In the midst of hectic Hill schedules, Congressional members and staff often find little time for spiritual reflection, little space to deepen the connections between their faith and their vocation of politics.
On September 10, as part of our annual Capps-Emerson Lecture series, The Institute invited the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, renowned Buddhist monk and teacher, to share his philosophy and teachings of mindfulness with members of Congress and others who work in the environment of Capitol Hill.
Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh explained, is an inward awareness of the present moment that inextricably leads to positive outward engagement. This heightened engagement, then, has the potential to change the world.
The lecture exposed the approximately 400 people in attendance to another way of thinking about the intersection of one's faith journey with one's secular vocation. Thich Nhat Hanh also shared his vision of mindfulness in the work place – being present to those around you. Such mindfulness, he said, generates a ripple effect, creating a more humane and understanding work environment that expands into the whole world.
The following weekend, nine members of Congress, eleven family members and nine clergy attended a three-day retreat outside Washington. The retreat, titled "Leading with Courage & Compassion," focused on deepening the discussion of mindfulness through periods of meditation, deep listening and suggestions from Thich Nhat Hanh of ways to be more present in daily life.
Traffic lights, he told participants, offer an opportunity to be mindful and slow down. Breathing three times before entering a room or answering the phone prepares a person to listen deeply, which can prevent wrong perceptions that lead to misconceptions, hostility, and lack of compassion.
The response of participants to the retreat in confidential evaluations was very positive. Members expressed a realization for the need to slow down and reflect and acknowledged the value in deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and both sitting and walking meditation. The retreat, one member commented, was a "good mix of the personal and the bigger picture." Another noted that the weekend was "one of the most enlightening I have had in years." The retreat also touched pastoral participants, some of whom minister to members of Congress and their families.
"The retreat was especially helpful to me," one said, "because it gave me insight into the 'realties' of congressional life. It was a good reminder that just being fully present with deep listening to another person can draw forth wisdom."
Member's spouses also benefited. "I came away feeling as if we made new friends with the brothers and sisters," one said. "I'd actually like to take [my son to a retreat] when he is six to participate in their activities. The focus on kindness and appreciating what we have are good lessons for every age."
"All of it was different and all of it was fascinating," a Member concluded, " but the discussion allowed time to sort out how to apply the information to day to day life."
About Thich Nhat
Causes Thich Nhat Hanh Supports
Peace, Mindful Living