For a long time, it was our habit to jump out of bed and start working: reading blogs, news, emails, writing. We were, literally, swept away each day by the virtual world we love to wander around in; there were no real breaks and downtime, no time to turn inward, quiet. Every morning, we simply jumped in.

Then a friend told us that he made a practice of always reading something uplifting or illuminating first thing in the morning – NOT firing up the computer and NOT reading the news, but rather taking the time to read a bit of poetry or a philosophy, something that was more about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. We decided to try it, turning to books that we valued but hadn’t looked at for years – Wherever You Go, There You Are… Neruda’s Garden: An Anthology of Odes… reading as we drank a cup of tea in the quiet of the morning. It changed everything; the books we read have the effect of centering us for much of the day, while teaching us a new perspective.

A piece that we return to frequently, and that we find reverberating mightily in our thinking, is by Vietmamese Zen master, poet and peace advocate Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s called “What’s Not Wrong”, from his book Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life:

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 our sorrow, we will not be in touch with these healing elements.

Life is filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. Our breathing, for example, can be very enjoyable. I enjoy breathing every day. But many people appreciate the joy of breathing only when they have asthma or a stuffed-up nose. We don’t need to wait until we asthma to enjoy our breathing. Awareness of the precious elements of happiness is itself the practice of right mindfulness. Elements like these are within us an all around us. In each second of our lives we can enjoy them…

We find that asking ourselves “What’s not wrong?” has the effect of instantly shifting our mindset, bringing us right back to a positive view, and softening fear…and from there, opening us up to answers we didn’t expect to the problems at hand.

Botanical print from Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Related posts: lynda barry’s ‘what it is’ (+ being your creative self)
a book + music (free play + the koln concert)
the rich rewards of an unplanned day
steven johnson on cultivating good ideas (daily)

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11 replies on “‘what’s not wrong?’ and other ways to start your day

  1. I subscribe to the Writer’s Almanac, delivered to my in-box every a.m., and read their poem of the day–they never disappoint.

  2. I do this regularly and it is, indeed, a wonderful setup to the day. It’s amazing how frequently the poem or passage is exactly on point, even if selected “randomly,” which is my preferred way. Today, for instance, I opened “Selected Poems of Su Tung Po” to this one, called “Bad Wine is Like Bad Men”:

    Bad wine is like bad men.
    deadlier in attack than arrows or knives.
    I collapse on the platform;
    victory hopeless, truce will have to do.
    The old poet carries on bravely.
    the Zen Master’s words are gentle and profound.
    Too drunk to follow what they’re saying,
    I’m conscious only of a red and green blur.
    I wake to find the moon sinking into the river,
    the wind rustling with a different sound.
    A lone lamp burns by the altar,
    but the two heroes — both have disappeared.

  3. Reminds me of my favorite poem by Rumi:

    Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
    and frightened.
    Don’t open the door to the study
    and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer.

    Let the beauty we love be what we do.
    There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.

  4. I do the “What’s Not Wrong,” thing instinctively, do it most days, and have for years, though sometimes truly rough patches make me lag behind in using whatever is already there to nourish myself, Generally, however, I am very aware of the good, as well as the bad. What I loved about this post, however, and what was a new thought to me, was the notion of waking up to something like my beloved Neruda before the day’s onslaught begins. Call it a different form of meditation, a better way of awakening. Am posting this on my Facebook page.

  5. I just want to thank both Andrea and David for these wonderful responses, both so beautiful and so meaningful.

  6. “Using whatever is already there to nourish myself”: perfect words, and just what we are trying to do here. Thank you Cara!

  7. I subscribe to many blogs, but never take the time to read them. I feel like I am too busy & cannot take the time..and know that I am missing alot of beautiful posts, ideas, ways of thinking out there. After reading this post, I decided to start my day by actually opening and reading your beautiful blog. I always find something that makes me think, that is uplifting & makes a difference in my day and in my life. Improvised Life. YOU are the start of my day 🙂 Thank you

  8. Thank you SO much for your words. Early on, we hoped to be a filter for treasures that are around in the world and on the net, so that we would be one of the only blogs you’d need to read. We’re glad if that works even part of the time.

  9. I recommend this blog all the time because it is one of the best neo-remedies for our modern lives. It’s what we need.

  10. Thank you SO much. a neo-remedy!!!! Wow! We’re glad we’re any remedy at all!

  11. OMG i am so happy to see this idea…i have been receiving the Writers Almanac from pbs for years now…j is a free site for everybody…look for it its fantastic…tarting my day with a poem…it is a brilliant way to see the world with artistry and humanism…much needed in our culture…i love poetry in this fashion..thank you as always improvised life…i read you every day too:) suzy

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