What If Congress Practiced Mindful Communications?

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Thich Nhat Hanh

Imagine if Congress practiced mindful communications. Eric Cantor, majority leader and lead Congressional voice of the divisive Tea Party, probably wouldn’t make statements like Occupy Wall Street pits Americans again Americans. The rhetorical battles, arm crossing and finger pointing we have seen over the past year would be something of the past.

Well, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is holding a mindfulness retreat for Congress members in two weeks.

The web site for the effort says, “Politics is, like many professions, a difficult one in which to practice. The day to day pace of a congressional office is rapid. Inquiries and expressions of concern through phone email, fax, and person seem to come relentlessly and are often quite far from being loving speech. The staffers answering the phones encounter a lot of anger and despair. In such a climate, a little bit of loving speech goes a long way. We have the capacity to bring nourishment to staffers who might be suffering deeply from a lack of loving speech and deep listening.”

It certainly makes sense that the pressure of the situation only creates more combativeness. Even 24 hours of relief might make a difference. Please ask your Congressperson to attend.

Nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King and one of the most respected Zen masters in the world today, poet, Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thây by his students) is pictured above. As an international statesman, Thay has addressed members of the Indian Parliament, met representatives of the US House and Senate, and next spring will address members of the UK House of Lords.

This is the second time that Thay has been invited by the Faith and Politics Institute to offer a retreat and lecture (the first time being in 2003), and this year the US Institute of Peace is the co-sponsor. Prior to the overnight retreat Thay will give a private lecture for members of congress, their families, staff and other invited guests. On Wednesday, October 26th, Thay will deliver the Annual Walter Capps-Bill Emerson Memorial Lecture, “Path Toward Peace: Cultivating Clarity, Compassion, and Courage in Political Life” at The Library of Congress.

Caitlin and I have found Thay’s retreats, the Plum Village monastics that practice with him, and the practice of Zen to be an incredible influence on our marriage and life. The above photo set is from a retreat last week in New York. You can see our baby daughter Soleil got along with monastics, too. Also, you can check out Thay’s awesome Facebook page with 300,000+ members here.

Case Study: Plum Village Builds an Online Sangha

The Unified Buddhist Church, commonly known as the Plum Village International Sangha and personified in Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, launched a social media presence approximately one year prior to a 2009 U.S. Teaching Tour. Led by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, the effort was launched using Twitter and Facebook in an effort to reach a broader, and younger, audience for people interested in mindfulness practice but may not frequent static web pages (see Plum Village photos here).

“The goal was not lofty, but simply to put the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh into the new social media environment,” said the online architect of the effort, Kenley Neufeld, who is a lay practitioner ordained in the Unified Buddhist Church. “I wanted to reach a new, younger, non-Buddhist audience. People who can practice mindfulness. Anyone.”


The effort launched on Facebook and Twitter in 2008. The social media efforts were integrated into our email distribution lists and on the traditional web pages.

The online audience for the Thich Nhat Hanh branded accounts grew in ways that were unexpected, and it grew fast. The initial demographics represented groups not typical of those who came to retreats. Many more young people and also a more equal balance of male and female followers.

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Thich Nhat Hanh

“What’s really happened is that a conversation is taking place between audience members,” said Neufeld. “They talk to each other. Discuss. Explore concepts and ideas together. The ‘official’ page can really takes a back seat and allow for the conversation to take place on its own.” 

The traditional community wasn’t too keen on the Twitter/Facebook stuff. However, monastics like Facebook because it connects them to their brothers and sisters in the different centers across the globe, so in many ways they are leading the way. This is why we see the online monastery concept happening. We definitely have both voices now – many new people and some longer term practitioners.


Sangha Watches the Sun Rise

The biggest outcome for the Unified Bhuddhist Church and Neufeld was the ability to reach audiences. On the 2009 tour, the Colorado event was the largest retreat on the U.S. tour ever with 900 attendees (see photos from the retreat here), and the dynamic experience spawned a new book, “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” Today, the volunteer effort now has a significant Facebook community with more than 160,000 members.

As a result of these successes, there is a new movement to create an online monastery where people can hear and practice the dharma at a distance. Additional forms of online media are being incorporated into the Church’s efforts. Thich Nhat Hanh has encouraged this and provided the resources (monastics and money) to help make it happen. The group is purchasing computers, cloud servers, and other resources.

