Designing peace 3 insights and design opportunities for nurturing peace

So I spoke at Q Tea recently, a ground-up interfaith dialogue event organised by Q Commons Singapore. How does peace look like in different traditions? Drawing on my experience in Plum Village, a Zen monastery and mindfulness practice centre in France where I once spent 3 months of winter in retreat with monks, nuns and lay practitioners, I shared my perspective of peace as part of the human experience of sacredness across religious, cultural and social divides, and pondered the possibility of a set of spiritual commons – guidelines, tools or group process – that might be useful for nurturing interfaith experiences.


how it started

Last July, I spent 3 beautiful summer weeks in Plum Village, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monastery in Bordeaux, France. The monastery is also a mindfulness practice centre where lay people like you and I can live and practice meditation and mindful living taught by the venerable Zen master and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

Plum Village is a wonderfully nourishing sanctuary, where healing and growth is supported through the practice of mindfulness amongst a loving and understanding community. 8 years ago, I spent 3 months there and it had been a beautiful transformative experience. As cliché as it sounds, it changed my life. The practice of mindfulness gave me a way to better center myself, be present in our increasingly distracted city, and opened me to new pathways in life. For me, going back to Plum Village for the second time, felt like going home.

Plum Village was the place where I learned to:

  • Sit and enjoy just being present
  • Walk beautifully (as they say)
  • Work with joy and restfully
  • Eat mindfully and enjoy the food
  • Listen deeply and speak with loving speech

“Relax. Nothing is under control.” it said on a sign in Plum Village. It probably was the best way to sum up how this little piece of paradise feels like. We’re not pressured to be anything or anyone. There are guidelines for community living, but everything is gently reinforced. We’re encouraged and invited to be mindful and aware in everything we do, and follow the daily programme as best we can. In fact, you don’t even need to be Buddhist to come to Plum Village. Many Christians, Catholics, and Jews come to stay and practice at Plum Village. Regularly. The monastic community even organises special retreats to bring together Israeli and Palestinian communities, two groups of people who are estranged from years of war. I always felt that meant something.

Life at Plum Village in summer is best summed up in this video:


3 insights & design opportunities for nurturing peace


About peace in play.

I often thought about peace as a still, silent, solitary, mountaintop kind of experience. I guess coming from the city, the fast pace and stress made me crave for that kind of peace. But being at Plum Village, seeing the monks exude peace and calm in everything they do, then seeing them play and move from that inner place of peace, was eye-opening. I thought peace was silence and stillness, but peace was also joy and laughter and play and exuberance.

Peace at play, in motion feels different from the hustle bustle of activity in the city. Peace at play is nourishing, energizing, refreshing, while busyness and play in the city often feels depleting. Peace isn’t just silence and stillness. Peace can be lively and festive.

How does peace in play look like? How might we tell – and live – the difference?



About peace at work.

True story. One day at working meditation, I had to help the house-keeping team to clean up the dorm rooms. It was an arrival/departure day for guests. There’s quite a number of rooms to tidy up, so being typical Singaporean, I was eager to complete the tasks. “Let’s get this over and done with!” But everyone else was working mindfully and restfully. Being mindful didn’t mean that they worked slowly though. There was speed but no haste. That reminded me to stop rushing. Difficult to do, but thankful to be reminded. Then after some time – we were not done yet – someone handed me an ice cream popsicle and announced that it was time for a picnic. I was like, “What?! A picnic? But, but we’re not even done yet!” The go-getter, hustler in me was dying to finish, but no, that was not part of their plan. So there we were, indulging in chips, cookies, soda, and just chatting and sharing stories about the day’s work, enjoying one another’s company. And we’re not even finished.

