I recently came across these words from Thich Nhat Hanh, which he wrote nearly thirty years ago: “Many of us worry about the situation of the world. We feel that we are on the edge of time. As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse.” Sadly, this assessment feels as timely as ever.
Many of us really do feel like panicking these days. News from Syria about violence, displacement, and loss of life breaks our hearts and makes us feel helpless. Climate scientists tell us we are on the edge of some catastrophic changes while at the same time we have an incoming administration that claims to “not believe the science” and proposes doubling-down on our dependence on fossil fuels. Talk of creating a national registry for Muslim citizens is more than alarming. Anti-immigration policy proposals have many of us fearing for undocumented friends in our communities. In light of all of these and more, how does one not panic?
Yet Thich Nhat Hanh proposes another, counter-intuitive response: “We need to remain calm, to see clearly.” Remain calm? REMAIN CALM!? OK, clearly I need to hear what he has to say. He goes on, “I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, he or she can help the boat survive.”
I can appreciate the power of remaining calm in that setting. But does it apply to us? Hanh says it does, and notes that in many ways our world is like a small boat: “We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the sea. Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can remain calm, who can walk peacefully.”
But how do we remain calm while it really does feel like the boat is sinking? The venerable Buddhist teacher proposes meditation. Some might ask whether that isn’t simply selfish introspection, to allow us in our perhaps more comfortable situation to cope. But he frames it differently: “Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.” I like this definition. When we meditate, or engage in silent contemplative prayer, we acknowledge our anxiety, and allow it to pass through us. We don’t run or hide from it. In this sacred space, in this deeper Presence, we are given the courage to face reality, in all of its wonder and worry, in all of its calm and its chaos. A calm person on a boat helps the boat survive: “His or her expression—face, voice—communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.” Calmness is contagious. Calmness helps us to see clearly and sets the stage for appropriate, needed action.
Maybe you’re feeling close to panic these days. You’re wondering whether you can remain calm, or whether you can really make a difference. Thich Nhat Hanh says unequivocally, “You are that person. Each of you is that person.” For the sake of our precious and fragile small boat, may it be so.
This post was originally published at Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.