Blog Training at New Hamlet

Two of the other centers in the Order of Interbeing tradition (Deer Park Monastery and European Institute of Applied Buddhism) have created Facebook pages where they are interacting with the audience. Deer Park, in particular, has started an Ask a Dharma Teacher effort though Facebook. For the most recent Southeast Asian Teaching Tour, the Church is livestreaming its efforts. In addition, it continues its Facebook and Twitter initiatives to share live dharma talks by including quotes and key concepts through the social media environment.

Warrior, Artist and Yogi – A Lesson in Balance

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Thich Nhat Hanh

While in France, I had the opportunity to meet and have a brief conversation with zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (nicknamed Thay by his sangha). After telling him about my hopes of affecting change and awareness with the environment and to a larger extent Zoetica, Thay said to me, “You must be part warrior, part artist, and part yogi.” Then he simply smiled at me.

Of course, like any novice, my unvoiced mental response to such a statement was, “Huh?”

But I think over the past weekend I finally understood the full impact of Thay’s words. The launch of Zoetica really drove it home.

Warrior: I got this part right off the bat. This is easy for me. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m a fighter. I get up no matter how hard life throws punches, and I know how to win.

Starting a company is an absolute war, even one with Zoetica’s mission of “providing superior communication consulting, training, and strategy to help mindful organizations affect social change.” You are pushing a big boulder up a massive mountain for years, literally. Last week we had a great start, and I am proud of our accomplishments, but it was just the beginning of what will be a very long journey, and I felt it by Friday (as I do this week, too!).

Going to “war” — even for good outcomes — drains your soul. Further, so many fighters for peace are unpeaceful inside. And what does that really mean? How can we give away what we don’t have? That’s where Thay’s other two suggestions come into play.

Artist: Art represents a human’s capture of that in life that fascinates their soul. In essence, art expresses a person’s interpretation of the beauty, in the moment. When we express beauty in life, we come to appreciate the joy of living, and that my friends is invaluable.

In that sense, to be balanced as an entrepreneur or someone trying to affect change, we cannot be all warrior. For then there will be no beauty and we become the fight itself: Anger, misery, outrage, and yes, hate. At that point, one must ask one’s self what they are fighting for? Is it to relieve the world of an ill, or to revisit a seed of the negative past and indirectly, replenish the seed transmitting its angst into others?

About 18 months ago, I engaged in painting and then photography in full. Also, at least one or two posts a week tends to be a creative experience. Beauty through art channels my soul back to the spiritual core of life, and reminds me why I am here, what I hope to achieve.

Yogi: OK, I think it’s important to define this word because there are many western misconceptions of it. A yogi practices yoga, which simply means, “any of the methods or disciplines prescribed, especially a series of postures and breathing exercises practiced to achieve control of the body and mind, tranquillity, etc.”

I simply take this to mean one must engage in whatever spiritual activity it takes to become peaceful and loving in mind. Prayer, meditation, walking in nature, exercise, and even taking and editing photos. Whatever it takes to calm my mind.

The yogi part was the light bulb for me this weekend. Four years ago when I started Livingston Communications I fought and fought and fought until I dropped. Then when I recovered, I fought some more. This type of slog is the prescribed state of the American entrepreneur. Everything became about the company, and I had no balance in my life. It also made me pretty miserable after a while.

But to achieve my hopes with the environment, and on a larger scale our dreams with Zoetica, such behavior will not do. There must be balance. To help the world, to achieve the kind of result where we are truly benefitting others, I truly believe I must be a warrior for the beauty I appreciate in life everyday, and I must do so with peace in my heart and mind. For I cannot give away what I do not possess.

Warrior, Artist and Yogi really seems to be a prescription for spiritual balance. In that spirit, I spent much of last weekend practicing, and also editing photos. And hopefully as a result, my efforts this week yielded more peace with the effect of more positive change. Thanks, Thay.

Copenhagen: Empty Gestures or Real Action?

Walking Uphill

The UN Copenhagen Conference to negotiate a new global environment treaty begins today. And my mind wonders north and east across the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean. I imagine these political types gathering, making great statements and pronouncing real hope. However, as CNN reported this weekend, the gathering is unlikely to yield a new world pact.

