How to Live: Obtaining Happiness and Well-Being

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple advice for mindful living.

How to Relax

If we can’t rest, it’s because we haven’t stopped running. We began running a long time ago. We continue to run, even in our sleep. We think that happiness and well-being aren’t possible in the present.

Illustration by Jason DeAntonis

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Mindful Relaxation: From How to Relax

• Mindfulness is the continuous practice of touching deeply every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly present with your body and your mind, to harmonize your intentions and actions, and to be in harmony with those around you. We don’t need to make a separate time for this outside of our daily activities. We can practice mindfulness in every moment of the day—in the kitchen, the bathroom, or the garden, and as we go from one place to another. We can do the same things we always do—walking, sitting, working, eating, and so on—with mindful awareness of what we’re doing. Our mind is with our actions.

• If we can’t rest, it’s because we haven’t stopped running. We began running a long time ago. We continue to run, even in our sleep. We think that happiness and well-being aren’t possible in the present. If you can stop and establish yourself in the here and the now, you will see that there are many elements of happiness available in this moment, more than enough for you to be happy. Even if there are a few things in the present that you dislike, there are still plenty of positive conditions for your happiness. When you walk in the garden, you may see that a tree is dying and so you feel sad and aren’t able to enjoy the rest of the garden that is still beautiful. If you look again, you can see that the garden is still beautiful and you can enjoy it.

• The world needs joyous and loving people who are capable of just being. If you know the art of being at peace, then you have the basis for your every action. The ground for action is to be, and the quality of being determines the quality of doing. Action must be based on non-action. People sometimes say, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But we have to reverse that statement to say, “Don’t just do something, sit there,” in order to be in such a way that peace, understanding, and compassion are possible.

Mindful Sitting: From How to Sit

• Every time you sit, whether it’s at work, at the foot of a tree, or on your meditation cushion at home, enjoy your sitting. Then you won’t consider sitting to be a hard practice. It’s very pleasant. Set aside a room or a corner or a cushion that you use just for sitting. When you arrive there, you will immediately begin to feel some of the joy and relaxation that comes from sitting. Whether sitting alone or with a few friends, you can produce your full presence, your true presence.

• Sometimes people say they don’t know what to do when they are sitting. “You only need to sit” is an exhortation of the Soto Zen meditation school. It means that you should sit without waiting for a miracle, and that includes the miracle of enlightenment. If you always sit in expectation, you’re not in the present moment. The present moment contains the whole of life.

• When you sit, you may feel something pushing you to get up and do something else. That’s the energy inside each of us called habit energy. Habit energy is energy that is fueled by an old pattern, situation, or habit. It isn’t based on our real needs and our real situation in the present.

Habit energy is always pushing. We have the habit of thinking that happiness isn’t possible in the here and now, that we have to go and look for it somewhere else or in the future. That’s why we keep running. Our parents ran too. They transmitted the habit of running to us, and they received it from their ancestors. It’s a long standing habit. We deeply believe that in the future we may have more conditions for our happiness and that our “real life” lies somewhere else. It’s because of our habit energy that the present moment can seem boring.

It is a strong energy. If we are not aware of it, it can be stronger than we are. When we sit and invite the sound of the bell, it is a reminder to let go of that habit energy and return home.

Mindful Walking: From How to Walk

• We’re in such a rush, looking for happiness in one place and then another. We walk like sleepwalkers, without any enjoyment of what we are actually doing. We are walking, but in our minds we are already doing something else: planning, organizing, worrying. There is no more need to run. Every time we return our attention to our breath and our steps, it’s as if we wake up. Every step brings us back to the here and now. We can touch the Earth and see the sky and notice all the wonders in between. In each step there is the possibility of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

• When you walk, if you are aware that you are alive, that is already enlightenment. You are aware that you have a body; that is already enlightenment. You are aware that your feet are strong enough for you to enjoy walking; that is also enlightenment. When you walk, it can be a celebration. When you breathe like that, you are celebrating life.

• Every time you need to go somewhere, even if it’s a very short distance of three or five steps, you can apply mindful walking. Soon, it will become a habit. You will find that you are walking mindfully to pick up the phone or to make your tea. You may not realize at first why you don’t feel rushed or why you are happier when you walk in the door. Cultivating a daily habit of walking meditation is free and it doesn’t take any more time than the walking you are already doing.

Mindful Eating: From How to Eat

• When we can slow down and really enjoy our food, our life takes on a much deeper quality. I love to sit and eat quietly and enjoy each bite, aware of the presence of my community, aware of all the hard and loving work that has gone into my food. When I eat in this way, not only am I physically nourished, I am also spiritually nourished. The way I eat influences everything else that I do during the day.

Eating is as important a time for meditation as sitting or walking meditation time. It’s a chance to receive the many gifts of the Earth that I would not otherwise benefit from if my mind were elsewhere. Here is a verse I like to recite when I eat:

In the dimension of space and time,
We chew as rhythmically as we breathe.
Maintaining the lives of all our
ancestors,   
Opening an upward path for
descendants.

We can use the time of eating to nourish the best things our relatives have passed on to us and to transmit what is most precious to future
generations.

• Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent, to other species, to our own bodies, and to the Earth. Or our way of growing, distributing, and eating food can be part of creating a larger healing. We get to choose.

The planet suffers deeply because of the way many of us eat now. Forests are razed to grow grain and feed livestock, and the way the animals are raised pollutes our water and air. A lot of grain and water is also used to make alcohol. Tens of thousands of children die of starvation and malnutrition every day, even though our Earth has the ability to feed us all.

With each meal, we make choices that help or harm the planet. “What shall I eat today?” is a very deep question. You might want to ask yourself that question every morning. You may find that as you practice mindful eating and begin to look deeply at what you eat and drink, your desire for certain foods may change. Your happiness and that of the Earth are intertwined.

Mindful Loving: From How to Love

• We tend to wonder if we have enough to offer in a relationship. We’re thirsty for truth, goodness, compassion, spiritual beauty, so we go looking outside. Sometimes we think we’ve found a partner who embodies all that is good, beautiful, and true. After a time, we usually discover that we’ve had a wrong perception of that person, and we become disappointed. A true partner or friend is one who encourages you to look deep inside yourself for the beauty and love you’ve been seeking.

• In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta airport. When we were saying good-bye, she asked, “Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher, it should be no problem for me to do that.” So I said, “Why not?” and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West. So I invented hugging meditation. Hugging meditation is a combination of East and West. According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging meditation is a practice of mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me.” If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.


Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist. Excerpted with permission from the Mindfulness Essentials Series by Thich Nhat Hanh, illustrated by Jason DeAntonis, © UBC, published by Parallax Press.