Living Systems and Mindfulness: Lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh

In my personal meditation practice, silence and stillness help me notice and appreciate the beauty of the living systems around me — like the spring sun shining through blossoming trees on my walk to work.

In the book “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh encourages this kind of mindfulness of the natural world as a means to creating a regenerative planet. The Buddhist monk and peace activist, who died this year at age 95, wrote that looking deeply at the environment allows us to see how interconnected we are to our common home. And mindfulness teaches us that the only thing we truly have the power to change is our own mind.

But using our minds to create positive change requires letting go of notions that inhibit the clarity and strength we need to heal our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the environment, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. During a recent Regenerative Leadership Community discussion, I presented four notions we must let go of to truly heal our planet and ourselves, as described in “Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet.”

The notion of the individual self

We are more than we think. There is thinking, but there is no thinker. We perceive we are separate, when in reality, we are all a continuation of our parents and ancestors. We share oxygen and DNA. In the framework of living systems, we acknowledge that we are interconnected within our communities and environment. When we look deeply, we see the self only exists in context to all that is around us. Thinking and acting from this deep sense of peace and freedom helps heal how we interact with other people and all living beings on Earth.

The notion of the human being

Life and living systems do not recognize humans as distinct. In fact, humans are mostly made up of Earth’s natural elements such as carbon and calcium and phosphorus. Humans are one of the youngest species on the planet, yet we exploit nature for the sake of our own convenience. How might your relationship with our planet shift when you recognize that we only exist because of non-human elements? Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that when we harm other species and our planet, we also harm ourselves.

The notion of the living being

What if every step we take is on hallowed ground? What if every person we meet is sacred? Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that letting go the notion of “living beings” allows us to be free from division, discrimination, and suffering because we see all places and people — mortal and immortal — as precious and sacred. And from this place we begin to treat ourselves, the planet, and each other with compassion and respect.

The notion of a life span

Change is the only constant in life. Our atoms change with every breath we take. In this moment you are a new you succeeding the you of yesterday, of moments ago, of last year. The framework of living systems shifts our perspective from short-term to long-term. When we can accept life’s impermanence and constant evolution, we will make choices today that change the trajectory of the future. Each breath is an opportunity to set in motion a new direction of healing and regeneration.

When we are able to let go of these four notions, we will help heal our relationship with ourselves, each other, and the Earth without burning out. We will be able to think and act clearly toward a regenerative planet for all life with ease, respect, and compassion.

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(Photo by Ainsley Myles on Unsplash)

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