Welcome to episode 17 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
In this episode, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay practitioner and journalist Jo Confino, are joined by special guest, entrepreneur and author Lindsay Levin, to discuss wise leadership and new ways of creating change and harmony in turbulent times.
“Serial entrepreneur” Lindsay Levin founded Leaders’ Quest in 2001 as her “last startup”, to help leaders and companies align profit with purpose. Her work explores collective humanity through vulnerability and listening. She also launched the Leaders’ Quest Foundation to build leadership capacity in grassroots communities.
Her passion for finding common ground between diverse perspectives and opposing voices prompted her to co-lead the launch of the alliance Future Stewards, after the Paris Climate Agreement. Her book, Invisible Giants: Changing the World One Step at a Time (2013), is a celebration of the everyday heroes who have inspired her to ask tough questions, and to strive to be the change she wants to see in the world.
Together, all three also talk about: the balance between urgency and patience; purpose; polarisation; and becoming agents of change. And: at a planetary level, how do we know when to slow down and when to speed up?
Lindsay Levin further shares her relationship with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community, and about: working with leaders; dealing with competing interests and egos; spiritual values in the business world; self-awareness; tolerance in the climate movement; listening to others’ lives and widening circles of compassion; responsibility; the gap between cleverness and wisdom; ‘quests’; collective and individual development; planetary well-being; and honouring anger and grief.
Brother Phap Huu talks about his own experience of dealing with disagreements in the community as abbot of Upper Hamlet, and shares stories about Thich Nhat Hanh as a leader. He also delves into the importance of listening in leadership; applying Buddhist teachings into daily life; bringing together conflicting parties; discriminative mindsets; inclusiveness; adapting to change; avoiding burnout; nourishing compassion; learning to be in stillness; and not postponing ‘simple opportunities’.
Jo shares the story of a company which lost its way after taking the space to create and reflect away from its staff. He delves into the pressure of short-termism; Indigenous insight into decision-making; and being observers of our own selves. And: is time money?
All three share the simple routines they use to nourish themselves in what they do.
The episode ends with a short meditation on gratefulness, guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
‘Please Call Me by My True Names’ (song and poem)
Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet
Sister Chan Khong
The opioid crisis
The Great Acceleration
The TED Countdown Summit
The secretary-general of the United Nations
“Thay’s teachings are about the essence of life, and beautifully simple yet profound.”
“In our teachings of Buddhism, we say that we are seeds of everything. We are seeds of goodness, but also seeds of evil. And we have to help people see the goodness inside of them. Whatever suffering there is, we have to be there because we can be the light of hope.”
“Go into action and lead by example.”
“Thay created a day of mindfulness where we all come together as a community: we sit together, we listen to a teaching or have a sharing and sing songs, we cook for each other, we help each other relax. And for maybe six hours, we don’t talk about the work, because there’s a side of us that we have to nourish to keep our aspiration alive, and to continue the work that we aspire to do. This is what we call taking care of our well-being. And this is very important in the teachings of Buddhism.”
“There’s a beautiful simplicity to Thay’s teachings; remembering that it comes out of a deep, practiced understanding of suffering makes it applicable to any situation, to any of the challenges we may feel we’re facing. You are not [experiencing anything] harder than what he went through – and there’s a great power to that, which is very exciting.”
“We learn to flow as a river. And the river is always moving. This image really helped me shed my ego, because Thay teaches us that we all need to learn to be a drop of water in this river. And because we are part of the river, there are moments when we can help lead at the front. And there are moments when we are in the middle, when we can help hold the front and back together; and sometimes we are at the back. The young can help push elders forward by using their voice, their aspirations, sharing with us, with the changes of the world. And so listening is very important for leadership and for growth.”
“One of the fundamental teachings in Buddhism is that man is not our enemy; it is ignorance, it is hatred, it is discrimination.”
“You change the world by how you show up, even in the hardest of circumstances, even in a very conflicted situation; how you turn up to that conversation or that situation changes the outcome. And maybe you can’t change everything, but you can change the outcome; that’s the nature of being interconnected, of living in this interconnected world. That’s the nature of interbeing.”
“For me, one of the [most important] images is that we’re all – I am, at least – a tiny grain of sand in this incredibly beautiful universe. But I want to be a good grain of sand. So how do I make the most of that opportunity?”
“If you’re not open, then you won’t be able to learn. You won’t be able to contribute because you’re not generous.”
“Thay teaches us that, ‘Sometimes we have to learn from our ancestors, and our ancestors include animals. When an animal gets hurt, what does he or she do? They know to stop hunting, to stop looking for a mate, and instead to rest, sleep for many days if needed, and to take care of the wound.’”
“We have to let the surface of the water be still for it to really reflect.”
“The notion that time is money, I think we have to change that story. Time is life. I think that is the truth, because in our teaching of Buddhism, one of the core teachings of the Buddha is that this moment, here and now, carries the past and is building the future.”
“If we want peace in the world, we have to know how to cultivate peace in ourselves. If we want healing in the world, we have to also heal ourselves – or else we’re just going to keep running after an idea.”
“Peace in oneself, peace in the world: that sense of peace isn’t ‘I’ve solved everything’, but that I recognize what’s going on.”
“Looking at, admiring, and respecting the incredible wisdom of nature, and the intelligent life that is all around us and the rhythm that it follows, I find that immediately calming. You can sit and watch a tree very carefully and see the tree breathing because of how the branches or the leaves are moving. Just watch a leaf and see that. So that’s something that I can come back to at any time; no matter where I am, I can usually find some part of nature to touch.”
“We’re a clever species: we invent stuff. We fix stuff. We figure things out. We’ve harnessed science in so many ways. And so it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that we are becoming ever, ever smarter. Well, we’re not, and we’re certainly not becoming ever wiser. If you were to plot our wisdom or our individual or collective development, it’s certainly not a graph that’s shooting off the top of the page. It’s more of a slow incline. And I think part of the urgency, pain, fear, and uniqueness that we’re feeling right now is because there’s a gap between how fast the world is changing – in many ways as a result of our actions, some of which have come from clever things that we figured out how to do, often with unintended consequences – and our own capacity, our inner wisdom, our ability to connect, to deeply appreciate our existence, what existence is, what it means to be alive, and what it means to be to be part of life.”
“I often talked to business leaders about this: you’re not going to be able to keep up by running faster. There is no way that, by running ever faster, you are going to catch the pace of change. So in response to that urgency, including urgency over dramatic issues, the importance of justice and planetary well-being and so forth, we actually, perversely, have to slow down. We have to develop the capacity for reflection, for introspection, for developing our sense of connection; for all the things that you teach so beautifully here at Plum Village.”
“I’m really hopeful because I do think there is a waking-up going on. A lot of things are changing and I think we are waking up, individually and collectively. Maybe not fast enough, but change is happening, and in that process we need to extend to one another. We need to trust one another. People who have [the necessary] skills, which I absolutely do not have, are going to need to be part of designing the new systems that we’re moving towards.”
“Anger needs to be expressed. It’s very real. It’s really valid. It needs to be honored. Grief needs to be honored and valued and heard and respected. And then we have to keep moving; we have to integrate that and look to the other side of it. Why are we in such grief and fear and pain and anger? Well, it’s because we love life. It’s because life is beautiful. Life is an incredible gift.”
“In Indigenous wisdom, there’s the idea of seven generations: that every decision you take, you should think back seven generations in the past and seven generations into the future to say, ‘Where does this idea sit within historical context and what impact will it have in the far future?’ And yet, people are in panic mode. They’re not even thinking one generation ahead. People say, ‘Oh yes, I recognize that I need to do things for my children’, but I almost don’t believe that. People don’t act on it. In part because they are locked into this system where everyone acts the same way – so everyone supports each other in being in denial.”
“We are all leaders. This was an empowerment that our teacher gave us. When we learn to come back to mindfulness, concentration, and insight or wisdom, we all have an opportunity to lead our life, to be mindful. We have a chance to transform our lives, to recognize the habits that lead us down a path that may not give happiness, that may bring us more suffering; to have agency for our own transformation.”
