Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (Book Summary)
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most revered mindfulness authors and teachers. Peace Is Every Step is a quick and easy read with lots of helpful anecdotes all around the topic of meditation and mindfulness.
If you’re looking for some easy to absorb spiritual wisdom from a Buddhist monk, this is a great read. I re-visit this book regularly because of some of the lessons mentioned below. It’s always a good reminder to slow down, not take life too seriously, and enter the present moment.
The first few lessons below may seem a bit abstract and theoretical as is often the case with these kind of teachings. The last ones, however, are quite actionable.
Who Is Peace Is Every Step For?
- Anyone living too much for the future or in the past
- Anyone looking for some quick mindfulness lessons
- Anyone looking to slow down, enjoy life, and stop overthinking
1. “Peace Is Every Step” – What Does It Mean?
“Peace and happiness are available in every moment. Peace is every step.”
“Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”
This is what the book is all about: The fact that peace and happiness are available at all times right here in the present moment.
We don’t need some special occasion, a new car, a promotion, a beautiful sunset, or anything special to be happy and at peace. All we need is to be present to the moment, to be here and now, to fully inhabit our current experience.
2. We Are Good at Preparing to Live, But Terrible at Living
"We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”
I am only twenty-five years old, but so far I can fully identify with this statement. I rarely take time to actually live – to enjoy the moment.
Instead, I use my time for preparing to live better in the future. Or I use my time worrying about the future. Or I use my time planning for something in the future.
Here’s my favorite part: “In your very planning, you are sowing the seeds of disappointment. In your very worrying about the future, you are wasting the present; and slowly, slowly it becomes your second nature to worry about the future. So when the future comes, it will come as the present; and because of your habit of worrying about the future, you will waste that moment also in worrying. You will go on worrying about the future for your whole life. You will stop only when death comes and takes away all possibility of the future. You missed your whole life: you could have lived – but you only planned. Live intensely and totally now, because the next moment will be born out of this moment; and if you have lived it totally and joyously, you can be absolutely certain that the next moment will bring more blessings, more joy.”
As with all spiritual teachings, I find this message beautiful and inspiring, but also very hard to practice.
3. When Should You Practice Meditation and Mindfulness? All Day Everyday.
“We need to practice meditation gently, but steadily throughout daily life, not wasting a single opportunity or event to see deeply into the true nature of life, including our everyday problems.”
Again, this is something most spiritual gurus and meditation teachers come back to over and over again. Meditation isn’t an isolated event we do every morning for twenty minutes and then are finished with it.
Meditation, in an ideal world, is a constant phenomenon. We can meditate while washing the dishes, walking down the street, talking to a friend, or even watching TV. The way to do it is to be fully present and keep witnessing with detachment and acceptance. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done.
4. The Purpose of Eating Is to Eat
“A few years ago, I asked some children, ‘What is the purpose of eating breakfast?’ One boy replied, ‘To get energy for the day.’ Another said, ‘The purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast.’ I think the second child is more correct. The purpose of eating is to eat.”
This is pretty much identical with what Eckhart Tolle talks about in A New Earth. He talks about inner versus outer purpose. The inner purpose of eating is to eat; the outer purpose to get energy for the day. The inner purpose of walking across the room is walking across the room; the outer purpose is to pick up a book at the other end.
It’s all about being fully present in whatever we are doing. If we can do that, thinking disappears and we (supposedly) experience profound peace of mind, silence, happiness, and a cessation of all problems.
While it’s easy to get an intellectual understanding of this principle, actually living or experiencing it is a lot harder. For me, it’s only an intellectual truth, not an experiential one yet.
5. Three Lessons to Learn From Washing Dishes
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them.”
What does he mean? The reason you don’t enjoy doing the dishes is because you’re not present while doing them. You are thinking about your mother-in-law, your upcoming exams, or how boring doing dishes is.
