Transforming Fear of Violence through the Peace of Mindfulness
By: Judith Toy
When our granddaughter, Heather, was about to enter the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, she told her mother, Laura, that in light of recent events, she was afraid to go to college. The face of the most recent campus perpetrator, just as he orchestrated it, was flaunted everywhere on TV and in the papers. He faced the camera, wielding a gun. Laura asked me, “What can I say to her?”
I sighed. “It seems we’re always missing the point.” New high-tech security gadgets are missing the point. Have you noticed in our airline catalogs the proliferation of surveillance products? Fear is rampant. The media (present company excepted) falls repeatedly into the trap of fear mongering. We miss the point. Our president at the time was finding weapons of mass destruction where there were none. He missed the point. These panic reactions are like taking a pill to mask the symptoms of disease. There are side effects: polarization, increased violence. In this case, one of the side effects is that our nation’s children are afraid to go to school. When I worked with homeless teens in Trenton, New Jersey, they came to me terrified and upset one day because the metal detectors had been removed from their school. They lived in fear every day of their lives of getting shot.
I remember only too well the photographers hiding behind trees at the funeral of my sister-in-law and her two children (my teenage nephews) three days after their brutal murders. But fear cannot prevent violence. When we live in fear, we’re part of the problem. Violence is never erased by hatred and fear, nor by the equal violence of state-mandated murders by execution. The hatred and fear are only exacerbated. I suggested Laura could use Heather’s focus on the campus murders to point out how much we need to cultivate peace within ourselves, peace within our nation. Murder is always a call to love.
Heather has been to Plum Village, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in France. She has visited the wall where a battle took place during World War II. She has picked a flower and placed it in the prayer niche of the wall. She has held the hand of Thich Nhat Hanh, experienced the transformed atmosphere of battleground to monastery, through mindfulness.
Her mother might have asked Heather, “In what ways can you take the peace of Plum Village to your campus?” I believe peace begins with quieting the body/mind. My first Zen teacher said, “You sit, you drop yourself, and you are right in the middle–paradise. After that, if you take the dog for a walk, even the dog will benefit.”
What I am noticing, though, is that mindfulness is now a kind of catch-all word or fad. There are mindfulness classes for everyone from dentists to psychotherapists. Studies show that mindfulness practice – a secular form of Buddhism minus the Buddha and the sutras – is good for pain management, stress relief and healing from disease. Maybe the fad aspect is good, because more people may try mindfulness practice and benefit from it, because at the moment it’s hot.
What I observe is that folks are leaving out the most important aspect of mindfulness. And I did not want my daughter to leave it out when counseling my granddaughter.
In a company training on customer service, the trainer was encouraging mindfulness with clients. I am not sure what the word “mindful” evoked for the trainees, but she never mentioned the one key to mindfulness, the door to mindful practice that brings us right into the present moment, which is our in-breath and our out-breath – that is, noticing our in-breath and our out-breath.
Of course we breathe in and out all the time, and hold our breath when we’re stressed or in a hurry, but we are not aware that we’re breathing, nor that we’re interrupting our breath when anxious. We don’t know we’re breathing because our breath is a function of the autonomic nervous system.
Mindfulness without conscious breathing is like toast without butter. As a former smoker, I have a tendency to hold my breath. So in my own mindfulness training, I use certain cues to notice my breath – like the ringing of my phone or stopping at a light in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery store, or waiting for my computer to change functions. It’s simple. And it works. I’m tense, on a deadline, (I now call them “due dates”) in fear of not meeting said due date. I’m waiting for the computer to power up, which reminds me to breathe. At that moment, I become conscious of my breath. My body reacts by relaxing, because through dumb repetition I’ve trained it to do this. I gaze out the window, notice the color on the intrepid leaves of an oak among bare trees, with a backdrop of pine-dotted mountains. Belly relaxes. Fear of not finishing on time? Gone.
Today, Heather is in a doctoral program in psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. So the happy ending of the story is she did manage to transform her fear. Or to walk through it.
One of my favorite mindfulness quotes is from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” Not exactly rocket science, but a great way to peace of mind. A great way to be present in the moment, and to simply transform our fear.
Judith Toy is author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness, available at www.murderasacalltolove.com. Ordained by renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, she is a mindfulness teacher who lives in Black Mountain. She and her husband run a small publishing company and lead mindfulness practice at Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living and at retreats in the US and abroad.