Listening to the Suffering of Our Own People
January 19, 2017 / By Parallax Press
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Every one of us can learn from suffering, and every one of us has the capacity to transform suffering, just as an organic gardener can transform compost back into flowers. We should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and carried away by suffering. We should stop and look deeply into it. We have to make good use of the suffering, we have to learn from it, and we have to try our best to make a better future. There are things that we can do.
Our way of dealing with violence is taking us down a dangerous path of distrust and fear. Misunderstanding, fear, anger, and hatred are the roots of violence. We terrorize others so that they will have no chance to terrorize us.
Poor people, the homeless, minorities, immigrants, those who are LGBT, Muslims, Jews, the elderly, people with HIV/AIDS, and many others often feel excluded. The US has not yet been able to listen to the suffering of her own people.
Many of us claim to be the disciples of great spiritual leaders who have taught us that hatred cannot be overcome by hatred, violence cannot be overcome by violence. But we don’t listen. We may not always believe in our spiritual path, or we may think that spiritual teachings are unrealistic. We put our faith in military and financial power, thinking that money and weapons can make us strong. But our country has a lot of money and weapons yet we are still afraid and insecure.
In the past, the US was loved by many in the world because it represented freedom, democracy, peace, and care for other countries. The US has lost this image and must rebuild it. The US can look deeply into herself and renew her great tradition of freedom and tolerance.
Using violence to suppress violence will not lead to lasting peace. The US can wake up to this reality and find a solution through peaceful communication and reconciliation, forsaking violence.
We have never really had a chance to listen to the suffering of our people, to really understand their suffering. The practice of deep listening can bring a lot of relief, even before remedial actions are taken by the government.
We have the potential to listen to the suffering of our own people and to remedy discrimination and injustice within. If you cannot listen to your own people, your fellow citizens, how can you listen to and understand the suffering of others? How can you understand the suffering in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Israel, or Palestine?
For the most part our representatives just fight for their ideas and don’t listen to each other. Any idea that doesn’t correspond to their party’s position is considered wrong. If someone from another party shares a valuable insight, they have to reject it. Colleagues in other parties are considered adversaries, even enemies. When they’re caught in this way of reacting, there’s no possibility for real communication and mutual understanding. This isn’t real democracy. This is a threat to democracy. The current quality of listening and speaking in Congress isn’t very good. If Congress members could practice deep listening and loving speech, they would become a family, a community, which could work together in harmony.
Public figures often express their concern about the increasing level of violence in our society. It’s true, there’s far too much violence in our families, on our streets, and in our schools. Each politician may have ideas and insights about how to reduce violence. But instead of sharing ideas, they compete to have their own idea prevail. If we can’t listen to our colleagues with an open heart simply because they belong to another political party, if we only consider and support ideas from our own party as worthwhile, then we are harming the very foundation of democracy. If instead, we can combine our individual insights and experiences, we will arrive at a collective insight.
In the Buddhist tradition, we practice mindful breathing and mindful walking so that we can recognize, embrace, and transform our anger. Mindfulness can help us be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us. I urge all of us to practice calming and concentrating our mind, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already in us.
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 can’t transfer your understanding to him. It’s the same between a father and son. The wisdom of the father cannot just be given to the son; the father has to help the son to develop his own wisdom.
Sometimes our sense of fear and insecurity comes from looking at the destruction of the planet around us. People wonder how we can continue to survive when we are destroying our planet. The environment suffers because we consume too much and without mindfulness. We destroy our environment and we destroy ourselves with unmindful consumption. Learning to consume less, and to consume only the things that bring peace and health into our body and consciousness, will help heal the planet as well as our bodies and minds.
Alone, we are vulnerable. If we try to go to the ocean as a single drop of water, we will evaporate before we even arrive. But if we go as a river, as a community, we are sure to arrive at the ocean. With a community to walk with us, to support us, and to always remind us of the blue sky, we’ll never lose our faith.
You can’t feel safe if you’re not in good communication with the people you live with and those you see regularly. You can’t feel safe if the people around you don’t look at you with sympathy and compassion. By the way you speak, sit, and walk, you can show the other person that she is safe in your presence, because you are coming to her in peace. In this way, you build confidence and trust. Your peace and compassion help the other person feel safe. This allows her to react to you with compassion and understanding, and you too will feel safer. Safety is not an individual matter. Helping the other person feel safe guarantees your safety.
Communication is the practice. We live in a time when there are so many sophisticated means of communication, yet it is very difficult for individuals, groups, and nations to communicate with each other. We feel we can’t use our words to speak and so we use bombs to communicate.
Safety and well-being cannot be individual matters anymore. If the other group is not safe, there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of their safety is at the same time taking care of our own safety. Taking care of their well-being is taking care of our own well-being. It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all hate and violence.
Every summer, Plum Village, our meditation community in France, hosts a group of several dozen Palestinians and Israelis. At the beginning of each retreat, many of the participants are unable to look at each other or talk to each other. By the end of two weeks, they sit together as brothers and sisters.
Suppose there are two people, both of them full of anger, misunderstanding, and hatred. How can these two people talk to each other, and how can they negotiate for peace? That is the main problem: you cannot bring people together to sit around a table and discuss peace if there is no peace inside of them. You have to first help them to calm down and begin to see clearly that we and other people suffer.
The intention to love is not yet love. To love someone is a practice. If you are really there, your beloved will know it. If you only pretend to be there, your loved one will know that as well. When you bring your mind back to your body and become fully present in the here and now, you’re in a position to take care of your beloved one.
When we water seeds of forgiveness, acceptance, and happiness in the person we love, we are giving them healthy food for their consciousness, as if we were cooking them a delicious healthy meal. But if we constantly water the seeds of anger, craving, and fear in our loved one, we are poisoning them.
It is the individual who can affect change. When I change, I can help produce change in you. If you are a journalist, a 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. If you are a writer, a professor, a parent, please speak out. Articulate your deep desire for peace and reconciliation and affirm your commitment to making it happen.
Despair is the worst thing that can happen to us.
It is important for all of us to have enough time to look deeply into our situation, to realize the insight that violence can’t end violence. Only kind, deep listening and loving speech can help restore communication and remove wrong perceptions, the foundation of all hatred, violence, and terrorism. With this insight we can help other people to attain the same kind of insight. Many people in the US are awake to the fact that peace itself is the way to peace. These people have to come together, voice their concern strongly, and offer their insight to each other. Every one of us has the duty to help create collective insight. This kind of collective insight, and our compassion, will give us enough strength and courage to find a solution for ourselves and the world.
We must ally ourselves with the great awakened beings who are around us in order to transform our way of thinking and that of our society. Thinking is at the base of our present situation, thinking that has no wisdom or compassion. We can do things every day, in every moment of our daily life, to nourish the seeds of peace, compassion, and understanding in ourselves and in those around us.
I have confidence in the capacity of all beings to attain great understanding, peace, and love.
I have confidence in the practice which helps us to walk on the path of great understanding, peace, and love.
I have confidence in the community which is committed to the practice of understanding, peace, and love.
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Revised edition to be released Spring 2018