If you were fully present, you’d enjoy it. That’s what all the great mindfulness teachers tell us. That is lesson one – joy doesn’t come from what you do but from being present at what you’re doing.
“If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert. With the fork in my hand, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the texture and the flavor of the dessert, together with the pleasure of eating it, will be lost.”
Again, if you can’t be present while eating dessert, you won’t be able to fully enjoy it. And when you’re not present while doing the dishes, why should you suddenly be able to become present while eating dessert? Your mind is a creature of habit – if you’re never present in everyday life, you’ll build the habit of never being present, period. That’s lesson two.
“Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end – that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them.”
This repeats the point we’ve talked about previously. There is an inner purpose for washing the dishes and there is an outer purpose for washing the dishes. It’s both a means and an end. That’s lesson three.
6. Hope as an Obstacle
“When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment.”
“Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment.”
What is your best bet at creating a great future? Isn’t it to fully focus all of your energy on the present moment? To get fully absorbed and engaged in whatever you are doing right now?
If you do that, you are optimizing your happiness and performance in the here and now. And since the future flows out of the here and now, you’re also optimizing your future. Makes sense?
By using some of your energy for hope, you’re left with less energy for maximizing whatever you’re doing in the present moment. Therefore, hope can be a kind of obstacle. With that being said, hope is, of course, still 10x better than worrying about the future or dwelling on negative emotions such as anger, fear, resentment, or grief.
7. A Five-Step Process for Transforming Feelings
This is one of the best descriptions for dealing with feelings I’ve ever read, so I wanted to include all the steps here.
“The first step in dealing with feelings is to recognize each feeling as it arises. The agent that does this is mindfulness. In the case of fear, for example, you bring out your mindfulness, look at your fear, and recognize it as fear.”
“The second step is to become one with the feeling. It is best not to say, ‘Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.’ It is much more effective to say, ‘Hello, Fear. How are you today?’ Then you can invite the two aspects of yourself, mindfulness and fear, to shake hands as friends and become one.”
“The third step is to calm the feeling. As mindfulness is taking good care of your fear, you begin to calm it down. ‘Breathing in, I calm the activities of body and mind.’ You calm your feeling just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby.”
“The fourth step is to release the feeling, to let it go. Because of your calm, you feel at ease, even in the midst of fear, and you know that your fear will not grow into something that will overwhelm you.”
“The fifth step is to look deeply. You look deeply into your baby – your feeling of fear – to see what is wrong, even after the baby has already stopped crying, after the fear is gone. You cannot hold your baby all the time, and therefore you have to look into him to see the cause of what is wrong. By looking, you will see what will help you begin to transform the feeling. You will realize, for example, that his suffering has many causes, inside and outside of his body. If something is wrong around him, if you put that in order, bringing tenderness and care to the situation, he will feel better. Looking into your baby, you see the elements that are causing him to cry, and when you see them, you will know what to do and what not to do to transform the feeling and be free.”
That’s how to handle feelings in our everyday lives.
Recognizing the feeling, becoming one with it, calming it down, releasing it, and then looking deeply into its causes, which are usually based on some false perceptions. Once we understand the causes and nature of our feelings, they begin to transform themselves – that’s the alchemy of mindfulness (see next point).
8. The Alchemy of Mindfulness
“Our mindfulness will take care of everything, as the sunshine takes care of the vegetation. The sunshine does not seem to do much, it just shines on the vegetation, but it transforms everything. Poppies close up every time it gets dark, but when the sun shines on them for one or two hours, they open. The sun penetrates into the flowers, and at some point, the flowers cannot resist, they just have to open up. In the same way, mindfulness, if practiced continuously, will provide a kind of transformation within the flower of our anger, and it will open and show us its own nature. When we understand the nature, the roots of our anger, we will be freed from it.”
Just like the sun transforms the vegetation it shines upon, so the light of mindfulness transforms the feelings and emotions it shines upon.
