In Memoriam: Thich Nhat Hanh, “I Have Arrived, I Am Home” [VIDEO]

Since my last post, my family and I were diagnosed with COVID. We are doing well and experiencing mild symptoms.

I’d like to devote this post to a beautiful documentary that came out on January 22, 2023, Vietnam time (January 21, 2023 in the US), a year to the day of the passing of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, aged 95, known as the “Father of Mindfulness”.

Entitled I Have Arrived, I Am Home (Plum Village YouTube Channel), this film covers the last few years of the life of Thich Nhat Hanh — also called Thay, or “teacher” — after he returned to the Tu Hieu Temple in Vietnam at which he was ordained a monk many decades prior.

“I Have Arrived, I Am Home” – 41:46 min

Under 3/4 of an hour long, the film beautifully illustrates how Thay, in his post-stroke years, returned to his roots in preparation for his passing (“transition”). It documents his death and funeral and the effect that his life has had on the existing monasteries of the Plum Village Tradition, which he established.

The writing of Thay greatly touched me during my cancer journey, and I Have Arrived, I Am Home is a lovely video that depicts his kindness and care for his students. This was not created to “convert” anyone but only to teach by example. I hope you take some time to view it, especially as our world continues to experience much unrest and pain.

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If you are interested in learning more about Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful life, I encourage you to refer to this article from Lion’s Roar magazine, published on the day of his death last year.

I had the pleasure of attenting a “Day of Mindfulness” at the Deer Park Monastery (Plum Village Tradition) in Escondido, CA in Summer 2019 and described it here.

Navigating Anxious Moments with Breath and Muscle Release

When you can’t control your anxious thoughts, what can you use to get a foothold on stability?

This was the issue for me for years, if not decades. During panicky times, I’d close my eyes at night and see a montage of fleeting images like a rapidly changing patchwork quilt that I couldn’t stop. It was kind of like at the beginning of a Marvel movie, where images whiz by you. Except that for me there were no superheroes or rush of excited anticipation.

This is not an ad for Marvel. The first seven seconds of this 11-second clip represent what I used to “see” during middle-of-the-night panic sessions: just flashing images passing before me.

Anxiety meant being blanketed by nausea and fear that blocked my view of reality. I couldn’t see past any of it because the sensation was all-encompassing. Mindful grounding has enabled me to get a hold on the edge of that blanket and pull it up ever so slightly to let some light in.

That was accomplished by two simple things that I could control in the midst of everything else I couldn’t:
1) changing my breathing pattern
2) identifying and releasing muscle tension

I might not have been able to slow the thoughts, decrease my heartrate or relieve the nausea directly…but the combination of the breath and relaxing my muscles provided a path that led around those things and quietly affected them behind the scenes.

First, start with your breath

Bring your attention to the breath and consciously slow it down. Start by trying to make your inhales and exhales the same length, adding a second-or-two pause in between. Depending on your level of anxiety, this may take some time if your breathing has been rapid and shallow. Any slowing is helpful, especially at the beginning. Be compassionate and patient with yourself.

A hand on the belly makes it easier to focus on breathing into the abdomen.

I find it easiest to deepen the inhale first, drawing the breath into the belly. Placing a hand on the belly helps keep your focus there as the sense of touch supports grounding. Try a deep inbreath, pause, and a lengthened outbreath. Blowing out through pursed lips helps control the air flow and draw out the exhale. An exhale that is longer that an inhale helps slow your heartrate. Belly-breathing makes a big difference.

Aim for an inbreath of 4 counts, pause and hold for 2 counts, exhale for 6 counts.

Some guidance recommends that you place one hand on the chest while you have the other on your belly. However, in my experience, if you are particularly anxious it’s helpful to keep your focus off a racing heart. Keeping your hand on your belly is enough.

Next, relax muscular tension

Releasing the tension in your body will help calm you. We often don’t realize how much tension we’re holding until we mindfully scan our bodies.

Stretch in whatever way feels good. Don’t be afraid to take up some space.

First, streeeetch the way you’d stretch after waking or when you’ve been stuck in one position for a while. Imagine you’re a sleepy bear coming out of hibernation. Too often when stressed we crumple in and hunch over — opening up through a stretch may signal to the body that it’s safe to come out.

Then, roll your shoulders forwards and back. Gently roll your head in a front semicircle, ear to ear, paying attention to how it feel to move in that way. So many of us hold tension in the neck and shoulders and we squeeze muscles there without realizing it. Spend some time loosening up these areas.

Feel into your face. Raise and lower your brows several times. Relax the muscles around the eyes. Open and close your mouth and wiggle your jaw. Clenching in this area can cause headaches so try to release tightness here.