“Thay teaches us that you don’t have to wait to be an example to change the world after 20, 30 years of practice; today, as you practice, if you’re able to smile, that smile can change somebody’s energy just by causing them to recognize your freshness, your way of being present for someone, or your stability. You’re listening to them with your full attention; that is also leadership, that is telling the other person, ‘I am here for you.’”
Welcome to another episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal development and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk under the guidance of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village community.
And today, brother, we are going to be talking about wise leadership. I think the reason we’re doing that is because the world is transforming. We’re facing many, many challenges, and for those people in positions of influence or power that the old ways of operating, which is ‘I am in charge and I know what to do’, doesn’t work anymore. We need to find new ways of creating change and harmony in these difficult times. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about.
The way out is in.
Hello, dear listeners, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today we have a very special guest because we have Lindsay Levin. And Lindsay is the founder of an organization, a social enterprise called Leaders’ Quest. And you, Lindsay, have pivoted your whole sort of direction of travel in Leaders’ Quest to develop wise leadership, so it’s absolutely right we should be talking about that today. And Lindsay is also the founder of an alliance called Future Stewards, which is really a group of organizations coming together to drive systemic change in order to create a regenerative world. So welcome, Lindsay.
Thank you so much. It’s very special to be with you and actually to be in the room together is beyond special, so I’m thrilled to be here.
Yeah, and we’re sitting in Thich Nhat Hanh’s hut in Upper Hamlet, The Sitting Still Hut, sitting around his kitchen table, which is very, very cozy. So, Lindsay, just tell us what’s brought you to Plum Village?
Well, friendship, actually. So friendship with you, Jo, friendship with the wonderful monastics here and the reputation of Plum Village. I have a lot of friends who’ve benefited from studying with you, from visiting in the past. And I’ve had, like many people, a busy, tiring, very intense year or two and was just thrilled to have the chance to come and spend time with you and be in a very, very beautiful place amongst these wonderful trees, vineyards, out in nature and also in community. So I’m really, really enjoying my time here, and it’s every bit as special as everybody told me.
Great. And Lindsay, what attracts you to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh? So what have you learned, actually?
Well, I mean, I think the teachings are actually about the essence of life and beautifully simple and yet profound. So, you know, if I was going to pick out a few things, of course, his wonderful poem Call Me by My True Names is my favorite poem. I think it speaks to everything, actually, that we try to embed in our work. So, so meaningful. I just started reading Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. Wonderful, wonderful book. And actually, there are many books, but you could just have that book, if I could simply have that book. So, yeah, some combination of simplicity, practicality and deep love and compassion.
Great. Brother Phap Huu, so I want to get on in a minute to talk about you as a leader of this community because you are the abbot of Upper Hamlet and have been since the age of 22, so for the last 10 years. But before we get into that, tell us about Thich Nhat Hanh as a leader. What allowed him to create this sort of worldwide group of monasteries and all these sort of sanghas, these communities in cities all over the world? What was it about him that allowed that to germinate and then grow into its fullness?
So our teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which we call Thay – it means teacher in Vietnamese, so you’ll be hearing me call our teacher by Thay throughout this podcast. Thay became a monk at a very young age, when he was only 16, and it was during the French colonization. And then, as he was growing up as a young monk, he then had to witness also the Vietnam War. Or, in Vietnam, they call it the American War. As you may know, when there is war, there’s always suffering because there’s a lot of destruction, there’s a lot of hardship, discrimination and a lot of pain. And when you’re in a situation like that, if you are living a life to have direction of ethics and morals and it touches something deep inside of you, which is how can I help in this very moment? And what inspired our teacher was the history of the different times in Vietnam, where Buddhism played a very big role during chaos and during the Lý and Trần Dynasty. And Thay read many of the stories and many of the teachings during that time, and they saw that the Buddhist teaching of nonviolence can play a very important role to nourish compassion, love and give hope to people in that situation. So as a very young monk, Thay didn’t want to give up his monastic path and to take arms and to join the conflict, but he looked deep inside and he asked himself as a monk, ‘What can I do?’. And one of the fundamental teachings in Buddhism is that man is not our enemy and it is ignorance, it is hatred, it is discrimination. And as someone who is walking down the path of light, we have to also help bring light into people’s life. So in our teachings of Buddhism, we said that we are seeds of everything. We are seeds of goodness, but we are also seeds of evil. And what we have to do is we have to help people see the goodness inside of them. Wherever suffering that there is we have to be there because we can be the light of hope. So during that time, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, our teacher started to create a new organization and it was maybe one of the first during that time, that was led by monks, to bring young people together who didn’t want to take part in the war and to go to destroy villages and to help rebuild, help bring life back where life is being destroyed everywhere. And through this, you start to see that in the country that not everyone wants to be a part of this war and that there are so many people that want to bring peace to this country. And so what our teacher did was not to teach by words, but is to go into action and to lead by example. So our teacher and at that time, along with sister Chan Khong, who was one of our most senior elder sisters in our community, but at that time she wasn’t yet a nun. And she, with many other young students, joined this movement and it was a grassroots community. So wherever they needed funding, they would go and ask, like, I remember Sister Chan Khong telling us she would go to house to house and ask, ‘Can you offer something even if it’s just a cup of rice? Or if you have even a box of Band-Aids, anything will help’. And this movement started to nourish the compassion in young people and to show that there is still humanity in this chaos. And that became one of a strong energy that Thay was able to show, and a lot of people were attracted to that. And a lot of young monks and nuns were very attracted to that because that time was also a time of change in Vietnam. The West was coming, so there was new technology, there was new education, and our teacher was also very interested to learn about the new things in life. And how can Buddhism adapt to the change of the world? And Thay, our teacher, he also recognized that Buddhism is a living tradition. And so it has to be able to adapt to the time. And so our teacher started to lead this new generation of young monks and nuns, as well as young laymen and laywomen who want to come and just to have a more awakened life. And our teacher started to teach Buddhist teachings, but in a very down-to-earth way that anybody can understand. And this was also where the birth of what we offer around the world – we call it a day of mindfulness – and this was during the time Thay shared with us that while you go and you do service – social service or peace activists or any kind of activism – we can also become a victim of our own burnout, of our own aspiration, and we also need nourishment. So our teacher created – I believe it was only once a week, but now, in our tradition, it is twice a week – and Thay calls it a day of mindfulness where we all come together as a community, we sit together, we listen to a teaching or we have a sharing and we sing songs, we cook for each other, we help each other to relax, and we can even say that in that day, for maybe six hours, we don’t talk about the work because there’s a side of us that we also have to nourish in order for us to keep our aspiration alive in order for us to continue the work that we aspire to do. And this is what we call taking care of our well-being. And this is very important in the teachings of Buddhism. And as we learn to take care of our own suffering, we also have to learn to take care of our well-being in order to recognize and embrace the suffering or else it is too overwhelming. So I would say through his action and through his daily life, it was just inspiring, just by… He was walking the talk and that became a huge movement, which later on, people recognize him as a person who engages the teaching in his daily life because he coined the tradition which we are recognized as Engaged Buddhism. And now he also shared that every time we practice and we learn the teachings we have to ask, how do we apply this in our life?
So, Lindsay, there were a number of elements that I just picked up in that, so, thank you, Phap Huu. One was about adapting to change, so when change happens, you adapt to it. One was about avoiding burnout. One was about walking the talk, and the other was about love and compassion. So you work with the CEOs and other leaders of a number of big companies and organizations. Are these sort of, in a sense, spiritual values relevant to the world of business. And are they particularly relevant to the times we now live in?
