In August I had the privilege of attending a 5-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. If youve never heard the name before, he is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and poet. He is known for his simple teachings and promotion of non-violent solutions to conflict.
Each day, along with 1300 people, I participated in walking meditation, sitting meditation, noble silence (no talking from the last talk given at the end of the night to lunch the next day and during all meals), yoga classes, dharma talks and discussion groups.
One of the dharma talks that Thay (a nickname given to Thich Nhat Hanh) gave one morning was on Inviting The Bell. Using a wooden stick and ringing bowl, he would ever so gently and with such precision and kindness invite the bell to sound; three strikes, each sound louder than the preceding sound. He talked about how inviting the bell was an invitation to mindfulness, and an invitation to come back to our peaceful and loving selves.
Coming from the city and moving into a retreat-setting like this has always been an uneasy adjustment for me. The first couple of days Im especially tired because of the early morning hours we have to wake-up, in this case 5:30am, and adhering to a new schedule and meeting new people can also be nerve wracking. Quite frankly, theres a lot of irritation that comes up for me in the first few days. The sound of the bell would happen countless times throughout the day, usually during times when I especially needed the reminder to slow down my multi-tasking and racing mind, and come back to that calm and compassionate place. By simply stopping, closing my eyes and taking three deep belly breaths, and noticing what I was feeling, I was able to bring myself back to a relaxed and calm state, and continue on with my day. I loved that this whole exercise took less than 30 seconds to do.
I found it especially helpful during meals. Even though noble silence was in effect, and there was one less task that I had to do which was talk to the people at my table, you think I would finally be able to just enjoy my meal. Somehow, the mental chatter would find its way back in. Then without warning, one of the monks would invite the bell and immediately, I closed my eyes, took three deep breaths, and came back to the moment I was in; cutting my food with such precision, placing a small mouthful into my mouth, chewing my food slowly, tasting every ingredient of food that was in my mouth, and taking in all the sounds and sights that surrounded me. It was a very different experience than the ten minutes I usually took to gulp my food down.
By the end of the week, I wasnt rushing to get from A to B, I was eating my meals with presence and gratitude, and felt an overall sense of calm. I left the retreat feeling peaceful, but wondered how long this feeling would last going back to the city? What I wanted most was to incorporate Inviting The Bell into my life.
Inviting the bell was such a simple activity that could definitely be done at home, but what about when I wasnt home? Was I going to pull out this ringing bowl and wooden stick and sound it on the streetcar? Or if I were eating at a restaurant, would I sound the bell then? It wasnt realistic. And Im thinking about all the people who are reading this article who also want to incorporate this into their lives. I dont work in an office, but for those that do, Im not sure that inviting the bell to sound in an office environment would be so welcoming.
So here are some ideas I have if you dont have a ringing bowl to sound or if you dont want to use a ringing bowl.
1) Set 3-5 reminders on your phone throughout the day, perhaps theres even an app out there.
2) Place post-it notes on your computer monitor, on your bathroom mirror, your fridge, night table or anywhere else you think might be a good place that is visible.
3) Grab a partner that you do this with everyday at the same time for 21 days. (It takes 21 days to form a habit.) You can call each other, and do it together; again it takes less than 30 seconds.
And remember, on those days where youre particularly stressed or angry, go for ten breaths instead of three!