Peace Is Every Step

The Path of Mindfulness at the Presidential Inauguration By James Figetakis

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The morning was cold. The anticipation was high. The crowds were intense. After nearly two years of a historical campaign that became an unprecedented social movement, the day had arrived for the Inauguration of our forty-fourth President, Barack Hussein Obama.

As residents of Washington D.C., my wife and I had decided to make no specific plans for Inaugural weekend. No striving, no grasping, no expectations. Stay open to all possibilities. Our intention was simply to embrace the energy of the historical moment. Whatever arises, enjoy the power of the wonderful present.

Like a Pilgrimage to Mecca

As it unfolded, many of our good friends from around the U.S. and Europe streamed into D.C. to participate in the Inaugural festivities. Ours became an open house for overnight guests, for impromptu dinners, for spontaneous celebrations of the moment and the new era.

One surprise was that some friends came bearing gifts, as a token of gratitude, such as tickets to the Inauguration (among other festivities). We felt blessed since it also meant sharing the historical moment with them. We also anticipated that the crowds, the security, and the cold weather would be challenging.

Peace is every step. The shining red sun is my heart. How cool the wind blows. Peace is every step. It turns the endless path to joy.

Carrying one friend’s child — a six-year-old girl — on my shoulders, I set out with my friends for the Capitol somewhat late on the morning of the Inauguration. We fell into crushing crowds in the metro, masses walking in the streets, throngs of thousands waiting to pass security and enter their ticketed sections. Making our way to the Capitol was like a massive pilgrimage to Mecca.

An Extraordinary Collective Peace

Despite staggering lines since sunrise in freezing temperatures that wrapped around entire city blocks twenty people deep, there was a palpable peace in the air among the crowds. I chose to practice walking meditation in the sunshine for the twenty-minute walk from our home to the Capitol, rather than focusing on the possible outcome that we might not enter in time (if at all) to witness history.

We are what we feel and perceive.

Afterwards, many people who decided to watch the Inauguration on TV or were not in D.C., asked me about our experience: were the crowds unruly, police threatening, people delirious? Was there dancing in the streets or chaos in the capital?

The Inauguration of President Obama was the most extraordinary experience of collective peace and mindfulness that I have ever witnessed in a public setting in my life. It surpassed even the power of the Dalai Lama on the Capitol steps that I experienced when His Holiness received the Congressional Medal of Honor in October 2007.

If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.

While we waited in endlessly long lines, strangers were friendly and respectful toward each other. As we passed the security checkpoints, police guards were calm and good-natured. When we noticed that our ticketed section was impossible to enter due to more bottlenecks, a rare solidarity emerged: people on the other side generously offered their hands to help us over an eight-foot stone wall so we could reach our section just minutes before the Inaugural events began. The security police nearby smiled as we three adults and the six-year-old were hoisted over the wall by strangers and into our section by a multi-racial smiling crowd of well-wishers.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.

I continued mindful breathing and standing meditation before and throughout the Inaugural ceremonies, absorbing the warm rays of sunshine, the deep blue of the sky, the awe of the Capitol at this moment in history.

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Tears and Smiles

Everyone near us, around us and within view appeared to be in complete reverence. They were mindful of the power in the present moment. Connected through their silence, they dwelled in inner stillness. The tears and smiles on everyone’s faces reinforced this experience of shared joy, complete awareness, and extraordinary interbeing.

When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness.

A collective awareness seemed to pervade the air and reminded us that every moment was precious. Whether it was the somber invocation by a controversial minister, the exhilarating singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” by Aretha Franklin (wearing that hat!) or the historical swearing-in ceremony — first of Vice President Joe Biden, and ultimately of President Barack Obama — they were a series of fleeting moments, passing so quickly, that they could only be fully absorbed through the power of everyone’s mindfulness.

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Enjoying Our Beautiful Environment

As the new President delivered his Inaugural speech, the sun shone more brightly and the air felt more pure. The crowd of nearly two million continued to dwell in profound stillness and reverence, but now they were interconnected by deep gratitude.

As far as I could tell, there was no pushing for a better view nor jockeying for a better position, no attachment to an outcome nor grasping for something more. This was it, and it was wonderful!

There is nothing to chase after. We can go back to ourselves, enjoy our breathing, our smiling, ourselves, and our beautiful environment.

James Figetakis has been a member of the Washington D.C. Mindfulness Community since 1999, and before that, of the Mindfulness Community of Paris, France. After working for U.S. and French multinationals he now advises global philanthropists and non-profits. James resides in Washington D.C. with his wife, Patricia Langan.

All quotes are from Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (Bantam Books, 1992).

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