Last Saturday, in between yoga classes and football games, I went to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to hear Thich Nhat Hanh speak.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a world-famous Zen master and peace advocate. Among his incredibly impressive credentials is the fact that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for his courageous and compassionate peace work during the war in his home country of Vietnam.
Around 3,000 people showed up on Saturday to listen to his characteristically simple message of the power of mindfulness. Before he took the stage, some of the monks and nuns that train at his monastery led the audience in a few mindfulness songs and gave some introductory comments.
Every auditorium or concert hall has its own system for letting attendees know when it's time to take their seats. At some venues, they dim the lights; at others, ushers walk around bonging miniature xylophones. At the Pasadena Civic, they have a set of bells that clang out a tune, not unlike Westminster Abbey, which you can hear throughout the building.
As it happens, the Plum Village monastics have a mindfulness practice specifically involving bells. At the monastery, bells are rung at random times throughout the day, and everyone is invited to stop whatever they are doing for three mindful breaths.
So, during the introductory comments and songs, the Pasadena Civic bells would ring out every few minutes. And, the monks and nuns onstage would pause, breathe, and then continue. After this happened once or twice, one of the nuns explained this to the audience and invited us to try it, too. Then, during his talk, whenever Thich Nhat Hanh would pause for more than a moment, one of the monks would ring the singing bowl (the biggest one you've EVER seen, by the way), reminding all present to be present.
It was striking illustration of how you can make anything part of your practice - even the unexpected like the Pasadena Civic's bells. Being onstage, being outside of the monastery, did not take these experienced meditators away from the habit of mindfulness, even when the bells were pretty much interrupting what they were doing in front of a huge audience. Thich Nhat Hanh's talk itself was wise, inspiring, and memorable, but the living example of his students may be my favorite takeaway from the experience.
Ding! Next time you hear a bell: stop, drop, and breathe. :)