Richard Reoch has put into practice the tools of mindfulness to deal with some of the most horrific and gut-wrenching situations humanity has faced in recent decades. He has devoted his life to defending human rights, working for peace and protecting the environment. Born in Toronto, Canada and raised in a Buddhist family, Richard moved to London in 1971 to begin a 23-year long career with Amnesty International, becoming its global media chief. He also served as President of Shambhala, one of the world’s largest Buddhist organizations.
He was a trustee of The Rainforest Foundation and has been engaged in conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, among others. He was recently invited to chair the trustees of the Mindfulness Initiative, which provides training and support for the application of mindfulness in public policy development.
Why We Need To Recover Listening
Today, there is a heightened level of aggression and hostility in public discourse in countries around the world. The spaces for mutual understanding, compromise and working together despite our differences have been largely shut down. The world is crying out for people who are capable of listening to the other side and opening their hearts to those with whom they may deeply disagree. If we remain in a state of perpetual combat, we are not going to be able to address some of the deep issues that are plaguing contemporary society. Nor will we be able to work cooperatively as a species to protect our biosphere.
Being a good listener definitely requires some inner work. Thankfully, one of the great fruits of mindfulness practice is the recovery of the lost art of listening. In order to be open to another person and to be able to listen fully to what they are communicating – more than simply what they say – we have to be able to understand what our own minds are doing. We need to be able to set aside our thoughts and prejudices, as well as our egocentricity and our attachment to our opinions in order to give space to others. That makes it genuinely possible to listen more profoundly to what is being communicated behind the words.
Understanding People’s Perspective
Once I met an army commander who was in charge of units that were accused of torture. It was my job to open a discussion with him. In my experience, what is absolutely essential is to enter into any such dialogue with a spirit of inquiry. Doing so is the most valuable use of that time together. The chance of convincing a person to change their beliefs and behaviors in one conversation is quite minimal. Rather, the great gift to come out of the conversation is to find out why the other person sees the world in such a radically different way. Sometimes, the result of that spirit of inquiry produces surprising results.
I opened the conversation with the commander from a place of honesty and inquiry. What I soon discovered was that rather than being defensive or hostile to me, he revealed something entirely different. He explained in great depth the efforts he was making to prevent torture under his command, most notably by cooperating with the International Red Cross to identify very specific incidents so he could deal with the officers who were carrying out torture. He also indicated to me that if he faced a lack of cooperation from them, he would close those interrogation centers down.
I knew that he was not fooling me, and I was able to verify everything that he said. I also knew that he faced political pressure and required considerable courage to act the way he did. In fact, in the course of this conversation, the person, who from outward appearances seemed to be the very emblem of the crime of torture, turned out to be, in my long years of experience, one of the most determined fighters against torture I have met.
I have learned things that I could never have imagined. I have met Buddhist monks who have publicly been in favor of war. In order to understand them, I have spent long periods of time in their temples, not endeavoring to argue with them but simply to become familiar with them. Through this patient relationship-building, I found that their public posture was sometimes very different to their private agonies. So, I think this principle about actively being willing to inquire and listen to others – especially those who are different from us or with whom we disagree – has for me been extremely productive in terms of opening up dialogue and contemplating profound questions.
An Unusual Upbringing
The seeds of my life’s work were sown in my unusual upbringing. When I was 6 years old, my parents dragged me off to become a Buddhist. When I say dragged, they were not coercive— at that age you do what your parents do! The extraordinary thing about this was that I had direct experience of being a member of a minority in two ways: first, we were the only non-Japanese people in that community for at least 6 years; and simultaneously with that I was the only Buddhist in my school, taunted and jeered at by classmates who had no idea what they were talking about. It also gave me a very early understanding of the meaning of war and injustice. For the Japanese people in Canada who had survived the war, words like “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” had a very special meaning. They had also experienced internment without charge or trial during the war. So, looking back, that really shaped my life without my realizing it. It determined what I would do for the rest of my life and introduced me to incredibly helpful inner tools for doing that work—such as mindfulness and compassion practices.
Still, there are experiences in my work for which I don’t think anything can prepare you. Recently, I was in the living hell of refugee camps on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh to see the Rohingya people who are the victims of Buddhist terror. They were certainly surprised to see an old white man who looked them in the eye and said,
“I am a Buddhist, and I have come here to express my horror and my sorrow at what has been done in the name of Buddhism, and which is utterly the opposite of the Buddhist teachings.”
People have questioned what the good people of Germany were doing during the Holocaust, or what the good people of Spain were doing during the Spanish Inquisition, or what moderate Muslims have been doing in the face of the rise of Isis. In these refugee camps, I found myself facing that same question. I felt the weight of responsibility as a Buddhist, looking into the eyes of people who have experienced unspeakable horror at the hands of people who claim to be defending Buddhism.
Building Bridges Through Mindfulness
Encouragingly, I have found that mindfulness can build bridges across differences that seem to separate us from our common humanity. Over the last four years, I have been spending part of my time teaching at a university in Morocco. It began as a project to teach mindfulness to young imams who had completed their primary Islamic education and were due to become the equivalent of priests in their communities. I wondered if it would be possible to really bridge the cultural and conceptual barriers that have come up over so many centuries of misunderstanding and conflict.
But what I found was that the presentation of contemporary neuroscience combined with the direct experience of pure mindfulness practice crossed all barriers. The first comment that these young imams made to me after their first practice session was “this will help our prayer.” I realized in that moment that mindfulness practice is in a way the most pure expression of our common humanity. It is something that transcends cultures and history. It is in a sense an expression of our essential nakedness in the cosmos. That deeply personal experience is the basis of profound listening.
There is understandable skepticism about whether the ancient traditions of mindfulness practice can be made publicly available on a mass scale and still have the same potency. But if there was ever a point in history whereas many people as possible could benefit from that personal experience of mindfulness (and the resulting interpersonal experience), it is now.
That is why I believe that, while there is no guarantee of success, we cannot afford not to make this experiment.
Richard Reoch is Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Mindfulness Initiative, lead partners in the GIFT Mindful Nations Initiative as well as a member of the GIFT Global Advisory Board.
For more information on Richard’s work, visit RichardReoch.info or read his latest article, Lion’s Roar: Meditating on the Buddha in the midst of Buddhist Terror.