Dear Still Water Friends,
Since April I have been meeting in a study group with other Still Water practitioners to look deeply into engaged mindfulness practice.
The underlying concept of engaged practice is that when we are settled and calm, we are better able to see clearly the linkage between our individual lives and the world around us, between our suffering and the suffering of the world.
In Peace is Every Step, published in 1991, Thay (the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh) looks back on the quandary that faced him and other young monastics in the early 1960s as the proxy war between North and South Vietnam became increasingly destructive:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
Thay’s perspective on life and practice makes sense to me. In the mindfulness practice tradition, a primary obstacle to contentment and liberation is our self-centeredness, our exaggerated concern for “I, me, and mine.” If we ignore our interdependence with other people and the natural environment, our practice and lives inevitably become shriveled and dry.
The readings and discussions of our study group, however, helped me realize that there was an aspect of my engaged practice that needed attention. Put simply, the election of 2016 disoriented me. The election felt like a set-back. It seemed as if steady, if uneven, progress toward social justice and environmental sustainability had reversed. It was an emotional reaction, rather than logical or analytic, and I had not fully allowed myself to feel it.
In her book Active Hope, Joanna Macy highlights the importance of having a personally inspiring vision, a clear understanding of the connection between our daily actions and the changes we want to see in the world. Without a clear vision, it is difficult to remain motivated during trying times. And, Macy notes, our inspiring visions are like seeds, “for it to grow into something, it needs to be planted, nurtured, and revisited often.”
One way Macy helps people develop personally compelling visions is to focus attention on three related sets of questions:
- What? When looking at a specific situation, what would you like to see happen?
- How? How do you see this coming about? This stage involves describing the steps needed for the larger vision to occur and possible pathways by which these steps can take place.
- My Role? The first level identifies the desired destination, the second level maps out the story of getting there, and the third identifies your role in this story: what can you do to help the vision come about?
I’ve been re-evaluating my visions of how change might occur. Here is an example about protecting our earth:
- What? There will be a great celebration in Paris in 2045 on the 30th anniversary of the Paris climate accord. Global average temperature will have peaked in 2040 at just under 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and will have shown steady declines since then.
- How? Despite some early set-backs, an international Save Our Earth movement will have brought together grass-roots activists with political, spiritual, and business leaders to demand that changes be made. Once there is a will, there is a way. Dramatic changes will have quickly occurred aided by new technologies, enlightened regulations, and individual commitments to living lightly on the earth.
- My Role? I commit to studying, practicing, and teaching engaged mindfulness. I will make environmentally friendly life-style choices. I will support and work with environmental, social, and political groups that are skilled in bridging differences and creating coalitions.
Will it happen exactly this way? Perhaps not. However, this piece of a personal vision encourages me and sustains my efforts, and in some small but important ways may affect how it will play out by 2045. Joanna Macy points out that uncertainty is a gift and a motivator.
Thank goodness for uncertainty. When we know the future isn’t yet decided, there is room for us to play a role in influencing what happens. … Neither complacent optimism nor resigned pessimism has power to motivate us; they don’t generate a hunger for learning or provoke our best response.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will talk about the importance of an inspiring vision, work a little on developing one in some aspect of our lives, and share our experiences.
You are invited to be with us.