Bringing Thich Nhat Hanh to Speak with U.S. Congress
an interview with Carolyn Cleveland by Mary Hillebrand
EDITORíS 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 Carolynís 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.
MH: Why did you get involved in bringing Thay to Washington?
CC: 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 was also becoming more deeply embedded in the practice of mindfulness, sitting with the Washington Mindfulness Community and with the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax. 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.
Shortly after that, I went to Plum Village for an extended retreat, and within the first week that I was there, Thay in one of his dharma talks talked about the importance of supporting both our political and business leaders to operate from a spiritual dimension in their lives. 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?" As a super power, the United States has such a big impact on the world. I mean really, when you think about it, when the U.S. Congress flinches, it affects the entire world.
I guess I just really wanted to bring greater compassion to our political system. There are all these opportunities to be involved in politics, whether through movements, causes or activism. Each of these is about advocating for a particular way of being or asking someone to take action to change what they're doing. And this can be a very divisive way of interacting. It can create a lot of suffering. If you go beyond this way of interacting, go beyond the place of arguing what is right or wrong or what someone should or should not do, then there is actually an opportunity to alleviate suffering. I think supporting someone to live a more spiritually conscious life can actually create more change than anything else.
So when Thay spoke about the importance of supporting political leaders to operate from the spiritual dimension in that dharma talk, I got really inspired. I thought, "Boy, I live in Washington, D.C. I practice with this Washington, D.C., mindfulness community, and there are many in the mindfulness community here who are politically involved. There must be a way to bring these two worlds together."
During the same week that Thay gave that Dharma talk he also held a Q&A. It was an opportunity to go to the front of the room and sit next to him and ask a question. I asked him about what he thought we could do as mindfulness practitioners to support our political leaders in operating from the spiritual dimension. He responded with telling me about how he had spoken to the Indian Parliament several years back, and as I recall, as a result of his talk to the parliament they had instituted a new practice of inviting a bell and stopping to breathe before a vote. He said that a spiritual dimension in a Congressperson's work was very important and that a sangha could seek the sponsorship of a number of Congress members to suggest the idea to Congress to share and talk about the mindfulness practice. And then he wished me good luck!
I returned to D.C. about a month later, and I invited some people together within the Washington Mindfulness Community -- people who are strong practitioners and also very politically involved, like Jeanine Cogan, Freddie and Jim Schrider, and Marjorie Shovlin -- drawing upon their wisdom and asking them the question, "What do you think we can do?"
It wasn't until two years later -- you know, we struggled with the idea because it was so huge. I mean, could we actually make an impact? Would anybody really want to listen to Thich Nhat Hanh? Is it such a far-out concept? I think there was personal grappling with the notion of creating the kind of individual compassion to be able to extend that to people that we don't think could be compassionate. I had to recognize for myself how I was selling the U.S. political system short, because I really didn't think that they could come from that place. I know that since we've done the retreat that has definitely changed.
MH: Changed your view of people's capacity for acting compassionately?
CC: Exactly. Yes. I really hoped and thought that that could be true, but now I know that it's true. I've seen the evidence, so to speak, that that's possible.
So that's how I got involved in it. Two years later, I was enrolled in a four-month leadership program, and during that program you choose a project where you want to impact a community of your choosing in a positive way. So the structure of that program, of the Landmark Education Program, gave me the support to be able to make the whole thing happen. It helped me to work through the areas where I was stopped in my life, because I didn't think it was possible or I didn't think I had the skills to be able to do it. I mean, who am I to think I could change the political system? Who was I? I was no big active political player. Never worked on the Hill, never did any political work, barely even voted, really, to be honest with you. I love the practice of mindfulness, but I'm not a dharma teacher or Order of Interbeing member or had any kind of inner connection to Plum Village.
MH: It seems to me, though, that one of the beauties of the mindfulness community -- and similarly one of the beauties of living in a democratic society -- is that you don't have to work your way up the ladder to a certain position before you can take action.
