Like many of you, I am watching the events in central and eastern Europe with a mixture of shock and horror. It is difficult to know how to feel, and I find I’m watching the rise and fall of all kinds of feelings in my heart and mind. My body holds the tension, as though I am bracing for impact. Perhaps you can feel that too?
And it is 100% certain that some of the people in our little mindfulness community are not feeling this from a distance, but rather they are there in the midst of the bombs, bullets, fear, and confusion. Some of you are in the Ukraine. And some of you are in Russia. I have been so moved by messages from people on both sides of that border – thank you so much for reaching out...
... Your messages have been full of emotions, ranging from despair and disbelief to resolution and determination. Such courageous hearts. I can only imagine how your suffering feels, and I know that the suffering that I’m experiencing from here is only something like an echo of yours. And yet I do feel it. You are not unconnected from me or from this community or from the world as a whole. We are here.
I’m also very much aware that there are people in this mindfulness community elsewhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, and in the Americas who feel connected with the terrible suffering that is being experienced there, rippling out into the wider world. Some of you are living in other places that have been torn apart by violence, conflict and war, perhaps in conflicts that were not judged as newsworthy as this one. Judging by your messages, there is a strong sense of helplessness and a paradoxical kind of disconnection – perhaps you feel the echoes of the suffering and yet also feel too distant to be able to do anything? Perhaps your own traumatic past is arising like a ghost? Perhaps you’re left feeling alienated from yourself?
Mindfulness and Inter-being
In the practice of mindfulness, we exert ourselves to see more clearly and cleanly into the nature of things and people, including ourselves. And, as the inspirational teacher and anti-war activist Thich Nhat Hahn (Thầy) taught, ‘the fruit of this effort is insight, understanding, and love.’ One of Thầy’s great teachings was that the practice of mindfulness can reveal to us the interconnections between all things in the world – our dependent co-arising – that he called ‘inter-being.’ Many of you will be aware that Thầy passed away last month (22 January, aged 95), so I’d like to honour him by helping to bring his peace activism to our community today.
In his famous teachings on the Heart Sutra, Thầy asked us simply to look at the sheet of paper on which the sutra was written. What do we see when we look at that paper? Thầy’s own answer to this simple question might seem surprising: ‘you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.’ But how can there be a cloud in a sheet of paper? The cloud is there because without the cloud, there was no rain, and without the rain the trees could not grow, and without the trees, the paper isn’t there. And so the cloud is in the paper. So is the rain. The sun. The loggers and the millers. All of the conditions for the possibility of the paper are in the paper – remove even one of them from the world, and the paper vanishes too. This is ‘inter-being.’ The paper isn’t a separate, independent entity; it is an inextricable part of the whole, connected and inter-dependent. Just as are we. Hence, Thầy adds, ‘without the cloud, I cannot be here,’ so when I look carefully into myself I see that cloud too.
This type of mindfulness practice can be very grounding, helping us to see our embeddedness in the world around us. Those of you who have already taken the course modules about ‘mindfulness in nature’ might recognise these themes in something like the ‘elements meditation,’ which was so generously donated to us by Dawn Scott. Feeling that connection with the world can sometimes be deeply reassuring.
What’s more, that connection can inspire great compassion, particularly when we see the suffering of others as something in which we have a place. It is not that the suffering of others is the same as suffering ourselves – to make that claim would be to ignore the dignity, uniqueness, and intensity of the pain of others – and yet we are not separate from that suffering. Wherever you are in the world, perhaps you can feel this right now, the echo of the suffering in the Ukraine? Perhaps it calls you to want to take action, to support, to help, to send a donation to the humanitarian aid effort? Even though the Ukraine might seem very far away, it is right there in this piece of paper, in that cloud, in the screen you’re looking at right now, even in your finger-tips.
The Roots of War
Of course, this sense of inter-connection can provoke a complicated range of emotions and responses in each of us. Sometimes is it reassuring and grounding. Sometimes is it painful. And sometimes it opens up new forms of responsibility that can feel heavy or even overwhelming. Let us consider, for instance, that the same kind of mindful inquiry as we tried into the sheet of paper must also pertain to everything else, including such things as bullets, bombs, and tanks.
In an essay from 1994, in which he reflects on his feelings of anger about US President Bush’s ‘order to attack Iraq,’ Thầy explains how his anger and indignance and feeling of overwhelm softened when he looked into himself with sufficient care and mindful attention: ‘after breathing consciously and looking deeply, I saw myself as President Bush.’ That is, even (or perhaps especially) the remarkable Thầy was not separate from these actions that filled him with anger and horror. And likewise, ‘I saw that Saddam Hussein was not the only person who lit the oil wells in Kuwait. All of us reached out our hands and lit them with him.’
If we wish to accept the nature of ‘inter-being’ as a therapeutic and life-enhancing concept, as many mindfulness practitioners seek to do, this next step can be a painful and difficult insight for many of us: it means that we’re not only not separate from the beautiful things in the world, but also not separate from the ugly ones. We’re neither separate from the things we love, nor from those we hate. We’re neither separate from the victims of violence, misunderstanding, and injustice, nor are we separate from the perpetrators. We are not the same as them, but we are not separate from them either.
In Thầy’s powerful phrasing: ‘everything is like a bomb ready to explode, and we are all part of that bomb; we are all co-responsible.’ That is, we all participate in the shaping of the values and actions of our communities and societies, even if only in small ways. So, we are each part of the conditions for the possibility of whatever happens next.
What is the point?
The point here is not that we shouldn’t be outraged or angry or horrified by the terrible suffering being inflicted on the people of the Ukraine in a war of aggression. We should be. And we should not feel separate from it. Rather, we should make use of our mindful connection with it to take whatever action we can to alleviate the suffering. That action could be anything from direct action or donating money for aid, or, as Thầy also suggested: ‘if you have only one minute, please use that minute to breathe in and out calmly and plant the seeds of peace and understanding in yourself … Do not feel discouraged. Just by your way of looking at things and doing things, you will influence others.’ And thus we begin the process of transforming the conditions of the world that gave rise to these terrible events, even in the tiny moment of a single breath. The Ukraine is in that breath with the clouds and the bombs.
However, the point is also that mindfulness of inter-being does not allow us the luxury of simplistic forms of blame. Just as we cannot isolate the suffering of the Ukraine and pretend that it has nothing to do with us (whosoever we are), likewise we cannot isolate the suffering of the people of Russia as though it is entirely separate. Indeed, so many Russian people can also feel that connection with the suffering in the Ukraine – I have many emails from our Russian community members that reveal this feeling of connection very powerfully, intermixed with additional layers of shame, guilt, and horror. This is not to say that we cannot identify those people most responsible for aggression, atrocity, and injustice (which we can and must), but rather to say that we cannot pretend that those people have nothing to do with us. Again, they are not us, but also not separate from us. This, I think, is what Thầy wanted us to understand when he described the softening of his anger through the compassion that arises in mindfulness of inter-being.
So, for those of you in the Ukraine or who are feeling a connection with the people of the Ukraine, wherever you are: you are not alone; we are with you in each and every mindful breath we take.
I wish you safety, peace, life, and freedom from enmity,
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.