I mean, I think they’re hugely relevant and really essential. And I think one of the things perhaps as I listened to you, brother, that makes Thay’s work so relevant to today and so deeply valuable is that it came out of a time of conflict. So he experienced, you know, suffering that most of us would find difficult, frankly, to imagine, and most of us are blessed not to have literally experienced. So there’s a depth and there’s a reality to that compassion and a generosity to that compassion that is really exceptional because in the face of incredible violence, he responded the way he did, as did the community that he’s part of. So if I think about today, you know, we are in a time of great turbulence and real challenge and I suspect, you know, if we make it through this period we’ll look back on history and this will be a very turbulent time with a great deal of change. I hope and believe a lot of that will be very positive.,But it’s also very, very challenging. And so, you know, leaders… and we all have the capacity to lead, so I don’t define leader necessarily in any kind of hierarchical or status oriented way, although clearly there are people who have responsibility as leaders and who are in positions of leadership. You know, walking the talk… I mean, people believe what they experience of you and if you say one thing and do another, clearly people are only going to believe your actions. And so I think, you know, the business of how do you show up? You change the world by how you show up, even in the hardest of circumstances, the way in which you show up, even in a very conflicted situation, how you turn up to that conversation or that situation changes the outcome. And maybe you can’t change everything, but it changes the outcome. It’s a dynamic… that’s the nature of being interconnected, of living in this interconnected world. It’s the nature of interbeing. I think compassion, you know, often especially you mentioned me working with… I mean, I work with all kinds of leaders, but including with business leaders. And I think we tend to polarize a lot in how we perceive people to be. So if you’re not in business, you’ve probably got a vision of what a business leader is and maybe it’s not so attractive. And of course, we’re all only people. We’re just people doing our best to get by and navigate with whatever, you know, whatever challenges is that we’ve got to work through. So the ability to bring compassion to your work, whoever you are and whatever you do, is huge. And for me, that starts with self-awareness, so understanding who you are. A lot of the work that I do, including in and with my colleagues in companies, but all kinds of organizations, it starts by giving people the chance to think about who they are, what they care about, what they value, what’s important to them, and then how can you align that with whatever your work is? So how can you… You know, there’s you, there’s the organization, community, ecosystems that you’re part of, and then there’s this bigger, wider world and universe. And, you know, one is a reflection of the other. Things we see in the big wide world are a reflection, I think, of what’s going on inside of us. The same is true in our organizations, in the business I run or lead or am part of or in the town or village or community that I’m part of. So in the end, I think this work is about self-awareness, you know, learning ‘who am I?’, other awareness, appreciating, learning, engaging with ability to read, to stand in the shoes of somebody else, to see the world through their eyes. And then this balance between, you know, being part of something much, much bigger, something vast, and also the humility, especially leadership of seeing yourself as being very tiny. So, you know, one of the images for me is that we’re all – I am at least – a tiny grain of sand in this incredibly beautiful universe. But I want to kind of be a good grain of sand. So how do I make the most of that opportunity? So those are some of the things that that come to mind as I listen to you, brother. And I think there’s a beautiful simplicity to Thay’s teachings, remembering that it comes out of a deep, real practiced understanding of suffering makes it applicable to any situation, any of the challenges we may feel we’re facing today. You are not harder than what he went through, and there’s a great power to that, which is very exciting.
Thank you. And I wanted, in a sense, to talk a little bit about polarization because we’re living in a very polarized society where the common ground, actually people are leaving the common ground and going to the top of separate hills and firing either words or real bullets at each other. And Brother Phap Huu, you talk about Thay’s great insight about the fact that man is not our enemy, but it’s ignorance, et cetera. And also, Plum Village has traditionally brought together groups in conflict with each other, and you’ve brought together groups of Israelis and Palestinians to spend quality time here. What is your experience of how do we start to bring people who consider themselves to be enemies at some level? How do we start to bring them together?
First of all, we have to help them know how to come back to themselves, to bring them from this level of ideas, because the reason why we see each other as enemies, because we have a dualistic view, because I’m good and you’re bad, I’m better and you’re worse and et cetera, et cetera. So we call it a discriminative idea, a discriminative mindset. And to help us be free from that, first of all, we have to come back and recognize our self-worth and then see what is happening inside of us. Why do I have these thoughts? Why do I feel this way? And why do… why am I in pain? A lot of the times when we see someone as an enemy is because we’re in pain or we identify them as someone who is creating pain, and that therefore we have a view against them. So our practice in meditation, which is inclusiveness, and it doesn’t matter what side you are on, as long as you have the intention, we will guide you. And first of all is to come back and to recognize themselves, come back to the breath. That’s very basic, but in that moment of coming back to the breath, you bring your mind home to your body. And when you are in touch with your body, that gives you an opportunity to be in touch with all the wonders also inside of you. That’s very important. We like to help people see the beauty of life inside of them in order to also see the beauty inside of the other person. If I have suffering, that means you have suffering. If I have happiness, that means you also have happiness. If I want to be safe, I also have to recognize that you, as a human being, also want to be safe. So we start to help people get out of their own view, which is me, me, me and me. And to also help them listen to their own suffering. And in Buddhism, we talk about suffering as a noble truth, because when we see suffering, that gives us insight that if I suffer, there has to be a cause to the suffering and we have to look deeply into what is the cause of that suffering. And in our training, we also learn to listen. So we listened to ourselves, and then we also learn to listen to the other person. But to be able to listen to the other person, especially if is someone who we know it will become difficult, we also have to nourish compassion. And how do we nourish compassion? When you hear someone share about their suffering and you really see their suffering as a human being, you also know that because you have suffered, you have experienced suffering, that helps touch the nature of compassion in you. There’s a part of loving kindness that gets to be manifested inside of you. And by listening like that, you start to understand the other person. So like you schared, Jo, we’ve had groups of Israelis and Palestinians, and we would first guide them in just basic practice: relaxing the body, coming home, and then being in touch with nature. We see nature as very healing because nature is life itself, and we are just a part of this immense life. And then we would create this opportunity for one side to share with a support group who would help hold to space. And we have a facilitator and we have a bell that guides everybody to breathe. And whenever we recognize there’s any tension or a lot of emotion, we would ask everybody to come back to the breath, to connect. And sometimes we would even ask in their groups to hold hands because human touch is also very healing, it’s very soothing. And while this side share, we ask the other side just to listen. And you listen to see the pain, as well as the happiness, the joy and life in them. And then, after that, we would pause and we ask the side not to share because I’m sure they will have a lot… In their minds like, ‘Oh, I have the answer to why you’re suffering. Oh, that’s just a wrong perception’. But at that moment, you have just to allow someone to open their hearts, so they’re very vulnerable. So you also want to give space for that vulnerability to manifest. And then the next day, we would ask this side to listen and the other side to share. And the beauty of this practice is that both sides start to see each other as human beings, and that’s the core of it, because when we see each other as human beings there’s a nature inside of us, which is an element of love, which we don’t want to harm. And that is very important.
And, Lindsay, just picking up on that. I mean, you’re known as a bridge builder, so you tend to work with a number of organizations or individuals and try to bring them together into sort of harmony. And my experience is that a lot of people, whether it’s in the climate space or any other space, it doesn’t actually matter whether they are liberal or on the right, but tend to have large egos that, you know, ‘This is my idea, my idea’s better than your idea. I’m not going to do that if that person is engaged. And, you know, I don’t believe that person should be part of this debate. So, you know, exclude me’. It’s very complex. How do you deal with that complexity of lots of competing interests, lots of competing egos? Even when people actually recognize there’s something urgent to be done?
Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, some of the most powerful learning is in the conflicted situations and some of the fastest learning, things that you can, as I would put it, know that you can’t unknow can happen in a flash in situations where people feel themselves to be very polarized. So, you know, the ego, what I see, of course, we all have ego, I see always the small child. You know, it’s that vulnerable, it comes often from a place of vulnerability, a fear of ‘Am I enough? Do I count? Do I matter? Does my voice matter?’ And so there’s something about, you know, seeing past that, letting whatever noise needs to happen happen. I mean, to build on what you said, brother, so much of this work is about seeing the humanity in one another. So a lot of what… We do a lot of work where people who don’t agree with each other, you know. Take climate change. We may agree that climate change is a massive problem, there’s many different views on how to tackle it, and there’s deep suspicion between people as to whether or not, if we pursue your path, we’re not going to really tackle the deeper entrenched issues of justice and fairness and other things that we also should tackle. So, you know, we might even agree that this is a major problem, but have different views about how to solve it. Or politics, where if you go far enough out, we might have similar views about the big values, the things that we value, but it’s, you know, it’s become so polarized. And a lot of how we would approach that works, you know, similar to what you were describing, brother, is enabling people to see experience, step into, listen to the life of another, the life of this person that I might think is somehow different to me. And what happens in that moment is you, you discover what you have in common, and it’s like the walls come crumbling down. You know, whatever defenses you might have had up come crumbling down. That’s also quite scary because suddenly I care about you. You know, there’s all these other people as opposed to just worrying about my own immediate family or group or community or people with whom I feel I have an affinity. Once I really experience and feel the humanity in this other person who it might have been convenient for me to think was somehow different or my enemy, you know, an immigrant who might be take my job or whatever is the thing I’m frightened of. And once we’re all really at heart the same, and part of the same whole, and one way or another, you experience that – might be through the simplest of sharings – it’s incredibly liberating, but it’s also, it’s like, ‘I’m not in a pond, I’m in the ocean’. Right? I’m part of this great big ocean, and it asks something of me. There’s some way in which I need to step up. So there’s this beautiful duality, which of course isn’t, between, goodness me, you know, my circle of compassion got much bigger. It’s not just my family, it’s not just my country, it’s not just my team, it’s everybody. And then maybe it’s all of life. And that’s, you know, and I think amazingly liberating and full of joy, but also can feel a bit overwhelming in terms of responsibility and what that means. So there’s a kind of tenderness to that journey and that experience.
And, Lindsay, it would be good, we were talking the other day about Leaders’ Quest, and this is something you initiated, run what are called quests, where you take people outside of their normal frame of reference and normal experience into sometimes very difficult experiences for people to, in a sense, come away from their center and actually allow a space for something new to come in, a new insight. And we were talking about one of the quests you ran for climate leaders in West Virginia and meeting the sort of head of one of the coal mines. I think it would be lovely, actually. If you can just talk to us a bit about that because I think it brings out the nature of what you’re saying so beautifully.
Yes, yes. I mean, so we make experiences for people by bringing… Is very simple. You bring people together somewhere in the world. It might be in the other side of their own town or city or village, or it might be halfway around the world. It might be somewhere very different. You bring people together and we just engage. We meet, we go see, we go experience, we discover what life is like in this village or in this slum or in this informal settlement somewhere, or in this case, in this mining community in West Virginia. So we come together somewhere and we go and engage with people and meet with families and in a very mutual way, mutual listening, the people that we’re visiting and the people who are the visitors. It’s a very humbling, but also deeply heartwarming experience and those happen all over the world. To use the experience that, you know, the example you pulled upon, West Virginia, you know, shortly after Donald Trump was elected in the US, partly because I was working a lot in the climate space, I wanted to bring people from the climate world: activists, scientists, others who are working on climate and go and spend some time in communities who didn’t see it the same way as them, who felt deeply fearful – in this case, it was in the States, you could pick many other places, but in this case in the USA – who felt deeply fearful that they were going to lose their way of life, their opportunity to earn a living. And they already had had a very tough time in many cases, with huge social issues going on in those communities: opioid addiction, other kinds of problems, great fierce pride living in a beautiful part of the country, but a deep, deep fear for the future. And we did… we met with various different communities. For all of us – I now live in the States, although you can probably tell from my accent that I’m from the UK – it was a very moving time because I think, for example, people in that group who might have been folk that voted Democrat had a different… they came away with a new understanding. Maybe didn’t necessarily literally change their politics, but of why this community felt deeply threatened by many of the views of the kind of liberal cities. And, you know, one of the visits we went, we visited a coal mine. We went inside the coal mine, we experienced the life of the miners, we talked to them about their countryside, the nature around them, their way of life and about religion. So this particular gentleman who was the foreman of the mine was, you know, didn’t believe in evolution. He held his Bible kind of very literally, his sort of narrative, which of course, didn’t agree with but it was very different to most of the people, all the people that I brought to visit who were scientists and, you know, were really challenged by listening to this view. But at some point I asked him to tell us about his family. And he said, just in a very easy way, ‘Well, my wife and I have adopted five children from different parents, who lost their parents to the opioid addiction, five children who’d lost their parents to drug overdoses’. I think one was in prison. And in that moment, everything, the whole purpose of our visit was accomplished, to be honest, because here was a man who was doing something remarkable with incredible love and incredible compassion, telling a story that probably most of us in the room, when we looked in the mirror, were not sure that we would ever have perhaps the strength or the generosity to do what he’d done. And it just flipped right, you know? There’s much more to this person than might appear. And so that’s kind of at the heart of our work.
Brother Phap Huu, I just want to ask you about patience and urgency. So I’m aware that your community, Plum Village, works the way you work with the monastics, that in terms of dealing with conflict or disagreements, is very, very patient. And also sometimes you need to be decisive. And I think I’m going to come to you as well with this question, Lindsay, because I think there’s this thing about the importance of listening, but also the importance of not getting stuck and of taking action. So you are the abbot of Plum Village, so, in a sense, you have a responsibility to the community. How do you deal? You’ve got about 60 monks in Upper Hamlet, there are 120 nuns in two other hamlets, but everyone comes with their own perspective. Everyone has a view…. this way or that way. How do you start to really work from a leadership perspective with this level of complexity?
I identify myself as one of the leaders of the community because I am able to be people’s friend. And Lindsay shared one of the reason why she’s also here is because of friendship and, you know, that resonates with me because my dharma name – Brother Phap Huu – it means Brother True Dharma Friend. And so when I was ordained, when my teacher gave me that name and he told me, ‘Phap Huu, you have to learn to become everyone’s friend’. And at first I thought, ‘Oh, that’s easy’, because I think I’m really easygoing and I think I can get along with everyone. But the reality is everyone is different, and, of course, we see each other’s differences and sometimes it’s hard to accept. And so one of the things that I have trained in living in the community is to learn to see the harmony of the group, which is one of the most essential things to brotherhood, community building. Because if we all come with 60 different views and we’re not able to let go and to see the bigger picture, to see that what we are doing is more than me, then we can’t really contribute. And that’s one of the trainings that we all get when we become a monastic in our community. We, first of all, we learn to be open. One of the criteria that we look in anyone who wants to join a community, to live with us, either as a monastic or even as a lay friend, is your capacity of openness. Because if you’re not open, then you won’t be able to learn. You won’t also be able to contribute because you’re not generous. And the second training that we have is that we learn to see that the community is us and we are the community. So this is really interesting because what do you mean? If I say, but I am also the community, then don’t I want to make sure that I’m the biggest name or I’m the biggest person in this community? Actually, to be generous and to be compassionate you have to have the capacity to be vulnerable, as well as to be soft, as well as to be fresh. So this is the four elements that I really train myself, and I always look, if I have this element. Do I have freshness? Do I have openness? Do people want to be with me? If people don’t want to be with me, then that means then I won’t be able to hear the voices in my community. The second element that I grow in myself develop is solidity. Am I able to sit there and really listen, even if the suggestion is very hard to hear? Am I also being able to have solidity, to be there for someone when they’re suffering? Because it’s easy to be with people who are happy. It’s very pleasant. But when someone who is suffering, we don’t want to have an affiliation with because their energy can drag us down or something. But in our practice, we want to have the stability to be there with them. And then calmness, so not to be agitated by every comment, not to have a reaction to everything. And because in our meditation, we try to establish a stillness inside of us which is giving us the opportunity to reflect everything that manifests. And reflection, we need time. And with clarity, we normally will make a better decision rather than we are rushed. And then space. We have to have space inside of us. We have to have time for ourselves. We have to know ourselves more, we have to know our capacity, and we have to know our limits. And then we also, with that space and knowing our capacity and limit, we also have to learn to trust our community, to trust our colleagues, our brothers, our leaders, our friends, also our younger ones, because sometimes the young ones have a lot of wisdom also. So these four elements help me be there, be present. And when I facilitate, I create that space. And what is very interesting as we might think that we have to give a lot of theory to try to promote our idea, but at the core of it, if the idea represents the bigger picture, represents the happiness of everyone, everyone will want to be a part of that. And so what we look for consensus in, we look for harmony in, is what are we looking at? What is our direction? How is that going to contribute to the well-being of our community? And we do have criteria, we have directions in our community. And I think any business or any groups, you kind of have to have a direction to guide everyone. And so, for us, we have personal development. As monastic we all want to continue to grow. We all want to continue to understand our self more. We all want to also have a chance to serve because serving gives us an opportunity to feel like we are a part of the whole change, the whole transformation, also the well-being. And then we also want to look at the community’s growth. What are activities that we are creating? Does