CC: Exactly. That is really true, but we don't always truly believe that. We think that we have to have some sort of credentials in order to make things happen. But what I have really gotten out of this whole process is, wow, people should dream, they should dream big, and they should act on those dreams. Because what a better world, what a better world we'll have, you know? Just do it.
And do everything possible to support that dream, which is what I needed to do. I had to give up a lot. I had to give up anything, any misperceptions that I had about myself, that would stop me from making this happen. I had to give up being too independent. I had to give up wanting to control the process. I had to give up being perfect. I had to give all that up in order for it to happen.
MH: Does it feel like you gave things up?
CC: It was like giving it away. You know, when you give that up, you also get to receive so much more. You are left with lots of other possibilities. I'm left with being inspiration and being empowerment for other people, but I couldn't be those things if I wanted to hold onto, you know, being controlling and forceful and all these other ways that I thought that's how you had to be in order to make things happen. So it taught me a lot about leadership and what it is to be a leader.
MH: Why Thich Nhat Hanh? Couldn't someone else deliver this kind of message to Congress, maybe someone who is better known, who is, particularly within Congress, a name that they had heard of before?
CC: Good question. I think the key in that for me is inspiration. 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 is truly about 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, and it can enhance their own religious tradition or background. For me, that's what I thought could be really powerful in bringing (Thay?) to Congress.
It became a challenge because he was not as widely known and also because we have a Christian Congress. But here was someone that I knew could create a difference. It just really felt like it could create a difference. So I think it's the personal relationship that I felt with Thich Nhat Hanh.
MH: What kind of resistance did you face, or how did you know you were meeting with some resistance, because of the primarily Christian background of the Members of Congress, to having a Buddhist come and teach them or speak with them?
CC: Well, you know it's interesting because I think naivetť is such a beautiful thing. When you're a student of a teacher that you just love and who's touched your life so deeply, you think, well, all you would have to do is invite people and of course they would want to come hear this great man. Of course they would want to come. I had pretty high expectations. After the first round of invitations went out and the responses weren't rushing in, I had to look at why that wasn't happening.
There were several factors: One was that Thay is not as well known as I had thought. While many Members and staffers did know of Thay and had read his books, there are simply many others who have not been exposed to him. So we had to do some educating. There is also the incredibly packed schedule of every Member of Congress -- they just simply have too much on their plates. I mean, there could be as much as 50 percent of the Members who never even saw the invitation because a staff person made a decision about what was important to him or her.
But as far as bringing a Buddhist monk to speak to Congress, I never received any resistance about that. We never had anybody say, "I would never come to him, come because he's a Buddhist teacher." So any fears that people had expressed to me that Congress would not be involved because Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist were not there at all. The no's that we did receive were always based on a scheduling conflict. Every Member of Congress is inundated with requests, and when they say yes to an event they are saying no to something like 400 other events.
MH: When it does come down to a scheduling choice for a Member of Congress, and so you wind up with the bulk of them saying no, choosing something else, does that say something to you about where this kind of experience falls in the priorities of the political leaders in America? Or is that too large of a generalization to draw, maybe? But they had to choose, and this wasn't too high up there for quite a number of them.
CC: I think what I've learned is no means no. Period. It doesn't mean anything else. We can make it mean anything we want it to mean, but when they say, "No I can't come," it just means no, they can't come. Sometimes, with people that we thought would be inclined to come, we would go deeper and ask. And then we would find out that their mother was really ill and they had to travel across the country to be with her. Or someone would say "I have an event in my home district that is extremely important to me." I mean these people are up for election every two years, so they do have a lot to consider.
So those were some of the things that came up, and the other no's were just no's. Some Members, such as Pete Domenici's office, called and said thank you for asking, and actually specifically mentioned the name of the constituent that had called his office to invite him. So it's very interesting, because you kind of pull out the political strategy. I mean, at one point in my life I was running training programs for political campaigns and some of the tactics that we had there really applied to this. We had something we called the box: You had your "for sure, yes's," your "no, they're never going to say yes," and you've got the wide spectrum in the middle where they could go either way. And that's where we focused our efforts in the invitation process, these people that could say yes, might say no. So we really worked a lot with those particular Members to give them any information they needed to make sure that they could make an educated yes or no, make an educated decision on whether to come or not.
