Reading Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness increasingly slowly Jane Goodall finds that "a whole universe will open out from each of those pages".
I’m always interested in where people like to read. Perhaps they have a favorite place in the house – a table by the window, a fireside chair, a couch with many cushions. Children sometimes make themselves a private den for reading, where they can hide away under a canopy of blankets while traveling in the realms of fantasy.
Reading is a very private experience, but there are some people who like to read in public places, out and about in the world. I love to spend a day in the city, cruising the streets and stopping every couple of hours for a prolonged reading break. I find a café table, or take a bus ride, or I might sit on a bench under a tree, and read a chapter or two before continuing the ramble. This way, the worlds of the book and the city become intertwined. Moods and atmospheres leak from one into the other, creating a sometimes intoxicating blend.
A couple of weeks ago I made a trip to Melbourne, and visited Readings bookshop to choose a book to be my companion. I came out with two: Cultural Amnesia, a collection of essays by Clive James, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. As I think about it now, it was a most odd pairing.
The Clive James volume was heavy, nearly 800 pages of dense writing about his own reading adventures, full of curious anecdotes and witty digressions. In every twisting sentence I could hear that dry and slightly drawling voice with its permanent edge of sarcasm, perfectly in charge of the delivery.
Over a lunch of bruschetta in an Italian bar, I read four chapters at a sitting. It was like sharing a table with the most compelling conversationalist, who made me laugh out loud at his jokes (no doubt to the puzzlement of those at the table next to me), but I was also drawn into the more serious questions that run through the book. How do writers fare in times of violence? How do they measure up to the challenge of political oppression?
Whilst I was in the thrall of Clive James and all the other voices he conjures from his vast mental archives, Thich Naht Hanh sat lightly in the bag at my side. It wasn’t until I boarded the plane on my way home that I opened the smooth little book bearing his name. Barely a hundred pages long, and with small blocks of print set between wide margins, it signaled a kind of spaciousness before I even began to read.
I have been reading it ever since, a little more slowly each day, for I’ve learned that if you read slowly enough, a whole universe will open out from each of those pages.
When Stephanie Dowrick [who hosts the Universal Heart Network] told me that she is a deep admirer of Thich Nhat Hanh that made immediate sense to me. There is so much in the Universal Heart philosophy and Stephanie’s website that is resonant of the way this great Buddhist teacher takes us through the ever widening spheres of body, heart and mind. I’m honored to be part of the new Universal Heart book club, and look forward to the many posts that will follow.
Jane Goodall is a former academic, now a novelist and literary critic with a special interest in drama and the power of language.
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: notes in the margin of my time. London, Picador 2012. ISBN 978-0-330-48175-5.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. London, Rider, 1987. ISBN 978-1-84-604106-8.