John G Bell


Spring '03 - Hill

Book Response: “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

In some ways, I could almost recommend this book as a more secular version of the decalogue of dialogue. There are so many points in this book that point to the requirements of accepting diversity and mindfulness that can lead to the kind of space necessary for the kind of dialogue I've been envisioning.

  1. American or world society

In a lot of ways, I think that culture in America is far too focused on the current moment and the idea that Happiness is something that only happens in the present. Doing things for the sake of doing it becomes and excuse for hedonism and ethical egoism at the expense of mindfulness to others and the connectedness of one's actions to the happiness of others.

Conversely, the cultures in other places tend to take a long view of things and to be mindful of the effects of decisions, like the Iroquois Constitution which held that, "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Technically, I think that this lack of foresight is really an encouraged trait of the working class and not for the employing class. The working class is encouraged to stay in the moment, sucking on the addicting pacifiers of transitory sensory indulgence. The employing class use this to maintain control by keeping an eye on a future farther forward than those they employ.

Many people trying to escape traditions of the Abrahamic religions have made the journey at one point or another into the ideas of Buddhism. There are quite a few people that I've met in my life that claim to be Buddhists without understanding much of Buddhism other than that they are living in the moment. This devolves into an excuse for narcissistic guilt-free indulgence, but doesn't remove the psychological damage they have yet to face in themselves they are trying to escape.

  1. these specific groups

The spread of religions in the world seem to follow patterns of societal needs. The spread of Eastern mystic religiousness meets the needs of some people, but doesn't fit with the overall culture of the West. One of the indictments of the religions and culture of the historical East was the lack of cultural incentive toward Western style progress and technical innovation. This amounted to an exteriorizing of the world and a heightened awareness of the community. In the West, culture and religion amounted to an interiorizing of the world and a heightened awareness of the individual.

The Renaissance and the Protestant revolutions in the West are an example of the way that secular and religious cultures moved toward providing a mental framework that allowed for individuals to advance themselves with less concern toward the effect that would have on others. These were parts of many large affects and movements which included things like the rise and fall of the Mediterranean empires, development of the merchant class, the effect of the plagues on infrastructure and society, etc ... but all of this involved the developing framework of individual, humanist thought and ideas of personal advancement. The spread of Protestant religiousness followed interconnectedly with the developing trends of Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

The re-emerging meaningfulness of Eastern religiousness in the West points to the new interdependent needs of a global culture to respect diversity without assuming opposition and to new needs not being met by the individualizing framework of Capitalism, Protestantism and Industrialism. These new needs include those of Environmentalism, Multiculturalism and other holistic movements.

The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. There may be an opportunity to find the creative tension between these instead, not to ignore these two brain needs, but to meet them while also meeting the need for and of a creative tension between the two others.

  1. myself

I was excited by the language in this book that spoke directly to my own ideas of connectedness with the Earth, and could almost hear echoing in ideas of walking the Earth as if each step were a kiss and that from each step another flower blooms to be beautiful reflections of the kind of spirituality I personally feel. This was greatly refreshing when compared to the feelings I had after reading Martin Luther King's “The Power to Love” where I was left wishing that I had an equivalent work in “my own language.”

B. Talking points

  1. Chronology, Spatiality and Compassion

p6 “Happiness is possible only in the present moment.”

p8 “Everything around you is keeping your smile for you.”

I recently saw another quote that said, “Happiness is not something you have. It is something you remember.” This appears to contradict the idea of happiness being only in the present moment. This points to a conflict I've had over some of the ideas of Buddhism. I think that it's just as important to be aware of the past, present and future. To isolate one's awareness to only the present seems to be a mistake. In many ways I am what I have done, I am doing the things I do now and I'm moving forward toward a future as aware as I can be of the potentialities that arise for the future from the past modified by my present actions. The innovation of modern psychology is that my past can hurt me if I am not willing or able to incorporate those parts of me. My happiness is a combination of a healthy ecology that includes mindfulness and awareness of past, present and future. An ecology of past, present and future spreads my happiness across chronological boundaries.

