I recently had the exceptional opportunity to assist Zen teacher Roshi Joan Halifax at the Mindful Leadership Summit here in DC. Her day-long workshop was about Compassionate Leadership, and she started class by asking people to gather themselves into groups of about eight people. Then each person was to select in their mind a location somewhere in the room. Once that was done, groups were instructed to link arms to make a small circle facing in, and then each person was to try to reach the location they had secretly selected, without any conversation and without unlinking arms.
As you can imagine, it was chaos. Groups were straining and jerking about and yet most stayed stuck in one place. A lot of people were nervously laughing as they tried to exert their will over the group or watched others doing so. One group managed to move across the room, but we later learned that one of their members had communicated via her eyes that they should follow her. It was an interesting experiment in human nature as well as leadership.
I learned of the Islamic State’s attacks on Paris by text from my husband who was eating dinner in Paris with our son and his girlfriend, who live about two miles from the center of most of the violence. After I knew that my family was ok, it surprised me that one of the first things I thought about was this mindful leadership exercise.
It came to mind because I suddenly felt how every one of us — all beings, in fact — have our arms permanently linked together. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. Whether it’s the grief of the families of the young people at the Bataclan concert hall, the estrangement of the suicidal attackers, or the suffering of the Syrian refugees seeking safe harbor in the West, we can’t shuffle our way to well-being without bringing everyone else along. When we move toward violence and hate, everyone goes with us. When I read about the history of the world, that seems so clear.
Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar, once told a packed audience that we should look around at each other and realize that these are the beings we are stuck with. There are no others, so we might as well get used to each other. He was saying this as a student of the Dalai Lama, referring not just to this lifetime, but throughout the ages. This is who we have been with, and always will be with. Our arms are inexorably linked together with all other people, animals, plants, and minerals. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we start moving is a positive direction.
“WHOEVER DEGRADES ANOTHER DEGRADES ME….AND WHATEVER IS DONE OR SAID RETURNS AT LAST TO ME, AND WHATEVER I DO OR SAY I ALSO RETURN.” — WALT WHITMAN, SONG OF MYSELF
When the students finished the leadership exercise, Roshi Joan asked them to consider what they had learned. The first thing people spoke about was not being able to communicate, a real deterrent to getting anywhere. But more importantly, they said that if each of us, individually, as a family, identity group, or nation, is only focused on our own limited goal — “I must get to that spot”– then we all get stuck. If we step back and think at the meta level, we are more likely to make progress.
The exercise wasn’t meant to give us a simple answer to the question of how to be a mindful or compassionate leader, because there isn’t one. Leading from a place, other than personal will or ego, isn’t easy. How do we help a whole organism move forward? The first step is to realize that we can’t do it alone.
“YOU ARE ME, AND I AM YOU. ISN’T IT OBVIOUS THAT WE ‘INTER-ARE’? YOU CULTIVATE THE FLOWER IN YOURSELF,SO THAT I WILL BE BEAUTIFUL.I TRANSFORM THE GARBAGE IN MYSELF, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT HAVE TO SUFFER.” –THICH NHAT HANH, INTERRELATIONSHIP
I don’t know the best way to move forward with ISIS, climate change, or any of the other difficulties facing our world. But Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness trainings have been helpful to me in keeping the bigger picture that we are all in this together. In their shortest form, they suggest that we let go of thinking that we ever know the only right answer, remember that this moment is our best teacher, not turn away from our own or others’ suffering, practice generosity, revere life, take care of ourselves and the world through simple, healthy living, resolve all conflicts, communicate mindfully, listen compassionately, and have some kind of supportive community.
These basic practices keep reminding me that I’m not in this alone. Even though it might not always feel like it, we are living arm-in-arm with everyone in this world and our actions make a difference in whether we all move toward less chaos and suffering, or more. Once we realize it’s not possible to be free of each other, perhaps we will learn how to move together.