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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Nehring

Touching Earth: A Short Story of Mindfulness

Dedicated to one of my teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh. His latest book, The Art of Saving the Planet, inspired a play with words. We honor the life you lived here (1926-2022) and the one that continues...

I double checked that I had everything I needed. I had scored one of the most sought after interviews, for a local Zen magazine, with Thich Nhat Hanh. In addition to the great boost for my career, I was hoping to find some answers for my own life. I was struggling with taking the next steps in life and found myself to be wavering back and forth between family and career. I’ve been traveling for years searching for perfect interviews. I was curious to see what I might discover today with a Master Teacher.

I arrived at the hut where Thay (that’s what people call him, meaning “master/teacher” in translation) was staying in and I was quite impressed with the humble living quarters and situation he had set up for himself. He was surrounded by nature with various types of trees and an overlook. It looked like it was going to rain so I asked if he’d feel more comfortable sitting inside of the living quarters. He just smiled and pointed to some benches under majestic looking pine trees, near a fire that had a teapot resting on it. I nodded and followed his lead.

Upon sitting, I quickly brought out my waterproof notebook with the list of questions I was longing to ask him. I began asking, “I know you were in exile for 30 years or so, from your home in Vietnam. What helped you survive?” Thay didn’t answer, except to offer me a hot cup of ginger tea. The warmth from the cup was sifting life into my nimble fingers which were quite cold from the mountain air. I waited a little longer for a response, when Thay motioned with his hand and a smile to take a sip. I took a sip and could feel the waterfall of heat cascade down my throat, warming up my insides that were actually a bit shaky, a combination of nerves and cold. A deep natural inhale and exhale emerged from the center of my being and for the first time I looked up. I met Thay’s eyes and he smiled again. I smiled and felt the corners of my own mouth turn up in a form of momentary contentment. It was so simple.

I stayed for a moment in silence, looking at the smoke rising from the fire, listening to the crackle and burn, noticing a mimicking of the feel inside my chest. A natural deep sigh came. At the sound of the crow I got up and walked over to the lookout noticing how many leaves were off of the trees already from the turn of the season, making the evergreens stand out in confidence down below. A ray of sun popped through, pointing to a small lake in the middle of the pines glimmering and glistening along its rim, and then the light disappeared. I felt a tiny raindrop on my nose and my eyes naturally closed. I could hear the wind from the North making its way down this way, and I could tell from the sound that it would only be a few days before these little raindrops would be snow.

I turned and looked at Thay, who was still smiling with kind eyes. He put out his hand and said, “Sit. We are ready for the interview now.” I nodded in agreement, my eyes somewhat misty, not from the cold, or the wind, or the rain, but from being in abundance from this experience of “touching the Earth" myself. I felt a release, a calming, my heart itself deeply touched.

After that time on the mountain, life went on and I felt differently. This gift of solitude, of intimacy with myself, connection with Thay, with the Earth, had changed me. I did get the interview and the words he spoke were dynamic, but nothing spoke louder than the moment we shared. I understood with more clarity how Thay survived, or rather what moved him to thrive in the moments of loneliness and in the desire to be back home when in exile. He showed me firsthand, that he learned to thrive by “touching the earth”. We are surrounded by countless simple pleasures that give way to the moments of connection that bring us back to us; that bring us home no matter where we are.

Wherever you go, there you are.

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