In the episode, “Being Peace in a World of Trauma” on On Being with Krista Tippett, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and his students Cheri Maples and Larry Ward, discuss techniques to maintain mindfulness amidst distractions, how to use mindfulness to connect with others, and how important maintaining our inner peace is to bringing peace into the world.
Read this if
- You get easily distracted
- You feel helpless when negative things happen
- You want to know how you can contribute to making a more peaceful world
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk, writer, and poet. He co-founded the An Quang Buddhist Institute, the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Vietnam, and Plum Village, a Buddhist training monastery in France.
Cheri Maples is a dharma teacher ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh. She is a former Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and a former police officer with the City of Madison Police Department. She is a licensed attorney, a clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice in Madison, Wisconsin.
Larry Ward is a writer, ordained Baptist minister, and owner of a management consultant firm for Fortune 500 companies. He is the co-director of the Lotus Institute in Encinitas, California.
the distilld lessons (extended)
War, violence and prejudice seems to proliferate the modern world. There seems to be an inherent disposition to perpetuate hatred and spotlight difference between people. Mankind appears to be regressing to a time when conflict was the norm. So, in a time where animosity seems increasingly the norm, how do we achieve understanding and peace?
Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh points us to a path that’s clear, but often ignored: the path inward.
This path is more commonly referred to as mindfulness.
In this episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, Thich Nhat Hanh (known to his students as “Thay,” which is “teacher” in Vietnamese), talks about mindfulness, how to harness it, what it means to the individual, and to society.
Here’s the distilld lessons inspired by the episode “Being Peace in a World of Trauma” from the On Being podcast:
1. Understanding mindfulness
Being mindful is being present. This means being aware of the phyiscal moments we're in, being conscious of our surroundings and being self-aware of the subjectivity of our thoughts. Being mindful is being aware, but not distracted. Lucid, but relaxed. To understand this level of awareness though, there are certain concepts with which we must first familiarize ourselves.
2. Breathe your mind back into your body
The first integral element to mindfulness is breathing. The process of breathing is so natural that we’re often not consciously aware of how or why we do it. It almost feels overly simplistic or even trite to say that breathing is foundational to changing our state. But breathing is at the core of mindfulness. By changing how we breath, the mind and the body can actually be unified to function as one.
The scientific explanation relates the symbiotic relationship between our breathing and our body's state to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. How we breathe — a process that can be altered through conscious thoughts originating from our mind — can change the physiological responses in our body. So, quite literally, our minds can change our physical state.
Despite this, the mind is often referred to separately from the body. This is clear in how we regard people who commit acts that appear to be results of what their mind wants. For example, if we’ve done something stupid, people ask us if we’re “out of our mind.” When we lose focus, we feel our “mind drifting away.” If we get distracted in a sports game, we’re told to “get our head in the game.” These are ways upon which we seem to disconnect the mind from the body.
But ultimately the mind and the body are deeply connected. Not just physically but on also higher level. We may be complex, but we’re still a single organism. Similarly, what weakens the mind-body connection, and creates the illusion of separation, are distractions. When we’re distracted, we pay less attention to ourselves, and our minds are held captive by the interference.
How then do we free our minds? This is where breathing mindfully comes in.
Breathing mindfully means breathing while paying attention to your every bodily sensation. When we breathe mindfully, we allow our minds to slow down and listen to ourselves. Through this, our minds can get clarity and reconnect with our body. Breathing mindfully then lays the groundwork for mindfulness.
3. Be in the Zen
The second thing that helps us achieve mindfulness is called the Zen. This is about teaching our minds and bodies to be peaceful and relaxed. The way our minds are wired are complicated. There can be hundreds and thousands of thoughts constantly running in our heads. Unfortunately, we don’t come equipped with an on/off switch to stop them in their tracks. This tendency makes it easy for us to give in to distractions. Unless you’re in a very quiet place, have a practiced skill of concentration, or are deeply engrossed in focus, it’s generally hard ignore to what's going on around you even through conscious choice.
However, there are other ways we can try to drown out distractions. When we do, we can be in the Zen.