And we supported that with a grassroots campaign, because a lot of it is dealing with numbers. The Members have so many requests coming in, and what we're really trying to do is get our request at the top of the pile. So we had lots of different strategies to make that happen.
MH: Including asking members of the mindfulness communities across the United States to phone or fax or e-mail their Members of Congress and put this on their radar screens.
CC: Exactly, because we knew that one of the responses we could anticipate getting is "Well, my constituents in my district wouldn't want me to come to this." Okay, well if your constituents are inviting you to come to it, they're going to take a look at that. We know that Members read their mail. We know that they look at what their constituents are asking them to do. So they would be getting a request from their constituents and then they're also getting a request from their colleagues, because we would ask other Members to ask, and then they're getting a request from an organization, the Faith & Politics Institute, that they know and respect. So they're hearing it a couple of different times. And that at least gives them a chance to say yes. I mean we all know, you get home, you have a huge pile of mail, and you really mean to get to all of it, but you probably respond to the phone call that someone then gives you asking about the piece of mail. And so it becomes kind of a game, really.
MH: So how many Members of Congress and how many staffers wound up coming to the talk?
CC: The attendance at the talk was about 400. I don't know what the breakdown is, actually, of Members and staff. I do know that one of the things that impacted the talk at the Library of Congress was that the Members ended up having to leave early because there was a vote that night. So it's unfortunate, but a bunch of them had to leave in the middle of the talk. We had 50 Members confirmed to attend that talk. I don't know if that 50 came, but we had a significant number attending. And I'm sure that we had two or three times that for staff, because it's a lot easier for them to get over there.
For the retreat, we had 11 Members at the retreat, and nine of those Members brought their spouses. One of the Members brought his children as well, a two-year-old and a five-year-old. They just had so much fun. Also they were each invited to bring a clergy member with them, or someone like a clergy member or spiritual friend, someone from their religious tradition. Many of them responded and brought maybe their minister or someone that they practice with at home in whatever tradition they come from. We wanted to be able to create a support system so when they go back home they've got other people to rely on. You know, they've got their colleagues, the other Members, they've got their spouse, and then they've got this other friend to help support them in that practice. Because we know it's sangha which really helps carry you through the tough times.
MH: Why a clergy member or spiritual supporter? Why did you loosely define it as that as the other person they could ask?
CC: A big reason for that was wanting them to feel that this was not giving up their own tradition in order to be proselytized to or accept the Buddist path, but rather to receive the practice of mindfulness to enhance whatever tradition they come from, as well as their professional and personal lives. We know that the minister or the spiritual person is a person they're going to turn to in times of need, and so it's a tool that both of them can have.
MH: Speaking of foundations and supporting it, who funded the retreat?
CC: Some of the sponsors included the Library of Congress and several foundations that the Faith and Politics Institute has worked with over the years, including the Fetzer Institute and the Louisville Institute. There were some private funders as well. I think it's really important to know that the Faith & Politics Institute agreed to do this retreat wholeheartedly, and they had no money in the budget for this. It was not part of their annual work plan that year to put on a retreat. They do organize retreats for Members of Congress, as well as retreats for congressional staff, but they didn't have it on their work plan for that Fall. So they did a tremendous job raising the capital to fund the events.
The executive director, Grace Cummings, had attended a retreat the year before with Thich Nhat Hanh. So when I came to Faith & Politics and said, "Hey, what about this?" she had already been thinking that it would be great to bring Thich Nhat Hanh to speak to Congress. She was very excited to see that there was somebody who could help bring that process together. They were an excellent group of people to work with.
MH: At the retreat, what happened? What did people do, what activities?
CC: It was very similar to any sort of two-day retreat that you would expect to go to in Plum Village or run by Thich Nhat Hanh or Plum Village, similar to a Day of Mindfulness. We started on Friday afternoon with an orientation, just to give people a sense of what we would be doing for the weekend, what mindfulness is. We did some teachings on guided meditation and walking meditation. We talked about mindful eating and eating in silence and what that would be, so we could sort of get people prepared for what the weekend was going to be about.
