How to stop your soul from fleeing you.
“The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands,” the poet and storyteller turned activist Grace Paley’s father told her in what remains the finest advice on growing older. “You must do this every morning.”
The poet, a Vietnamese Zen monk turned peace activist and Vietnamese Zen monk, is still at work. Thich Nhat Hanh (October 11, 1926–January 22, 2022), just a few years younger than Paley, was channeling a kindred sentiment into one of his poems as he watched the world come undone by the oldest ugliness in the bosom of the human animal, in a war breaking countless hearts and robbing countless lives of the gift of growing older.
Upon learning that the city of Ben Tre had been bombed and hearing an American officer declare, in his recollection, “that he had to destroy the town in order to save the town,” Thich Nhat Hanh saw war clearly for what it is — a pinnacle of the anger with which we humans so often cover up our loneliness, the loneliness which tyrants so often use to flare up terror.
A salve, a self-consolation, a spare and powerful spell against anger — the most fundamental and fundamentalist war against ourselves — the poem calls to mind poet May Sarton’s exquisite conception of anger as “a huge creative urge gone into reverse.”
Published decades later in Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh (public library), as the world was coming undone anew in the self-redundantly named “war on terror,” it is read here by Thich Nhat Hanh himself in its original Vietnamese, then by Krista Tippett in English, as part of their altogether shimmering 2002 conversation about the practice of mindfulness and compassion at the heart of our humanity:
Thich Nhat Ha
My face is between my fingers.
You are not going to cry.
Holding my face between my arms, I am able to see my eyes.
to keep my loneliness warm —
Protective shield: Two hands
Nurture two hands
Two hands are better than one to stop
My soul is not mine
In his On Being conversation with Krista, Thich Nhat Hanh unpeels the poetic abstraction to reflect on the underlying practice the verse speaks to — mindfulness (which in 2002 was far from a mainstream notion in the West) as a practical antidote to anger:
Individuals must accept the reality that violence does not end violence. Understanding and compassion are the only way to stop violence. We can learn to love speech and listen compassionately and begin to see the world through their eyes. These wrong perceptions lead to their hatred, anger, fear and violence.
For us to have compassion and understanding, we need to keep our humanity. You have the right to be angry, but you don’t have the right not to practice in order to transform your anger… When you notice that anger is coming up in you, you have to practice mindful breathing in order to generate the energy of mindfulness, in order to recognize your anger and embrace it tenderly so that you can bring relief into you and not to act and to say things… that can be destructive. You can then examine the root cause of your anger, and identify its source.
Complete with Ursula K. Le Guin about anger and its anti-terrorist, then visit Thich Hhat Hanh to learn more about deep listening and the four Buddhist mantras that turn fear into love. Finally, read his youthful story of his library epiphany, in which he found his self again.
Giving = Being Loving
Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.
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