The wave does not need to die to become water. She is already water.
On my 29th birthday, some gifts to myself: saltwater, deep presence and a connection to the world around me.
I was finishing reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay, as he is referred to endearingly) You Are Here as this day came and it couldn’t have been perfect timing. As one gets older, certain things become clearer. In an age when social media and the connection it provides is prevalent comes a time when one feels even more distracted, frustrated and worse, isolated.
These things have prompted me to challenge and question not just how we consume social media but ultimately, how we spend our days. After all, writer Annie Dillard said it best: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
This is where the beauty of Thay’s book lies. In it are the teachings of the Buddha on just about everything that matters in life whether you are a practicing Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim or even atheist. His words are just as calming as his teachings that he even takes the fear out of topics like death.
First, a primer on breathing that calls for immediate practice:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing is key. In order to be fully present, one can start by paying attention to our breathing. This is a good practice in ensuring that our minds are where our bodies are at any given moment. I’ve learned how to pay attention to my breathing through meditation practices and by participating in sanghas, and these words are a welcome addition to that practice.
In situations when emotions run high, these words can become calming. Along with the pace of our breathing we remain in the present instead of digressing to the past or worrying about the future, both of which could be triggering. Together, we are able to focus on how to rise from any situation with clarity.
This is no new age BS. As a queer woman of color from the Third World, my operating emotion has always been fear and/or anger. I have used these emotions to fuel my activism. Anger and fear, wrought from the pain of living my identities, has transformed my view of the world with the intent of changing it for the better.
I guess this is all where a lot of contradictions rise to the surface. I’ve always believed that “the woman’s place is in the struggle” which is counter to the Buddhist teaching of being fully present at the moment, that where we are right now is where we’re supposed to be. How can I reconcile both realities?
The miracle of mindfulness is, first of all, that you are here. Being truly here is very important — being here for yourself, and for the one you love. How can you love if you are not here? A fundamental condition for love is your own presence. In order to love, you must be here. That is certain.
A lot of activism is also rooted in historical context and the past has been an indicator of what justice should like in the future. That with the hard work of organizing, a better future awaits. At the same time, Thay explores the dualities present in our lives and prods us to not live by them — birth and death, past and future — that these concepts are the cause of our pain and suffering.
Just like that, even my own concept of dialectical materialism was obliterated.
There is something about Buddhism and its teachings that have always calmed me, as well as the teachings that have always appealed to my sense of spirituality. Often I connect to these teachings on a personal and more intimate level, much closer to the heart than the mind.
As I get deeper into my own being, it doesn’t get easier. It is taxing emotionally, mentally and spiritually, but it is greatly needed. After all, if without a full self to bring, how can I bring about change with my community?
There is a lot that needs to be done in society — work against war, social injustice, and so on. But first we have to come back to our own territory and make sure that peace and harmony are reigning there. Until we do that, we cannot do anything for society.
As I looked out at the great Pacific that day, I knew that there wouldn’t be easy answers. I had to live with these uncertainties, maybe stumble upon what I am looking for someday. It was enough for me to be there, with all those waves, with all that water.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.