Carolyn Took a Chance and Thay Came to Capitol Hill!
an interview with Carolyn Cleveland by Mary Hillebrand
EDITOR’S NOTE: On September 10, 2003, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed more than 400 people at the Library of Congress, including as many as 50 Members of Congress and hundreds of congressional staffers. Two days later, several Members of Congress and their guests joined Thay in suburban Maryland for a two-day mindfulness retreat, marking the first time the teachings of mindfulness have been offered directly to members of the United States Congress. Carolyn Cleveland, a practitioner with the Washington area sanghas, was instrumental in persuading Thay to meet with the lawmakers. Following are excerpts from Carolyn’s conversation with Sangha Reflections co-editor Mary Hillebrand about that process and the lessons she and other mindfulness practitioners can take away from those events. The complete text of the conversation can be found at www.mindfulnessdc.org.
Mary: Why did you get involved in bringing Thay to Washington?
Carolyn: In the last presidential election in 2000, we had such a big change in the White House and in Congress, with Bush being elected President and it becoming a Republican Congress, it was hard not to wonder how this would affect life, and certainly socially progressive causes, such as the environment, the field I was working in. It was easy to go to a place of fear and worry and to quickly demonize those political leaders that could stand against the causes that I stood for.... I began thinking about the mindfulness practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh about interbeing, how we’re all interconnected, and about compassion. And I wondered what it would look like to be practicing mindfulness in the political system, what it would be like to be a mindful lobbyist or a mindful Member of Congress. I knew for me how much the mindfulness practice had impacted my life, how it had provided a greater sense of compassion for other people, a more thoughtful approach to the work that I was doing, how it had strengthened my relationship with my family. Expanding that out to the world, I thought, “What would it be like if our political leaders were coming from that place? What could that do globally?” I just really wanted to bring greater compassion to our political system.
Mary: Why Thich Nhat Hanh, as opposed to another person U.S. political leaders are more familiar with?
Carolyn: Thay’s words, but more than that his way of being, have deeply affected my life. I think it is just that, his way of being, the way he teaches — that is, not about Buddhism but what is central to the Buddha’s teachings, the practice of mindfulness — that I think is so powerful and transformative for people’s lives. I mean, anyone from any faith can embrace the practice of mindfulness.
Mary: What was your take of Thay’s message to the people that gathered for the retreat?
Carolyn: I think the strongest message that came through from him was really the very central and basic teachings of following your breath and stopping and calming and looking deeply. And I remember … one of the nuns saying, “I don’t know why I thought he would have something more profound to say for this group than he would say to anybody else.” But she said the teaching is the same no matter where you go.… It was the basic and profound and wonderful teachings of mindfulness.… [A]t the end he talked about the importance of supporting families in order to reduce violence in our society and reduce violence in schools. He was very, very interested in making that happen, and I think he was saying it in a way that could sort of appeal to our world leaders, to think about how we could do this. And he talked about the political situation, about the U.S. situation with Iraq. I think he really spoke about asking for President Bush to consider the impact of his actions in Iraq, and he was talking about how nations need to come together to resolve problems. So he was really putting that out there as a way for people to consider.
Mary: When Thay gave his public talk on Sunday, he had fairly strong words about the way that the United States government has acted in the past couple of years. Was he that direct with the Members of Congress as well?
Carolyn: He was. He was, and with that he said, “I am talking to you as a monk. This is my perception and my belief,” I think in order to say, “I’m not preaching to you. I’m not telling you how to run the country, but this is how I see it. This is how I view it.”
Mary: What was the reaction from the Members of Congress and the people who came with them to those words and Thay’s message?
Carolyn: [One] Member shared that the thing that impacted him the most was the dharma discussion [during the retreat] and … the sort of ground rules of dharma discussion, to speak until you’re finished speaking and that you won’t be interrupted. He said that was just profound, to think that he could speak and not be interrupted, and he thought if Congress practiced that how much more fruitful the discussion would be. And then he shared, and you could hear the suffering in his voice when he said, “You know, we spent one day talking about the resolution for war.” And it really affected him so deeply, that that’s all the time that they had spent on that. And in that moment, I really felt how Members of Congress are suffering. They feel trapped by their own system that they’re in.
Mary: What’s the follow-up to such a big event? How do we keep the momentum going?
Carolyn: Thay talked about how important it was for the practice of deep listening to happen on both sides, for constituents to be able to support our political leaders by really practicing deep listening with them and really being able to relate to them and have compassion for the places they’re coming from. The way he described it at the retreat, I envisioned like, wow, how amazing it could be for mindfulness practitioners to actually do that, to go to the Hill to visit Members in their offices and just to sit with them and say, “How are you doing? What’s happening for you? What’s your life like? How do you cope with the stress of all of this? What do you do to support yourself?” And to actually build a relationship with Members of Congress outside of asking them to vote or take action on something, so that it’s not adversarial all the time. I think it would do a lot for Members to feel like they’re being supported and not that they always have to defend themselves.
Mary: Have you had any follow-up conversations with Members of Congress?
Carolyn: [Among others] I went back and visited with [Congressman Brian Baird from Washington State] and said, “So, how’d it impact your life?” His eyes were sparkling! Oh, he just couldn’t wait to share with me all the ways it was impacting his life.... When he’s called to vote and he walks to the chambers to vote, he practices walking meditation. He doesn’t walk as slowly as he would within the meditation hall, but he uses that time to collect himself and connect with his breathing. He also talked about how he’s used it in contentious meetings, stopping, coming back, collecting himself before continuing to speak.
Mary: So slowly but surely the machine of our government is slowing down.
Carolyn: Exactly. Exactly. And you’ve got to imagine the huge force that they’re up against, right? I mean, the whole political system is built on “Go! Go! Fast! Fast!” But these guys are taking a stand for looking at it a different way. Like how about stopping and slowing down?
Mary: [T]hat’s 11 more people who now have a basic understanding of mindfulness and can be a presence of mindfulness for those around them. But they need encouragement, from the sangha that they may not even realize is out there for them.
Carolyn: [One thing I heard from one] Chief of Staff was that he felt alone. He felt alone in wanting to practice mindfulness in his job here in Washington, D.C. … So I think it was incredibly supportive for him to know that other staffers and Members were interested in the process and that people [outside of Congress] were wanting to support him in practicing. Members...are struggling so much with coming from heart and spirit and compassion in their work. … [T]hey strive to continue to have that in their lives. But they certainly need support to do that, just like we all do. You know, when someone relates to you as a great person, you get to be a great person. So when we relate to our Members of Congress as compassionate, spiritual people, they get to be that for us!