Then Saturday was really very much like what a Day of Mindfulness would be, a full day. We started in the morning at 6 a.m. with meditation. I was delighted that every single Member and their spouses were there at 6 a.m. for meditation. It was really wonderful. They were such full participants in the whole retreat. It was incredible.
So we did meditation in the morning, then we had a dharma talk by Thay. We ate our meals in silence. We did walking meditation. We had deep relaxation and Touchings of the Earth with Sister Chan Khong. Powerful. And then discussion groups and evening meditation. So the schedule was pretty much like that. That's what we did.
MH: What was your take of Thay's message to the people that gathered for the retreat?
CC: 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 at one point we had small discussion groups and 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, so everything that he spoke about in that retreat is the same as he has talked about in every other retreat, you know? It was the basic and profound and wonderful teachings of mindfulness.
MH: Was it surprising for you to hear that from a nun?
CC: It was delightful in some ways, you know, that we were all in the same place. We're all sort of on egg shells. "What's Thay going to talk about? What's he going to say to these people, you know, these people that we expect to be so resistant, the non-practitioners?" He was the same, he was just Thay. He was open and warm and inviting. When he came in to do the dharma talk, you know, it was one of the smallest retreats he's probably ever given. There was a total of maybe 40 people in the room. And he immediately invited everyone to move up toward the front to accommodate his soft voice. If you can just imagine Thay sitting, like a grandfather in a chair, and all these Members of Congress all scooted up around him kind of like this. [Carolyn demonstrates, leaning forward eagerly.] I mean little kids, little kids on the edge of their seats waiting to listen to what he's going to have to say. It was so cute. I mean, you know, these Members were in their socks, and some of them are sitting on the floor, and they're just listening to what this man has to say.
He also spoke about the importance, at 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.
MH: When Thay then gave his public talk on Sunday, he had what a number of us received as 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?
CC: 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." So he did, at the end. He spoke from that place.
MH: What was the reaction from the Members of Congress and the people who came with them to those words and Thay's message?
CC: It was just so moving to hear the impact that it had on their lives. At the end of the retreat we had a closing circle. So we all sat in one big circle with Thay and we passed the microphone around to have people share. And we specifically wanted Members to share first, with the limited amount of time. Each one of the Members shared. They talked about the impact, the positive impact that it had on their lives. One Member said, "You know I was skeptical coming in here, and I'll be honest with you that I really wouldn't have come here unless she had really pushed me to be here," referring to the minister he brought with him. " She said, 'You really need to go to this retreat.'" And he said the thing that he was most deeply touched by was the practice of Touchings of the Earth. He said that it allowed him to get in touch with an ancestral heritage that he had not been, had just seen how it played out in his life, his ancestral heritage. I don't remember exactly what he said but it was something like it opened him up to a new way of seeing things.
Another Member shared that the thing that impacted him the most was the dharma discussion and just the ability, 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. You know, we blame them for creating that system, but they also feel trapped by it. So yeah, they were all very deeply affected by the retreat.
MH: Have you had any feedback from Thay or from the monastics about what the experience was like for them?
CC: I think some of the things that people shared, from the monastics and Thay, was it's like a new way of seeing the United States Congress. That there's really an ability and a capacity for Members of Congress to be compassionate in their action and to receive the practice of mindfulness. I think as much as we were skeptical, you know, mindfulness practitioners across the nation, that Members of Congress would actually go to this retreat, I think maybe there was also some sense of skepticism within the Plum Village community that it could actually happen and that they would actually be open to receiving it, or that it would have an impact on them. I think we all had that. So I saw that transform. I saw them be really excited that they got to participate in this and be a part of making this happen.
MH: Given the skepticism and the low attendance numbers that would be expected even by Thay and the monastics, was it difficult to persuade Thay to come in the first place?
