Mindfulness as method to combat human trafficking

Cameron Conaway – WNN SOAPBOX

Thích Nhất Hạnh teaching at Plum Village
Vietnamese Zen monk, teacher, poet and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches a class at Plum Village Retreat Center in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Image: Hasustan Kosi

(WNN) Ayutthaya, THAILAND, ASIA: Yesterday, as the sun crested red over the blue horizon, a few hundred of us walked alongside Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh. This is how we will begin each morning of his Applied Ethics Retreat. The night before, during sitting meditation, we were given advice on how to walk.

How to walk? The act of walking is so taken for granted and mindless that it’s likely not a question we would ask ourselves. And yet Thây, as he’s often called, instructed us: “Every step should be a kiss to Mother Earth. Think of what a miracle these legs are. They allow us to travel freely and in collaboration with our eyes we’re able to see a paradise of forms and colors that make this beautiful world. Some do not have legs. Some do not have eyes. Some do not have freedom. Walk mindfully. Peace is every step.”

I’m relatively new to the practice of meditation so it didn’t take long for my mind to drift. There are 5 Mindfulness Trainings in Thây’s Plum Village Tradition and a line from #3 came to my mind: “I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse.” The statistics flashed in white font before me like this:

1 in 6 boys

1 in 4 girls

sexually abused before 18

Then came a line from #5: “I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutrients, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness.”

I thought of how when it comes to sex trafficking we think of “slaves” as referring to the victims and survivors, but this isn’t the full picture. The liars and thieves are slaves to greed, the users to desire, and the chains of both shackle mindfulness.

Upon standing from sitting meditation it seemed as though we’d been given new appendages. We looked at our legs in awe, shook them out and some of us spent nearly fifteen minutes mindfully walking the two short blocks it took to get back to our dorms. The birds that once would have served as background noise now provided song. The grass that once would have served merely as a path became an exquisite formation of soft green blades. Thank you, grass, I thought.

Thây lives his advice. As we walked together that morning I realized that I’d never watched another human being be so aware of and appreciative for their surroundings. He stopped and turned his body slightly so we would do the same. There, the sun rose and lit our faces. We walked on. Our next stop was at the edge of the pond. He sat down and took such a mindful sip of tea that within that silent sip he somehow called into being the nourishment the tea provided him as well as the rain and sun and workers who sweat to grow the leaves. The world in a sip. Then, one-by-one, he looked into each of our eyes. He was a total stranger but as we looked at each other I felt from him what I can only describe as love.

Too often we look at the survivors of human trafficking only as people who desperately need help. They do, but perhaps we should put more emphasis on looking at them as people just like you and me, people who more than anything want to feel the joy of happiness and the light of love.

Thây then held a small bell at eye level and with such curiosity that an onlooker would think it was the first time he ever saw it. He didn’t “strike” or “ring” it as we would say, but “invited” it. The sound is meant to bring our attention back to the moment, its rhythmic cadence like the inhale and exhale of our breath, the opening and closing of our heart’s valves. I again drifted to human trafficking and how in many ways this practice of mindfulness is the perfect antidote.

During several bites of breakfast I followed Thây’s advice and closed my eyes to practice mindful chewing, for more on this see his book Savor. The bell rang and I opened my eyes to find a roomful of students with their eyes closed, savoring the food, the sound, the moment and all that went into it. It was then that it hit me: mindfulness is the most radical act we can take against the injustices of the modern world. It’s precisely the kind of radicalism we need if we are to seriously combat human trafficking.

The sheer pace and ease and things available to us means that we consume more than ever before. Such mass consumption has major costs, and human trafficking is one of them. Modernity has meant we are perhaps more distanced from our food and ourselves than ever before. Too often we talk or read or stare blindly at the TV as we eat. Too often we react to an emotion before we’ve had time to check in with it and understand where it came from. Too often we confuse our wants with needs and we pursue the wants as needs even if, as is often the case, it’s at the expense of someone or something else. The mindless pursuit of anything is, in essence, a form of slavery.

When it comes to labor trafficking we forget that each bite we take matters. Our every meal need not have the “Fair Trade” label, but being mindful of each bite is possible and, in light of our health and climate and trafficking problems, I’d argue that it’s essential.

Through the practice of mindful eating these past few days I naturally ate less – the combined result of a deeper enjoyment of the food and the slower eating process that gave my mind enough time to register my body’s fullness. Most of us have a choice when it comes to what and how we eat. Who are we then to not take the choice? It seems absurd, but mindful eating is one way we can all fight what President Obama called “…one of the great human rights abuses of our time.” Journalist John-Paul Flintoff believes we tell history wrong – true change in the world comes not in a single major act by a single powerful person, but in the collective hum that results when each individual takes the magic of life’s minutiae into their own hands.

It’s easy to be discouraged in the fight against human trafficking, so discouraged it feels hopeless. With the help of Thây’s wisdom we can reframe the situation:

Peace isn’t simply a distant and perhaps unattainable result. “Peace is every step.”


In addition to writing for WNN, Cameron Conaway is the Social Justice Editor of The Good Men Project. An award-winning author, he was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. In 2007 he graduated from Penn State with a dual Criminal Justice/English major. His work has appeared or been reviewed in ESPN, The Huffington Post, Rattle, Sherdog, Cosmo, Teach Magazine, The Australian, Ottawa Arts Review and elsewhere. Follow him on Google and on Twitter: @CameronConaway


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