On the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh

Years ago I found this band Chroma Key—weird, ambient, electronic music that was fantastic to write to, or just slap in a pair of earbuds while wandering around Manhattan. One song in particular always stuck out to me. When You Drive.

It’s this very chill electronic melody and it samples what sounds like a tape you would play to calm yourself while sitting in traffic. A monk encouraging you to be mindful of the present moment.

I was fascinated by it, and always found something so incredibly comforting in the song. In the cadence of the man’s voice, the simplicity of the message. Sometimes I would put it on and just listen, if I needed a moment to collect myself or just feel some stillness.

Here’s a transcript of the sample from the song:

“When you drive, you practice mindfulness of driving. It is possible. When you stop at a red light, you look at the red light and smile. You look at the red light, you smile, and you breathe in and out, and sit back, relaxingly. Breathing in, I calm myself. Breathing out, I smile.”

“And the red light becomes a friend, becomes a bell of mindfulness. Something unpleasant becomes something pleasant. We have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible. But according to this practice, we arrive at every moment. Life can be found only in the present moment. Everything that we look for must be found in the present moment. Peace. Joy. Happiness. Buddha. The kingdom of God.”

“What is our final destination? If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. We don’t want to arrive there, we want to go in the direction of life.”

“This concludes Tape 1, A Retreat on the Practice of Mindfulness. Our program continues with Tape 2.”

One day I decided to look it up, to find out who it is. After a good bit of Google-fu I found it was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and renowned peace activist.

Pulling back a bit, I was raised Catholic, and now consider myself to be in some weird atheist/agnostic liminal space, but I’ve always appreciated Eastern philosophies. I like that it’s about looking inward, instead of looking for someone else to tell you what to do.

So while I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, I’ve done some reading in that area. I meditate. I have some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and will occasionally revisit them, even just to read a few passages here and there, though I haven’t in a while.

I would often read him before going to bed. Not because his work put me to sleep, but because generally around bedtime, my brain feels like a blender with a fork in it, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing always served to center me and help me relax.

He died today. I won’t claim to be an expert on him, or on Buddhism, but I felt moved to say something about it. He’s very much in the DNA of The Paradox Hotel. Another thing I love learning about is quantum physics, and the way Eastern philosophies and quantum physics can dovetail from one another (see: The Quantum and the Lotus).

Paradox is very much about looking inward, and facing yourself, and as much as I like to joke that the book is about robots and dinosaurs too, there’s a lot of me sorting out some ideas related to mindfulness and nirvana and the concept of the bodhisattva.

There’s a lot of me looking to find peace and love and joy in the present moment. There’s a lot of me chasing his words, or at least, trying to figure out a way to let them in a little deeper.

That transcript above, it’s funny the way it came into my life—as a sample in a song—but it’s really meant a lot to me. I’ve been listening to it for so long, read it so many times, that I could probably recite it from memory at this point. At very least, this stretch:

“Life can be found only in the present moment. Everything that we look for must be found in the present moment. Peace. Joy. Happiness. Buddha. The kingdom of God.”

I almost made that the epigraph of Paradox. I ultimately went with a quote from Through The Looking-Glass, which felt a little more appropriate, and looking back, there’s a small part of me that regrets it, because every now and again, we come across stories or passages that become imprinted on our hearts, that resonate inside us from the moment we hear them.

That little bit up there is one of those passages for me. I don’t know why. I’m not sure I could sit here and explain it. There’s just something about his voice, and the cadence, and the way it makes me feel, that I just find stunningly beautiful, and I see it as something worth reaching for.

So, you’d do well to pick up one of his books. And, in moments of stress, or even calm, remember that life can be found only in the present moment.

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