that give growth? Are we too tired this year? Do we need more breaks or are we too lazy? Do we need to push our community a little bit more? And of course, when I say that there’s always ways to encourage the community. We don’t use words like, ‘you guys are all slacking, you know, get in line’. Of course, you know, you can use that tone, but in my own experience, fear doesn’t work. I recognize that to speak the truth, there’s always a way to share it so that everyone can understand our weaknesses. And one of the beauty that our teacher has shared with us is that never look for perfection in our community. That really helped me. I am a perfectionist, I like to be perfect in my way of organization, in my own space. And to know that we are growing at every moment, you have so much space. And even today, if we don’t finish making a decision, we know there’s still tomorrow. And to not… Of course, there are times that we will have to make decisions, but the spirit of doing, of making a decision, is always in the harmony of consensus. That has been our foundation. And I’ve been through meetings where we have to meet about one topic at least four times, because one of the empowerment, I think, of leadership is to make sure everyone feels heard. You know, everyone feels a part of it. And when you have a chance to let everyone share it, even the ones who don’t fully agree or want to follow, but they see that is the direction of everyone and our training is ‘I will let go of my idea to flow with this river’. So one of the second seal, and this image really helps us, is that we learn to flow as a river. And the river is always going, is always going, is always moving. And this image really helped me because this helped me shed my ego because Thay teaches us that we all need to learn to be a drop of water in this river. And because we are part of the river, there are moments we can help lead at the front. And there are moments we are in the middle, that we can help hold the front and the back together, and sometimes we are at the back. The young energy can help push the elders going forward with their voice, with their aspiration, sharing with us, with the changes of the world. And so to listen is so important for, for leadership and for growth. And I think that is one of the essential elements in decision-making is making sure that everyone feels heard. And I would even ask like, ‘Brother, I know you didn’t agree, but hearing from everyone with everyone’s idea and intention of going in that direction, are you happy to support?’ And 95 percent of the time they said ‘Yes’. And also, when I say becoming everyone’s friend, that has a deep relationship and a deep power, because sometimes that friendship, they will trust you, they trust your wisdom also. And then because we are friends, you know that everything that I want to lead is for the good of the majority, it’s nothing personal, it’s not about me. I’m still doing it for the river, because I’m still this drop of water. And this helped me if one day I’m not here, Jo.
Perish the thought, Brother Phap Huu.
No, I’ve shared this in the dharma talk to my whole community. And I said, you know, ‘What has really helped me is that I’ve contemplated that even though if I’m not here, I know this river will continue’. But with that, it gives me so much aspiration, and gives me so much energy because I want to be part of this river though. And I feel and I see the beauty of the river. So, direction, space to listen, space to share, also, relationship. One of the things that I do before each meeting, I would make sure that everyone kind of knows the topic and because I have a sangha eye and a sangha ear, and sometimes I use the word I have the pulse on the community, I know who would be kind of emotional about a topic or would have particular views, I would want to check with them first. And our teacher calls it… He uses a Vietnamese word, he says ‘Bàn hành lang’. It means ‘to meet in the hallway before bringing it to the meeting room’. So you would communicate first, you would want to hear what the other person want to share, and sometimes it’s just… if that person is heard, they become so much more softer, they become so much more gentle. And that really helps.
Beautiful. And, you know, I’ve been in Plum Village when a particular issue came up a while ago and you gave, as a community, you gave it the time. Everyone was able to speak. And if another session was needed where people need to share, they were given that. And I thought it was an extraordinary way of dealing with a sensitive issue that actually no one felt rushed. But also there was the wish to resolve. So, you know, those two were very beautifully together. Lindsay, you know, just picking up on that theme. So we call… Many people calling this the decisive decade in terms of climate, they’re saying we’ve got a decade to really, really bring our emissions down if we’re going to have any hope of stopping runaway climate change, irreversible sort of destruction. So there is this enormous pressure on leaders in the climate space and even those who aren’t, you know, this pressure is building. And people are feeling very stressed and there’s this wish to rush. How do you, sort of, bring together the idea of urgency and patience?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really crucial. And I, as I was listening to you, there’s so much there for… you know, that’s so relevant in companies, in politics, in all manner of environments where there isn’t time invested in building trust or in listening and deeply listening. There’s not the patience, there’s not the thoughtfulness to include all voices. I mean, there’s very simple things, simple habits that people can do that that actually just are not generally employed. I mean, most organizations a meeting starts, there’s no sense of kind of checking in and seeing where everybody is or even hearing just a word from each person. There’s very often no discipline around making sure everybody has a chance to contribute. You know, loudest voices prevail and so on. And so in so many environments, certainly in climate, but in many other environments, there’s this tremendous sense of urgency and pressure. And it sort of reminds you of hurry up and wait, right? Because you can go at something very, very fast, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to climb. It’s a good example, you know, we still got a very long way to go in resolving that issue. Many businesses, frankly, are still dealing with the same problems that they’ve been dealing with for a very long time, and they may have gone hard and fast and with great, you know, with all manner of deadlines. But actually getting there is tough. So, so you know, what is that balance? One of the ways I think about this is what we call the gap between being smart or clever and being wise, this gap between cleverness and wisdom. And I think part of the sense of urgency comes from the feeling, the experience that life is speeding up. So if we just think about that, imagine a graph where you’re seeing accelerating change. Well, you can apply that to many things about today’s world. You know, first of all, we’ve seen accelerating change over the last one, two hundred years in many positives about human well-being. It’s easy for us to get caught up in all the things that have gone wrong, but in terms of life expectancy, in terms of infant mortality, in terms of literacy, if you look at those things globally, we’ve doubled life expectancy in 100 years. You know, remarkable things. So human progress, in inverted commas, has been on this accelerating path. And one of the outcomes of that is that we have many more people on the planet. And that’s challenging because there’s a lot of us and there’s a lot of pressure. So all sorts of things you could plot as an accelerating graph of change for progress. Then you look at our footprint on the planet and, unfortunately, that is also an accelerating uphill graph. If you imagine that curve, you know, greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 in the atmosphere, but also loss of forest, loss of freshwater, you know, all sorts of planetary boundaries that we’re exceeding, you can literally plot, it’s called the Great… people call it ‘the Great Acceleration’. You can literally plot the acceleration of progress and the acceleration of all impact on the planet. And so we’ve got this sort of mixed blessings as it were. Then you take the impact of technology, you know, something called Moore’s law, which is about how quickly computing power increases. So in the last 50, 60 years, we’ve seen much faster change because of technology, and some of that has brought blessings, has brought, you know, enabled us to deal differently with health care and communication, all sorts of positives. But as we know, it’s also brought many ills that we have not thought through because things are happening so fast. So I think of that upward curve as the graph of cleverness. It’s come about because of our human ingenuity, you know, we’re a clever species. We invent stuff. We fix stuff. We figure things out. We’ve harnessed science in so many ways. And it’s easy then to fool yourself into thinking that we are somehow becoming ever, ever smarter. Well, we’re not, and we’re certainly not becoming ever wiser. So if you were to plot on that same piece of graph paper, wisdom or our own evolution as beings, our own development, our individual development or our collective development, it’s certainly not a graph that’s shooting up off the top of the page. It’s more of a slow incline, shall we say. And I think part of the urgency and pain and fear and uniqueness that we’re feeling right now is because there’s a gap between how fast the world is changing – in many ways as a result of our actions, some of which have come from all sorts of clever things that we figured out how to do, often with unintended consequences – and our own capacity, our inner wisdom, our ability to connect, to deeply appreciate our existence, what existence is, what it means to be alive, what it means to be to be part of life. So we have this gap and that is feeling very, very uncomfortable. Now what does it mean? Well, I often talked to business leaders about this: you’re not going to be able to keep up by running faster. So there is no way that running ever faster, you are ever going to catch the pace of change. So in response to that urgency, including urgency over dramatic issues that are deep, the importance around justice and around planetary well-being and so forth, we actually, perversely, have to slow down. We have to develop the capacity for reflection, for introspection, for developing our sense of connection, for all the things that you so beautifully teach here at Plum Village and others teach around the world. So, for me, that’s this balance between kind of urgency and patience, and there is a deep relief actually in kind of letting go and recognizing that if I want to play my own small part in these very big issues, because I’m not going to fix the world, and heaven forbid that I should try because I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know how to solve these problems. Somehow, collectively with our collective wisdom, we have got to navigate through. And the one other thing I would add on that is that when you think about these big systemic problems, we need everybody. We need everybody, we need every voice, we need every contribution, we need every type of skill. You know, we need the people whose brains are wired to be brilliant engineers, to be brilliant technologists. We shouldn’t dismiss that. And we need the people who are equipped to be teachers of mindfulness, to be spiritual teachers. We need all of that because, you know, if you take something like the climate, well, yes, we’ve learned how to harness the power of the Sun, and we need to shift to clean energy, but we’ve got to do that at scale. There’s still huge numbers of people in the world who don’t have access to electricity, even if we make our lives much simpler, and there’s very good arguments for doing that, we’ve still got many more people to include and we’ve got a huge transition to navigate. So we need all kinds of people. And one of the deep wishes, if you like, or desires that I have for our world right now – this comes back to the polarization point – is for us in the slowing down to actually trust one another more, you know, to trust that people with different skill sets are going to be part of how we collectively address these issues. I’m very hopeful. I’m really hopeful because I do think there is a waking up going. I think a lot of things are changing and I think we are individually and collectively waking up. Maybe not fast enough, I’m sure that’s true, but change is happening, and in that process, we need to extend to one another. We need to trust one another. We need to know that people who have skills that I absolutely do not have are going to need to be part of how we design the new systems that we’re moving to.
