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Awakening from Violence

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay
his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring,
so warm it makes flowers bloom
in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears,
so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

The words take root in natural processes, before addressing the human. We often hear people who talk about violence invoking nature, sometimes as if to prove it's only inevitable and ineradicable. ("‘Twas ever thus.") But even that idea of "nature red in tooth and claw" carries within it seeds of evolutionary change. Nature is never static. (Hooray for impermanence!) Recent studies, for example, in primatology (the class of monkeys, apes, and, yes, humans), show us remarkable instances where violent behavior isn't innate, and can change. (See Robert Sapolsky's "Peace Among Primates, Part One, Part Two, Part Three.")

Thich Nhat Hanh shows us nature as a not completely peaceable kingdom. Animal feeds on animal. But we also witness states of transformation. Coal turning into diamond. Newly-hatched bird learning to sing. Metamorphosis. And the caterpillar that will one day fly, is nested in a flower: an interbeing of insect and vegetable realms.

Just as life is interconnected there, so too for us. Thus we need not fix upon a single point of view, but see instead the threads interweaving in a great tapestry. (In this, the text is akin to the cosmic American poetry of Walt Whitman.)

Newspapers of 1982 reported on Vietnamese "boat people." Their stories still remain largely unheard. Sometimes, it was said, when a Buddhist monk was aboard and meditated, everyone else grew calm. Other times, catastrophe. In the crux of this poem, we're asked to feel from the vantage of a 12-year-old . . . and of a sea pirate . . . and a poet, hearing of them both (just before being given a seat at a special session of the U.N.) . . .  and ourselves. All four lives, interconnected. Each, as in a roll call -- (present!) -- is our true name. Our true nature.

Writing this -- and reading it, and listening to it -- are indeed a practice of mindfulness. In this, we can see in mindfulness a compassionate view, a compassionate vow. Mindfulness opens our mind, and heart, and in so doing nourishes the seeds of compassion.

In the unfolding evolution of human life, mindfulness -- the self-aware process of intelligent alertness -- might be our opposable thumb of consciousness, that we may transform our less-evolved heritage. Here might be our Archimedean lever of positive change. With mindfulness, we can perceive, understand, and transform the needless suffering in ourselves, and in our world. To awaken from a history of violence, and touch peace.

Mindfulness Trainings

Many today might think of mindfulness as meditation. Concentration and observation only. Sitting in silence. Quieting and stabilizing the mind. And so on. But mindfulness, alone (like suffering) is not all there is. Actually, this practice of observing mind and body, thoughts and feelings, and one's environment, is a continual process. As such, it's always mindful of  . . . 

As such, it's always engaged in the world, in our active lives. To be complete, mindfulness thus needs guidelines for living in this way in the world -- ethics, conscious conduct, putting awakened wisdom to practice. (The mindfulness, the ethics, and the wisdom all inform each other, as one. This is called the Path -- margha, or the Eight-fold Way -- that can be glossed by those three themes.)

In our times, Thich Nhat Hanh's core community, the Order of Interbeing, has an innovative but deeply nourishing ethical program. What are traditionally referred to as "precepts" are here called "mindfulness trainings." They're thus considered integral to establishing, maintaining, and enjoying a practice of mindfulness. Simple as these are, they prove their basic truths on many levels.

6/17/2010 4:00:00 AM