A year ago one of the best known and deeply loved Buddhist Zen Masters, Thich Nhat Hanh had a severe brain hemorrhage resulting in a paralyzing stroke that took away his freedom of movement and speech.
Although your practice won’t stop bad things from happening to you, as you break through physical limitations you also learn how handle the challenges that life throws at you.
When I read the news I had a deep sense of unfairness that illness would take away fundamental freedoms from a man who had fought for everyone else’s. I also questioned the value of my own yoga, fitness and meditation practice. If a man with such an evolved mindfulness and mediation practice could fall victim to a catastrophic trauma in his brain, how could my practice protect me from life’s darkest challenges?
Patanjali is credited as the author of the Yoga Sutras, an early text of yoga philosophy that was compiled about 2100 years ago. In this small book that forms the foundation of today’s yoga, the human body is referred to as an unbaked clay pot. The analogy could justifiably be extended beyond the physical body to the entirety of your being. Patanjali is referring to the fact that an unbaked clay pot can’t hold its contents. It collapses when imposed upon by any outside force. When you commit to a fitness practice, a yoga practice and/or a meditation practice, your discipline becomes the kiln that gives the clay strength and resilience. This increased durability helps you to withstand the stresses of the outside world, but it doesn’t insulate you from the painful experiences inherent in that world.
Through your practice of caring for your health, developing your discipline, and evolving your mind, you become a change agent. You are creating change in the wellbeing of your mind and body. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you will never feel stress, or heartache, or disappointment again. It doesn’t mean that you will never suffer trauma or disease. Improving the strength of your glutes will not make you invulnerable to being fired. Mastering a back bend will not stop your heart from hurting over a bad breakup. Running an extra 5 miles will not distance you from the disappointment of someone lying to you.
Although your practice won’t stop bad things from happening to you, as you break through physical limitations you also learn how handle the challenges that life throws at you. You begin to anchor your mind into the present moment and answer moments of crisis with grace. You gain the ability to breathe through the hard times. You learn how to recover. With faster times and longer distances and spectacular arm balances, comes the ability to create space and patience and compassion. These are the assets that will help you choose how to respond, rather than reacting, to the adversities you can’t prevent.
Thich Nat Hanh’s life time of meditation did not insulate him against tragedy, but in the year since his body failed him he was still able to access and find peace in his love for life. He has demonstrated the true strength that his practice gave him and the way in which it prepared him for his life’s challenges. He just recently spoke his first words since his illness. They were “thank you” and “happy”.