Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh recently visited Northern Ireland and addressed members of the Northern Ireland Assembly where former enemies work together in the Power-Sharing Executive. They listened respectfully to ideas that were influential in the province’s Peace Process. 

A few weeks ago I caught a fascinating item on the news. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh paid a visit to Belfast and addressed members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The video showed the 85 year-old Vietnamese monk speaking quietly and slowly, explaining to Assembly Members the value of focusing on the present moment by following the breath. (See a BBC Report and news item here).

That might sound banal until you consider the history that exists between the members of his audience. For many years Republicans and Unionists were literally trying to kill each other, yet leaders of the two sides are now working together in the Power Sharing Executive. Somehow, these politicians, and the communities they represent, need to let go of the past and the grievances that have built up.

That’s quite a challenge, but we all experience a version of it. When we think someone has harmed us we turn it over in our minds: ‘How could he say that?’ ‘It’s so unfair!’ ‘I’m not putting up with it!’ ‘I swear I’ll get my own back!’ It’s not that we should just put up with everything that happens, but dwelling on it resentfully stokes up unhelpful emotions, making it harder to find a creative response or move on.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s own story gave his visit to Stormont particular authority. In the 1960s he travelled from Vietnam to America to plead for a non-violent alternative to the war that was destroying his country. Buddhist monks were caught between the two sides and many died.

He suggested to Assembly members that when things get difficult they could pay attention to the breath or notice the body’s movements. They listened respectfully and one said that mindfulness had helped her and others to get through the Troubles. Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas have also helped mediators struggling to find a way through the Peace Process.

It’s one thing to see that you need to move on from a conflict; but really letting go of your suffering so the past really is the past isn’t just a political strategy. It’s a spiritual challenge. Becoming calmly aware of the present moment, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, helps create a calm space in which you can find a more positive way forward. It’s a simple method, but behind it lies the Buddha’s teaching: ““Hatred is never overcome by more hatred, but only by loveThat’s an eternal law.”

This talk was broadcast on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought on 6 May 2012