Does mindfulness have a role in cultivating reconciliation and ‘ethical remembering’?

When the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh addressed over one hundred politicians and representatives of civil society in the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings in April 2012, the celebrated Vietnamese Zen practitioner, poet, peace activist and writer brought with him a profound sense of identification and empathy. He also brought a proposal or invitation to consider introducing the practice of mindfulness and deep listening to our engagement with ourselves and others, in the course of building a culture of compassion and peace.

Much has happened since Nhat Hanh’s visit. Globally, the practice of mindfulness has become ubiquitous – in therapeutic contexts, educational settings, and corporate board rooms at companies like Google. Locally too the practice of mindfulness has found its way into many settings, secular and Buddhist. A significant response to Nhat Hanh’s invitation to consider the role of mindfulness in cultivating reconciliation has been led by Mediation Northern Ireland and their programme, Mediating Presence.

On Tuesday 25 April at 19.00, Brother Phap Lai, a senior teacher who resides at the Plum Village Practice Centre , returns to Parliament Buildings to present his own reflections on conflict and peace building in other regions of the world, and to lead a conversation on the role of mindfulness in reconciliation at a public event in the Long Gallery.

Thich Nhat Hanh rose to prominence as a great teacher and peace activist as a result of his own journey out of the Vietnam conflict and onto the road of transformation. In many ways his most compelling message was his own biography because – in his transformation of his experience of conflict – his audience shared a deep recognition.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a global teacher of mindfulness, leads a meditative walk at Parliament Buildings during his visit in 2012

One of the most remarkable aspects of Thich Nhat Hanh’s adult life is, perhaps, also the most obvious. Out of a cataclysmic experience of war and conflict, enmity and exile, he has combined a life of contemplation and action to create community. Indeed, out of great suffering he has created a parable of community that is now offered as a gift to others both in terms of its central practice (“mindfulness is the key”) and its vision of a harmonious common life founded on a shared practice of mindfulness and ethics, kindness and joyful service informed by a deep insight into the shared destiny and humanity of all people.

Out of his own life experience of conflict, out of his own struggle to respond authentically and compassionately to his experience of war and suffering, he has discovered universal resources (notably the centrality of mindfulness for fecund actions in the world) from which we in Northern Ireland can learn and seek to embody in our own context. That context of post-conflict is one that is crying out for a mode of being and qualities of mind that acknowledge our histories and anticipates a future without allowing either to over-determine and close down the miracles possible in our present day encounters where there exists an openness and readiness to understand the other.

Brother Phap Lai (‘Ben’) of Plum Village returns to Parliament Buildings on Tuesday evening 25th April at 19.00. He will lead a talk and discussion on the role of mindfulness in cultivating reconciliation.

Addressing the theme of ‘building peace’, Thich Nhat Hanh or ‘Thay’ as he is affectionately known laid out his now familiar pillars of mindfulness. It was when he began to describe how mindful breathing and mindful walking put us in touch with the wonders of life and support us in recognising the pain, the sorrow, the fears and the anger within us that his words took on an immediacy in the context of the journey out of conflict. “There is suffering inside every one of us. And that suffering inside of us may reflect the suffering of our own parents, our ancestors who may have suffered a lot. But because many of them did not know how to handle, to transform their suffering, that is why they have transmitted their own suffering to us,” he explained. “That is why it is very important to get in touch with our suffering, to embrace it, to listen to it, to take a deep look into the nature of suffering, and to find out the roots of our own suffering. And our own suffering also somehow reflects the suffering of the world. That is why, to understand our own suffering helps us to understand the suffering of other people more easily. The other people might be another tradition in politics, religion and so on…”

Mindfulness: cultivating ‘ethical remembering’ as a practice

At a recent conference convened by Corrymeela, the County Antrim centre of reconciliation, President Michael D Higgins invited listeners to focus on the cultivation of a disposition that he has described as “narrative hospitality”[1]. He said:’…What can be achieved through ethical remembering is, I would suggest, a certain disposition, a way of relating to the past that does not serve to form exclusive judgements or reinforce grievances, but, rather, to embrace the stories, the memories and the pains of the other.’

