Are you there yet?
“Suppose you are meditating in a meditation hall and you hear the bombs falling around. The meditation hall has not been hit by a bomb yet and you are safe. And since you are meditating, you are aware that the bombs are falling and destroying houses and people around the meditation hall. You know you cannot just continue to sit in the meditation hall. So you get out of the meditation hall in order to help people. This is called meditation in action. In a situation like the war in Vietnam, you have to learn how to do both at the same time, meditation while acting in order to relieve the suffering. You need to do something in order to change the situation. Therefore deep looking and deep acting is what we need. Deep looking is meditation. Deep acting is also meditation.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
When I first arrived at Plum Village, the monastery where Thich Nhat Hanh teaches in France, over ten years ago, the first question I asked him publicly was about how to deal with time pressure in order to better help others. I developed a chronic illness in the few years before I arrived at Plum Village. I wanted to reduce suffering in the world, but I had pushed myself too hard to do too many activities and I was suffering as a result.
Thich Nhat Hanh told me to resist the stream. He said that there were many people rushing all of the time, but I had to stop and slow down. He said that we could use our intelligence to plan things so that we do not have to rush so much. And when others see that we are being mindful in our actions, they will also become more mindful. His response was simple and it brought home to me the connection between the individual and the system. The systemic changes I sought were rooted in individual change and consciousness.
When I returned to the U.S. in 2000, I joined the Washington Mindfulness Community (WMC), which had a mindful politics committee. Before the US declared war on Iraq, members of the mindful politics committee visited their legislators and asked: “What can we do to support you in making conscientious decisions?” This approach fascinated me. The intention was to help Members of Congress find peace of mind so that they could make decisions from a place of integrity, instead of under pressure. The mindful politics committee reported that the legislators they visited were surprised by the question. The legislators were likely expecting that the WMC members would bombard them with information and pleas to vote against the war.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, three of the Order of Interbeing’s fourteen mindfulness trainings involve nonattachment to views. The first sentence of the second mindfulness training is: Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perception, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. For me, this statement presents a guideline for conscious activism. I may think I know what will help reduce suffering in the world, but in my attachment to my opinions, am I actually creating more suffering?
Non-attachment to views is quite similar to the Zen Peacemaker tenet, not-knowing, “thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe.” The two other tenets are: “bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world” and “loving action towards ourselves and others.” I think that when we open ourselves directly to the awareness of suffering, go beyond our ideas about what caused that suffering and what could reduce that suffering, and still find a way to practice meditation in action, this process is conscious activism.
I didn’t say it was easy.
Erica Shane Hamilton is the founder of Mind-Body Wellness, a wellness practice in Uppsala, Sweden. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology with a concentration in integrative health studies from Saybrook University. She has practiced mindfulness meditation for over 10 years and she has attended almost 20 meditation retreats. Erica is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing in the Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Her short piece, “You are in me,” is in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “I have arrived, I am home: Celebrating 20 years of Plum Village life” (Parallax Press, 2003). You can learn more by visiting her website or blog.