When the beloved teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh died a few weeks ago, I was brought back to the month long retreat I’d done with him at his retreat center in the south of France, he gave dharma talks every morning at 7 am in the old, stone-built meditation hall.
It was July and I was expecting balmy Mediterranean weather. Think Nice, think Cannes. I was expecting to frolic in fields of poppies interspersed by periods of meditation and eating chocolate croissants. I’d brought thin cotton pants, sweaters, one or two pair of socks, two pairs of open-toe sandals. Instead, it was raining. And it was cold. Freezing cold. Instead of poppies, I maundered in my miserable, self-righteous, princess self. Why didn’t they have heaters? Were they trying to kill us with pneumonia? Why were we being told to smile during the long snaking endless group walking meditations in the rain in the nearby villages?
One morning, Thay, as he was called by his students, asked how many people had a toothache. No one raised a hand. Then he asked how many people had noticed they didn’t have a toothache? Again, not one hand.
“Isn’t it remarkable,” he said, “that when you have a toothache, all you can think of is the pain and wanting to get rid of it. But when you don’t have a toothache, you don’t spend a minute, not a minute, noticing what’s here instead of the ache. The sky. The flowers. Your pain-free teeth. Your Buddha-nature. Please pick a partner now and spend three minutes a piece paying attention to what’s not-a-toothache.
And just like that, as if someone turned a kaleidoscope, the colors shifted, the patterns changed. The background became the foreground and the foreground was miraculous: my partner’s wide-set eyes, the sage and pale grey colors of the stone wall, the burbling sound of people talking. Without the overlay of my preferences and grumbling, I was soaring around in a palace of skylight; in fact, without the commentary, I was a palace of skylight.
I spent that day walking around in a daze of wonder at what I’d been missing: the field of sunflowers—turns out the poppies are in Italy—down the road, the sight of a hundred students snaking through the neighboring village during our walking meditation, Thay’s ever constant reminder that “there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.”
Five years later, despite multiple retreats and daily practice, I’d forgotten about toothaches and sunflowers. Until I remembered. A teacher of mine once said, “It doesn’t matter how long you forget, it only matters that you remember.” And so, it is the practice of remembering that I do every day and as I do it, the ordinary—my husband’s face, my dog’s wagging tail, opening my eyes in the morning, walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night, beds, blenders, refrigerators, computers, the face of the cashier ringing up the broccoli —feels extraordinary.
And as far as I can tell, that is the truth. The wonder that awaits me if only I care enough to look and see.
It is as if, at any moment of remembering, the beauty can come rushing back in. And so it does.
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