In What Ways Can Mindfulness Help Create a More Peaceful World?

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By Brian Pappas, guest contributor

From the nightly news to the neighborhood barbeque, conflict and disagreement are all around us. A quick survey of the day’s news details the ongoing war in Ukraine and continued strife over immigration, gun control, abortion, the 2020 election, and COVID. Our national unity has been declining for nearly three decades. It seems anything can and does become contested and politicized -- even professional golf is now embroiled in conflict.  

As a mediator and a professor of law and mediation, I am often asked how mediation can help? Mediation is a process where individuals meet with an impartial third party to communicate and explore ways to resolve conflicts.[1] Mediation is an outstanding tool for enhancing and improving communication and finding creative solutions to bridge our differences. My answer, however, is typically not to recommend mediation, but rather to suggest mindfulness. 

Mindfulness, also known as meditation, is the practice of cultivating present awareness of our moment-to-moment experience.[2] While meditation and mediation share nine letters in common, they also both promote peace through process and ritual.[3] I incorporate mindfulness into both my teaching and my mediation practice to such an extent that I think of myself as a mindful mediator. You do not need to be a mediator to do your part in creating a more peaceful world! 

Mindfulness helps us cultivate inner peace

Mindfulness can help us keep our balance given so much uncertainty and disagreement going on around us. Mindfulness practice creates a “wedge” of awareness that lessens our reactivity to the people, events, and situations that challenge us. The goal of mindfulness is not to avoid difficult feelings or thoughts, but to see things clearly and understand what is occurring within us moment to moment. The goal is also not to accept the status quo, but to accept the reality of the current situation and see it clearly as it is. Acceptance does not mean we are maintaining the status quo but acknowledging our current circumstances.

As the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh noted, “Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation.”[4] The more present we are, the more we can be aware of our lifestyle, of our consumption, of how we look at things. Being aware makes it more possible for us to make changes and pursue growth. It is impossible to take action if we remain ignorant to what we are currently experiencing. 

Cultivating inner peace is the means of creating greater world peace

Being present and aware of our feelings, thoughts, and experiences is key helping us to not react in anger either towards others or ourselves. Seeing ourselves as separate and apart from others and their views makes developing compassion more difficult. In this way inner peace can help us to cultivate greater self-acceptance and compassion. In turn, that will enable us to be more deliberate and peaceful in our responses to others. As a result, working to develop our own inner peace is directly working to develop societal peace. 

Thich Nhat Hahn stated, “The kind of suffering that you carry in your heart, that is society itself. You bring that with you, you bring society with you … When you meditate, it is not just for yourself, you do it for the whole society. You seek solutions to your problems not only for yourself but for all of us.”[5] Drawing an analogy of the society as a tree, and each of us as a leaf, Thich Nhat Hanh described meditation not as an escape from society, but as a means of building our capacity to reintegrate into society, “in order for the leaf to nourish the tree.”[6] Our own suffering is the suffering of the world and vice versa. 

Persuasion requires mindfulness

This all sounds great, you might be thinking, but sometimes it is not easy to talk with people with whom we disagree so fundamentally. It is difficult to develop compassion in those instances. How can mindfulness help me be more persuasive and manage difficult conversations? 

As a mediation trainer and professor, I teach listening as a form of mindfulness practice. Thich Nhat Hanh described the basic need for communication: “We all want to be understood. When we interact with another person... we’re anxious for others to understand us right away. We want to begin by expressing ourselves. But talking first like that doesn’t usually work. Deep listening needs to come first.”[7]

Most of us listen in order to respond to what the other person is saying, instead of truly hearing and understanding what was said. Active listening can help us build greater connections with others, especially with people with whom we meaningfully disagree. Active listening requires helping the other person feel heard and it requires more than nodding, maintaining eye-contact and providing short verbal responses. Reflecting back what the person says is a powerful tool for building trust and creating greater understanding, and it does not require agreement![8] 

Reflection involves repeating what someone says back to them by directly stating or paraphrasing the words.[9] Reflection involves five basic steps:[10]

  1.  Quiet your mind of other thoughts and focus on what the other person is saying with the intent of accurately stating it back to them. 
  2. Begin your reflection with an introductory phrase like, “it sounds like” or “what I’m hearing” or “from your perspective” in order to avoid it sounding like a statement of fact. 
  3. Reflect both the words and the way it is expressed. When there is less trust, focus on reflecting the exact words.
  4. Do not alter the meaning or twist anyone’s words. If someone suspects you are attempting to alter the message or prove a point, the reflection will actually lower trust between the communicators. 
  5. Practice to perfect the technique. No one likes to be parroted but everyone likes being heard and acknowledged. Sometimes it is just as effective to paraphrase. 