Thay’s disciple, Cheri Maples, a cop-turned dharma teacher, suggests finding activities that absorb us as an effective avenue to being in Zen. Such activities should demand so much of our attention that we have none left for distractions. The mind’s absorption with these activities allows it to focus and drown out non-essential thoughts. In Cheri’s case, she had baseball to occupy her. But it can be any sport, or any activity—washing dishes, cooking, drawing—anything that demands our focus and attention. Engrossing ourselves in it allows us to free our minds from the noise.
Others do this through meditation.
After learning the art of silencing our distractions, we can then move on to the next step, which is the ability to confront suffering.
4. Confront suffering, don't avoid it
Mindfulness doesn’t stop at breathing, steadying our minds or embodying an active tranquility. It requires bravery and willingness to confront our sufferings. That’s mostly why it’s hard to maintain. Our survival instincts dictate we avoid anything dangerous. We value survival so much that we see any suffering as a threat to it. That is why we seek a way out of suffering. But Thay offers a different approach.
Thay insists we should face life’s suffering instead of avoiding it. For him, suffering is actually the source of healing, and not its the enemy. If we confront suffering, we can learn how to transform it and we can heal in the process.
To confront our internal suffering while maintaining a state of Zen — to recognize, embrace, and eventually transform it — that’s what it means to be mindful.
5. Look with compassion, commit to communication
Ultimately, we want to master mindfulness as this is the road to bringing peace to the world. But to do that, we should know what compassion is and choose to imbibe it.
If we look at the world through the lens of compassion, we’d be surprised at what we can see beyond destruction and division. The same is true if we do the same for our own personal experiences. If someone has wronged us, we would benefit to first understand what may have triggered such behaviour. If we reflex to judging and admonishing their behaviour as wrong, we quieten our capacity to empathise. This impedes our ability to see the world through a lens of compassion.
When Larry Ward, another disciple of Thay, lost his mother, his father wouldn’t let him or his siblings inside their house. Both of them lost a loved one, but they grieved separately. Naturally, the feeling of being rejected by his father or having his avenue to mourn restricted, may have been hurtful for Larry. He could have responded with resentment. But he didn’t.
While reflexively it would have seemed natural to retaliate by closing his heart, he chose to respond with compassion. He wanted to understand why his father was doing that. Larry continued to visit, even if he wasn’t allowed inside. That commitment to unconditional compassion allowed him to understand just how much his father was suffering. Instead of animosity and resentment, Larry extended a hand of understanding and compassion. That was how he tried to be there for his father.
After facing the suffering within, we should look at others as people in a similar struggle. We should not assume that we are the only ones suffering. From this perspective, when we stop seeing people as enemies, but just as people also navigating the plight of the human condition, we can move towards fighting less. We're less inclined to attach those with whom we can recognise are just like us.
For Larry, he flew across states to send his father flowers and letters. This was all despite not being allowed into his father's house. This went on for six months. Until one day, his father opened the door: to Larry and to himself. Their relationship became stronger as a result. Larry had a choice when his father first denied him inside their house. React from a place of judgement or respond from a place of compassion. If Larry chose the former and walked out of his father’s life, he would have missed the opportunity to support a loved one who was suffering. Instead, by choosing the latter he was able to heal with his father and bring peace them both.
Essentially, we need to talk. To reach out. These are simple yet powerful ways of extending compassion. We can then begin to understand each other. Once we see that we’re all dealing with despair, we don’t get consumed by it. We can use despair as our bridge towards each other. And we can meet halfway through conversations. Especially the difficult ones. Be it with our father, a neighbour we don’t like, a workmate we don’t agree with, we would benefit from restoring communication from a place of compassion.
6. Start world peace from within
Thay concedes that peace begins within us as individuals. Once we create it within ourselves, we can mirror it in our own communities. Through that peace, we can forge connection and camaraderie. We can then create a refuge for those in need. Achievements of this scale demand collective effort, and our individual contribution starts from cultivating peace within us.
Peace comes from looking deeply and understanding. Anger, fear, and violence, can stop with us. We can connect with others as “fresh, solid, and free” people, by confronting suffering, correcting flawed perceptions, and communicating with others.
Through this process, peace in the world can ripple out from the peace we will experience within.
For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.