Mar 25, 2007
“Keeping the Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh
Keeping the Peace: Mindfulness and Public Service by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Parallax Press, 2005. Paperback, $12.00).
This book is a short collection of reflections on working in jobs whose purpose is to ‘keep the peace’. As such it is aimed at people who work in professions such as Police, Probation, Social Work, Counseling and Prisons. I looked forward to reading it as one who has, barring the police, worked in all of those situations. It very much concentrates on working with ourselves, as individuals, and as members of ‘communities’ of practitioners.
As ever, Thich Nhat Hanh keeps it simple, constantly reiterating the message of mindfulness and calm awareness in ourselves. He is absolutely right that, unless we can cultivate this in ourselves, we cannot bring about transformation in others and that the basis for effectiveness in the transformation of the lives of others lies in our ability to transform ourselves.
The second section of the book deals in the transformation of our own ‘communities’ be they police, probation or prison officers. It is the weakest section of the book and while noble in intent is a little naïve. “When you have succeeded in building a beautiful community you are in a position to help the people that you serve” may well be true, but Thich Nhat Hanh has clearly never worked in a prison. What may work in a community of the committed, like Plum Village, or a retreat of volunteer participants does not work in the same way in a collection of people whose motivations are so varied and who may have absolutely no interest in the transformation of lives, even their own.
I worked for 4 years in Pentonville Prison in London. It was an absolutely fascinating and, much to my surprise, hugely positive experience. As a prison it had the deserved reputation of being ‘the most positive and friendly prison in England, bar none’. It was not because of the nature of the inmates but because of the nature of the leadership in the prison, particularly the senior uniformed officers. An identical prison a few miles away had the reputation of being a hard, ignorant and confrontational place. It was because the self same leaders in that prison were hard, ignorant and confrontational. Pentonville was a firm but fair and humane place because its leaders, the Principal Officers, were just like that. This rubbed off on the Senior Officers and on to the Wing officers, the turnkeys. As a consequence, the inmates in the main trusted and respected the prison officers. Before I get too Pollyannaish about this, it was a prison and there were acts of violence and ignorance and pettiness on both sides. But it was possible to pick the bad ones on the staff because they were the exception rather than the rule and they were not popular with the other officers because they caused conflict.
Here is a fascinating thing. One of the prison officers attended a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat and, unsurprisingly, came back full of inspiration. He put up posters, booked a room and sat there, waiting for participants. No one came from the uniformed staff. In a ‘man’s’ world notions of compassion, kindness and patience are reserved for children, not colleagues or inmates (at least publicly). One piece of advice I was given when first starting in the prison was never to try and ‘lift consciousness’ to a group of prison officers together. What you will always get is a group response based on the most ignorant individual in the group. It is a macho world. Working with individuals in that sort of situation produces results but groups are herds led by bulls. Nonetheless, the example of a small number of senior individuals, — firm, decent men and women who led by example — transformed the world of Pentonville prison and put to shame a similar place just down the road. We make our own worlds by our own actions and in that Thich Nhat Hanh is absolutely spot on.
Perhaps what I am leading to with all this is that you have to pick your mode of transformation skillfully. Goals have to be achievable and realistic. It is achievable for me, as a goal, to be able to fly a jumbo jet, but it is not realistic because I don’t want to and my technological abilities are minimal. What works in Plum Village or on retreat with a group of people who has opted in is not necessarily realistic in other settings.
One other negative comment is from the introduction from the Corrections officer. She seemed pleased that she now carried her gun mindfully which rather missed the point in my view. In fairness, this has more to do with the culture this woman lives in than with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching, but given his espousal of non-violence, may be worth reflecting on.
The strength of this book lies in the author’s simple but profound repetition of the Miracle of Mindfulness for us all as individuals.
– Lokapala is manager of the Auckland Methadone Service in New Zealand. He was a Probation Officer for 20 years in Central London.