Later on I asked a monk about it, and he said working meditation isn’t just about finishing the tasks, but a way to nurture brotherhood and sisterhood, to build relationships and community. The work was important, but the kinship was important, too. This experience really drove home a different way to relate to my work, to how I approached working. It struck me as quite a starkly different way about how we go about our work here in a city like Singapore. Work here can often feel exploitative. We often feel replaceable. “I don’t care how you do it. These are the goals. Just go achieve it.” Often, feelings are swept under the rug at the expense of profit. Conflicts go unresolved. But in Plum Village, how we work with one another is not ignored. Stuart, a Plum Village lay practitioner who pioneered the on-site organic farm, said it best:

The spirit of the Happy Farm is that we aren’t only growing vegetables and organic food, but also living and working in a way that cultivates happiness for the people who work there and the people who visit. While it is important for the farm to produce lots of delicious organic produce, we’re also committed to do it in a way that cultivates happiness. So we are a happy farm, we are trying to grow happiness.

It doesn’t mean we are all happy all the time. We all suffer quite a bit sometimes. But we know that suffering that is well taken care of is a necessary ingredient for happiness. So we put the teachings of mindfulness into practice at the farm and experience the benefits of working mindfully. Everyone who has worked on the farm so far has benefited a lot from this approach.

Peace as destination versus peace as journey, at work. Peace wasn’t just about the ends, but also the means. How we treat one another along the way is as important, if not more important, than the end outcomes at work.

How might we bring practices of peace to practices at work?

How would these practices look like in organisational culture? How might we achieve happiness even while we achieve our work KPIs?



About peace in pain.

This is a photo of the group I practised with in the three weeks I was there. At Plum Village, it’s affectionately called a “family”. As you can see, many different nationalities and cultures and brought together by a common practice. Because we’re from such diverse backgrounds, and living in close proximity 24/7 for weeks, conflict and tensions are often inevitable. That’s why I really like how the monks intentionally create a safe space to share and resolve such tensions. At the end of the day, we come together and sit in a circle to have conversations about our practice. A monk facilitates the session and to guide the group’s energy. And we’re encouraged to be open, to speak mindfully and offer loving acceptance to others who are speaking. They also have a practice called Beginning Anew, where the community has a chance to begin anew with one another, and come together to resolve any tensions lest it festers and becomes toxic to communal living and practice. Typically, at Beginning Anew, we follow these 4 steps:

1. Expressing gratitude
2. Sharing regrets
3. Expressing a hurt
4. Asking for support

Imagine a really loving and mindful way to resolve conflict in a community, grounded in the spirit of reconciliation, aided by a common protocol, facilitated by experienced mindfulness practitioners like the monks. So what I learned was how peace isn’t just something that happens in the absence of suffering/pain, but in spite of it; alongside with it. Peace requires a lot of work and an ongoing commitment to practice peace together. It recognises that we all need some help and structure to work and live alongside one another, and they intentionally seek to create such structure, instead of just saying “Deal with it like adults.” Because often we don’t.

“Paradise is not a place where there’s no suffering; it’s a place where we know how to transform suffering to happiness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

This group process struck me as something that’s really helpful with family, friends and even colleagues. I imagine, especially with all the toxic and polarizing ‘us-versus-them’ culture wars online, that this might be a useful community practice. What if we could bring together these different practices so that anyone can pick it up and use it for community building? Like some sort of Creative Commons.

How might we have a spiritual commons that’s useful for nurturing interfaith experiences? For integrating diverse communities?

Imagine a common human experience of sacredness across religious, cultural and social divides. Then could there be a family of values, guidelines, tools or group processes that anyone with or without any religious affiliation can use? What would tools for gratitude, kindness, and conflict resolution look like in our age of iPhones and the Internet?


Closing as beginning

Instead of walking away with more answers, my experience at Plum Village last summer gave me these three guiding questions:

How does peace in play look like? How might we tell – and live – the difference?

How might we bring practices of peace to practices at work?

How might we have a spiritual commons that’s useful for nurturing interfaith experiences and integrating diverse communities?

Because, like plants growing towards sunlight, our questions are our light. We grow towards the direction of our questions. And I hope these questions will be your Light as it is for me.


“Because, our answers confine us to the known, whereas our questions open us up to infinity.”

– Patrick Levy, in Sadhus: Going Beyond Dreadlocks


[Download the PDF slides, or view on Slideshare.]

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