THE BLOG

Listening and Seeing -- American Sniper

02/02/2015 02:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

In the first Dirty Harry movie we are entertained with the sight of Harry educating a citizen on a fundamental problem in human relations. With a wave of the .44 magnum to emphasize the seriousness of the issue, Harry poses a rhetorical question -- "You don't listen good, do you (expletive?)" Lesson accepted, the suddenly wiser young man exits the scene.

This basic problem is on display with the release of American Sniper, with people fighting about whether Chris Kyle was a hero or a villain. With insults flying back and forth the one thing that is clear is that we don't listen to one another. And we don't see. Whether the people Chis Kyle killed needed killing or not, hurting other people hurt him. However he may have presented himself, he suffered from what he did and he died because of it.

The wounds from 9/11 are still raw. The Iraq War didn't turn out as well as hoped and the Arab Spring was pretty much a bust. The bitterness and horror of Middle Eastern politics is, distressingly, the new normal.

Thich Nhat Hahn was a young Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War. Horrified over the violence wracking his country, he issued a statement calling for peace and reconciliation. For the sin of placing the value of human life above ideological purity he was exiled by both sides of the conflict. He has only visited his home country twice since, in 2005 and 2007.

Thich Nhat Hanh experienced the great depth of human suffering. His country was torn apart by warfare. He lost friends and he lost his home. But he devoted himself to helping those damaged by conflict. He has worked with refugees and and veterans without distinguishing between perpetrator and victim because, to him, there is no distinction. Everyone suffers. The tool that he used to maintain his humanity, that he teaches to others is mindful awareness.

We are inclined to examine the hearts and minds of other people in the most excruciating detail. It is a powerful natural reaction rooted in fear and grief. But we can only examine other people by projecting our own worst fears on them. When we do this we see the worst in others and it brings out the worst in us.

We are much less inclined to examine our own hearts and minds. Mindfulness is the simple act of transferring attention from the thinking mind to the feeling body. When we find the courage to do this we watch our own stories spin themselves out. Then we experience the reality the underlies the thoughts. We find anxiety, grief, and pain -- almost without end. If we stay with it and allow ourselves to feel the truth of it, we see the suffering in those we consider our enemies and we simply can't hate any longer.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to "look with eyes of compassion on all living beings." It is the task before us and, in our troubled world, it is the work of a lifetime.