Thank you, Lindsay. And just to follow up on one aspect of that, there’s a lot of dissonance and poor communication in relationships within the climate movement, and we’re seeing that, particularly with the young climate activists who, in a sense, Brother Phap Huu talked about in a sense, that they’re coming behind the river to really push the elders to change. And we know that how they’ve energized the debate and how they’re making this an issue that actually we’re forced to confront. And yet, at the same time, they’re also supercritical and sometimes very angry and sometimes attack other people in the movement who are working on the inside trying to create change. How do you think we can sort of start to create that trust between that youthful, exuberant but angry energy and the established energy of trying to create change? What do you see going on there?
Yeah, I mean, I think it comes back to some of what we spoke about earlier, which is we need to see the humanity in one another. And I love your, brother, I love your description of the river, you know, the different energies at different points in the river. The need, I mean… Young people are doing – it’s not only young people, but, you know, there are many others incredible activists out there, but young people in particular – are doing incredible work, incredible, vital work that has actually changed the landscape. I think it’s changed the conversation and it’s accelerated all sorts of facets of how we tackle the climate crisis. So they’re part of the systems change, but they’re only part of the systems change. And, you know, again, we need all parts now. What does that look like? One of the encouragements I would have for many of the young people who are working so hard is to know, you know, there’s the point at which you realize I’ve got the microphone. You know, we are in the room. Maybe not every room, maybe not all the rooms you wish, but it’s changed. I mean, look back two, three, four years, it’s changed. And as change happens, so your role and responsibility changes and so different people in your own community maybe need to step forward in different ways. So other young people and older people, and we need to kind, of course, we need to get through all of this generational stuff of dividing ourselves up into all these different camps. So we need it to go through the different ruptures and changes that we’re going through. The anger needs to be expressed. It’s very real. It’s really valid. It needs to be honored. The grief needs to be honored and valued and heard and respected. And then we have to keep moving, and we have to integrate that and we have to look to the other side of it. I mean, why are we in such grief and fear and pain and anger? Well, it’s because we love life. It’s because life is beautiful. Life is this incredible gift. Otherwise, we wouldn’t… It wouldn’t matter, would it? And all of that is there as you teach, right? All of that is there to be enjoyed, to be experienced every day. So there’s a rebalancing that’s needed. I think these voices of calm, they’re very important. We need to embrace one another, not oppose one another. We need to respect and value one another. And I think there’s many opportunities to bring people together to do the sort of work that that the brothers and sisters here do, but that many others around the world also are committed to. And except that this was a moment in time, and we get the river is going to move on and there’s going to be other kinds of energy that’s needed. One sort of final point I’d make is in effecting systems change – we stick with climate for a moment, but you could apply it to many other areas – we need to be kind to one another. You know, in amidst all of that anger, if you take the negotiations that go on each year around climate, you know, people… Imagine working as a negotiator year in, year out. It’s really difficult. Imagine being the secretary-general of the United Nations – we happen to have an amazing secretary general right now – forever under pressure. Imagine, you know, the various political leaders who, you know, we may be deeply disappointed in but, you know, those of us who live in democracies, we voted them in and we may feel very dissatisfied with how our system works, but here we all are. They are part of the systems that we’ve created. And so there’s something about having compassion for people who are playing different roles in the system. So having compassion for those young people out, day in, day out, you know, exhausted by what they’re doing and sometimes really overwhelmed, but also having compassion for people who are trying to re-imagine the energy system, which is not an easy task to figure out how we transition off coal in India and move to clean energy. It’s very complicated. So there’s a tolerance needed.
Thank you, Lindsay. Brother Phap Huu, just to go back to something Lindsay was talking about, which is about slowing down. Sometimes the more urgent, the more one needs to slow down. Can you just talk a bit about, you know, the Plum Village practices that do help? Because and maybe through the example of some of the lay practitioners who turn up often feeling overwhelmed, burnt-out, anxious, just give us a sense of the journey that… because it’s one thing to say, ‘Right, well, you need to slow down’. But for a lot of people, they’re so caught up in this fast-paced life and as soon as they slow down, actually, it’s terrifying to stop. Talk about this process.
So one of my honor is to get to see a lot of transformation in Plum Village through people’s retreat, through our retreats that we offer that people come and take part of. We always start with the body, always come back to the body. Everyone, I think in today’s day with the screen, social media, all the information, and I think one of the evolution is that now we know so much, which sometimes is not helpful because our mind is so busy and we have this nonstop radio station in our head and to help pause it we have to give it the right environment. I like the image of a fan. So when the fan is on number three, the highest, and they come to Plum Village, we teach them to press number two. And the fan is still spinning, but they can start to enjoy walking. They can start to enjoy the presence of other people. They can start to recognize their own breath and maybe not fully be with it yet, but they can recognize it first and then slowly, slowly, there will become a moment when they allow themselves to let the fan fully stop. And in that moment, what is important is to learn to be in stillness. I know is very scary, but with a collective community, with other people practicing that gives us comfort. I’m sure in today’s world, a lot of people, we practice spirituality alone at home with an app or with an online retreat. And sometimes it’s live and sometimes is not, but I think the collective power is something that is probably one of the best qualities to be embraced by that. And this is what our teacher emphasizes a lot on his legacy is for us to continue to create communities where healing is possible by being in a space where other people can help us embrace our pain. So sometimes we ask them to breathe with their pain, with the collective. And that’s very helpful because then you don’t feel alone and that is really important. Today, a lot of us, we face loneliness and we face isolation, and we feel like we are the only one that’s suffering. But when you also come to a collective community such as Plum Village and we have opportunities to share about the challenges that we go through, we start to hear other people’s struggle and we also hear the transformation, we have hope. And it’s very important in zen, in meditation is to learn to stop. And I think this is contradicting where we think we have to change fast, but this image really helps and Thay teaches us this, he says ‘Sometimes we have to just learn from our ancestors, and one of our ancestors are also animals. When an animal gets hurt, what does he or she do? He or she knows how to stop hunting, how to stop looking for a mate, rest, sleep for many days if needed, and just to take care of the wound’. And that is an insight that we actually have but we have forgotten about this. And because of our fast-paced society, we don’t allow ourselves to even be in pain. And then we get numb, we get scarred, we get these deep wounds that now take a lot of time to heal. And so one of our wings of meditation is to learn to stop, is to learn to slow down – what Lindsay has shared – because when there’s chaos, the more chaos we create, I don’t think it solves the problem. What we need is clarity. But how do we have clarity? We have to let the surface of the water, time and space to be still for it to really reflect. So I think this is an ingredient that we need to offer again for everyone to wake up to, to give it… allowing themselves to be still, allowing themselves to have time. And I think, you know, the notion that time is money, I think we got to change that story. Time is life. I think that is the truth, because in our teaching of Buddhism, one of the core teachings of the Buddha is that this moment here and now it carries the past and it is building the future. So if you’re always going to run after the future, by your ideas, by your worries, by your procrastination, by your voice, whatever it may be, but you’re not being true to the present moment, then you are not building the future. So how do we live in the present moment? We have to know how to stop. We have to know how to recognize what is happening in our body. Where are the tensions? Where is the stress? Where is the pain? We might be having some aches in our back that has been there for years. Have we actually taking care of ourselves? There’s this line, there’s this calligraphy that Thay writes, is ‘Peace in oneself, peace in the world’. If we want peace in the world, we have to know how to cultivate peace in ourselves. If we want healing in the world, we have to also heal ourselves or else we’re just going to keep running after an idea.