Turn your attention to the rest of your body. Are you knotted anywhere? Simply the process of noticing where your muscles are tightening can change your focus from anxious thoughts in your head to sensations in your body, keeping you present and less likely to get trapped by fears.

Aim for progress, not perfection. This is a learning process, so don’t wait for anxiety to reach a peak before starting. Practice when you’re calm so you know what a lengthened breath and relaxed state feels like in your body.

Those of us who have lived with anxiety would love to hang out in peaceful bliss all the time, but that’s not the reality of life. However, nurturing calm through techniques such as breathwork and muscle relaxation lessens the distress of anxiety-provoking situations and helps us find a sense of comfort within our discomfort.

2023: Thriving at Last?

Some of our greatest strengths are born in our lowest moments.

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While I try not to keep returning to stories about “how far I’ve come” since my breast cancer diagnosis almost six years ago, for the start of 2023, I wanted to do a teensy bit of navel-gazing and take stock of how different everything looks compared to how it did after my 2017 diagnosis…and even from just a year ago.

My breast cancer story started the same way as it does for most of those diagnosed with cancer, with a lot of shock and disbelief. There’s nothing new or special about that.

However, for me cancer had been my ultimate health fear, the worst thing that I could image happening, particularly because I grew up during a time that cancer patients had poor prognoses and I had lost dear family to the disease. My exercise, dietary and lifestyle habits were in part driven by health concerns and that’s why my eventual diagnosis felt all the more “unfair”.

I have survived almost six years! But I had been so angry about my diagnosis that it took several years to appreciate how much of a victory that was.

The absolute worst health catastrophe that I feared could happen to me actually did happen…and I was too bitter to appreciate that I survived it.

Not only did I survive the treatment, I have slogged through lasting side effects. Trapped by fear and anger, I lost the initial positivity that I’d experienced right after completing chemo and radiation — I mean, after all that almost anything is going to feel better — and became mired in frustration.

When I finally managed to get through my head that there are many bad things that happen to people who do not deserve them, and many far worse than my own, I was able to move past my preoccupation with myself. That took longer than I’d like to admit.

But allowing that time to work through anger and fear until I got to the point of acceptance was so important for me. And the magical part of this is that acceptance was followed by an unfettering of my thoughts. Holding that bitterness had taken so much energy that little remained for other, more important things.

At the time of my diagnosis, I was fearful and bitter. A mere year ago, I was still angry. But in 2023, I have given myself the gift of freedom from that negativity and that allows so much space to breathe deeply and turn my attention towards better things. It was that release that took with it a nice chunk of anxiety that had likewise held me captive.

And now, instead of being just a survivor, I am finally feeling like I’m thriving.

New Year, New Approach to Resolutions

With the start of the new year, many of us set lofty goals with the intention of changing things that we do not like about ourselves.

But so many of those goals are not realized. You may be aware that it takes approximately 21-28 days in order to create a new behavior, but a cursory search on the internet suggests that most people don’t even last that long.

New Year’s resolutions are not known for their longevity!

There are certainly behavioral modification tricks that you could use to establish a new healthy habit, but if you haven’t had success in the past, perhaps it would be worth taking a different tack this year.

Instead of doing something to immediately “fix” yourself, try sitting with the acceptance of who you are right now.

Release the pressures of becoming that person that you think you want to be and spend some time getting to know the ins and outs of the person that you already are.

You may argue that there are things that you must change within yourself, that there are challenges you must take on and healthy behaviors that you must establish. I am certainly not telling you to give up on those.

Sit quietly with acceptance of that person that you are right now, in your current “unchanged” state.

But it’s possible that you need a little self-compassion before plunging into making big changes.

So just for today, consider what an amazing being you are. Beautiful as you are right now. A mosaic of the years that you’ve already lived, showing the marks of your experiences. Some of those might be scars, but that’s okay. They have all come together to make that unique being that is “you”.

Then consider what this “you” really needs. Not late nights and fast food meals. Not being jammed into an office chair, hunched over a desk, or crumpled on a couch trying to distract yourself with TV shows about other people, neglecting the needs of the person you are.

Through self-compassion, find your reasons to show yourself the love that you deserve.

You need the freedom to breathe deeply, be nourished and allowed to stretch out your limbs. To close your eyes and be still, to take a break from harsh lights and electronic screens. To move, whether it’s a jog-walk to the park or dancing in your living room.

Consider how you can do something supportive of yourself and the world in which you live, out of love. Those changes that you want to make, do they nuture your body? Do they lift up others or help care for your surroundings? That challenge that you wish to undertake, will it help you grow, or just mindlessly try to hammer you into something that you are not?

And once you’ve accepted where you are now, can you find a way to love and guide yourself through establishing new behaviors — because it is your choice to do so — and *not* fight the things that will contribute to your health and well-being?

Take some time to think about all of this…and proceed from there.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! ❤