CC: There was a real education process that had to happen, because normally when Thay puts on a retreat there's an expectation there'll be 900 to 1,000 people there. In doing an event for Congress, people like the Faith & Politics Institute, that's been doing this for 12 years, said it would be phenomenal if we could get 15 Members there. If we got 15 Members we would really be accomplishing something huge. At first, I thought, "Oh, well this is Thich Nhat Hanh. I mean come on, there's going to 50 or 60 people that want to come to this retreat." Once I was on the ground and doing the invitation process and meeting and greeting in a hundred congressional offices, I began to see why it was so difficult to have them respond and want to come. Then, as I began talking to Members and they started hearing about our invitation list -- "We've got seven, we've got eight," -- their eyes were popping out of their heads. "You've got eight Members of Congress coming to this retreat?!" I mean people that really knew the Hill were so impressed that we had 11 Members coming to this retreat. And at one point, I should say, we had 17 Members confirmed to attend, and that is unheard of.
I think that Thay was concerned about the low numbers because the more people that are there, the more mindful energy that's created, the bigger impact it can have. But the next retreat, I'm sure, will have two or three times the number of Members coming.
MH: And by the end of this retreat, is it safe to say that any feeling that the folks from Plum Village may have been disappointed about the attendance had dissipated?
CC: It was completely gone. People were just elated by the level at which the Members participated and the impact that it had on their lives. And I should say too that every single Member said that two days is not enough. They want a longer retreat, and they want another retreat. I mean emphatically each one of them said that, as well as their spouses. So that was really encouraging. They were able to say themselves, "Oh we wish more people were here, and we will be the advocates to get more people here next time. This has had such a great effect on our lives." So they have now been able to experience it firsthand and they could see what it can do for them.
MH: So are there plans, even tentative or sketchy, to do another retreat? Or in the meantime, what comes next? What's the follow-up to such a big event? How do we keep the momentum going?
CC: There's a number of things, I think, that came out of this retreat. First of all, 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. They talked about the stresses that they have in their lives.
So I think that's something that those mindfulness practitioners that are interested in doing that could. That would be a wonderful follow-up to this, visiting the Members that attended the retreat, asking them who else would like to be visited, but not going there to proselytize or convert them or have them take on the practice of mindfulness. So to actually just be mindful and let them experience what that's like.
Thay also did speak about the fact that they [at Plum Village] are interested in organizing a retreat for Vietnam veterans, and it would be a sort of exchange retreat, where there would be a retreat in Vietnam, with Thay leading that, as well as a retreat in the United States, maybe in Washington, D.C. So he talked about that with the Members of Congress too and how he's interested in making that happen. Of course that's a huge process. Because he's exiled from Vietnam, he would really need to overcome those political barriers. I think that the Members were really inspired by that idea. So I think ultimately what that does is it creates 11 more advocates in Congress to support Thay in bringing the teachings of mindfulness back to Vietnam. That's huge. To have something like that come out of this is really amazing.
MH: You talked about one of the messages being that the constituents need to keep that two-way listening and support of mindfulness going for their Members of Congress. Do you have ideas about how mindfulness communities can either directly teach or help support constituents to do that? They could just issue a call to constituents, to members of mindfulness communities, and say, "Hey, start opening up these lines of communication and be there and be supportive for your Member of Congress." But there's also a support component that has to be in place for constituents, because they don't necessarily know how to do that. Or perhaps they don't believe that's something that's very practical or feasible. Is there a way that the sanghas can help individuals support public leaders?
CC: I think something really key that you said is not believing that it could be possible. That's one of the things that I think was most inspiring for me that came out of this process. I think a lot of people who had been politically disenfranchised or disempowered -- maybe disempowered is more the correct word -- have actually gotten reinspired about being a part of the political system. There's a lot of people that I've talked to that sat down and wrote a letter to their Member of Congress to invite them to this retreat who have never communicated with their Member before, because they just don't think that their voice makes a difference. But they thought that this could be really incredible to have their Member attend.
