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How to Relax

How to Relax
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2015
120 pages
Reviewed by Catherine Grytting

Spiritual directors will appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s powerful, new publication, How to Relax. The simple yet profound teachings found in this volume can be used during a spiritual direction session to initiate an opening or closing reflection. The overall content can be used as the foundation for an enrichment program. And practicing the concepts presented in this book can stimulate the intentional awareness to return one’s attention to God.

In the introduction, the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk writes that “now is a very good time to relax” (6). And I noticed my level of relaxation increasing as I read this work. But this pocket-sized paperback provides much more than training on how to relax. More accurately, it is a tutorial in mindfulness. And mindful awareness bears many fruits. In addition to enhancing relaxation, it fosters inner peace which “is what is most precious” (85), because it influences our experiences, our relationships and, as it ripples outward, it provides a platform on which we can cultivate peace for our planet. Mindfulness also encourages healing. The chapter “Transforming an Unpleasant Sound” exemplifies the possibility of deep healing.

“One day while on a retreat in the mountains of northern California, USA, there was a wildfire nearby. All day long, during sitting meditation, walking meditation, and silent meals we heard the sound of helicopters. In Vietnam during the war, the sound of helicopters meant guns, bombs, and death. At the retreat there were many practitioners of Vietnamese origin who had gone through the war, so the sound was not pleasant for them, nor was it pleasant for the other practitioners. But there was no choice. So we chose to practice listening to the sound of the helicopters with mindfulness. With mindfulness, we could tell ourselves that this is not a helicopter operating in a situation of war, but a helicopter that is helping to extinguish the flames. With mindfulness, we transform our unpleasant feeling into a pleasant feeling of gratefulness. So we practiced breathing in and out with the sound of helicopters. And we survived very well. We made the sound of helicopters into something helpful” (46-47).

The book is comprised of seventy short reflections, one to two pages each, and eight meditations, including: “Easing Worry,” “Computer Meditation” and “Body Scan.” Evocative sumi ink drawings by Jason DeAntonis illustrate approximately one-quarter of the reflections. For example, a lovely sketch of a still pond reflecting a foot bridge accompanies the teaching called “Calm Water” (16-17).

Like the sounding of a bell, the book brings the reader’s awareness to the present moment. From this place, it is possible to focus one’s attention inward, on God or toward that which underlies our outer reality. Thich Nhat Hanh’s tapestry of images, poems and stories wraps the soul in comfort while unveiling the gift of here and now.

Dr. Catherine Grytting is a spiritual companion, healer, teacher, musician, artist, and writer. In addition she offers classes in energy healing. She earned her doctoral degree at Seattle University, Washington, USA. Email her at info@catherinegrytting.com.

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