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In your May Correspondence, Carol Spaulding responded to Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Art of Living” [March 1996] by saying, “I can ‘practice smiling while cutting carrots’ because the world’s urgent social and political problems are not part of my daily life — not unless I make them a part. And then I wouldn’t be smiling.” She didn’t see his essay the same way I did. I saw it as easy-to-understand instruction on how to practice mindfulness — how to pay attention to changing experience, and find stillness in its midst.
During the “urgent social and political problem” of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh was doing somewhat more than smiling and cutting carrots. He spoke out against the violence and became an exile from his homeland.
As I encounter my own war zones, whether at work in the ICU or in line at the grocery store, I hope to bring to each moment a greater sense of awareness and an ability to relate to it with compassion.
This morning, I put my paper aside and ate a bowl of fresh fruit in the way Thich Nhat Hanh describes [“The Art of Living,” March 1996]. Yes, the cantaloupe and grapes and pineapple were more satisfying, and I felt more centered. But I was still disturbed by all I had read on hunger in the rest of the March issue.
If everything in the cosmos is in my cantaloupe, then isn’t it more than just the “sunshine, rain, clouds, trees, leaves”? Isn’t it also the underpaid immigrant farm workers being slowly poisoned by pesticides? Isn’t it the birds dying from selenium buildup in the exhausted soil? Isn’t it the driver of the cantaloupe truck whose attempts to unionize his co-workers might cost him his job? Isn’t it the children in urban neighborhoods who rarely see fresh fruits because the Korean grocer has packed up and left for safer streets?
Thich Nhat Hanh says we should “use the practice of mindfulness to address social and political problems, and also the problems of daily life.” There’s the rub. I can “practice smiling while cutting carrots” because the world’s urgent social and political problems are not part of my daily life — not unless I make them a part. And then I wouldn’t be smiling.