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 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. Rather than looking at the actions as good or bad, think of them as skillful or unskillful; bringing greater or less harmony and happiness. We need to understand this about ourselves, forgive ourselves with the intentions to do better, to be more skillful, 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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Violence and Peace

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Violence and Peace

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Root out the violence in your life, and learn to live compassionately and mindfully. Seek peace. When you have peace within, real peace with others is possible.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Over the last few years, senseless violence has become more and more prevalent in our society and in our world. Over the last year, in particular, despicable violent acts seem to be occurring at a higher and higher frequency, to the point where they seem to be happening constantly. Besides the horror and disgust produced, these acts produce fear and anger, leading to a desperate need to do something about it. The most frequent solution is to answer violence with repression or with more violence. As the gun rights lobby has said, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

 

As Mahatma Gandhi has recognized “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.” It attempts to rectify the problem quickly, but the roots of the problem are deep and it does not address the roots. It only deals with the surface manifestations. As Mahatma Gandhi stated “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” So, violence produces a momentary solution but in the long-run actually deepens the problem. This is on display in the Middle East where violence has begot violence for centuries. Rather than solving the root problems, it has instead led to more and more hatred, violence, and deeper and deeper problems.

 

On the other hand, when violence is met with non-violence, with forgiveness and understanding, the good it does is very long-lasting. There was genocidal violence in the African country of Rwanda, leading to the violent death of nearly a million people. In the aftermath of this horrific violence, the leaders of group that was the target of the violence, took control of the country. But, rather than demanding revenge and retribution they embarked on a campaign of non-violence and forgiveness, working to peacefully integrate both factions into a unified society. The results have been startling and wonderful. Rwanda is now peaceful and developing rapidly. The campaign of non-violence and forgiveness has produced long-lasting good that to this day has not only healed the country, but is helping it to prosper.

 

The Republic of South Africa was ruled for decades by whites who repressed and subjugated a black majority with aggression and violence. The apartheid regime controlled the majority with ruthless brutal efficiency. It jailed the leader of the majority blacks, Nelson Mandela for 27 years. At the time of his trial that led to the unjust imprisonment he declared “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” When apartheid was finally overthrown, in part due to the non-violent pressure put on South Africa by the community of nations, Nelson Mandela was freely elected as the new leader of South Africa.

 

Rather than taking vengeance and retribution on the white minority, Mandela launched a campaign of forgiveness, non-violence, and reconciliation. He worked to fulfill his vision of “a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony.” Like with Rwanda, the results were nothing sort of astounding. Subsequently South Africa has thrived peacefully. It is not without problems. But, the entire community is involved in trying to peacefully solve them. This remarkable peaceful solution is still working well over a quarter of a century later. Once again, the non-violence and forgiveness produced long-lasting benefits for all that to this day has not only healed South Africa, but helped it prosper.

 

India was ruled for by the British for nearly a century. For 25 years Mahatma Gandhi led a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience that culminated in India attaining independence from Great Britain. The aftermath of this victory was not one of retribution, instead India has maintained friendly, peaceful relations with Great Britain that endure to this day. The non-violent independence movement produced the largest democracy in the world that has lasted now for over 65 years. The victory was gained by non-violence and it has lasted and helped India remain peaceful and develop for the good of all of its people.

 

In the United States, the long-oppressed black minority, led by Martin Luther King, who taught that Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. Instead, he led a movement of non-violent civil disobedience based upon love, not hate. This campaign resulted in the U.S. government passing civil rights legislation that ended legal discrimination against blacks and launched a half-century of reconciliation. Although racial problems persist, the non-violent movement has produced a lasting, and still growing, integration of the races into the fabric of U.S. society, including the election of Barak Obama, the nation’s first black president.

 

So, there appears to be a solution to violence and hatred and it is not more violence. It is forgiveness and non-violence. Rather than producing more hatred and violence it has resulted in less, to the benefit of all, and rather than being a momentary solution, it has produced lasting and growing benefits for everyone. This is not to be naive and see non-violence as an easy solution. It is not. Gandhi commented “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” It took years of difficult struggle. But the results have been well worth it. Taking the long hard road, involving non-violence, forgiveness, and reconciliation, true healing is produced and a peaceful future insured.