And that's just it, that we actually do have an opportunity and can make a difference in a Member's life. When we are really making sure that we're coming from a place of compassion, without an agenda, we're really being there for the other person. It's really practicing the teachings that Thay gives us from the Buddha. And one way that we can do that, as a sangha anywhere in the nation, if you're in the middle of Iowa, you can invite your representative to come to a meeting. Say "We would really love to listen to you. Why don't you share with us what your life is like as a Member of Congress? Because we don't really know. We have all these notions and misperceptions and ideas of who you are, and we actually want to open up to seeing you as a whole person. We would like to have a dialogue about how we support you. We're interested in supporting you in the spiritual dimension, but we don't know what that is. So we want to have you come and talk to us about that, what we could do."
It's really having a dialogue. That was like a conversation we had at the retreat. It seemed to me that the Members really would make that happen. If constituents invite the Members, say "We'd like you to come to this meeting," or "We'd like to come to your office and visit with you and have these questions," that could happen. And really just be honest. Say "We're kind of uncomfortable out there. We're not really sure how to do it, but we'd really like to create a new way of relating to each other. Because this is a step toward having a more compassionate political system and the kind of political system that we really want to be engaged in. So we're not making you wrong and bad. We're not making you other than we are. We want to see the places that we're related."
So I think that sanghas could really invite their congressional members to come and just sit down and have a dialogue.
MH: One of the barriers or edges that pops into my mind, as a constituent as well as an interviewer, is there's a part of me that always wants to make change happen fast, wants to see results, such as we get these Members of Congress to come to a retreat or we get them to come and sit with our sangha and talk with us -- I want to see change after that. I know that Thay has talked a number of times about understanding that change takes a long time, that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. It seems to me that's especially true when it comes to trying to change even a tiny bit or the nature of a political system.
CC: Yes. I think it's an extremely difficult process to come from nothing, to truly be emptiness. I was amazed at how many people I ran up against who wanted to know what our political agenda was for this retreat. Even monks and nuns were asking me what did we want to get out of this, what kind of political action should be taken. And I said, "None. This retreat is about supporting the Members in their spiritual life. It's about creating more compassion in Congress. What that looks like, I have no idea. What the impact is going to be, who knows?"
But I believe and I have to believe into the future. I have to believe that it's going to have a positive effect. I have to take a stand for that. I have to recognize my own skepticism and fear, let it go, and keep holding onto that positive impact.
MH: The same, then, is true for constituents who may, on the one hand, read or hear your words and think this is a good idea but they already feel discouraged perhaps before they even get started. Or maybe they do some of the things that you're talking about and don't necessarily see a tangible impact right away and can get discouraged by that.
CC: For one thing, it gives us an opportunity to look at that. Why do we need to have a tangible result? Why do we need to see that something's happened? Why is that for us? Do we need to have proof and affirmation that our actions make a difference? Do we need to make a difference?
You know, there are so many great ways that we could apply the practice of mindfulness back onto ourselves. We just have to keep looking deeply, keep grappling a little bit deeper with why we want to do these things. I had to do that for myself. Why do I want to bring Thich Nhat Hanh to speak to Congress? What is that about for me? I had to look at where the energy was coming from on that for myself. So there was that whole internal practice happening at the same time that there was the external practice of actually doing it.
We're human beings. We want to see that our actions do have results. So you know if you're walking in with an agenda you have an expectation, and when it's not fulfilled you're going to be disappointed. So I think it's just becoming aware of what your expectation is and what you want to maybe see happen, and continuing to open up to the experience of actually not having the agenda except one of compassion and allowing yourself to see the other person in that way. That's the practice, in and of itself.
MH: Have you had any follow-up conversations with Members of Congress, either those who attended or those who didn't but you had had communications with before?
CC: Yes, because I wanted to know what the impact was too -- you know, so did we create more compassion in Congress? [she laughs] Or was it all just rosy glow and they went back to their lives and rushed off to the next vote, you know? So about a month later, I went and visited with one of the Members who was on our steering committee that helped us to get other Members there. He has been phenomenal.
MH: Can you share his name?