While every person in attendance at Copenhagen will surely admit the severe nature of the environmental crisis, few will be empowered to act. That includes Obama. Politically speaking, economic prosperity and “defense” still outweigh eco-initiatives in most every country. Individually, we have not brought enough pressure to bear on our governments to cause movement.

I recently saw Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh speak about Copenhagen, and he had an interesting perspective. From the politician’s point of view, it would take great courage to take strong measures. It would mean acting against the general will of the people. For while we are aware of the problem, people don’t want to stop consuming. In the U.S.A. we consume well beyond our needs, while throughout the world in developing countries like India, Brazil and China, people strive to match our consumption.

The environmental problem remains second to our individual welfare. Instead, economic prosperity and national defense – protecting our well being – comes first. The environment is a weak cousin we choose to pay attention to when its convenient for us.

We have not awaken to the terrible impact our consumption is having on the world. With 6.8 billion people consuming as Americans do, we need five earths to match our current consumption… Imagine how much we will need in 30 years when there are 9.2 billion of us?

Yet, these things need not be disparate. Imagine if we invested more in green technologies and transitioned to sustainable, renewable energy sources. Just ¼ of our defense monies reallocated in this fashion would make a huge impact on carbon emissions. In the U.S. consider all of the actions we are currently engaged in… What would make a better contribution to world peace, sustained action in Iraq or investment in next generation renewable energy technologies?

What if we reviewed our Western eating habits and moved towards more mindful consumption of our land resources, reducing carbon producing industrial poultry and beef centers and ate more vegetarian? I’m not suggesting abstinence, just moderation. Do we really need to eat meat at every meal?

Yes, to act in such a fashion at Copenhagen would be courageous. Perhaps, its simply too much to hope for… At least until we as individuals across the globe wake up to the severity of this issue and start making changes within our own lives.

Today, I am leaving Buenos Aires for El Calafate in Patagonia. There I will begin a two-week ecotour. Every time I am out in nature, I see beautiful things that just astound me. And increasingly, I see the signs of climate change on our most precious resources making the trips somewhat bittersweet.

When I return, the Copenhagen conference will have ended. I will be curious to see how things turned out, and what lies next for the environmental movement. I will never be a George Washington Hayduke, preferring nonviolent action and pressures. May the politicians negotiating our environmental future have the courage and the heart to act before we realize how much general public and personal apathy has hurt our collective future.

Vacationing in the Rockies w/ Thich Nhat Hanh


Once in a while you get to meet one of those people you greatly admire in life. Caitlin and I will meet Thich Nhat Hanh, a world reknowned zen master, this Friday in Estes Park, Colorado. He is hosting a retreat dubbed “Awakening Our True Potential – Mindfulness” at the YMCA there.

This retreat comes at the right time for me as I am struggling greatly to overcome some character defects, in particular, shortness of temper, impatience, etc. which seem to be my personal Achilles Heel. I find these defects ground themselves in reacting to the present (and how it either inspires fear and/or reminds me of the past). And before this turns into a self-wallowing post, let me say that I am also very aware of the assets I bring to the table and how they benefit others.

The greatest ways to confront the defects so far are developing enough awareness and presence of mind to pause and respond rather than react. Another critical aspect of this is taking care of myself so I am rested and capable of being pleasantly present for others. Road travel just wrecks me, and often I am unable to respond intelligently after successive trips.

And so as I work on this comes the retreat with one of the people whom I respect the most from a spiritual level. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the greatest book on love that I have read, and his other works like Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers and A Guide to Walking Meditation have really helped evolve my spiritual awareness. What will I learn from Hanh and the monks from Plum Village?

I don’t know! LOL, but it’s sure to be enlightening and peaceful. There will be more insights not only on my personal agenda for the trip, but I am sure on other things I am not even considering. Openness and a willingness to explore new things represent the best course. With those attitudes in mind, new tools and insights will surely come. Ultimately, if I can be of better service to others as a result of this trip, I’ll be happy.

And what a beautiful place to have the retreat. We are sure to enjoy some great hikes and photography in Rocky Mountain National Park during our retreat. I’m looking forward to it!