Mindful Memorial Day

Mindful Memorial Day


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“We who are left how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?

~Wilfred Wilson Gibson


Memorial Day is the unofficial start of the Summer holiday season. But, it’s primary purpose is to remember and honor those men and women who have died in wars. As such it’s a somber occasion and a reminder of the human cost of warfare. This is usually a day celebrating patriotism and the righteousness of the country’s cause. Some may think that I’m being a little discourteous to the honored dead. But, I believe that the greatest honor we can provide is to work tirelessly to insure that no one else has to die for their country in warfare.


Some wars are regrettably necessary. At times, pacifism and nonviolence just can’t work. It requires a minimally just society. For example, in 1938 Adolph Hitler advised the British government on how to protect their empire from the threat posed in India of Mahatma Gandhi: “kill Gandhi, if that isn’t enough then kill the other leaders too, if that isn’t enough then two hundred more activists, and so on until the Indian people will give up the hope of independence.” Fortunately, the British did not follow this advice and Gandhi’s nonviolence triumphed. But, if this had been Hitler’s empire, pacifism, no matter how well led or intentioned, would have failed miserably.


Even the Buddha who taught love, compassion, and nonviolence, also taught that we should defend ourselves. There are sects of Buddhist monks who practice martial arts and are celebrated for their skills. When under attack, we have a right and perhaps an obligation to stand up and resist violent assault. If non-violent means aren’t successful, then violence and aggression may be necessary. This is never a good thing, but at times necessary. There have been far too many wars, most unnecessary. We should honor the courage, valor, and commitment of those who died in war by doing our best to make sure that unnecessary wars are never fought again.


It is right that we honor those who died in warfare, not just soldiers, but also civilians and merchant marine who often perish in massive numbers. They too should be remembered. We should always remember that what we have and enjoy, including peace, was paid for dearly. But, we should honor all who perished. This doesn’t mean just those who belonged to our side. We should remember that the vast majority of combatants entered into battle with the finest of intentions, believing that their cause was right and just, and that they were fighting for their families and their countries. Regardless of whether they were misled by unscrupulous, evil, or incompetent leaders, they entered into battle honorably and deserve our respect.


It is sometimes difficult to see, but their sacrifices have paid off for the rest of us. Since World War II, European countries and similarly, the Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan, who had been at virtually constant war among themselves for thousands of years, are now peaceful and there has not been an armed conflict between them in over 70 years. So, even with all of the conflict in the world, there is less warfare now than at any time in recorded history. We have the honored dead from the terrible conflict of World War II to thank for the peace and prosperity that has been enjoyed since. We don’t need this reason to honor them, but it is reassuring to know that their sacrifices were not in vain.


To prevent these horrors in the future and honor our dead by abolishing warfare completely, there are a number of strategies that may be helpful. We should view our past, present, and future enemies, as the great sage Thich Nhat Hahn did during the Vietnam War, as people whose lives, backgrounds, training, and beliefs put them into the roles they are playing. If we lived in their shoes, we would likely make the same choice they did. No matter how despicable we may think they are, or how horrible their deeds, we need to understand that what they experienced in life, led them there. If we truly place ourselves in the shoes of our enemy, do we honestly believe that we would make different decisions. The Islamic terrorist, so despised in the west, may have been brought up in poverty, with little education save for religious indoctrination, that taught him that his god demands that he kill the infidel and that he will be rewarded in the next life for doing so. If we were raised similarly, would we act differently. This kind of understanding can lead to actions that may help to prevent future violence. Seeing the enemy as intrinsically evil can only lead to more warfare. Seeing them as human beings whose situation dictated their behavior can lead to peace.


A key strategy for preventing future wars is forgiveness. Violence begets violence. Retribution demands that the people who killed your family members must themselves be killed. But, this is a never ending cycle as the families of those you killed now seek to kill you. The only way to break the cycle is forgiveness. This can be very difficult.  But it is the only way. Nelson Mandela, when he took over leadership of South Africa from those who oppressed and imprisoned him and his people for decades, didn’t enact retribution. Instead he launched a massive campaign of forgiveness and reconciliation. He understood that this was the only way to heal his country. He was amazingly successful and South Africa, although far from perfect, has become peaceful and prosperous working for the betterment of all of its citizens.


Most people look at creating peace and preventing war as a massively difficult task that is beyond their capabilities to resolve. As a result, they do nothing waiting for a Ghandi, Mandela, or King to lead them. But, this is a grave mistake. We can all honor our fallen by contributing to world peace. We can do this if we stop looking for grand solutions and instead, contribute in the ways that we can during every day of our lives. By leading peaceful, nonviolent lives we contribute. We create ripples on the pond of life spreading out to the far horizons. “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh


Communications is a key to peace. By engaging in non-violent communications, what the Buddha calls “Right Speech,” we not only produce peace in ourselves but in the people we’re communicating with. Their peacefulness then affects others, who affect others, etc. interpersonal ripples of peace. We also become role models for our children who then become role models for their children, etc., producing intergenerational ripples of peace. If many of us practice non-violence the ripples will become build and sum into tidal waves of peace washing over the earth. “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” ― Thich Nhat Hahn


Practicing mindfulness can similarly promote peace and create ripples. By being focused on the present moment non-judgmentally, we are fully present for those around us. This produces the deepest kinds of human communications based upon understanding and compassion. In human communications there is great power in non-judgmental listening. It has a tremendously calming effect on people, particularly when they are highly agitated. In a leadership position I once held, I would quite often have people come into my office and just rail on about the injustices they’ve experienced and the horrible people around them. I would just listen and occasionally acknowledge their emotions. At the end, they would almost inevitably thank me and tell me how much that helped. I had done nothing other than deeply listen and this by itself had dramatic effects. Over time, I could see how the ripples moved outward and affected the entire organization. Listening is a powerful tool of peace.


Another key method for promoting individual, societal, and planetal peace is practicing compassion. This is simply looking deeply at ourselves and others to understand their suffering. First we must have compassion for ourselves. Unless we do, we cannot have true compassion for others. We have to acknowledge that we are flawed human beings and not scold ourselves for it, but compassionately understand and forgive ourselves. We are essentially good. But, sometimes our background, indoctrination, humanness, and circumstances conspire to produce harmful acts. We need to understand this about ourselves, forgive ourselves with the intentions to do better, and look upon ourselves with eyes of kindness and caring. It is important to also recognize and congratulate ourselves for all of the good we do. Celebrate our goodness while having compassion for our faults. Once, we can do this. We can then move on to others. Being compassionate to our enemies involves looking deeply into their suffering, looking deeply into their background, indoctrination, humanness, and circumstances that conspire to produce harmful acts, and then being forgiving, kind, and caring about them. This is essential to healing wounds and developing world peace.


So, on this Memorial Day, let us resolve to honor the fallen for what they have done. But let us truly honor them by working to make their sacrifices not in vain, to do what we can to develop peacefulness in ourselves and others, and to let their deaths be the foundation not of more war but of lasting peace.


 “On Memorial Day, I don’t want to only remember the combatants. There were also those who came out of the trenches as writers and poets, who started preaching peace, men and women who have made this world a kinder place to live.” – Eric Burdon
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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