Ten years ago, Kim and I enjoyed a date night at a restaurant on Portland’s south waterfront. I don’t remember the restaurant and I don’t remember the meal. What I do remember is this.

My therapist at the time had just recommended that I begin meditating. She wanted me to emphasize mindfulness in my daily life. She wasn’t the only one. Many folks who knew me well had encouraged me to develop a meditation/mindfulness practice.

When Kim and I stepped into this now-forgotten restaurant, the hostess greeted us with a smile. She told us they were fully booked, but she’d see what she could do. While we waited, I noticed she had a book with her: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thích Nhất Hạnh.

“What’s that about?” I asked during a lull. “My therapist wants me to develop a mindfulness practice.”

The hostess picked up the book and handed it to me. “Here,” she said. “I want you to have this.”

“Really?” I said. The book was battered. There were sticky notes on many pages. Leafing through, I could see that she’d highlighted important passages and jotted all sorts of notes.

“Yes,” she said. “I want you to have this.” And then she whisked us away to our table.

[photo of the well-read and annoted version of The Miracle of Mindfulness]

I may have forgotten the restaurant and the meal, but I remember that moment. In fact, I think of it often: such a tiny thing, yes, but a genuine act of kindness.

I read The Miracle of Mindfulness soon after, and I added my own notes and highlights and sticky notes to those the hostess had made. Time passed. I forgot much of the book (although one concept stuck with me: While one is washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes).

Last summer, I took a solo cruise up the coast of Norway. I spent the month of June re-centering myself. As part of that, I re-read The Miracle of Mindfulness. I bought a new copy just for this purpose, and I made new notes and highlights. The book was a great help on this trip. I tend to get frustrated with other people on cruise ships, but The Miracle of Mindfulness helped me to s-l-o-w down and just accept things as they were.

It occurred to me recently that it might be edifying to use the book as inspiration for future art projects. Last night, I re-read the whole thing (it’s short). Again, I found it helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I decided to take the time to summarize key points from the book in this blog post.

All text that follows is taken directly from the book except [my own thoughts in brackets]. I have compressed and elided passages, and I’ve moved things around. Still, all of the words that follow are from The Miracle of Mindfulness. Also, I’ve bolded passages I especially like.

excerpts from The Miracle of Mindfulness
by Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lessons with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!


When one is washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes.

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. I choose the second way.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way, then we are not washing the dishes to wash the dishes. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink the tea either. While drinking the tea, we will only be thinking of other things.


“Mindfulness” refers to keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on the earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.

[This reminds me of a stanza from a poem by e.e. cummings: “i thank You God for most this amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes”]

Active, concerned people don’t have time to spend leisurely, walking along paths of green grass and sitting beneath trees. Then how are we to practice mindfulness?

Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise — this is mindfulness. A calm heart and self-control are necessary if one is to obtain good results.

Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves. Concentration power is the strength which comes from practicing mindfulness.

Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. Breath is a tool. Breath itself is mindfulness.

Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.


Each person should try hard to reserve one day out of each week to devote entirely to their practice of mindfulness. Don’t do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention. Enjoy and be one with your work. For those who are just beginning to practice, it is best to maintain a spirit of silence throughout the day.

In the morning, after you have cleaned and straightened up your house, and in the afternoon, after you have worked in the garden or watched clouds or gathered flowers, prepare a pot of tea to sit and drink in mindfulness. Allow yourself a good length of time to do this.

Don’t drink your tea like someone who gulps down a cup of coffee during a workbreak. Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.

Only this actual moment is life. Don’t be attached to the future. Don’t worry about things you have to do. Don’t think about getting up or taking off to do anything. Don’t think about departing.


You cannot go as far in meditation lying down as by sitting. Keep your back straight. Keep your eyes focused a yard or two in front of you. If you can, maintain a half smile.

Now begin to follow your breath and to relax all of your muscles. As for for everything else, let it go. Hold onto nothing but your breath and the half smile. For beginners, it is better to sit no longer than 20 or 30 minutes.

