A Mindful Response to Terrorism

A Mindful Response to Terrorism

Discussion date: Thu, Feb 21, 2008 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

At a Still Water visioning retreat some weeks ago, several members of the Working Group described the difficulties they have in relating to the larger issues of our times, such as wars, terrorism, the ecological crisis, and widespread poverty, injustice, violence, and hatred, in the U.S. and abroad. The terms used included confused, conflicted, guilty, opting out, depleted, overwhelmed, sad, and despairing. Some participants talked about feeling a great sense of aloneness, or a feeling of shutting down in the face of these issues. Several people talked about how their activism had brought them to mindfulness practice. They came to mindfulness practice feeling burned out, unclear in term of what needed to be done.

As a group we acknowledged the great importance of turning toward the issues of our time, of looking deeply into them and into our own hearts. We wanted to grow in our capacity to hold and respond to the issues of our time in a way that nourishes clarity, focus, peace, engagement, and well-being. And we wanted the Still Water MPC, through its programs and gatherings, to help us and others grow and transform, so that, like Bodhisattvas, we could respond to the suffering of the world with steadiness, engagement, joy, and healing actions.

The program for this Thursday evening grew out of the commitments we made at the Working Group visioning retreat. After our meditation period, we will explore together how understanding and love might shape our individual and collective responses to terrorism. Our reflections will focus especially on the perspective presented in the first chapter of Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism by Thich Nhat Hanh. (On the third Thursday in months to come we will focus on the other four chapters in the book. The Columbia group will also explore these chapters, on the Fourth Sunday of each month, beginning on Feb. 24th.)

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) begins the chapter by identifying “misunderstanding, fear, anger, and hatred” as the roots of terrorism:

Some people commit acts of terrorism in the name of their values and beliefs. They may hold the idea that others are evil because they don’t share these values. They feel justified in destroying their enemies in the name of God. People who engage in this violence may die with the conviction that they are dying for a righteous cause. And isn’t our country acting out of the same conviction when we kill those we define as threats? Each side believes that it alone embodies goodness, while the other side embodies evil.

Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so that they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed. Instead of bringing us peace and safety, this escalates violence. lf we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.

Thay suggests that a mindful response begins with communication and understanding.

What would it take for us to be able to reach out to those who have terrorized us and say: “You must have suffered deeply. You must have a lot of hatred and anger toward us to have done such a thing to us. You have tried to destroy us and you’ve caused us so much suffering. What kind of thinking has led you to take such an action?”

However, in order to be able to understand the suffering of others, we must first touch and understand our own suffering. This is true both for individuals and for countries. We need to listen to others because only if there is mutual communication across divides will it be possible for us to live in peace:

Safety isn’t an individual matter. Every one of us wants to feel safe and protected. No one wants to live in fear day and night.

Safety is a deep, basic wish of all people, of all nationalities. If the other people don’t feel safe, then we do not feel safe either. if we threaten the safety of others, then we will feel threatened as well. It is the same with happiness. If your father is not happy and suffers deeply, there is no way you can be really happy. If your son suffers deeply, there is no way you can be truly happy. Thinking of the happiness of your son is thinking about your own happiness. The same is true with safety. When we consider how the others can feel safe, we feel safer ourselves.

I hope you can be with us this Thursday evening, or this Sunday evening.

I’ve included below several longer quotes from Calming the Fearful Mind. It is not necessary to have read the chapter before joining with us—however, doing so may deepen the experience for yourself and others. The book is available at many large bookstores, and we will have copies for sale this Thursday and Sunday.

You are invited to be with us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Thich Nhat Hanh: Excerpts from the Uprooting Terrorism Chapter of Calming the Fearful Mind

Deep and Compassionate Listening

If the other person takes you up on your offer and begins to share, be prepared to practice deep, compassionate listening. Listen with all your mindfulness and concentration. Your sole desire is to give him or her a chance to speak out. Compassionate and deep listening means that the other person, or the other nation, has a chance to say what they have never had the opportunity or the courage to say, because no one ever listened deeply to them before.