Listening in this way has enormous benefits. People tend to ascribe good qualities to people they determine they like, and people tend to like those who treat them well.[11] If someone sees you as respectful, listening, and interested in their point of view, they are more likely to consider your own viewpoints. In effect, many people need to be heard in order to hear others. I use reflective listening when I notice the other person is not listening, or if the conversation becomes tense. It simply makes it more likely the other side will hear my points by them knowing I understand (but do not necessarily agree) with their perspective. Through reflection, I am also better able to identify questions and ways of following up on what was said that might not be possible otherwise. 

As a mindfulness practice, reflection has an even more important role. When I am prepared to reflect (whether or not I actually do), it provides my mind with something to do and quiets the impulse to judge what is being said, and interrupt with a response. Preparing to reflect keeps me present and in the moment and stops me from thinking about what you are saying. It helps me to stop immediately launching a verbal counterattack. It quiets my inner dialogue and enables me to listen to what is being said. The very act of being ready to reflect is enough to help my mind focus on what is being said. 

Similar to the practice of returning to our breath, when I notice that I am judging or I am no longer listening, I return my attention to their words and my reflection technique. In short, I become a better listener, and thus more persuasive when I do challenge the other person’s views. 

Mindful listening develops our compassion and effectiveness

The world is so filled with so much anger and hatred. To promote peace, we have to be peaceful, but that does not mean we must capitulate to others’ views. To persuade others, we must be able to listen and to understand their suffering and fear. Tara Brach describes compassion as “letting ourselves be touched by the vulnerability and suffering that is within ourselves and all beings.”[12] Compassion also has an active component- once we are attuned to its presence, we are more likely to experience a desire to help and respond. In effect, we have to “become one with [others]” and invite different views and perspectives.[13] Mindfulness enables us to develop our inner peace and also to promote peace more generally. By using mindful listening we can enhance our ability to be more compassionate, to build greater connections, and ultimately to be more persuasive and effective communicators. 

Brian Pappas, PhD, JD, LLM is Dean and Professor of Law at the University of North Dakota School of Law, and Chair-Elect of the American Bar Association’s Section for Dispute Resolution.  A mediation professor, trainer, and mediator, Brian has been practicing mindfulness for over 20 years.  Brian first began incorporating mindfulness into his classes and trainings in 2011, when he co-founded a meditation program at Michigan State’s Law College and led weekly mindfulness sessions in the mock courtroom.  Brian is currently completing a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program through the Greater Good Science Center and the University of California-Berkeley.  He serves on the board of the Mindfulness in Law Society, a non-profit that seeks to educate, coordinate, and promote activities in the legal profession relating to mindfulness meditation, yoga, and other contemplative practices.  

What benefits have you seen from listening mindfully? Have you been able to build better communication and become more persuasive? Please share in the comments!

[1] Robert A. Creo, Mediation 2004:  The Art and the Artist, 108 Penn St. L. Rev. 1017, 1055 (2004). 
[2] Leonard L. Riskin & Rachel Wohl, Mindfulness in the Heat of Conflict:  Taking Stock, 20 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 121, 131 (2015). 
[3] Barry Nobel, Meditation and Mediation, 43 Fam. Ct. Rev. 295 (2005). 
[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Berkeley, CA:  Parallex Press, 2005 (p. 77). 
[5] Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Berkely, CA:  Parallex Press, 2005 (p. 52).
[6] Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Berkeley, CA:  Parallex Press, 2005 (p. 53). 
[7] Hanh, T.N. 2013.  The Art of Communicating.   New York:  Harper One.  (p. 42)
[8] Pappas, B. A. (2017).  “Listening to Transcend Competition and Cooperation,” in C. Honeyman and A. Schneider (Eds), The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, Vol. 2, 395-408, St. Paul:  DRI Press.  (Peer edited)
[9] Pappas, B. A. (2017).  “Listening to Transcend Competition and Cooperation,” in C. Honeyman and A. Schneider (Eds), The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, Vol. 2, 395-408, St. Paul:  DRI Press.  (Peer edited) (p. 402)
[10] Pappas, B. A. (2017).  “Listening to Transcend Competition and Cooperation,” in C. Honeyman and A. Schneider (Eds), The Negotiator’s Desk Reference, Vol. 2, 395-408, St. Paul:  DRI Press.  (Peer edited); Pappas, B. A. (2019).  “How to Listen for Persuasion,” in A. Schneider & C. Honeyman (Eds), Negotiation Essentials for Lawyers123-127, Chicago:  American Bar Association. (Peer edited)
[11] Bazerman, M. and M. Neale.  1992.  Negotiating Rationally.  New York:  The Free Press
[12] Tara Brach, Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program; December 2021 Compassion talk. 
[13] Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Berkeley, CA:  Parallex Press, 2005 (p. 73).  


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