Can Mindfulness Bring Peace of Mind In the Midst of a Divided World?

Let’s face it. 2017 begins with deep uncertainties about what the New Year will hold. Our country is profoundly polarized after a brutally divisive Presidential election. The global threat of war and terrorism continues to expand beyond the Middle East, breeding a new level of fear and insecurity in Europe and the United States. Climate change has made extreme weather the new normal in every region of the country and the world, adding additional uncertainty to our lives. As if things weren’t complicated and insecure enough!

It is easy at times like this to give ourselves over to cynicism and despair. How are we going to get through this? Will it get worse before it gets better? What happened to a world that, in retrospect, might have felt more manageable? Is Peace a thing of the past?

This is a time for the long view. Our time is not so special. History is littered with crisis, and with crisis comes opportunity for growth – if we let it. There is no better time to explore the resources of mindfulness, than at times when it seems that our deepest hopes and convictions are being battered. Our hearts cannot be broken open if they are not first broken. Mindfulness cannot spare us the pain of a broken heart. But it can give us the confidence to move through those openings, rather than retreating behind the slammed door of a heart that is shut down.

Let me tell you a personal story of how mindfulness helped me turn toward healing, at a time when the chips are really down. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was in the fifth Day of a seven-day silent Zen retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery, near my home on Whidbey Island. It was led by a Japanese Zen teacher named Harada Roshi. I had been up since early that morning on my cushion in the meditation hall with 50 other Zen students, when the news came to us. Hijacked jets had flown into the Twin Towers. The Towers had collapsed, killing thousands. Another jet had flown into the Pentagon. The meditation hall on that morning was an international gathering of people from all over North America, Europe and Japan. Everyone was given the chance to leave the retreat early if they felt it necessary. Not a single person did.

For the remaining two days of the retreat, while the rest of the world was being traumatized by endless video clips of jets flying into the Twin Towers, we continued to grind away in our meditation practice, each sitting with our own raging fears and bewilderment, taking them in, taking them on. In his talks those last two days, Harada told us that the world we would be returning to when the retreat ended would not be the same world we stepped out of at the beginning of the retreat. We would be re-entering a deeply traumatized world, filled with people in pain and confusion. He told us there was nothing we could possibly be doing during these two days following the attacks than exactly what we were doing. By choosing to continue with our mindfulness practice during these traumatic first days following the attacks, we were preparing ourselves to meet that pain in the most healing way possible. The world waiting for us was going to be desperate for exactly the kind of stability, equanimity and wisdom that we were cultivating right in the midst of that confusion and pain. What the world needed now was a stability and open-hearted presence that could withstand the scouring winds of fear and trauma, without being blown over by them.

I think something on an equivalent scale to 9/11 may be unfolding in our collective life now. The deadly consequences of fear seem to have gained the upper hand, and seized the reins of political power at the highest levels. How are we going to stand firm in the presence of this? I will never forget Harada’s teachings, in that pivotal moment of our shared history. I will never forget what it was like to stick it out in that retreat, diving straight into the painful emotions we all were swimming in that day, or what it was like to put those teachings into practice in the weeks and months that followed. Keeping my heart open and steady in the midst of that trauma was some of the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.

And now here is another chance to build on that deeper foundation of peace.

Gandhi famously said that “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.” There is nothing soft or fuzzy about that aspiration. It requires the deepest kind of courage, the hardest kind of inner work. It is an act of bravery, and an act of love to hold ourselves accountable not only to the “long arc of history”, but to the small daily choices and actions that add up to manifestations of peace in real time. This is what mindfulness is all about.

What, after all, is the work of peace built out of? I believe it is built not out of ideologies, but out of moments. It is built out of the ways in which we choose to inhabit our moments. It is built out of the joy and aliveness we are able to manifest in our everyday lives, one precious moment at a time.

As a mindfulness teacher, I work with the art of paying attention in a spirit of kindness, curiosity and open-heartedness. Truly paying attention in this way is hard work, for sure, and it is especially difficult to manifest at times like this.

Anger and outrage live in the reptilian part of our brain, and are much more easily aroused and pressed into service than tolerance and compassion. We don’t have to look far, these days, to see how completely this reptilian strategy has taken hold of our culture.

Kurt Hoelting

As peace makers I believe we have a sacred obligation to refuse this path, and to entrust ourselves to a deeper faith in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, even when it feels futile, and even when we feel alone in that effort. We have choices to make each day and each hour, about what we give our attention to, and whether we will join that rising chorus of outrage, or stand our ground in the practice of peace, compassion and kindness, no matter what. That path has rarely seemed longer or steeper, but I think that is the path where true bravery lies.

When the stakes are this high, it can feel like a betrayal of the cause of peace and justice to make room for stillness. Who has time for that, when there is so much to DO? But it is not an either-or choice. After all, we are human beings, not “human doings”. And as a friend recently suggested, “It is not a betrayal of the future to love the present.”

It is not a betrayal of the future to love the soft mist of this early winter afternoon. It is not a betrayal of the future to feel the aspiration toward peace of mind and heart that all of us long for, even if we can’t see the way. It is not a betrayal of the future to feel the mystery of the living breath we are taking right now. It is not a betrayal of the future to feel ourselves surrounded by natural beauty, and to know in our bones that we are part of that beauty, even when ugliness is pressing in around us. It is not a betrayal of the future to trust emergence, to trust that life knows what its doing, even if we do not.

Mindfulness teaches is, at the level of direct experience, that it is okay to not know. It is okay sometimes to be afraid. As the poet Rilke wrote, “No feeling is final”. It is not a betrayal of the future to remember that we are bigger than our fears, bigger than our outrage, and that life is here waiting for us, in infinite beauty, right now, if we can remember to suspend judgement and simply . . . Look. The present moment, fully engaged with an open heart, and the opportunities to manifest peace in action within this living present, is never exhaustible, and may be our most powerful refuge.

We hope you can join our CMI team of teachers during the coming year, as we explore together the power and potential of mindfulness to help us become the whole people that the world so needs us to be.

On behalf of the CMI team, may your New Year be filled with the resilience of a mindfulness-based life.

By: Kurt Hoelting