Am I Sure?


Today I attended the 2014 Mansfield Conference at the University of Montana (UM) entitled: Fight for Hope & Freedom, Human Trafficking, Montana & The World.  It was open and free to the public so I went simply as a concerned  citizen wanting to learn and understand more about this global problem.  I knew very little about human trafficking going into this conference so I learned quite a bit and appreciated the speakers and the information they shared.

I went into this conference thinking of how to transfer my experience today into a blog post.  I took notes and collected handouts throughout the day – I even took pictures!  But as I sit here now typing I am not as interested in painting a picture that includes all of the statistics, facts, studies, numbers, and evidence based information that I learned about today.  Instead, I would like to talk about how we as mindful practitioners might better be able to stay informed about heavy, challenging world affairs without becoming overwhelmed or cynical.

Abraham Kim, director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the UM, gave an introduction at the opening of the conference this morning.  He spoke about how we may have feelings of anger, despair, or defeat when it comes to the subject matter of human trafficking but that today was about providing hope, about concerned citizens, and about taking action.  I think it is very easy to feel afflicted and embittered by the many difficulties that affect our global community.  There is much suffering that occurs both near and far.  And if we are not careful and attentive we may find ourselves ensnared by feelings of great anger, sorrow, and hopelessness.

University of Montana campus clock tower

University of Montana campus clock tower

One way of practicing and maintaining balance in the face of staying informed and educated about such things as violence, poverty, crime, sexual abuse, war, environmental degradation, and the many differing outlets of injustice and inequality is by asking ourselves a question that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh offers as a general tool in the art of mindful living: Am I Sure?  Asking ourselves this question and using it as a way of looking more deeply into our thoughts, feelings, and strong emotions that can arise around such world issues is an important step towards more skillfully engaging with the heavier hitting news that is broadcasted everyday.

This morning as I was sitting in the audience in preparation for the conference to begin I overheard bits and pieces of a conversation that was unfolding between two people seated in the row in front of me.  They had just met and were talking about what brought them to the conference.  In the midst of their dialogue one of them mentioned something about evil and how they feared it would never disappear entirely.  It was clear to me that they associated human trafficking with an evil act and evil people.  Later, during a panel discussion, in an un-scripted moment, someone commented how pimps (those responsible for selling or trading individuals, mostly women, in order to perform sexual acts) were just wicked and evil.  While it can be easy to throw the word evil around I think we need to apply the light of mindfulness in these cases and ask ourselves, “Am I Sure?”  My understanding of the popular collective definition of the word evil involves labeling people and acts as inherently bad, meaning there is no reasoning or cause, no hope for change, and no room for questions or deeper investigation – it also involves a lack of connection to personal and societal accountability.  In my way of thinking, evil is an illusion and an emotionally charged reaction to that in which we do not wish to fully understand.

UM Conference

UM Conference

In Zen it is sometimes said: This is because that is.  Every situation, every act, everyone, everything is a result of many conditions coming together.  Because of this interconnection I don’t believe in the concept of evil.  I believe we are all innately good and that circumstances can arise to cloud over and obstruct this goodness.  This does not mean we must accept the hurtful-doings of others or that we are not responsible for our own actions.  It means that if we’re not asking the question, “Am I sure?” and widening our perspective to include the interwoven threads of causality then we are not approaching matters in the most constructive, skillful, and balanced way that is necessary to create lasting change and transformation.

Before formulating an opinion or belief about a particular person, news story, or topic I practice asking myself, “Am I sure that I really understand what is going on?”  “Am I sure I know all of what is necessary to have a well-informed account of what happened?”  I practice not to be too quick to judge or react so that I may look deeply in order to develop more understanding of myself and my response.  Much damage can be done by a limited perspective, emotionally charged reactions, and a lack of clear vision.

We can use our mindfulness practice to connect and act skillfully in regards to the difficulties affecting our local community, country, and the world by broadening our vantage point, tuning into our emotions and reactions, and honestly asking ourselves, “Am I sure?”…and then being open and willing to listen deeply to the answer that arises.

First flowers of spring on the UM campus

First flowers of spring on the UM campus

4 thoughts on “Am I Sure?

  1. Thanks for attending that conference, taking thoughtful observations, and even including flowers.
    I can get stuck on this idea of not knowing with certainty and then not act. I accept I don’t know all the conditions for something and that none of is is 100% “good” or “evil”.
    I can also see how easy it is to label things.
    I wonder then, how sure we need to be about something before we act.
    Doesn’t Thich Nhat Hanh teach about Engaged Buddhism?
    Thanks again for the inspiring post.

  2. Thank you for posting dear friends.

    It’s a good point – we can never know 100% about the conditions of anything or anyone. For me what’s important is to practice deep looking as much as possible and take the steps necessary to ascertain my intention and motivation – to slow down enough to ask myself certain questions so that I will be able to act with more understanding and skill.

    Engaged Buddhism is at the very heart of our practice in TNH’s tradition. We are also taught that actions can be skillful or unskillful and that if we don’t know how to care for ourselves and our difficult emotions then we won’t be able to fully help someone else. If we’re acting from a place of ignorance, anger, or fear, even if we truly want to be of service, we can wind up doing much harm. To all things there is a balance to be found – and that balance will be a little bit different for all of us.

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