CC: I can share his name because I asked him if I could. The Faith & Politics Institute bases its credibility, having retreats, on not publicly sharing who attends, in order to protect the private lives of the Members, so that they can really come to a retreat and open up and share from a deep place. So that's why we were not divulging names of who attended. But I went back to this Member and I asked him if he would mind if we included his name in our publications and stuff. He said, "Sure, that's fine." So it's Congressman Brian Baird from Washington State. Just phenomenal, just a phenomenal guy.
So I went back and visited with him 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. He said to me just before this retreat he had gotten this disgruntled constituent letter. He said, "my immediate impulse was to tell the guy why he's so wrong." So he fired back this letter, and it's sitting on his desk, and he goes to the retreat. Then he comes back and looks at the letter, and he realizes he cannot send this letter, and he sits down and rewrites it. He also talked about eating meditation, that that was probably the practice that most profoundly affected him. He said he realized when he was sitting there eating he kept thinking about pecan pie. He kept thinking, "I can't wait for that pecan pie!" And then he realized that was just his whole life -- he was always waiting to get to the pecan pie and never enjoying what he was doing in that moment. So he said he has really focused on practicing eating meditation and that part stayed with him since the retreat. He said, "I don't always eat mindfully, but I try to eat mindfully."
He also said walking meditation was a really wonderful practice. 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.
Other Members have also shared that when the telephone rings they actually stop and breathe three times before they answer the phone. About a week after the retreat, a chief of staff from one of the Members' offices was sharing that when the Member they worked for came back from the retreat every other word out of his mouth is a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. The staffer said, "We're expecting him to come in with a shaved head!"
MH: So slowly but surely the machine of our government is slowing down.
CC: 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? Actually, one of the Members said, "Could you give me about 50 books? Because I want to pass these out to my colleagues." They're really excited to share the practice with their colleagues. So it's trickling out in those ways. I've been able to receive sort of proof that we've had some impact and that it's made a difference in their lives and our political system.
MH: That sounds also to me like another opportunity where constituents can continue to have an impact and have a connection to their Members of Congress. To the extent that they know who attended and who didn't or who expressed interest and who didn't, constituents can encourage the Members who weren't involved to talk to those who were, or encourage those who were involved to continue to share in their own gentle way with their colleagues. As you mentioned before, that'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.
CC: That's such a big part of it. I was amazed at the number of staffers and Members that I talked to who already knew who Thich Nhat Hanh was. They had read his materials. Some of them had already gone on retreat with him. In fact, one chief of staff that I met with, he was so elated. He says, "You're inviting me to go hear Thich Nhat Hanh here in Washington, D.C.?" We said yes. He said, "Oh, I just finished reading 'Anger.' It's such a phenomenal book!" I almost fell off the couch. Here I was speaking to the chief of staff of this powerful Member of Congress, and he said he had already put in his calendar to go hear him in Boulder [Colorado, where Thay spoke in early September].
So it just blew apart my whole notion that Members of Congress or chiefs of staffs would not be open to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. They were already open to it. But what I also heard from that chief of staff was that he felt alone. He felt alone in wanting to practice mindfulness in his job here in Washington, D.C., and that he - he! - didn't really think that there were other people out there that were interested in it. So I think it was incredibly supportive for him to know that other staffers and Members were interested in the process and that people were wanting to support him in practicing.
I remember two years ago when we did the love letter campaign after September 11th, and we went and met with the chief of staff of Congresswoman McKinney's office in Georgia. She's no longer in office. That chief of staff was so phenomenal. We shared with him this love letter, which was basically asking Members of Congress to operate from the spiritual part of their lives in making the decision about going to war. He read the letter, and he said, "Wow, this is so incredible." I just remember specifically he said, "You should tell your sangha, please tell your sangha to send these letters to their Members, and as many as they can, because you don't understand how strong the energy is for us to think otherwise. So it's so encouraging and supportive for us to know that people want us to act a different way."
He was really appealing to us as mindfulness practitioners to help support him, as a chief of staff, and his Member to come from that mindful place. And I really got that from a lot of the Members that were at the retreat. They are struggling so much with coming from heart and spirit and compassion in their work. Mind you, the Members that came are doing that. They really are. They're just incredible, extraordinary people already, to begin with, and they 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!
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