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Shambhala Sun | January 2012
FEATURE
You'll find this article on page 46 of the magazine.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

ANDREA MILLER’s exclusive interview with Thich Nhat Hanh.

After Thay’ s 2011 Vancouver retreat wrapped up, two nuns ushered me into the kitchen/living room portion of a student residence at the University of British Columbia. Through the windows I saw the radiant blue of the sky and the Georgia Strait. Inside—except for the pot of orchids on the table—it was all earthy brown: Thich Nhat Hanh, in his brown robes, sipped from a clear cup of goldenbrown tea, while other brown-robed monastics gathered on the brown sofa and floor. Sister Chan Khong introduced me to Thay, then, smiling, said what a surprise I’d been for them. When I’d requested this interview, via email, they hadn’t realized that “Andrea Miller” was a woman’s name, so they’d assumed I was a man, an older one at that. In the end, I was tickled to be something of a surprise. After all, at so many points during the interview, I was the surprised party. On life after death, on the pleasures of sitting, on being, not doing—Thich Nhat Hanh gave answers I wasn’t expecting. Always fresh, always wise, here is what he had to say. —ANDREA MILLER

It is very painful when someone we love has serious difficulties, such as mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, or addiction. Sometimes it feels like their problems are so big that we can’t really help them and so we may want to retreat from them and their problems. At other times, we try to help, and then get consumed by the other person’s struggles. What can we do to help in these difficult situations without getting overwhelmed?

When you feel overwhelmed, you’re trying too hard. That kind of energy does not help the other person and it does not help you. You should not be too eager to help right away. There are two things: to be and to do. Don’t think too much about to do—to be is first. To be peace. To be joy. To be happiness. And then to do joy, to do happiness—on the basis of being. So first you have to focus on the practice of being. Being fresh. Being peaceful. Being attentive. Being generous. Being compassionate. This is the basic practice. It’s like if the other person is sitting at the foot of a tree. The tree does not do anything, but the tree is fresh and alive. When you are like that tree, sending out waves of freshness, you help to calm down the suffering in the other person.

Your presence should be pleasant, it should be calm, and you should be there for him or her. That is a lot already. When children like to come and sit close to you, it’s not because you have a lot of cookies to give, but because sitting close to you is nice, it’s refreshing. So sit next to the person who is suffering and try your best to be your best—pleasant, attentive, fresh.

If I’m feeling a very difficult emotion, maybe anger, or deep sadness, and I try to focus on my breath, isn’t that a way of avoiding my emotions?

Usually people lose themselves in a strong emotion and become overwhelmed. That is not the way to handle emotion, because when that happens you are a victim of emotion. In order not to become a victim, breathe and retain your calm, and you will experience the insight that an emotion is only an emotion, nothing more. This insight is very important, because then you are no longer afraid. You are calm, you are not trying to run away, and you can deal better with emotion. Your breath is you, and you need alliance with your breath to be more of yourself, to be stronger. Then you can handle your emotion better. You do not try to forget your emotion; instead you try to be more of yourself, so that you are solid enough to deal with it.

It was heartwarming to see so many children at the retreat.

I feel comfortable with children. I have never been cut off from the younger generation. Whether they are monastic or lay, communication is always “on” with the younger generation. That is one of the elements of my happiness.


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