One way of characterizing our collective post-conflict condition is one of suspension somewhere between our disputed narratives of the past and a deep, often conflicted uncertainty around the articulation of our preferred futures. This can potentially compromise our relationship to the present and interrupt the quality of our  presence to the ‘other’, to the world and to our capacity to ‘live well’ together. A future that is genuinely co-authored, just and inclusive can only ’emerge’ once we have already begun to anticipate and rehearse those values and practices.

Buddhist teachings on mindfulness call attention to the value of investing in the quality of our moment-to-moment awareness in the present, and to the value of cultivating an attitude that embraces a spirit of improvisation and emergence: meeting what arises with freedom, skill and virtuosity. Mindfulness practice implies a loosening of the grip of our inherited collective and individual stories and identities, or rather our over-identification with a singular narrative. It is a disposition that creates a certain freedom to embrace multiple stories and create the conditions for co-authorship of our futures in a spirit of freedom and respect.

Buddhist Psychology

Buddhist psychology reminds us that the capacities for both immediate ‘perception’ and ‘recollection’ are located in the same region of the brain. Our senses simultaneously ‘perceive’ and ‘re-cognize’ objects. At a subtle level of experience the mind does not grasp the difference between the ‘past’ and the ‘present’. For the Buddhist, the ‘self’ is the mental construct (story) that steps in to bridge the gap between memory and the qualitatively distinct experience of the present. In other words, we have a tendency to see what has been rather than what is, and the mind fills the gap or pause with memories, stories and projections often coloured by ‘fear’, ‘regret’ or ‘desire’ of one kind or another.

Mindful awareness, which can be cultivated through practices such as yoga, mindfulness or other disciplines that encourage concentration, is not a function of deliberation or ‘thinking our way out of this dilemma’. Often described as a kind of spaciousness, mindfulness is to access that experience of the present, that direct moment-to-moment or unconditioned awareness of what is arising in the present, together with a capacity to loosen our identification with those memories, projections, hopes and plans that constantly threaten to saturate our experience of now. Mindfulness lends itself to the cultivation of a predisposition for forgiveness and reconciliation: forgiveness of self and other.

The spiritual journey is – in part – to extricate awareness from words and stories associated with fear, suffering and desire, which opens up the possibility of a new intimacy with all things – an experience of equilibrium between the word and the wordless.

Too often our encounter with the present is merely a moment suspended between past and future, between the pain of our experience of who we are and a desire to move forward into the future in a spirit of avoidance or grasping. Suffering compounds and is compounded by this flight from presence to ourselves and others, a flight from the stillness of the fucund moment of awareness.

Zen teachers often observe that – as children – we see nature for the first time in all its freshness, ‘in all its isness’. However, as soon as we assign a name or a category to a bird, a tree or an animal, we risk never truly observing that bird, tree or animal ever again. Instead, in each subsequent encounter we refer first and foremost to the sound and meaning (associated story) of the name and category; something of the original perceptual encounter is lost forever. Mindfulness and other forms of meditative activity are unique technologies designed to open up the original experience of the world – the ‘beginner’s mind’ of the child – so that we can encounter the world and others once again with a freshness, an openness and a true spirit of improvisation.

A future we dared not dream of

In a society emerging from conflict we could all do with paying more attention…..Paying attention not only to the contested narratives of the past and their deep imbrication with how we might embrace preferred futures. The quality of our engagement with the past and future is intimately linked to ability to turn up for our lives today, with a genuine sense of freedom and openness to possibilities that have not yet been imagined, planned or calculated on our behalf.

Communities of practice engaged in mindfulnless, yoga, meditation and associated technologies have a rich contribution to make to our journey to ‘living well together’ by offering the means and the platforms where the rehearsal of ‘narrative hospitality’ is offered as a daily practice.


[1] Based on the writings of philosopher Paul Ricoeur.