V. Stories


Judith Thompson, Children of War:

One evening, we were doing group support work in small groups and large groups, so that the stories were being told and the process of healing was happening. In the evenings we would often focus on one particular regional area or conflict area and give some more straightforward socio-political information. What is Apartheid? How did it occur? What are its historic routes? We might show a movie or something like that and then the people from that region of the world would get up and tell their personal stories.

On this particular evening, we were telling the story of Cambodia. The Cambodian youth got up to share their story but really they just began to weep. This was maybe four days into the program and a very safe community had formed, a very open community, and so when they began to weep everybody began weeping. There were 75 or so people in the room from all these different parts of the world and I truly felt that the process that evolved was really a transpersonal process. I would view it as a holographic experience, meaning the whole was present in the parts and the parts were present in the whole and we were really allowing the suffering of the entire world to come through.

We were all in a circle and eventually one or two people stood up and then other people. Suddenly one African-American girl from South Central Los Angeles started to sing a spiritual. Someone else started singing a freedom song and then the South Africans began singing their freedom songs and then they began to do their freedom dances. Then suddenly they broke off and there was a sort of snake dance outside the building and around the grounds, then people came back in and there we were in this big room. Then someone turned on some music and we just started dancing.

It was a party. And there was never a point in time where the process was at all manipulated. It was an organic healing, sacred experience of allowing the depth of suffering to be felt and discharged, and from that, an extraordinary experience of unity because in the end you could look anyone in that room in the face and there was an absolute present-ness and disarmament and complete, authentic alignment to their true self… It happened because we allowed ourselves to be with our suffering.

When we make a connection across hearts, across identities and being-ness and presences in the moment of suffering that immediately offers the antidote for suffering to occur. Not only that, but it actually opens up the possibility of joy so one can really move from suffering to joy through the willingness of being present. I don’t want to make it sound overly romantic or Pollyanna-ish; it’s not like suddenly the people who are really oppressed and are suffering are not going to suffer anymore.

But what we can learn from these moments or from these experiences is the value, the potency, the transformative possibility of engagement. This is what I call “ecstatic activism” and the “alchemy of engagement.”

Frank Ostaseski, Zen Hospice Project:

We had two doctors who were taking care of a patient who was a Buddhist and for whom there wasn’t anything more they could do medically. Frustrated, they came downstairs to the kitchen and they asked me if I could teach them some Buddhist practice that might help. So, I asked them what they did when their children were sick. They said, well, that they sat next to them.

“Ok, then what do you do?”
The doctor said, “Well, then I just put my hand on them, and I…I want to tell them that they’re okay, that they’re safe.”
“Anything else?”
“Yeah, I want to tell them that they’re loved.”
“Wonderful. And what do you wish for them?”
“I wish that they’d be free from suffering. I wish that their pain would go away.”
“Wonderful.” So I said, “Why don’t you go upstairs and do that with Robert?”
So they went upstairs and in their own language, in their own way, silently and out loud, they spoke to Robert. “Be happy, be safe, be free from all danger. Know that you’re loved and free from suffering now.”

After a while, they came downstairs and I asked how it was going. He said, “Well, we don’t know about Robert, but we’re much calmer now.”


Adi Bemak, Holyoke Youth Alliance:

We would sit in meditation, especially around the time that the gang activity was really intense and very scary for everybody, because there were shootings all the time. Some of them were being shot at, some of their friends were being shot at, and it just wasn’t safe. So we sat in meditation, we talked about what was happening in the community, and then I gave them journals. One of the boys wrote in his journal, “At first I thought this meditation stuff was really wacky, but now I like feeling that quiet place in my body.”

I remember one time especially that there was a quality of silence sitting with them that was equal to any quality of any silence I’ve ever sat with in a meditation hall. It was really profound. So, in all the experiences I’ve had so far introducing mindfulness and contemplative practice, there’s such receptivity.

For young people, especially those who have a “bad rep,” they want an opening. If you give them an opportunity to find peace in themselves and to express that, it’s empowering. It’s not just calming. It’s not just relaxing. It teaches them something about themselves. It really shows them their capacity for patience. It shows them their capacity for compassion toward themselves and each other. And it can happen rather quickly, because they’re waiting for it.


