From the Preface
It was a blistering hot midsummer morning, already over 100 degrees. The small desert town was quiet, as usual, when an old car pulled over to the side of the road and the driver’s door flew open. A young woman fell to the ground, semi-conscious, and three little girls, ages 5, 8, and 11, jumped out of the car. They surrounded their mother who was lying unresponsive on the hot pavement. Calling out to her, they stood there, helpless and in tears. Moments later, another young girl, age 9, was leaving the only general store in town and, glancing over, saw the little girls and their mom. She came running over, stood there for a second, and said, “I know what to do. Wait here.” She ran back into the store and returned with a big bag of ice. Standing over the woman on the ground, she opened the bag and poured the crushed ice on top of her. She then ran back and forth into the store for several more bags of ice until the woman regained consciousness. The girls and their mom had traveled from the Santa Clara Valley in California on their way to New Mexico. The heat of that desert morning had taken a toll. Heat prostration, a life threatening condition, was not uncommon for locals and travelers, and ice was the answer.
This is our shared story. Thaïs was the 5 year old whose mother collapsed, and Wendy was the 9 year old who saved her life. And yet, it wasn’t until a casual conversation one afternoon, many many years later, that we realized we were bound together by this story.
Why have we shared this? Stories are in many ways what connects us to the soul of who we are. They are a uniquely human experience, and no two stories are alike—not even our own.
Our stories change as we change. They change as we contemplate them or as we enter into dialogue with others where our stories, as well as theirs, are being played out in conversations and interactions. Stories help us make sense of the world, allowing us to pay attention to what is important, what works, where we have struggled, and what actions we need to take. Our story is the perfect example of what we know to be true— what happens to you, happens to me, and what happens to me, happens to you. We are in this together.
In our professional lives we have worked with perpetrators and victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide sitting in the same room, striving to renew and rebuild their trust in each other and restoring their hope for the future. We have watched female refugees in Bosnia finding their own ways to heal through dancing and singing, reclaiming their culture and their dignity lost to the tragedies of war. We have also seen deeds gone awry as well-intentioned groups and individuals attempt to intervene in social and environmental catastrophes. Certainly, no one enters their work with the intention to cause problems or create a bigger mess than when they started; however, we all know this occurs.
Yet, through decades of our professional work, we have repeatedly observed individuals, community groups, and organizations unknowingly cause harm, sometimes with lasting effects: an entire team of health care providers unwilling to address the deep emotional and spiritual suffering of an inmate while he lies dying in a hospital; conflict and violence prevention professionals working in highly traumatized communities who insist that community members retell their painful stories; leaders whose organizations compete for resources and recognition becoming rigid and competitive; environmental activists who refuse to listen to the wisdom of local indigenous peoples, make decisions that they believe to be the solution, yet eventually cause far more problems.
Through all that we witnessed and lived through, both of us learned that the pain of suffering can be transformed into compassion and altruism and shift dangerously chaotic situations into opportunities for healing, building resilience, and unification. We have also seen how, even in the most adverse conditions, people can reconcile their differences and rebuild healthy thriving communities. Those who cling to ideals of right and wrong often discover lasting, peaceful resolutions. We believe the world needs to nurture and cultivate kindness, compassion, and hope—and this can happen if everyone recognizes how our stories are interconnected and the merit of doing no harm.
As we began thinking about the social impact of ‘harm’, and our collective responsibility to ‘do no harm’, it became clear to us how early life experiences played a critical part in writing this book together. Although we were raised in two completely different places, (Thaïs, in the midst of the lush Santa Clara Valley in California, and Wendy, in the Mojave Desert along the Colorado River), we lived parallel lives.
The little desert town of 4,000 people was filled with interesting characters, good schools, a stable economy, a sense of place, a connection to a majestic river, and a love for the vast and empty spaces. Nestled next to the Mojave Indian Reservation, adding a rich diversity, it was by no means an environment of equity or inclusion. At the same time, it was hard to get lost. The town’s people used to have a saying, “If you don’t know who you are, just ask around. Someone else will be happy to tell you!” Everyone and everything was interconnected. Along side the joy of being a kid, there were plenty of social and environmental challenges that one could not ignore. The heat was often unbearable, the flash floods wiped away landscapes and people in a heartbeat, and the winds ripped off roofs as if they were made of matchsticks. It was not uncommon to have young friends witness violence in their homes on a daily basis. Hunger and poverty were always present.
