Monks at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Mindfulness Retreat for Educators. 

When I returned from five intense days with Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh  (Thay) at the Mindfulness Retreat for Educators my mind and emotions were awhirl. There were thirteen hundred participants.  The theme of the intensive was, “happy teachers will change the world.” And Thich Nhat Hanh’s work is about increasing happiness and a wholesome way of living. He walked with Martin Luther King Jr. against the Vietnam War, started the Engaged Buddhism movement and now tours the world teaching peace, compassion and mindfulness.

The five days were mindfulness in the extreme: up at 6:00 am for walking meditation and to bed at 9:30 pm after sitting and movement meditations, silent meals, talks, and presentations.  We became an intimate group (as intimate as you can get with over a thousand people), united in our common aim of waking up to a different way of living, of bringing mindfulness into every aspect of life, and every waking moment.

But not everything was peace and light throughout the retreat. In fact, there were a few snags that provided much fodder for practice. These showed up in a lack of attention to the rights of the disabled and an inadequate response to western interpersonal and mental health difficulties. All of a sudden our interconnectedness met a gap. In fact, it felt like a yawning chasm.

On one afternoon there was a Q and A, anonymous letters to Thay expressing enormous mental distress and familial stress that sounded like people were at risk. The anxiety rippled through the room but was especially high in those of us who were healthcare providers. Left to my own devices, I would have suggested calling the CAS for one person, and told the other to go to the emergency department for an assessment. Instead, what was suggested was more practice, ringing a bell to increase parental awareness and “flower watering” (complimenting someone on his/her strengths before discussing one’s own feelings about the other’s actions).

One lone voice spoke out vehemently against the lack of accommodation for the disabled. But we were a peaceful and passive mob: paralyzed momentarily by the cultural wall into which we had just crashed. Thay, the lay practitioners and the monastics didn’t seem able to address these issues of physical and mental suffering very well. It was as if they didn’t have a mechanism for dealing with such disabilities–at least, none I really understood.  To be fair, this might not have been the time or the place to have such problems raised. Sometimes, people look for relief in all the wrong places.  The situation did, however, expose the raw reality of bringing an eastern model of mind to the west and the kinds of problems that will arise if we don’t consider sociocultural differences. We are all “inter-being”…until we’re not.

We will need to be on our cultural toes as we integrate mindfulness into a society that predominantly meets “ill-being” with the medical model and oppression through the use of human rights. There is enormous value to be found in western society as mindfulness is increasingly secularized and brought under scientific scrutiny.  It has been said that the dharma adapts to the culture and times in which it finds itself.

Mindfulness is a powerful part of the dharma, but it is not a panacea. We must use skillful means to ensure that it is used as it was intended–to reduce suffering–and not to inadvertently increase it. If the practices are lost in translation or are not handled deftly as they continue to enter the West, this may well be the result.

The organizers announced that there were mental health professionals to provide assistance and resources. A group of us made ourselves available; no longer passive. Different paradigms fit different circumstances. In our society, discerning when mindfulness or mental health care is the antidote to suffering will likely prove essential.


Patricia Rockman

Pat Rockman