David Cooperider, Case Western Reserve School of Management:

We’ve seen that the organizations begin to develop healthier structures and decision processes – processes that nurture people’s talents. And as they develop at that level, they begin to take on the characteristics of what they’ve learned in the appreciative process of connecting to the positive core. As the day-to-day processes and structures take that on, then I do think there is a tendency towards deeper work, where they set aside places for meditation and so on.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, for example, have used appreciative inquiry quite extensively and have going from an appreciative connection with the positive core, in terms of what gives life to that system, to then working at higher levels of purpose externally. So they started contributing and actively working in ecological arenas. And that started translating into their practices. They turned the lights off in the factory and reduced waste and scrap and so on. And the next stage for them was to create a meditation site and center within the company.

Doug Tanner, Faith and Politics Institute:

John Smith [pseudonym] was, at the time, a freshman Congressman from southern Illinois. He had come from a fundamentalist southern Baptist background but he read a lot of Merton and he went on retreats. When I learned that, I thought, “This is an interesting character.”

A group of four of us started to meet in John’s office for an hour-and-a-half on Wednesday mornings in a style that was very similar to the reflection group. It was such a positive experience that out of that we began to think about making it available to others.

John shared with the group after a few weeks that he was having a very hard time facing the prospect of going out and raising another half-million dollars for his re-election campaign. He just couldn’t in good conscience do it, for several reasons. He wanted to try to do it differently: not take any PAC money, not take more than $50 from anybody, debate his opponent in all 22 of the local counties, not buy television time and count on local newspapers to cover it, etc.

John served five terms, always being grossly outspent by his opponents and every time getting a higher percentage of the vote than he had the last time. He ran for governor and got the nomination but lost in the general election by just a few points. He said without that little group he would not have had the clarity to make that decision or the courage to stay with it. It all happened within a setting where he was given the freedom and encouragement to follow where his spirit was leading him.


Saki Santorelli, Center for Mindfulness, Healthcare, and Society, University of Massachusetts:

Not so long ago, I was doing a workshop with the teachers in the school system we're working with. We'd had an all-day session and one of the teachers said, “When I left the session I felt really calm, I felt really stable, I felt really at ease. And then I went home and I lost it.”

And I looked at her and, there was a ripple of laughter across the room, because everybody knows that experience. But I said to her, “Well, was the part of you that knew you were lost, lost?”

I suppose that's not an easy question to absorb. But she stammered and then she finally said, “No.”

And in many ways that was a turning point in that two-day intensive which started this teacher program, because they got what we were up to, what the real intention of the practice was. It wasn't that they'd always be calm, it wasn't that they'd always be quiet, but it would be that there would be some capacity for them to connect to that part of them that is able to see, that is able to stop and understand and therefore make choices.


Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology:

We did an Open Space for nine villages and towns in Western Serbia, all of whom, if they were going to survive meaningfully were going to have to work together, and none of whom really thought that was a good idea. Furthermore, they had about 1,000 years of history saying that each town was worse than the other town, and “my town is better than any town.” I’m not quite clear how they were all invited and why it was they all accepted but, anyhow, we ended up with 150 representatives of all these folks.

Just to make it more interesting, Serbia had existed under Marxist domination or dictatorship for 60 years and then they had 10 years of Milosevic, so the general expectations on the part of a lot of people was simply that these folks probably are not going to do anything too unique and useful unless we teach them a lot and lecture to them, and they’re certainly not going to engage each other in any sort of way that would be fruitful for downstream development.

Well, that was 100% wrong. We sat in a circle and checked each other out in Open Space, and from the moment that space was open until the moment it closed two and a half days later, there was a level of engagement and collective practice that was just electric. It’s going to be a while before anybody really understands what the downstream impact was but one thing is really different – these folks now know that they don’t have to be strangers, not because somebody came out and introduced them but because they had the experience of engaging each other in useful ways.


Janine Geske, Marquette University:

A very dear friend of mine who is a vice president at a university decided to offer a retreat to some of the big donors to the school – they were businessmen from huge corporations. Some of them came, a little bit reluctantly. By the third day, some of these guys started reflecting on situations in which they had exercised power against employees – things like firing somebody to show that you had the power to do it; grabbing things whether it be opportunities or clients or whatever, just to be more powerful than someone else.

Some of these guys unraveled that weekend. One of them said, “I can’t believe I’m that way.” One man said he was going to go back and re-hire somebody he had fired the week before, some guy with a family. He started having the space to think about the ripple effect of his actions. He realized that his decision affected not only the person whom he had fired, but his family and everybody else. The realization for him to look in silence, in prayer, in quiet contemplation at why he did what he did and how that fit in the scheme of the world, I think, is immense.


next, Practices and Exercises