Tai ChiBreathe, Even if the World Is Ending

Breathe, Even if the World Is Ending

A month ago, we lost the great Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he was known to students around the world.

What would Thay (master teacher, pronounced “tay”) say about Ukraine, Putin, and the threat of nuclear annihilation?

I imagine that he would tell us, first and foremost, to breathe. Much of Thay’s teachings can be summed up in 2 sentences:

  1. As you breathe in, know that you are breathing in.
  2. As you breathe out, know that you are breathing out.

Note: Read his book “Breathe, You Are Alive” for more in-depth instruction on breathing and mindfulness.

Mindful breathing might seem woefully inadequate right now, but it’s a necessary first step if we want peace. This goes for both internal peace and world peace.

Thay understood this deep connection between internal peace and world peace. He absolutely radiated peace in his lectures, retreats, and even his audiobooks. Check out this old interview with Oprah and tell me that he doesn’t embody the essence of peace!

On top of this internal peace, Thay was also an activist. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. That’s quite the endorsement!

Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace? I think that will depend on whether the people in the peace movement can ‘be peace’. Because without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.”

If this sounds like a Buddhist version of the anemic “thoughts and prayers” trope, it’s not. Thay believed in action. After seeing the horrors of the Vietnam War, he recognized that it’s not enough to just meditate; we must also take action. That’s why he founded a movement called Engaged Buddhism. Thay said:

Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

We breathe in order to cultivate seeds of peace within us. Once we see things from a more peaceful perspective, then we can take action.

It’s tempting to fall into inaction right now. The war in Ukraine, right on the heels of a global, once-in-a-century pandemic, feels overwhelming. If you’ve wanted to just hide in bed in the fetal position, you’re not alone. These are challenging times for sure.

It’s worth remembering that humans have always lived in trying times. 2500 years ago, the Buddha taught that life is suffering. (He also taught a method for overcoming suffering.)

Suffering is the single most commonly shared experience among humans. Today and throughout history, humans have experienced suffering of one kind or another. In a powerful article on Medium, Yotam Marom writes:

But while there are some things about this moment that feel unique, I remind myself that the experience of the world ending is not new. Whether due to a prophecy or a very real looming threat, many of our ancestors also likely felt that the world was ending. And in many cases their worlds did end. The devastation on Easter Island, the fall of Carthage, the arrival of Columbus, the centuries of chattel slavery, the destruction of Hiroshima, the Cold War, even the Cuban missile crisis — these all must have felt like the end of the world. Facing loss, despair, uncertainty, and death is as much a part of the human experience as anything else.”

I was there in NYC on 9/11 and I can tell you that it felt like the end of the world. When the 2nd tower fell, I and millions of other New Yorkers watched not just in horror, but with real fear for our safety. Was this the beginning of a larger attack? What do we do? Is it safe here? If not, then where do we go and how?

A few weeks ago, they demolished an old building in downtown Jacksonville near where I live. It happened exactly on schedule, but I totally forgot about it. The rumble, which sounded like sudden thunder INSIDE my apartment, startled me.

I looked out the window and saw sunshine, still not remembering the demolition. “A thunderstorm on a sunny morning?” I thought. When I stepped out onto my porch, I saw a cloud of smoke less than a mile across the river. Immediately, I felt tension rush through my body. Then came the flashbacks. A collapsed building. Smoke. Danger. End of the world.

When suffering is poorly managed and it becomes overwhelming, it turns into trauma. Once it turns into trauma, it can get lodged in the body for years or even decades. Read the bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score for more on this topic:

It wasn’t until recently that I recognized 9/11 as a traumatic event in my life. For years, decades even, I just shrugged it off. It was way worse for so many people, so who am I to talk about trauma?

This is a sign of trauma, by the way, especially in men. They tend to shrug it off, trivialize their own experience, and defer to others who suffered worse. Watch for this sign in yourself and others.

If you had asked me 3 years ago if there was unresolved trauma in my body from 9/11, I would have said no. But then I would have had no explanation for why my body visibly flinched at the sight of the demolition across the river in Jacksonville. Probably, I would have cracked a self-deprecating joke and changed the subject.

Now I know better. I know that trauma is stored in the body, the tissues, and the nervous system. Once there, it tends to stay there unless you heal it deliberately. You can’t just think your way out of trauma. You definitely can’t just suck it up and move on.

Years of qigong helped me with the stuck trauma in my body. Without qigong, I would probably be a total mess. The road to healing is long, and now that I understand trauma, it’s much easier for me to heal. The same is true for my students.

Billions of humans have been traumatized by the pandemic. The war in Ukraine will traumatize millions more. We’re all going to have to heal this trauma if we’re going to cultivate peace. And to cultivate peace, we’re going to have to learn how to breathe.

You may have heard the phrase that hurt people hurt people. For example, most abusers were themselves abused. This doesn’t absolve them of their behavior, but it points to a cycle of violence. This is how trauma turns into violence, and it explains why we need to heal trauma if we want peace.

Thay’s teachings can help us break the cycle. So can yoga, qigong, tai chi, zazen, and other forms of mindfulness. By breathing mindfully, we can begin to unravel our trauma and begin to BE the peace that we desperately crave.

I am not offering solutions to the war in Ukraine or the threat of nuclear annihilation. I am simply offering a path that we can all begin to follow right now. That path can be summed up as follows:

  1. To foster peace, we must be peace.
  2. To be peace, we must practice mindfulness.

Now, more than ever, we need to practice mindfulness. My preferred method for daily mindfulness is qigong, but use whatever art resonates with you. If you don’t have any experience with mindfulness, then my book is a good place to start.

But first, just take a moment to breathe. Can you take 3 conscious breaths right now? Just three.

  • As you breathe in gently through your nose, think, “I know that I’m breathing in.”
  • As you breathe out gently through your nose or mouth, think, “I know that I’m breathing out.”

Repeat 3 times. It’s incredibly simple. Peace is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.

If you fail, if you cannot even take 3 mindful breaths — then try again. Try later today, or tomorrow morning, but please try again.

What if the world truly is ending? Breathe anyway. In 1948, C.S. Lewis said:

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Lewis didn’t mention breathing specifically, but I think it is the ultimate example of a “sensible and human” thing. Mindful breathing is what helps us calm our fears, find our courage, and continue with the strange and wonderful business of being talking monkeys on a floating rock spiraling through infinite space. Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong (pronounced “chee gung”) to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I’m the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I’ve been teaching qigong since 2005, I’ve served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you’re ready to get started with qigong, there’s no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.

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