Mindful Leadership

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening (and in Columbia this Sunday evening), after our meditation period, we will continue our monthly reflections on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism.

In the fourth chapter, Leading with Courage and Compassion, Thich Nhat Hanh presents a five step program he offered to Members of Congress in 2003. A condensed version is below. I believe the steps are as applicable to our lives as to theirs.

Step One: Coming home to ourselves

Most politicians haven’t had time to come home to themselves. They are constantly focused outside of themselves. They are rarely in touch with or taking care of their bodies, feelings, mental formations, and consciousness. They allow themselves to be carried away by things around them, like their projects, worries, regrets, or by meaningless entertainment. So, the first step is to go home to yourself and to recognize the suffering, the pain in you, and to know how to embrace and transform it.

Step Two: Taking care of our beloved

Once you have gone home to yourself, you are in a position to help a partner go home to him or herself, to heal the pain they have inside. . . .

When you have succeeded in the first and second steps, you and your partner become one. You can share your concerns, your aspirations, and your difficulties with your partner and your family, and all of you become stronger. if you don’t include your partner in your mindfulness, he becomes an obstacle. And you become an obstacle for him. When you have the support of your family and there is good communication, you no longer feel lonely and you have plenty of happiness. Then you have the energy to pursue your dreams.

Step Three: Helping those who work for us to go back to themselves

Every senator, every representative, has staff members. They have their own suffering and difficulties. How a congressperson speaks and acts toward them may contribute in some way to their suffering. This is why taking care of members of your staff is very important. Listen to them using the techniques of deep listening and loving speech to create mutual understanding and trust. You can only succeed as a leader when you have a staff that has confidence in you and supports you. . . . When you work together as a team, as a community, then you are in a much stronger position to take the fourth and the fifth steps.

Step Four: Listening to our colleagues

The most meaningful thing a member of Congress could do is to offer her best insight and talent, and listen to the wisdom of others.

There is far too much division, suspicion, and hatred in Congress. . . . Division in our Congress leads to division in our world. The wounds are there and we don’t have the capacity to heal them. We are not really practicing , democracy. We do not really listen to each other. We do not know how to combine our insight to arrive at the best decisions for the country. Congress as a community has to come home to itself and be mindful of what is happening within Congress. If Congress takes this fourth step, Congress as a whole can go home to itself and be in a stronger position to help lead the country.

Step Five: Helping others

If a representative has a strong staff, and if he can establish good relationships with people in his district, then he can help them to go back to themselves as well. Good communication between a representative and his constituents is critical. if the people understand what their representative is doing and trust his motivations, they will vote for him and he does not have to worry day and night about getting reelected.

Many of us experience social injustice, poverty, and discrimination. We rely on our Congress members to fight for us to improve the situation. We may believe that we can only be happy when the government gives us more or better jobs, schools , or hospitals. But the solution is not as simple as that. There are many other things that contribute to our unhappiness that we may not even be aware of. When parents can’t speak to each other, when there is no communication between parents and their children, we suffer enormously every day. The level of violence in the family, in schools, and throughout society is one of the greatest causes of our suffering. We have to go home to ourselves as a country and learn how to practice. . . . A Congress member can inspire her constituents to go back to themselves and have more confidence in themselves. Everything relies on our capacity to practice deep listening and loving speech.

I like what Thich Nhat Hanh has created with the five steps. It begins with something so simple — the suffering we all feel when we are out of touch with or unable to embrace our bodily sensations, feelings and emotions. And then step by step, he offers a way of understanding how our personal healing can nourish others and revitalize institutions. While respectful of the responsibilities and collective influence of congresspeople, it offers an understanding of leadership and statecraft that is radically different from what is usually talked about in Washington.

This Thursday and Sunday, we will begin our discussion sharing ways in which Thich Nhat Hanh’s presentation of the five steps might have personally touched us. Do the steps help us understand or articulate something about our own actions and aspirations? Do they offer us meaning, direction or encouragement?

We hope you can be with us. Another excerpt from chapter four on personal and social change is below.

Also, you are also invited to join with us in these upcoming Still Water special events at Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, Maryland:

  • Saturday, June 14, Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation: Embracing Ourselves, Embracing Our World. 9 am to 12 noon. For information, click here.
  • Sunday, July 13, Coming Back to Ourselves: A Day of Practice. 9 am to 3:30 pm. For information, click here.

Please pass on information about these events to friends and groups who might be interested.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

by Thich Nhat Hanh
excerpt from Calming the Fearful Mind

It is the individual who can affect change. When I change, I can help produce change in you. As a journalist, teacher, or parent you can help change many people. Individual insights help bring about collective insight. That’s the way things go. There’s no other way. Because you have the seed of understanding, compassion, and insight in you, whatever I say can water that seed, and the understanding and compassion are yours and not mine. My compassion, my understanding can help your compassion and understanding to manifest. it’s not something that you can transfer. If you want the president to have that compassion and understanding, you have to touch the seed of compassion and understanding in him. You cannot transfer your understanding to him. It is the same between a father and son; the wisdom of a father cannot just be given to the son. The father has to help the son to develop his own wisdom.