Growing up in a farm working community in Santa Clara Valley in California, there was a strong commitment to family and neighbors helping neighbors. Work meant picking fruit and nuts from the surrounding orchards and vineyards for the local canneries to process. Although money was scarce, and many of the children went to bed hungry, life had a quality of belonging to a place and to each other. As farm machinery manufacturers realized more money could be made making military machin ery, middle class families moved to the valley to work for the new companies. This was the beginning of Silicon Valley. The small farming community began to be torn apart by a rise in violence, hatred, and destruction. White kid gangs pitted them selves against Mexican gangs, escalating conflict and creating the painful divide of haves and have nots. In a short decade, orchards and fertile farmland were bulldozed and replaced with asphalt for massive shopping centers, tract homes, and a tangle of highways broadcasting relentless noise. Multi-generational farmers lost their land while farm workers lost their jobs and were displaced into rundown neighborhoods. Domes tic violence and child abuse increased, along with substance abuse and suicide.
In both places, there were no child protection or domestic vio lence services to be found. Churches could feed you, but only on Sunday. Why the violence? Why the inequity? Where was both safety and justice to be found? Where were the support systems? Where was the community when folks needed help? Could anyone help? And if so, who were they, and how would they be received? These were the questions haunting our childhoods which carried forward into our respective work as adults.
Navigating these experiences, and much more, was our prac tice, even as kids. We had no choice but to listen carefully but ‘watch our mouth’ and try to make sense of our experiences while at the same time trying to make sense of others’ experiences. We had to learn to be resilient and develop strategies for swimming in treacherous waters, knowing we must “go as a river”, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh so eloquently states.
As both of us left our small communities and moved into the world, pursuing education, work, and creating our families, compassionate action and the desire to not harm others was central to our personal and professional lives. Years later, when we met in a doctoral program in Human Science and Transformative Social Change, we decided to work on a collaborative research project on the social importance of ‘doing no harm’. We saw that our common experiences had shaped us as adults and was now influencing our academic work. This book has been inspired by our shared experiences.
Chapter 1 – Mindful Engagement
By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is the noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
The world is a perilous and complicated place, and the sheer magnitude of human suffering and environmental destruction is incomprehensible. While many of us dream of a kinder, more just, and safer world, we may also feel burdened by powerlessness and despair. How we respond in such times takes deliberate, conscious awareness. It requires us to show up as our best possible selves. But how are we to do this? If we sit back and hope that things will improve, that will most likely never happen. We need the skills, ability, and willingness to work together towards a freer and better civil society. We must lead from both our hearts and our minds. We must learn how to act in ways that do not harm, from a place of balanced determination and with equal regard for all people—from a place of equanimity. This book is designed to help you do just that. The qualities, the stories and the practices within this book, provide the insight, skills, and tools needed to embrace our shared humanity, build resilience, transform conflict, and create meaningful change. This is a guide book that will give you the opportunity to understand and practice the principles and qualities of Mindful Engagement, as well as an opportunity to read stories of people whose lives and work represent these qualities.
The voices you will hear within this book include:
- A mediator whose work has redefined the field of mediation, conflict resolution, and peace building throughout the world;
- A Roman Catholic nun whose activism around issues of human rights, along with her public presence, has influenced national political and social decisions and policies;
- An indigenous grandmother and activist working tirelessly to save the birthing grounds of the caribou in Alaska from oil drilling;
- A woman who, along with her husband, creates a healing center for mothers and children living in Fukushima and suffering from radiation exposure;
- A pediatric psychiatrist and early childhood trauma expert who has reshaped our understanding and approach to working with children exposed to violence and neglect;
- A social worker who founded a job-training, earth-stewardship program for former inmates and at-risk youth;
- A mother who loses her son in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and subsequently co-founds an organization united to turn grief into actions for peace.
The people in these stories exemplify the essence of what it means to work in ways that do no harm. Their shared wisdom is a way finding—a way through. After years of experience, contemplation, successes, and failures, these people have embraced certain qualities they express as essential in their work and their daily lives—the qualities of Mindful Engagement. These core qualities that each person possesses, practices, embodies, and applies—authenticity, deep listening, wise speech, mindfulness, compassion, love and joy—are part of a wheel, an intersection of pain and beauty, where one informs the other.
Whether you are a social activist, educator, healthcare worker, community advocate, or someone who is wanting to ‘just do something’ to alter the course of the challenges we face as a society, engaging mindfully can become a source and foundation for bringing actions into the world that do not harm. Mindful engagement is a practice, and like all practices, the more we live it, the more we can fully embrace, embody, and share it with others. If we are to act for the common good while navigating ordinary, as well as difficult and perilous situations, then we must do so responsibly, with good intentions, confidence, purpose, and kindness. Our mindful presence, focused attention, and motivations will support the change we are hop ing to initiate and realize.