Peaceful Heart, Peaceful World

The question has seemed more urgent lately: How? How do we do it? How do we bring about peace in the world? A real and lasting peace, for everyone.

Along with many others, I have found an urgent answer. And that is to bring about peace right away, starting wherever you are at this very moment, with whatever you are doing right now. We don’t have to wait until the next peace march; we can make every step we take a step towards peace.

We do this literally, by putting great care and attention into the way we walk and by bringing that same care and attention to everything we do. When we start doing our everyday activities—walking, eating, talking—in a spirit of awareness, we touch the peace that is already within us and in everything we encounter.

Many of us have learned this spirit of mindfulness from Thich Nhat Hanh or “Thay” (Vietnamese for “teacher”), as he is affectionately called. Based on his experiences in trying to bring a peaceful end to the war in Vietnam, Thay prescribes this special way of paying attention to all the ordinary activities of life as the way to transform ourselves personally. The idea is that when a community of people begin to transform themselves in this way, it gives way to a transformation of society. In this way, all of us are world leaders; when we begin to make peace in our own worlds, it has a profound impact on the global situation.

In this over-booked, over-achieving society, living mindfully does not comes naturally to us. To do it well, we need practice! Here in Boston, as in many other places, there is a group of us who set aside a time each week to practice mindfulness. We practice not just by doing peaceful acts, but by being peace. When we’re being peace, we naturally bring out the peaceful nature that is in everything we encounter and in each person we meet. The practice of being peace helps us not only become more peaceful inside, but prepares us to be true peacemakers in our families, in our communities, and on a global level.

During our weekly practice of “being peace” we simply do ordinary things as beautifully as we can. What exactly do we do during this time? We start by listening to the ringing of a bell. Listening to the bell reminds us to let go of our worries and distractions for this short time, and to focus on cultivating the kind of peace we want for ourselves and our world. And then...

We breathe. Sitting on the floor or in chairs we enjoy breathing. We let our attention follow each breath, in-out, in-out, noticing the subtle variances and textures. After a few minutes of just watching the breath, there’s usually an endless reel of thoughts whizzing by, interspersed with moments of calm and clarity. We spend a lot of time learning how to enjoy breathing, because our breath is the one thing that’s always with us. As we learn to connect with our breath, we can return to it at any time in our busy lives; it becomes a reminder of the continuous cycle of coming and going that we are a part of.

We walk. We practice walking slowly, in mindfulness, remembering that “peace is every step.” As we start walking, we bring some of the clear-headedness we experienced as we were just sitting and breathing, out into the world. Suddenly walking seems different. When we walk now, we feel grounded and solid. We are aware of the fact that every step we take, every action we take in the world, can be done in haste or in mindfulness. During this time we consciously take steps in mindfulness.

We eat. This is the fun part. Each person has the chance to offer their neighbor a cup of tea, a cookie, and then, once everyone is served, we enjoy these as fully as we can. We make a kind of ceremony of passing around the plate of cookies and while all of this is done in silence, there’s a very sweet joy that seems to get stirred up as the plate of cookies goes around. We then use all of our senses to nourish ourselves. We feel how hot the outside of the tea cup is to the touch, we notice the color of the tea, how thirsty we are before we take a sip, and how our thirst is then quenched.

We listen. When someone speaks, we practice listening not just to the words, but to the feelings and the person underneath the words. Listening to someone fully, with all of our being, has a way of bringing out the best in them.

We speak. Since our time together is very precious, we speak only about the things that are important to us. We try to speak in a loving way; in a way that inspires and brings people together.

These are such basic things! Breathing, walking, talking; we do them all the time. But when we practice doing them together as beautifully as we can, for even just two hours, it cultivates a very deep joy in us. That joy has a way of rippling out into our relationships, our friendships, our own family, and the human family. At the same time we are practicing the skills we need most as peacemakers: listening deeply to the suffering of others and speaking in ways that heal and join people together. When you come back to the present moment, you come back to the only place where true transformation can happen. And that’s exactly where the world needs you.

Reprinted from Whats Up, Boston, July 2003.

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