On Saturday, August 10th, a short article I wrote for the Community of Faith column ran in the Missoulian. Here it is, in its entirety:
In our Buddhist based practice, the Plum Village tradition led by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, we are encouraged to practice with the question: Am I sure? Let’s say, for example, that I am confronted with someone whose way of engaging with the world is quite contrary to my own and I think to myself: Gosh, that person is crazy. In times such as these, my practice is to ask myself: Am I sure? Am I sure that I know full well what that person is going through and where they are coming from? Am I sure that I know what’s fueling their behavior or approach to a particular situation? Am I sure this person is crazy? The answer, on all counts, is clear. Of course not! I often have little to no idea of the causes and conditions that are propelling someone else’s thoughts, speech, and/or actions. My reactionary judgments that arise, in any given situation, are not at all an accurate and full accounting of what’s actually taking place.
It’s so very easy for me to think I know something when in truth I really have no idea at all, especially when it comes to assessing someone else’s character or behavior. Using the Am I sure? question affords me the opportunity to create space in between what’s happening externally and the thoughts/speech/actions that I engage in as a result. It allows me to move from reacting to responding.
Recently, I attended a local outdoor concert where a homeless resident of Missoula came on the scene and proceeded to disrupt the event by yelling violently, both to herself and to the band that was playing. In response to her behavior, there was a critical and disrespectful approach taken with her. In short order, I realized that I was likely the only one on hand that saw the immensity of distress present in this homeless woman. Others seemed only to be focused on how inappropriate and rude she was being, in an otherwise peaceful gathering. Had the other event-goers at the time been reflecting on the Am I sure? question, perhaps it would’ve become clear that the homeless woman was likely suffering deeply from the results of untreated mental illness, versus intentionally trying to cause harm and upset of a personal nature.
Thich Nhat Hanh adds further that if when we ask our self the question Am I sure? the answer is: Yes! that we should ask the question again.
I have great affection for this wisdom teaching and I use this practice question often in my daily life. I have found that it helps to keep me angled in the direction of understanding, compassion, and kindness, which are three foundational tenets of human connection.
Nicole Dunn is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing in the Plum Village tradition and serves as the director of the Open Way Mindfulness Center and the program director of the Be Here Now Sangha.