The idea that everything holds my happiness spreads my happiness across spatial boundaries. This reminds me of the idea of the Fisher King that finds the Grail had been by his side all along. Spreading my happiness across chronological boundaries is an individual process. Spreading my happiness across spatial boundaries is a community process. Here's the idea of the two brains again.

The two brains are again mirrored in the ideas of the “evolutionary tree” and the “interdependent relations” on p70. The evolutionary tree is the community linking all the parts to a whole. The interdependent relations link each leaf and branch to each other branch as individual entities. The network of interdependence is more than just a link through the trunk, it's the direct connectedness of each twig & leaf independent of the trunk.

On p72, there's an itemization of “the giver, the gift and the one who receives the gift” which points to the idea that there's more than just the two brains. It's not just the two brains anymore. That something else is the creative tension between the two. For example, I have the need to be compassionate for myself because without it I may tend to become a martyr or codependent. Further, I have the need to have others express compassion for me because without that I may feel that I am taken for granted or I may be come arrogant in rejecting others autonomy. There is however a third kind of compassion. This third compassion is something that is both compassion from within and without.

This third kind of compassion is the creative tension between the two others. I've been thinking of this in terms of how the Sister Helens of the world feel that they have compassion expressed toward them from outside of themselves but not from any other person. Many times this is expressed as ideas of Grace or in a kind of powerful presence and confidence like that in the description of meeting Thich Nhat Hanh from the introduction.

p28 “walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

p29 “every step makes a flower bloom under our feet”

The distinctiveness of this third kind of compassion is that if a Sister Helen was only a brain in a vat, she would still have access to compassion for herself and this third kind of compassion. This kind of connectedness is perhaps the kind of thing meant by the expression “personal relationship with the divine.” There's an aspect of this in the idea of the positive seeds or in the “flower within us” and the expression of transcendent connectedness of having each step we take be like kissing the Earth.

I'm interested in the idea of the “3 levels of satisfaction” on p10 of the mediation training manual. I suspect that when I have the chance to think about that there will be more to say on the idea of the three kinds of compassion.

  1. Windows

p13 “Our senses are our windows ... sometimes the wind blows through them and disturbs everything” “Some of us leave our windows open ...”

The Giraffe asks the Jackal:

p13 “Why do you torture yourself in this way? Are you frightened of solitude – the emptiness and loneliness you may find when you face yourself alone?”

p15 “... when our awareness is well-rooted and we can maintain it without faltering, we may wish to return ...”

The Giraffe/Geoduck unwillingness is this process. It's okay and healthy to be aware of the effect of one's open window and to close it sometimes, to control our environment. This is the lesson on the journey that the Jackal teaches the Giraffe and together they learn how to control balances the need to withdraw from the world.

p15 “we need to sustain ourselves by choosing our surroundings carefully and nourishing our senses in each moment.”

  1. Too undemanding

p “we are too undemanding, too ready to watch whatever is on the screen, too lonely, lazy, or bored to create our own lives.”

This is broad indictment of more than just watching TV. This mirrors quite a bit of what was in Nader's speech on campus a while ago also about the way public policy is formed. Not only are we individually too undemanding, but we're collectively too undemanding also.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

This is a little silly, but I had a reaction to the Editor's Introduction. The first line is “As I walked slowly and mindfully ...” and I have a semantic allergy to anyone that self categorizes themselves as “mindful” or “awakened.” I get pictures in my head of self-important, self-proclaiming gurus. It seems too much like a self-serving self-aggrandizing claim for which the only authority is the person themselves. I tend to react with skepticism and instant distrust of anyone that speak of themselves in this way. I end up wondering why the person feels they need to claim to be mindful. If they really were, what does it matter that I know that unless they are seeking approval or claiming hierarchical superiority? As if they are saying, “See? I'm walking mindfully; unlike the mundane, inferior way you walk.” For me, that was an unfortunate way for the book to lead into the text.