Some people look on meditation as a toil and want the time to pass quickly. Such persons do not know how to sit yet.

Often it helps to meditate on the image of a pebble thrown into a river. The pebble sinks through the water effortlessly. Detached from everything, it falls by the shortest distance possible, finally reaching the bottom, the point of perfect rest.

Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.


To take hold of your mind, you must practice mindfulness of the mind. You must know how to observe and recognize the presence of every feeling and thought which arises in you.

When a feeling or thought arises, your intention should not be to chase it away. The intention isn’t to chase it away, hate it, worry about it, or be frightened by it. Simply acknowledge its presence.

While practicing mindfulness, don’t be dominated by the distinction between good and evil, thus creating a battle within oneself. Our thoughts and feelings are us. They are a part of ourselves.

When we are angry, we ourselves are anger. When we are happy, we ourselves are happiness. When we have certain thoughts, we are those thoughts. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of the thought.

If you are just beginning, don’t wait to “see into your own nature”. Better yet, don’t wait for anything. Try only to build up your power of concentration, to create an inner calmness and serene joy.


A person who looks at a table and can see the universe is a person who can see the way.

We are only alive when we live the life of the world, and so live the sufferings and joys of others. The suffering of others is our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own happiness.


In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.

For beginners, I recommend the method of pure recognition: recognition without judgment. Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis.

We should treat our anxiety, our pain, our hatred and passion gently, respectfully, not resisting it, but living with it, making peace with it, penetrating into its nature by meditation.

Don’t worry if those around you aren’t doing their best. Just worry about how to make yourself worthy. Doing your best is the surest way to remind those around you to do their best.

[I have a couple of thoughts on this latter advice. First, it resembles my personal mantra: “Do what’s right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.” Second, I’ve come to believe each person is doing her best at any given moment. This attitude allows me to be much more gracious when people don’t do what I think they ought to do.]

The book ends its expository section (the rest is ancillary material) by devoting an entire chapter to re-telling Tolstoy’s very short story, “The Three Questions”. This story reminds me of the parable of the Chinese farmer. And both of these stories remind me of Taoism. (In fact, re-reading The Miracle of Mindfulness last summer led me to re-read the Tao Te Ching. This, in turn, has had a deep and lasting positive effect on my mental well-being.)

I’m still not good at meditation. I haven’t made it a daily practice. I haven’t even made it a monthly practice. And sometimes when I try to meditate, I fail hard. But recently I’ve discovered a way for me to meditate.

I like to sit outside on the front porch, with or without a cup of tea (or bottle of beer). Often, the dog is by my side. I don’t try to empty my mind or anything. Instead, I try to melt into the world around me. I watch and listen and smell all of the activity in the yard and neighborhood.

I watch the squirrels hopping from yard to yard. I watch the deer jump over the neighbor’s fence. I listen to the jays squawk. I smell the burning oak form a fireplace down the street. I feel the cool breeze on my skin, and the warmth of the sun peeking through the clouds. I observe the yellow of the daffodils. I look at all of the many crags on the stone in our flower bed. I allow my gaze to trace the trunks of the tall, tall trees across the street. I try to imagine what life must be like for those trees. Or the birds. Or the deer.

This meditation is extremely effective for me. Doing this for 20 or 30 minutes puts me completely at ease. It makes me feel one with the world around me. It helps to put everything into perspective — both my own problems and those of the world at large.

And when I can remember, I try to be sure that I’m washing the dishes when I’m washing the dishes — even when I’m not washing the dishes haha. By this I mean that I do my best to stay grounded in the present moment. When I’m showering, I’m showering. When I’m eating, I’m eating. When I’m reading, I’m reading. I try not to let my mind drift from my current task. When I’m able to maintain this focus, I feel more fulfilled. I find that it can be pleasurable to complete tasks that otherwise seem like chores.

For further reading on this sort of subject, I highly recommend the blog Raptitude by my buddy David Dain. He frequently explores mindfulness topics. His approach is pragmatic and insightful. Good stuff.

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