Together We Are One
Dear Thay, dear beloved community,
I had the opportunity to teach at a teen retreat recently, and a number of us staff were concerned about one of the youngest teens who seemed to have difficulty integrating into the larger group. The teen was shy and withdrawn, and didn’t come to activities. When they did, they would read a book rather than participate. We tried talking and listening to them and encouraging them to join in. When this met with some resistance, we simply accepted the teen and did our best to let them know they were welcome to be part of the group as they were. Other teens also reached out in different ways to help this teen feel connected.
As the week went on, the teen seemed to feel more comfortable joining in some activities and seemed to be less isolated in the big group. Then at the closing ceremony of the retreat, teens were invited to stand up, come into the center of the circle, and share something with the group. This teen, who at the beginning of the retreat appeared quite awkward and ill at ease, walked slowly to the center of our circle and shared very clearly and with great dignity that the retreat had helped them a great deal, they had learned important things, and they would be taking all of us with them after it ended. Then even more surprisingly, after the closing circle, this teen – who had spoken very little to others that whole week – stood at the door offering free hugs to anyone who wanted them!
The power of a group of people practicing sincerely together is enormous. Things that have not been possible for us up until then become possible.
I have had this experience on a number of occasions in my life of practice. When I was a nun, there was a time I felt very overwhelmed before large retreats were to begin. I felt that I just couldn’t continue in the situation I was in, so I went to Thay and shared with him that I wanted to go to another practice center until the big retreat was over. He reminded me that it is exactly in situations of overwhelm or great challenge that we must apply the basic practices of mindful breathing and mindful walking. We must use every moment to stay present and not allow our despair and anxiety to take us over.
He invited me to reconsider and stay in the situation I was in, without running away from it. He told me I did have the capacity to handle what seemed too much for me. I was struck by his confidence. As I listened to him, resistance to my situation softened and I began to relax. Something in me recognized that he was telling me the truth. I did have the capacity to hang in there, even if it was difficult.
And he was right; I was able to weather that storm. The Sangha was there, practicing diligently around me, and this nourished me tremendously. And my own practice was my anchor. And I actually enjoyed the retreats! Because of the Sangha, because of the practice, I was able to do what I thought I couldn’t do.
Now we are all facing a time of great division and destruction. We see walls and bans and gulfs widening everywhere we look. We ourselves, or those we love, may be targeted and under attack. We may feel isolated, numb, or helpless. And it is precisely in moments like these that our practice of stopping, calming, breathing, and walking is most needed – as is our practice of coming together to support each other, to build Sangha. We practice precisely to help us meet moments like these.
I take great nourishment from these post-election words of Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.
You are right in your assessments. … Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.”
As we have learned often from Thay, a good practitioner is not someone who never feels despair, fear, anxiety, or overwhelm. A good practitioner is someone who knows how to take care of all of these feelings when they arise. And our practice has prepared us, is preparing us, in each breath, in each step, to meet the suffering and challenges of this moment in history.
When we are grounded in the basic practice, our mind still and calm in the present moment, we see the truth behind the story of separation. We see that no person is our enemy, no person need be eliminated. Only ignorance and hatred need to be transformed, in our own hearts and minds, and in the collective consciousness.
As Joanna Macy relays from the Tibetan Shambhala prophecy, “… it is not a battle between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ because the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart.” We need to learn to see ourselves in those on the other side of the political or social spectrum. And we need to learn to see them in us.
This doesn’t mean we remain silent or passive. As the Ninth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings encourages, “We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.” We must speak out, but without hatred, without furthering the story of separation. We can write love letters. We can set up spaces of listening so that groups with conflicting values can come together and learn from each other through sincere, respectful dialogue. Rob Willer’s TED talk, “How to Have Better Political Conversations,” offers a helpful perspective on this.
In preparation for a Day of Mindfulness for people of color this past winter, my friend, Beth Sanchez, researched what helped people who were involved in white supremacy groups to have a change of heart and give up their position of hatred. What she found in reading a handful of stories was that these people did not let go of their views because they were shamed, judged, persuaded, cajoled, or logically convinced. What shifted their hearts and minds in each case was kindness. Another human being seeing and affirming their humanity by simply being kind.
We were made for these times. We can rise to the challenge of seeing ourselves in the “other” as we take action to prevent injustice and protect beings from harm. There is a line from a Plum Village chant: “Once I have a path, I have nothing more to fear.” The path is clear. As the Buddha offers in the Dhammapada, “Hatred never ceases through hatred. But by love alone does hatred cease.” We are called to love, to be kind, to see that no person is our enemy.
With deep gratitude for the presence of the Sangha, for your practice and support,
Kaira Jewel Lingo
Written for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, Spring 2017 outreach letter
Kaira Jewel Lingo teaches Buddhist meditation and mindfulness internationally, with a focus on activists, people of color, artists, educators, families, and youth. She began practicing mindfulness in 1997. An ordained nun of 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, she is now a lay Dharma teacher based in Washington, D.C., leading retreats in the U.S. and internationally, offering mindfulness programs for educators and youth in schools, as well as individual spiritual mentoring. Visit kairajewel.com to learn more.