In the aftermath of the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, in the midst of all the grief, rage and confusion, I just wanted to sit down with it all. Rather than speculating and reacting, could I contain and embody my experience—then act from a clearer place? Could I create a space for another way of being with all the feelings, including a way of voicing my political will, of taking a stand?
So on Friday, October 5, 2001, a couple of days before the bombing began in Afghanistan, a small group of us started a meditation–peace vigil on the lawn in front of the west gate of the U.C. Berkeley campus. We meditate for forty minutes and then have a few minutes together listening to each other. Supported by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, we have continued to meet like this every week.
Our group, first of all, is a place to practice one’s meditation: mindful breathing and cultivating awareness of life-sounds—wind and sun on the skin, movement. I love to sit outside on the Earth, under the sky, right out in public. I’ve come to feel more at home there than in a meditation hall. I am familiar with the bloom cycle of trees, the arc of the sun, and the familiar faces. The commitment to being there every week carries me, and the challenge of working with the group as it is rather than how I fantasize it to be changes me.
Practicing mindfulness with all of the cars and people going by is also an excellent way of extending my practice into the world. It is a way of bringing out of the closet what I have been doing for years when taking a seat on the cushion, staying with whatever life sends my way. This is the precise point of interface where personal practice meets the political world, becoming a protest or a civil action. We are sitting for something: for peace, for nonviolence as a way of life.
It can be quite remarkable. Many people stop to take photographs. Others honk their horns or respond in some way. Our presence can have a striking effect on a small scale. This isn’t a big event; it is a microevent, a small ritual of resistance. It is a counteraction to the conditioned, speedy, consumerist lives that we so often lead.
One day four or five school kids about ten years old scurried over and sat down, asking sincerely for instructions. I gave them modified mindfulness instructions, and they sat with us for a few minutes, trying hard to sit still and breathe, while giggling and making faces. The fact that even one of them was exposed to what we are doing changes the world in a tiny way.
It can be hard to sit there. It is noisy. Fears arise. Sometimes we get heckled. Learning to deal with that is good practice. Watching the mind and body react—and dealing with it—strengthens our resolve to work for peace from a peaceful, less-reactive place.
This past October, on the Friday before a big San Francisco peace march, a group of businessmen from the Chinese mainland stood for a long while watching us meditate. Through their interpreter they asked me many questions about police permission, harassment and the potential for violence the next day. They were impressed that I was allowed to pronounce freely my views of U.S. policy. Finally, the boldest among them stepped forward: “We are from the Manchurian province in China. I need to tell you that the Chinese people don’t want this war either.” He looked into my eyes, and I felt a sparkling sense of connection. “We want peace, too,” he said. “We want peace.”
Our Friday peace vigil and meditation is open to everyone. Please join us there at noon, or sit down in your own community.