Thank you, brother. And you talking reminds me of some time ago, I was working with the leadership of a large company that was going through difficulties and I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder, I wonder what, you know, what’s really going on here?’ And so I spoke to someone who had delved deeply into the history of this company and what this person told me was when this company was formed, the original value was to give people space, to reflect, space to create, and that in recent years, as it was, that person used exactly that phrase is now all about ‘time is money’. And that how everyone was being compressed downwards, everyone was being forced to speed up and to respond to the short-termism, et cetera. And she said, ‘That’s what’s been lost… It’s just time to sit back and say, to know what’s going on and to know how to how to respond’. And Lindsay, I mean, in many… I mean, this is, you know, having worked in America myself for several years, you know, this is in very short supply. I mean, people are under intense pressure of short-termism. You know, that they are unable to lift their head above the parapet. And, you know, obviously in indigenous wisdom, and there’s the idea of seven generations that every decision you take, you think back seven generations in the past and seven generations to the future to say, ‘Where does this idea sit within the historical context and what impact will it have in the far future?’ And yet, you know, in all my experiences, people are in panic mode. They are unable… It’s not just… They’re not even thinking one generation ahead, people talk about, ‘Oh yes, I recognize, you know, that I need to do things for my children’, but I just almost don’t believe that. It’s like people say it, but they don’t act on it. And that’s in part because people are locked in this system where everyone is acting in the same way. So everyone, in a sense, supports each other in being in denial. How do we start to break that pattern in a truly significant way? Because at the moment, you know, people can say everything they want, but people are acting as if literally there’s no tomorrow because they’re not even thinking about tomorrow.
Yes. And I mean, it’s not only the US, right? This is a global phenomenon. And, of course, many people’s lives are hand-to-mouth, right? So people… There are a lot of people dealing with really not knowing what tomorrow will bring. And of course, none of us do in the end, but, you know, really not knowing economically what tomorrow will bring, in some cases how they’ll, you know, feed their families and so forth. And yes, this general… we’ve built a system, we’ve created a system that is running very, very fast and we need to course correct that. And there’s going to be a lot of different opinions and perspectives, and the course correction is very messy. So there’s something about playing whatever role it is that we play in influencing that course correction. You know, so what, what is my own particular sphere of influence? And that might be the small thing that I come, that new conversation that I introduce at my workplace, or the new conversation I introduce at the dinner table with my family. Somehow we have to be OK with multiple small steps and not be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. You know, if you contrast the kind of world that you just described, Jo, with the world that you’re describing, brother, they can feel very far apart. And that in itself can be overwhelming. And I think what we’re trying to do is to integrate the way we solve these things. So to integrate the spiritual journey and the paying attention to what we all have innate in us, you know, we all have the ability to feel, to be moved, to know connection, to reflect. We all have these different capacities, but in many cases we’ve sort of switched them off. So there’s the work of, you could call it, awareness or awakening or spiritual journey or whatever language you want to use around meaning and purpose which people are craving, people are desperate for purpose. Now, you know, you then look at the situation as it currently stands, and that can feel very far removed from it, but my encouragement would be to recognize… I mean, change… We’re in a big sweep of history and we’re just a little, we’re just a small part of it. And I know we’ve got great urgency about wanting to see change, but, you know, the truth is we’re in this big, long sweep. If I take the world of business, for example, new conversations are happening. You know, a younger generation are asking different questions. Actually, the pandemic, which has been incredibly painful for so many people and has led to great suffering and great loss of life, it’s also changed the way in which many people work. And we’ve discovered that we don’t need, in many cases, to do the commutes that people used to do. I mean, it’s upturned ways of working in a very short period of time that happened something unimaginable. Nobody could imagine the pandemic. Nobody could imagine how quickly we were capable of changing, you know, when we needed to that. You know, you can take a good sign from that, right? We can change very quickly if we choose to put our minds to it. So I think my encouragement for all of us is that there are all sorts of ways, the changes we can make in ourselves as I make changes in myself, it has an influence on all those around me. And you see this ripple effect go out and that will impact the companies and organizations that we’re part of. I mean, companies have short lives. The average life of a company is a few decades. That’s all. It can appear that they’re going to go on forever but that’s not what… The very big companies of today are incredibly new, and they’re not going to go on forever actually. They’re 20 years old in many cases, something like that. They, I can tell you because I work with some of them, they are worried about having kind of crossed into adulthood and not really knowing how to sort their values out and how to be a place that will be somewhere that attracts a new generation of folk to work there. So, you know, we can change the environments that we’re part of and changing a company or if you work for a local government or you work for a nonprofit, many of these issues exist just as much in the nonprofit world as they do in the for-profit world. You are capable of being an agent of change in that environment, and we will look back 10, 20, 30 years time and be amazed how much the world has changed. You know, psychologically, we’re aware of the change that’s already happened. We find it difficult to imagine and how much more we are likely to change. I’m going to change a great deal more still in the rest of my life through the experiences that I’m going to have. So there’s a lot of promise in all of that.
And I saw, Lindsay, you know, one of the things is you co-founded with TED, the sort of Countdown climate project. And at your inaugural in-person meeting, you invited some of the monks and nuns. And Brother Phap Huu you were there. And one of the things I was aware of is just the fact that you were walking mindfully, slowly through the sort of convention center, people notice it, people respond to it. So it speaks very much to what you’re saying, Lindsay, is that it looks like we’re dealing with hard mountains that look as though they’ll never shift, but actually they’re porous, things can change very quickly. And we’re all responsible, aren’t we?
We’re all responsible. Yes, yes. And there’s not some sort of evil overlord in charge of it all. You know, many of the problems we’ve got are a result of sort of frankly, accidents and, you know, poor decisions and so forth. It’s not, generally speaking, that somebody’s sitting there, you know, trying to make a a difficult world.
Brother Phap Huu?
