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Bells in the Heart of London

By Josie Ng

Brother Phap Linh drawing calligraphy during London Mindfulness Hub’s first year; photo by Lisa Laeber

What happens when we invite a bell into a hall filled with chatty Londoners lounging on couches and sitting with their laptops? Nobody else stops. Barely anyone glances our way or pauses to watch us sitting in a circle in silence. This is how we begin each meeting, ever since we first planned and prepared for the London Mindfulness Hub last autumn.

The London Mindfulness Hub—a collaborative venture between Plum Village monks and nuns, Wake Up London community of young mindfulness practitioners and the Heart of London all-ages Sangha, with support from the UK Community of Interbeing—is in its second year of running. It's still very much an experiment in how to create a bubble of mindfulness in the centre of busy London, one that sends ripples of peace and joy outwards into the city.

This year, over the course of two weeks, we hosted a series of mindfulness events led by a delegation of monastics: Brother Phap Tien, Brother Jewel, Brother Dai Dung and Brother Phap Lai. Among these events were: a Bring a Friend evening, a Deepening Your Practice session, a screening of Walk with Me followed by a Q&A, a Day of Mindfulness themed “Clear Mind, Open Heart” and a Peace Walk through Victoria Park.

This year, our resounding intention for the hub was to nourish our London Sangha. The theme was “practicing in the city.” As our organising team gathered weekly to coordinate, some questions sprouted in me. How might I nourish myself and our Sangha as we plan and prepare? How might I practice as we work to build this hub? As I watered these questions over the course of our hub-building, a collection of new bells of mindfulness budded and blossomed for me. Here are some of my bells—perhaps they might resonate with you too.

“Maybe Later” - The bell of expectations

“Press Send” - An electronic bell

“When Things Die and Are Reborn” - A bell where you have no choice but to stop and listen

the “Maybe Later” Bell

Our weekly Monday meetings ended late in the evenings. Afterwards, on the way home, I settled into a red double decker bus and thought about what to make for dinner. Often, a voice suggested, “Practice.” And very quickly, another voice offered sympathy, “Later. Practice tomorrow morning, when you’re fresh.” Initially, I thought this second voice was excusing me from practice. I was feeling tired, after all. Paying attention to this over time, I realised the first voice suggested practice because I was tired, and the second voice was worried I wouldn’t be able to practice well. This voice knew full well I wouldn’t be able to follow my breathing for more than a breath. Noticing I held a standard and an expectation to what “good practicing” was, I could let go of my expectations of “good practice.”

This “maybe later” became a bell for me. From then on, whenever I thought another time might be a better time to practice and breathe, I stopped. I let go of my thoughts. I followed my breathing for three in and out breaths, or at least until the contents of my fridge distracted me again. 

the “Press Send” Bell

When we weren’t meeting face to face, a lot of our work in building the hub involved emails. Emails about venues. Emails about next meetings. Emails about business plans and financing. Emails about volunteers. Emails about where to host the brothers. More emails about venues. Just as at work, I found that my mind stored templates of London Mindfulness Hub emails ready for use. In the beginning, “Dear _, Hope you are well.” And in the end, “With warmth and gratitude.” I was geared to send emails efficiently, not to be present in writing emails. 

I wiped my database of stored templates clean every time I sat down to write emails. Did I, in the moment of typing, truly mean and feel what I wrote to this other person? This required me to be present for each email. What worked particularly well was to turn the email sign-off into a bell. I experimented with closings like “Breathing in, breathing out,” where I followed my in and out breath before I pressed send. I also played with signing off with whatever I was hearing, seeing or feeling at the moment. Some of these included, “Children's playing and laughter outside my window,” “A blanket over me and sofa beneath me” and “Chunky white grey clouds in the sky.” When I did choose to send “With warmth and gratitude,” I filled my heart with warmth and gratitude for this person receiving the email, and released it with a click of a button. 

the “When Things Die and Are Reborn” Bell

For much of our preparations, we built upon the last mindfulness hub. We wanted to do even better than the first one in some way. We wanted it to be located just as centrally. We wanted to offer all the events we received wonderful feedback on. We wanted to have the same attention to beauty and detail. We wanted to reach beyond our Sangha and beyond London. We wanted it to be financially sustainable. And most importantly of all, we wanted more toilets at the venue. Slowly, as the gap between our reality and this image of the hub widened, I felt the stress and pressure of the work collecting in my shoulder blades and gathering in a knot in my stomach. 

Six weeks before the hub, the London Mindfulness Hub was cancelled. Very shortly after, coincidentally over Easter, it was reborn. When I look back, I experienced this as a particularly unexpected and jarring bell—but it was also a much needed one. We took this moment to stop. For a week, we did nothing for the hub. I sat with the relief I felt when I found out it was cancelled, and the hope and laughter that sprung out of me when I heard it would be reborn. It was clear to me then that I needed to let go of all my expectations for how the hub is and should be. When we met again as a group, we listened to each person share what energy, capacity and gifts they’d like to offer to nurture this hub. From then on, we stopped each week and adjusted our plans according to what we had to offer as a team. Given this second chance, we built the hub from what was present, instead of the shadows of its past.

Closing with Eleven More Bells

Beside these three bells, eleven other bells are important to sound: Gabriela, Katarina, Jude, Lizhuo, Lisa, Martha, Ross, Brother Phap Tien, Brother Jewel, Brother Dai Dung and Brother Phap Lai. 

In the midst of London where little stops, each of these bells offered a unique sound that touched me to the core, inspiring me to stop, to breathe, to smile, to look deeply, to listen deeply, to be vulnerable by sharing my heart and to let go. Each of them, in their own way, invited me to practice, to nourish myself and others and to root myself in the intention of a rippling bubble of mindfulness planted right in the heart of London. 

A deep bow of gratitude to all these bells and to all other bells that supported us in our practice, as well as our intention to nourish the Sangha. 

Josie Ng practices with Wake Up London and Heart of London Sanghas. She enjoys Tai Chi and works with learning beyond the classroom at a business school in London.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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