This “alchemy of mindfulness” acts on positive and negative emotions differently. When you are aware of positive emotions, they tend to expand and grow stronger. When you are mindful of negative emotions (e.g., anger), they tend to disappear – first, only temporarily, and then also more permanently.
If you’re new to mindfulness, this may sound very hokus-pokus. That’s normal. I was as skeptical as anyone in the beginning, but after practicing quite heavily for the last two years, I am fully convinced of the benefits of mindfulness. It’s something you’ll have to experience for yourself.
9. Nourishing Healthy Seeds
“Consciousness exists on two levels: as seeds and as manifestations of these seeds. Suppose we have a seed of anger in us. When conditions are favorable, that seed may manifest as a zone of energy called anger. It is burning, and it makes us suffer a lot. It is very difficult for us to be joyful at the moment the seed of anger manifests.
Every time a seed has an occasion to manifest itself, it produces new seeds of the same kind. If we are angry for five minutes, new seeds of anger are produced and deposited in the soil of our unconscious mind during those five minutes. That is why we have to be careful in selecting the kind of life we lead and the emotions we express. When I smile, the seeds of smiling and joy have come up. As long as they manifest, new seeds of smiling and joy are planted. But if I don’t practice smiling for a number of years, that seed will weaken, and I may not be able to smile anymore.”
Every time a seed has an occasion to manifest itself, it produces new seeds of the same kind.
What does this mean? Every time you’re angry, you plant more seeds of anger and thus make it more likely to be angry again in the future. Every time you’re happy, you plant more seeds of happiness and thus make it more likely to be happy again in the future – the secret to happiness is happiness itself.
This isn’t just anecdotal evidence, this is real science. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson refers to it as experience-dependent-neuroplasticity in his book Hardwiring Happiness: “This is what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity, which is a hot area of research these days. For example, London taxi drivers memorizing the city’s spaghetti snarl of streets have thickened neural layers in their hippocampus, the region that helps make visual-spatial memories; as if they were building a muscle, these drivers worked a part of their brain and grew new tissue there.”
When you practice being depressed, you strengthen the neural circuits of depression in your brain – and you become better at being depressed. When you practice being grateful, you strengthen the neural circuits of gratitude in your brain – and you become better at being grateful.
The seeds you’re planting (your daily experiences and emotional states) matter.
10. What’s Not Wrong?
“We often ask, “What’s wrong?” Doing so, we invite painful seeds of sorrow to come up and manifest. We feel suffering, anger, and depression, and produce more such seeds. We would be much happier if we tried to stay in touch with the healthy, joyful seeds inside of us and around us. We should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?” and be in touch with that. There are so many elements in the world and within our bodies, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness that are wholesome, refreshing, and healing. If we block ourselves, if we stay in the prison of sorrow, we will not be in touch with these healing elements.”
Sophocles, an ancient Greek philosopher, once said, “Look and you will find it – what is unsought will go undetected.”
In life, we tend to find what we’re looking for. Look for the positive and you’ll find it. Look for the negative and you’ll find it. Asking, “what’s not wrong?” helps you focus on the positive. Asking, “what’s wrong?” will put your focus on the negative.
Again, this isn’t just wishful thinking. Research confirms it. Martin Seligman, a popular happiness researcher, shares a study illustrating this truth in his book Flourish: “Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well… The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (‘My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today’), but they can be important (‘My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy’)… Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”
So, what are you focusing on? On what’s wrong? Or on what’s not wrong? Choose wisely.
If you enjoyed this book, you’ll likely enjoy many other books on mindfulness, spirituality, or Buddhist philosophy. Here are three recommendations:
- Awareness by Anthony De Mellow. This is a little known book that talks more about what I called “the alchemy of mindfulness” here.
- Awareness by OSHO. Same title, different author, similar content. This one also goes further into how mindfulness works and how it can change your life.
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. A modern book on mindfulness, spirituality, ego, and so on. Talks about the same principles, but in a different language.
And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best self-help books of all time.
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