At first, their speech may be full of condemnation, bitterness, and blame. if you can, continue to sit there calmly and listen. To listen in this way is to give them a chance to heal their suffering and misperceptions. If you interrupt, deny, or correct what they say, you will be unable to go in the direction of reconciliation. Deep listening allows the other person to speak even if what he says contains misperceptions and injustice. While listening deeply to the other person, not only do you recognize his wrong perceptions, but you also realize that you, too, have wrong perceptions about yourself and the other person. Later, when both of you are calm and the other person feels more trust and confidence in you, you can slowly and skillfully begin to correct their wrong perceptions. Using loving speech, you can point out how they have misunderstood you or the situation. By using loving speech, you can also help the other person understand your difficulties. You can help each other release those wrong perceptions, which are the cause of all anger, hatred, and violence.

The Most Beautiful Export

America has the potential to listen to the suffering of her own people and to remedy discrimination and injustice within. If you cannot listen to your own people, your fellow citizens, how can you listen to and understand the suffering of others? How can you understand the suffering in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, or Palestine?

Across the globe, people suffer from very much the same things: social injustice, discrimination, fear, and fanaticism. Fundamentalism is very much alive in countries around the world. Many people believe that they alone are on the side of God, and they behave as if they are the only children of God and the lives of others are not as precious. They want God to bless their own country above all, and not to bless others who they feel represent evil. But to think that everything the other group does is evil and everything we do is good, prevents us from understanding the values of others, and from recognizing their suffering and fear. Instead of making us stronger, our unwillingness to listen keeps us vulnerable and afraid.

God does not take sides. Jesus, Buddha, Allah—all the great beings speak of compassion and inclusiveness. We should not believe that we can be peaceful by eliminating the other side. Sessions of deep listening can help heal the wounds of fanaticism and this would be a wonderful gift for America to offer the world.

After taking the first step of removing discrimination, injustice, and inequality inside the country, America can then turn to those she believes to be the source of terrorism. I don’t believe that the CIA, the Pentagon, or the Army can stop terrorism. It will take all of us, looking deeply into our human condition, to understand and help stop terrorism. A terrorist is a human being who needs help. Maybe the terrorist is you to some extent because you want to retaliate against those who have hurt you.

A doctor wants to destroy the malaria in a sick person, not destroy the patient himself. Terrorists are human beings who are sick with the virus of terrorism. The virus you see is made of fear, hatred, and violence. You can be a doctor for a person with this illness. Your medicine is the practice of restoring communication.

But if a doctor cannot talk to a patient, if the patient refuses to cooperate, then how can the doctor help? If the patient refuses the doctor’s help, doesn’t trust her, and fears the doctor maybe trying to kill him, he will never cooperate. Even if the doctor is motivated by a great desire to help, she cannot do anything if the patient will not collaborate. So the first thing the doctor has to do is find ways to open communication. If you can talk to the patient, then there is hope. If the doctor can begin by acknowledging the patient’s suffering, then mutual understanding can develop and collaboration can begin.

To resolve our current dilemma with terrorism we must be like this doctor. After our leaders have inspired confidence in Americans and proved that, as a country, we have the capacity to listen and understand, we can then turn to those who are considered to be terrorists. Our leaders can address them with loving speech,

“We know that you must have suffered and hated us very deeply to have attacked us. You must have thought that we want to destroy you as members of a religion, as a race, as a people. You must have believed that we embody evil, that we don’t recognize your religion a nd your spiritual values. We are sorry that you suffer so much. We want to tell you that it is not our intention to destroy you as a people, as a race, or as members of a religion. It is not our intention to i-eject your spiritual values.

“We want to respect you. Because of a lack of understanding on our part, we have not been skillful at showing our respect, our care I or you, and we have been caught in our own situation of suffering. Please tell us what is in your hearts. We want to understand your suffering. We want to know what mistakes we have made for you to hate us so much.

“We ourselves do not want to live in fear or to suffer and we do not want you to live in fear or to suffer either. We want you to live in peace, in safety, and in dignity because we know that none of us will have peace until all of us have peace. Let us create together an occasion for mutual listening and understanding, which can be the foundation for real reconciliation and peace.”


Discussion Date: Thu, Feb 21, 2008