 

These wonderful changes were produced by amazing charismatic leaders of historic movements. We can’t expect to be like them and shouldn’t wait for others like them to come along and lead. So, what can we as individuals do to stop violence and make for a safe and peaceful world. I, like many others, has always thought grandiosely, looking for ways to change the world. But, I’ve now realized that that’s a mistake. Rather, we can begin to change the world only if we first change ourselves. If we act from our egoic selves with all our flaws and issues we may, in fact, make matters worse. Gandhi provides guidance in this matter stating “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” In other words, if we want to change the world into a safer and more peaceful place we must first make ourselves safer and more peaceful.

 

As the great sage Thich Nhat Hanh wrote “You should not be too eager to help right away. There are two things: to be and to do. Don’t think too much about to do—to be is first. To be peace. To be joy. To be happiness. And then to do joy, to do happiness—on the basis of being. So first you have to focus on the practice of being. Being fresh. Being peaceful. Being attentive. Being generous. Being compassionate. This is the basic practice.” We must first become peaceful ourselves before we can bring peace to others. But, how are we to become peaceful ourselves? This is a mindfulness practice.  We must look carefully at our own anger, hatred, fear, hostility, need for revenge, and aggression and work to root out these issues in ourselves. We need to be honest with ourselves that the seeds of all of these negative states are in us. I will confess that they are within me. Recognizing them is the first step, but then we must not water these seeds and make them stronger. Rather we need to simply recognize them, and let them go. This is not a simple or quick process. It may take a while. Be patient. Slowly, bringing the peacefulness of mindfulness to them, they will become weaker and weaker.

 

At the same time as we weaken our negative states, we need to water the seeds of love, compassion, and understanding. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes “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.” We don’t need to find that peaceful happiness. It is always there within us. But, it needs to be released by practice. To start the day with a smile is a great place to begin. Then, focus on treating those that we are closest to with understanding, kindness, and love. After all, if we can’t treat our family and friends this way, how are we ever to be able to treat strangers and even our enemies with compassion. Once again, don’t expect to totally change overnight. Just work to improve a little bit at a time.

 

Developing understanding and compassion for those whom we would call our enemies is more difficult, but to bring peace to the world, we must. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes “It never helps to draw a line and dismiss some people as enemies, even those who act violently. We have to approach them with love in our hearts and do our best to help them move in a direction of nonviolence. If we work for peace out of anger, we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through non-peaceful means.” We can develop compassion for our enemies by contemplating deeply their lives and situations. In a sense, putting ourself in their shoes. Recognizing that if we were brought up like they were, had the experiences that they’ve had, and are in the environment that they are, that we would probably be just like them. If we had lived the life that the terrorist lived, would we not also have become a terrorist? Once we can do this, then we can find love and compassion toward them. This does not mean that we are OK with their actions. We must, in fact, unequivocally and forcefully point out and oppose their wrongful acts. But recognize that it’s the actions and not the individual that we oppose. We must pursue and demand justice through a system of laws and not by meeting wrong with wrong. At the same time, we should recognize the inherent humanity of the perpetrators. Treat them justly, not with vengeance, but with compassion.

 

In working toward becoming the change we seek. We should recognize that the only time to be peaceful is in the present moment. We shouldn’t think, I’ll be peaceful later or that once the mortgage is paid off then I’ll work on peacefulness. Peace can only happen in the now. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes “Each moment is a chance for us to make peace with the world, to make peace possible for the world, to make happiness possible for the world.”  We will not be able to do this all at once or be it all of the time. But, it is important that we work gradually, changing ourselves a little bit every day. I find that the practice of loving-kindness meditation practice can be a great help in cultivating these positive states and feelings not only toward our family and friends, but also to strangers, and even to our enemies.

 

Following these steps will not immediately change the world and stop horrible violence in its tracks. But, I believe that patient growth and change in ourselves will eventually change the world. I like to think of non-violent, loving, compassionate actions as creating ripples on the pond. Acts of kindness and compassion toward others inspires them to be kind and compassionate, that inspires the people around them to be kind and compassionate, etc. etc. etc. Peacefulness infects others who become more peaceful which, in turn, infect others to become more peaceful, etc. etc. etc. These are ripples moving throughout the ocean of humanity creating good and promoting good. We can change the world, but we must start small with ourselves, creating peace within. This will over time result in the elimination of violence and the promotion of peace and harmony.

 

“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 Hanh

 

― Thich Nhat Hanh

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are a also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts