There are many pleasant kinds of meditation. I would like to share with you something called ‘telephone meditation’. We practise telephone meditation every day in Plum Village. We also have many friends practising telephone meditation all over America and Europe. Every so often someone rings a bell. Every time we hear the bell, we remember to go back to our breath: breathing in — calming; breathing out — smiling. And we feel much better for it. But in order to hear a bell like that we need a Bell Master. But we cannot have Bell Masters following us all the time, so we have to invent them.
In the kitchen of the Lower Hamlet at Plum Village we have a clock that plays music every quarter of an hour. Every time the clock begins to play, everyone stops thinking, talking, and doing things, and they just listen intently to the music. They enjoy breathing in and out for at least three times and then they resume their work. It is so nice.
Telephone meditation is in the same spirit. Suddenly, you have a Bell Master from very far away. He or she invites the bell to ring for you. When you hear the telephone bell, just sit wherever you are and enjoy breathing in and out. The sound of the telephone is the bell of mindfulness. This is a very strong meditation.
Usually when you hear the telephone, you cannot resist running to it. You are sucked towards the telephone and you are not clearly yourself; you are a victim. So, if you are capable of sitting right where you are and practising breathing in — calming, breathing out — smiling, you prove yourself to be one who can be master of his or her own self. And when the telephone rings for the second time, you can still sit there, breathing in — calming, breathing out — smiling.
You can afford to do that because if the person calling really has something important to tell you he or she will not hang up after the first or the second ring, but will wait until at least the third ring. So you have the luxury of practising telephone meditation for a few times, breathing in — calming, breathing out — smiling . . . Prove it to yourself!
Prove it to the people who live in your home that you are master of yourself. This is a very good practice. When you hear the telephone ring for the third time, you continue to breathe in and out. Then you move to it, but you do so with dignity. You walk like a king, like a lion, because you are now master of yourself; so you walk like that, breathing and smiling.
When you pick up the telephone you are in a very good state of mind. You are calm. You are yourself. You are breathing. You are smiling, That is good, not only for yourself, but also for the one who is calling. The caller is very lucky because now you are a better person — calmer and smiling more. The results of the meditation are obtained right away, and I’m sure the person at the other end will be glad to hear your voice because you are calm, you are peaceful, you are smiling; you are quite yourself.
When we are the ones who are making a telephone call, we recite a small poem: ‘Words can travel thousands of miles; they are supposed to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance; I vow that my words will be like gems; I vow that my words will be like flowers.’
You write the poem on a piece of paper and you stick it to the telephone. Every time you want to make a phone call, you touch the phone exactly where the poem is and you practise breathing. Breathing in, you say: ‘Words can travel thousands of miles;’ breathing out: ‘They are supposed to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance;’ breathing in, ‘I vow that my words will be like gems;’ breathing out, ‘I vow that my words will be fresh like flowers.’
You are now qualified to make the call and you pick up the receiver and dial the number. You are fresh. You have made a vow to use loving speech. Speaking is a very important practice. If you know how to use words, you can make a person very happy. You can make a person happy for several days if you say something that inspires free confidence and happiness. So, don’t be thrifty concerning words and loving speech.
If you are unhappy yourself, you can say something which will hurt people for many days. Something you say can make a person lose all hope and go and commit suicide.
The practice of loving speech is a very deep one. That is what you remind yourself while you breathe in and out and recite the poem. After the recitation, you know what you will say and what you will not say. Then you dial the number, hold the receiver to your ear and listen to the bell ringing in the other house. But you are very realistic. Although it’s ringing, you know that the other person, a lady perhaps, is sitting quietly, listening and practising breathing and smiling. She is practising telephone meditation. So you don’t expect her to pick up the phone before the third ring. You tell yourself, ‘She’s breathing and smiling, so why not me?’ And you practise breathing and smiling for the third time. When the telephone rings for the second time, you practise breathing and smiling for the fourth time, and then the fifth time. Now you are in a good state of mind to have a conversation, and I am sure the quality of your conversation will be high.
You will make each other happy because both of you are mindful, smiling. I think that if everyone in London practised telephone meditation, there would be more peace and happiness in the city.
In Plum Village, where I live and practise, the first time we began to practise telephone meditation, we had some problems, funny problems. When the telephone rang, everyone was enjoying breathing and smiling so much, no one wanted to answer the phone. Finally, we had to appoint one person a day in order to do the job. But, in the Lower Hamlet and Upper Hamlet we cannot just sit there and wait for telephone calls, so we do something, like cleaning the house, working in the office, watering the vegetables in the greenhouse, and so on.
Suppose a nun is working in the garden and hears the telephone ring. The first thing she does is stop watering the vegetables and then she practises breathing in and out. Breathing in, ‘I calm myself;’ breathing out, ‘I smile.’ And she does that at least three times before putting down the hose and going into the office to answer the phone.
In Plum Village no one runs; everyone always walks in the meditation style all year round. There may not be a retreat, yet you have to practise walking meditation every time you move from one place to another. If you walk like that for a few months, you learn how to live in the present moment because life is contained in one step. And if you cannot enjoy making that step, you cannot enjoy the next step. So she will walk with dignity and mindfulness towards the office. Meanwhile, the telephone continues to ring.
If you know that, you will understand, and you will not get angry at us. We are practising. The next time you ring Plum Village, you will know that you have plenty of opportunities to breathe and smile.
Telephone meditation can only be practised if everyone in the family agrees to it. If one person still talks, or runs to answer the telephone, it wouldn’t work, and that is why have seen many families where the we should practise as a family community. I children practise telephone meditation well. Young people, I think, can initiate it. When they hear the telephone ring, they stay where they are and breathe in, and breathe out calmly, smiling. And when guests come they will be impressed by that and even though we don’t try to persuade them to do likewise, many of them will imitate this practice.
Click here to read more by Thich Nhat Hanh
Published in the November 1992 Buddhism Now
Click here to read a post on Buddhist walking meditation. (Has a PDF download).