Yes. I just wanted to share that, for all of our listeners, we’ve been talking a lot about CEOs and different leaders in different sectors, but we are all leaders. And this was an empowerment that our teacher gave us… Is when we learn to come back to mindfulness, concentration and insight or wisdom, we all have an opportunity to lead our life, to be mindful. We have a chance to transform our lives, to recognize the habits that have been leading us down a path that may not give happiness, may bring us more suffering. And so to also have agency for our own transformation. And like Jo has shared, just by walking you can bring a smile to someone’s face. And for me, one of the essential element of a leader is kindness. And I just want to water the flower of Jo and as well as Lindsay, I remember arriving at the conference. We were coming from our Rains Retreat in Plum Village and into the world and meeting so many different people. But then whenever we saw each other, we always said, ‘Hi, how are you doing? Is there anything that I can help with?’ And, you know, just those gentle gesture really warm my heart. And it made me feel loved, it made me feel cared for. And that didn’t cost anything. Just a few breaths, right? But you know, for me, that’s leadership also. For me, knowing how to express care and knowing how to let them know that I know you are there and I’m so happy. And this is an act that all of us we can do, whether we are a brother, a sister, a friend, a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, our way of life is by leading. And one of the things that Thay teaches us is that you don’t have to wait to be an example to change the world after 20, 30 years of practice, just today, as you practice, if you’re able to smile, that smile can change somebody’s energy just by recognizing your freshness or your way of being present for someone, your stability. You’re listening to him or her with your full attention, that is also leadership, that is telling the other person that I am here for you. So, to all of our listeners, you know, we are all a part of this change, a part of this waking up. And so have agency, put time into simple routines that can also support your life to well-being. And maybe just to end, and maybe if we can all share some simple routines that we do to nourish ourselves in what we do. Maybe we start off with Jo.
Well, I think the most important thing for me is to be mindful all through the day. I learned when I was going through therapy, this idea of being an observer of yourself. You know, we think that we’re one person, but actually we’re many people. And one of the big parts of us is the wise self, the part that we can stand beyond our daily routines or when we get panicked by something or when we fear something that there’s a part of us that is very wise and very stable that is able to sit beyond the everyday sort of ripples and to be able to see clearly what’s going on. So for me, I think it’s always being able to turn to the observer in me, that whatever’s going on that I can turn to that part of me and say, ‘What’s happening here? Is this fair that I’m thinking thi? Am I responding to an old pattern of behavior? Is there a hurt child within me that’s not being heard and wants to scream out or wants to attack?’ So I think, for me, the most important thing is just to be able to create that time and space, to understand myself and to know my patterns of behavior and to try and catch them as early as possible. And I know very much that, you know, I tend to fall in the same holes time and time again and I’ve learned to appreciate that rather than berate myself. I think there’s this sense of we want to solve something for once and for all. We want to just say, ‘Job done, I no longer ever have to feel that way again’. And that’s how I used to feel when I’m young. And over the years, sort of, I’ve learned to carry my scars well. That my scars are… that everyone has scars. And if I’m able to touch my scars and to realize my pain and suffering, then when people come to me with their scars and their pain and suffering, I’m not going to close down to them. I’m not… When someone brings their pain, I can welcome it in because it doesn’t bring up all my pain that I’m unable to deal with. So I think it’s that sense of being at peace. You talked about peace in oneself, peace in the world, I think it is that sense of peace isn’t that I’ve solved everything but peace is that I recognize what’s going on. And when I do that, I can catch things very quickly. So rather than something going on for days or weeks or months or years, as it might have done, it might last just a day or two. And that also means that, you know, leadership for me is also being there to hear other people’s pain in and not to get consumed by it and not fall victim by it, but to truly be there for people. People have very simple needs. We all have very simple needs: we want to be loved, we want to be recognized, we want to feel our lives are meaningful.
Wonderful, Jo. And Lindsay?
Well, I think for me, one of the incredible joys of life and one of the ways to anchor myself is nature. And, you know, you can experience… I mean, we’re right now in a beautiful forest. Of course, many people live in the city, I normally live in the city, New York City. It’s very dense, but there is wildlife, amazing wildlife, actually, in New York City. There’s been a resurgence of wildlife. It’s one of the rare stories that people don’t tell because we’re always telling gloomy stories. But many species have been returning to the city, to the parks. So why nature? Because it follows its own rhythm. And you know, I’m in a hurry and doing doing lots of things and often working fast. Just looking, admiring, respecting the wisdom of nature, the incredible wisdom, intelligence, the intelligent life that is all around us, and the rhythm that it follows, just I find immediately calming. You can sit and watch a tree very carefully and you see the tree breathing, and you see the tree breathing because of how the branches are moving or the leaves are moving. Just watch a leaf and see that. So that’s something for me that I can come back to at any time, no matter where I am, I can usually find some part of nature to touch.
And brother, for you?
It’s not missing opportunities, simple opportunities. Through the years I feel like sometimes I get caught up in projects and I get caught up in things that I feel are more important. And it has pushed me to miss simple opportunities such as connection. And so I don’t want to miss those opportunities because those opportunities help me see myself more, see my friends, my loved ones, my community, as well as feeling connected. And normally when I’m there, I always get inspired by listening and by hearing someone’s joy or hearing someone’s challenges and feeling a part of their journey also. And sometimes I do… I know I’m a monk and you all may think that we’re always mindful and we’re always, you know, embracing everyone, but sometimes, to be honest, like we also go down, well, not we, I go down a rabbit hole of ‘Faster!’, ‘That’s not important’, ‘Oh, I can save that for tomorrow’, oh, like just something very simple. Like the brothers, they like to go on walks and it’s autumn here, it’s so beautiful. And then they ‘Brother Phap Huu, do you want to join a walk?’ And I said, ‘No, maybe tomorrow’. And it’s always going to be tomorrow until I accept that appointment. And so that’s why I’m so happy right now, because with Jo, with Cata here and with Lindsay, I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. And I feel all leaders are also very human, so we also need to be nourished in our hearts so that we can keep moving forward and taking care of the responsibilities that we would like to support. So thank you for being here with us.
Thank you, Phap Huu. And thank you, dear listeners, for joining us. If you want to listen to other episodes of The Way Out Is In, you can find us on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, on other platforms that carry podcasts and also on our very own Plum Village App.
This podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support future episode of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.tnhf.irg/donate. Thank you very much.
And Brother Phap Huu, we get a lot of feedback about what people particularly look forward to is that at the end of every podcast that you do a very gentle and soothing meditation. So would you like to bring us all back to the present moment?
Of course. So, dear listeners, wherever you may be, if you are going for a walk, going for a jog, if you’re on a commute, or you’re at home, just allow yourself to have a brief moment to be still. You can choose to stand or if there’s a bench or a chair or a couch around you, allow yourself to sit having your two feet firmly on the ground, your back upright, but relaxed. And just become aware of the body. If there’s any tension anywhere, just released that tension. If it’s in our shoulders, our upper body, or our chests, and just allow ourselves to ease into the body, be aware. And with our inbreath, become aware of the inbreath. Call it by its name: this is inbreath, I breathe in. This is outbreath, I breathe out. Aware of inbreath. Aware of outbreath. If our breath is long, enjoy the long breath. If our breath is short, enjoy the short breath. Just let it be. Just become aware of the inbreath and the outbreath. And as I breathe in, I feel the inbreath entering my body, renewing the cells in my body, giving life to the body inside of me. As I breathe out, there is life all around me. I am present for life around me. Inbreath, nourishing life inside of me. Outbreath, in touch with life all around me. And as I breathe in, I see the elements of earth and water and air inside of myself. Breathing out, I smile to these elements. I am one with the Earth. I am one with the air. Breathing in, I see clouds, snow, and rain, river. Inside of me, around me. Breathing out, I see the atmosphere and the wind inside of me and all manifesting in life, one with nature. In, these wonderful elements are in me. The cup of tea that I drank is like the cloud, now in me. Breathing in, I get in touch with solidity, the mountains, the vast ocean, and Mother Earth. I am being embraced by Mother Earth in this very moment. Breathing out, I am grateful for this beautiful planet in our galaxy. Breathing in, wonderful elements. Breathing out, I am one with all. Breathing in, I see the element of light in me. Breathing out, I am made of light, of sunshine. I feel warm in my heart and may offer this warmth to my loved ones, my friends, my colleagues, to a person I meet by a warm smile. In, the light, the sunshine. Out, the warmth. Breathing in, in touch with my whole body. I feel alive. Breathing out, I relax my whole body in this moment. I give time to care for my body, to take care of the body is to take care of life itself. Breathing in, present moment. Breathing out, wonderful moment. In, present moment. Out, wonderful moment.
Thank you, dear listeners, for practicing with us. We wish you a wonderful day wherever you are. And see you next time.
The way out is in.
Join the conversation