Thích Nhất Hạnh

You Are Here

“We may say that the past is already dead, but ultimately the truth is deeper than that. The past is still here in the form of the present.”

There is a raindrop-clear moment in Annie Dillard’s mesmerizing sojourn to nature where the author makes a subtle, startling discovery:

I am sitting under a sycamore by Tinker Creek. I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under the trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures just as real, for whom also this moment, this tree, is “it.”

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"It" photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Thích Nhất Hạnh's "You Are Here" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
What exactly does this mean? I’ve read it many times and it opens anew each time. Dillard shows us – for one of the first times in contemporary Western environmental writing – presence.1 It is an infinite-seeming moment of self-awareness echoed in Emma Mitchell’s physical incantations and Mary Oliver’s soul-thrumming verse.

We embrace what Simone Weil called our singular gift – an ability to say “I” – and nod to Erich Fromm’s celebration of ‘being’ as a mode of existence. Presence is what the recently-deceased Thích Nhất Hạnh (October 11, 1926 – January 22, 2022) spent his life living, demonstrating and above-all, teaching.

We begin with the breath. Be nonviolent with your breathing. Be tender with it. Respect it, and let it be as it is. You breathe in – there’s an in breath, that’s all. If the in breath is short, let it be short. If the in breath is long, let it be long. Do not intervene, or force either your in-breath or your out-breath. It’s like looking at a flower: letting it be as it is, mindful of the fact that it is there, a kind of miracle. See the flower as it is. See the breath as it is. We let the flower be as it is, and we should not do violence to our breath either.

Nhất Hạnh2 was born in Vietnam and became a practicing Zen Buddhist monk from the age of 16. He was exiled in 1966 when he opposed the Vietnam War and settled in France where he lived, wrote, practiced and underwrote both modern and Western understanding of Buddhism, specifically, how to engage its teachings in everyday life.

If you feel irritation or depression or despair, recognize their presence and practice this mantra: “Dear one, I am here for you.” You should talk to your depression or your anger just as you would to a child. You embrace it tenderly with the energy of mindfulness and say, “Dear one, I know you are there, and I am going to take care of you,” just as you would with your crying baby. There is no discrimination or dualism here, because compassion and love are you, but anger is too. All three are organic in nature, so you don’t need to be afraid. You can transform them.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It’s important to ponder what is presence really?

In my sidelong glance at secondhand-presence, led by something Anna Deavere Smith wrote in her guidance to young creatives, I determined that presence was a strong, positive feeling of standing next to someone grand.

But what about our self? Can we stand next to our self and in our self at the same time?3

Presence is many things – a surfeit of which are contained in this slim, hefty book – what surprised me most was the idea of presence as a conduit to and means of reparation for the past.

We may say that the past is already dead, but ultimately the truth is deeper than that. The past is still here in the form of the present. We may think that there isn’t anything we can do about the past anymore, but there is.

Perhaps we have done negative things in the past that we regret. It’s a mistake to think that it is no longer possible to change the situation, that it is impossible to correct the past. We can correct the past. The past is here; and if we get deeply in touch with the present, we can touch the past as well, and transform it.

What does the past hold? Trauma. Pain. Joy.

It also holds the foundations of how we see ourselves, our inner landscapes of being, and the maps we use to navigate our world and the people who matter to us.4

Porcelain walls by Irish ceramist, Isobel Egan. Always cold to the touch, attention holding. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
In You Are Here, Nhất Hạnh relieves some of the overwhelming weight of the past.

We are the recipients of a genetic inheritance that comes from our mother, our father, and all of our ancestors. If you have a grandfather who live to be ninety, this grandfather is still alive in you. If you are weak, if there are cells in you that are not functioning properly, you should call on that grandfather in yourself and say, “Grandfather, come help me.” Your grandfather will manifest immediately; and you will know that your grandfather is not just a notion, he is a reality within you. Every one of your cells has your grandfather in it.

My first post on The Examined Life was an unanswered question of where people existed after they died. It was inspired by the death of my grandfather, a figure of grace, gentleness and humorous exactitude.

Thích Nhất Hạnh in Los Angelos, 2007. Featured in Thích Nhất Hạnh's "You Are Here" in the Examined Life Library.
Thích Nhất Hạnh in Los Angelos, 2007.
My other grandfather has died since (words fail me on how iconic he was and how benumbed I feel without him) and one of my favorite aunts said of him that his death made her feel closer to him – he was with her and not out in the world somewhere.

She was unequivocally right. I am here, you are here, I hold you still.

Complement the timeless wisdom in You Are Here with Jackie Morris’ illustrations from the scope and scene of dreams, Thomas A. Clark on the meditative act of walking, Henry David Thoreau on walking as freedom and Annie Dillard on nothingness, courage and creating the space to create.

Thích Nhất Hạnh