The Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn taught people to take good care of their anger, not to push it away but to hold it with kindness, as we would a wounded child. This is a pretty good description of the practice of mindfulness: we offer ourselves the gift of nonjudgmental awareness. This is awareness is much more spacious and warm than our thinking. It is present and alive and forgiving, not stuck in the past or projecting into the future. We need the gift of this awareness now more than ever.
I once met Thich Nhat Hahn. We sat together in a small room in the Riverside Church in Manhattan, soon after the attacks of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The great teacher had just finished a protest fast and sat looking very still and small and grave on the floor before me. He had just published his book Anger, and I was there to ask him about that particular emotion. But like everyone else I knew in New York, I was alternately cold and feverish with fear and sadness and uncertainty about what would come. I asked him again and again how we could live with fear. He spoke a bit about holding anger. About the rest, he was still.
Next to the great Zen teacher sat the diplomat and pastor Andrew Young, who was a friend of Martin Luther King, jr. (King nominated Thich Nhat Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize). I circled round and round about fear. Finally, Young asked Thich Nhat Hahn if he might say something to me. It could have been projection on my part, but I detected an almost imperceptible smile of relief on the great monk’s face.
Young told me that he marched with King. He told me that his friend Martin knew that he might die. Yet he reached a point where he laughed at dying. He made jokes about it. He would say things like, “Andrew, I think they’re going to kill you today. But don’t worry. I’ll preach a most wonderful eulogy at your funeral.”
How did this great man reach this state of fearlessness? “He knew what was important, and he made sure he did it every day,” Young told me. Young sat forward as he told me this, emphasizing that he was talking about a living reality, not just a nice thought. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to live in the light of the truth. He walked with it.
“Martin knew that death could never destroy who he really was,” Young said to me that day in the Riverside Church. “Death can never destroy who you really are. Suffering can never destroy who you really are.” Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that we are more than we think we are. He knew truth is more than we think it is at any given moment.
After than encounter, I was so deeply moved that I read the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Here is one snippet from a sermon in 1968: “You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.”
These words toll like deep bells for us today because we hear them as a foreshadowing of what would happen to this great man. But the truth remains that Martin Luther King, Jr. understood fear. You might say he held in the light of a greater awareness, a truth beyond thought.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for though art with me.” He would know those words by heart. Yet in every tradition, including Buddhism, there are beings who accompany us in the dark places and times of unknowing. And what if we brought them down to the scale of a moment, the scale of the next breath? What if today and in the days to come, we give the gift of nonjudgmental, caring attention to ourselves and the people around us? What if we aspire to give ourselves to a greater truth? We can take it breath by breath, step by step.