness can connect us to ourselves and something bigger.
Where mindfulness comes into its own is with the hard stuff. Neumann describes how she realizes in a Kung Fu class that the cause of her pain and tension is because she is afraid of being hit. This sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? Her teacher says you are going to get hit, accept it, it is inevitable and she relaxes when she realizes this.
It’s about fully engaging with everything, even pain; it’s like a boxer leaning in for the punch because paradoxically by leaning in, the pain is lessened.
Every day we go out there into the world, we are taking the risk we will be hit somehow and we should all lean in to the punch if we can.
I love how Neumann describes mindfulness as a deep awareness of both the singularity and transience of the present moment. These moments aren’t exclusive, we’ve all had them and sometimes we notice.
I had one recently walking across the town bridge in Athlone when it was just getting dark—the moon bright in the sky, a few sparkling stars, ducks quacking and then a moment of perfect silence. That’s all there was for that moment. It was like walking through a haiku, and yet it was all so completely and utterly ordinary.
In the book, she describes the three questions we can constantly ask ourselves to bring us back to ourselves, to be really mindful: Am I available? Am I engaged? Am I connected?
I’ve used these questions in the past week and they are extremely powerful because I, like most people most of the time, am completely unavailable, unengaged and unconnected. This isn’t a judgment, it’s just how life is sometimes as we go through our daily routines on auto-pilot.
If we stop though every now and then to notice how we are and where we are, it can change everything and it’s so ordinary. Neumann notices that Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t look particularly deep or profound as she talks to him in the cafeteria one day. He is just profoundly there.
In the past year, I have devoured books and practices on mindfulness—Thich Nhat Hahn and Jon Kabat Zinn in particular—and I’ve found it’s experiential and not academic. It’s a practice that unites body and mind, demanding that you zero in with a non-judgement awareness of what is you are doing right now.
Am I available? Am I engaged? Am I connected?
These are questions worth remembering and repeating to ourselves at any time, especially in difficult situations.
“If we’re paying attention to each breath, that’s a lot of breaths left in our lives until the very end. Life suddenly becomes a lot longer. Some moments will be boring or painful or irritating, but I want to be present for the important satisfying moments, whenever they unexpectedly happen.”
Neumann’s book is a practical exploration of what mindfulness practice can mean if you’re a normal, busy person with life, work and family responsibilities. It’s a gritty and inspiring story of how to engage with mindfulness wherever you are—at the office desk or on the floor drawing with tired toddlers.
It’s all good and it is what it is.
Jackie Gorman is a Gemini who loves tattoos, books, poetry, guerrilla gardening and dancing. She is evangelical about cooking, speaking German and knitting.
Editor: Jamie Morgan
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