Stillness in Action: Reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld

The late Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, was both a deeply spiritual person and a highly effective diplomat.

Roger Lipsey
24 September 2013
Photo courtesy of UN Photo / AF

The late Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, was both a deeply spiritual person and a highly effective diplomat. His biographer Roger Lipsey tells us why we need more leaders like him.

Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, had a keen sense of above and below. For example, in the fall of 1958 the Swedish diplomat wrote in his private journal:

Lord, Thine the day,
And I the day’s.

Despite its few words, it is a provocative and memorable poem. In our troubled era, don’t we need political leaders who would understand this poem: its implicit promise of selfless service, its uneasiness and willingness, its scope? Don’t we need inspiring examples of men and women who have led public lives by the light of deep spirituality?

Hammarskjöld united two lives in one. He was both a spiritual seeker and the leading diplomat of his era. Somewhat forgotten today but admired nearly worldwide in his time, Hammarskjöld created important peacemaking methods such as shuttle diplomacy and UN peacekeeping forces. More than that, he endowed the United Nations with a heightened sense of its mission through his clarity of mind, breadth of vision, unshakeable integrity, and quiet eloquence.

When Hammarskjöld died in central Africa in 1961 in a still-troubling plane crash, he was mourned by millions. Two years later his private journal, Markings, was published. It revealed that he had been a spiritual seeker throughout his life, never more intently and wisely than during the UN years. The book remains a classic in the literature of the spirit. Hammarskjöld was Christian by faith; his teachers were Meister Eckhart and other medieval mystics. But much that he set down in Markings could have been written from within Asian traditions — Buddhist, Taoist, or Vedantist. “The ultimate experience is the same for all,” he once wrote.

Hammarskjöld’s friends, responsible for publishing his journal after his untimely death, were upset with the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who had taken on the English translation of Markings. His draft introduction, circulated for comment before publication, struck them in part as offensive. To no avail, they did what they could to persuade Auden to revise it. Auden had made the smug posthumous suggestion that Hammarskjöld would have been better off if he had attended church more regularly—like Auden. “Our views on DH’s religion differ from yours,” they wrote to him. “While keeping his roots in the Christian faith, we think that DH may have ‘out-winged’ what is usually described as religion, reaching a point where it does not matter anymore what label you give it. That needs, we think, just as much, and perhaps even more, discipline than any ecclesiastical routine may be able to give.”

What his friends said was true: Hammarskjöld was a lifelong disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. The remarkable prayers he recorded in Markings address God directly, as Thou, in a mode that owes something to the Book of Psalms and something to the modern poetry he read with passionate interest as a rest from his obligations. But Hammarskjöld was a practitioner, and practice has a blessed way of leading past boundaries. He followed what he called — without pride or show — “a spiritual discipline,” and his reports on inner experience varied in character from brief memos to himself to jewel-like renderings of authentic mystical perceptions.

His brief memos were often self-critical: he had independently discovered mindfulness, which he called “conscious self-scrutiny,” and its reports back to him were rarely flattering. “You listen badly,” he told himself, “and you read even worse. Except when the talk or the book is about yourself. Then you pay careful attention. Are you so observant of yourself?” It was through such collisions with himself that he constructed and preserved his integrity, and the rigorous attention with which he scanned his own person penetrated deeply. “To be governed by that which comes alive when ‘we’ have ceased to live — as interested parties or know-it-alls,” he wrote. “To be able to see, hear, and attend to that within us which is there in the darkness. And the silence.”

You see now what was in motion in this great life. As he went from crisis to crisis at the height of the Cold War, he became emptier inside in precisely the Buddhist sense — but also Eckhart’s sense. “Each day the first day. Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty — for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” This he recorded at a time when he was engaged in winding down the Suez Crisis of 1956, a grave threat to world peace.

Hammarskjöld’s critique of the selfish self mirrors his intense longing for selfless service — for the bodhisattva way. The critique can easily be understood as Buddhist in flavor. For several years he wrote haiku, among them this one:

This accidental
Meeting of possibilities
Calls itself I.

Buddhist also in flavor — and Eckhart-like as well — are his powerfully stated insights into the nature, cost, and unique joy of freedom in the midst of action. He wrote:

The “mystical experience.” Always here and now—in that freedom which is one with distance, in that stillness which is born of silence. But—this is a freedom in the midst of action, a stillness in the midst of other human beings. The mystery is a constant reality to him who, in this world, is free from self-concern, a reality that grows peaceful and mature before the receptive attention of assent. In our era the road to holiness often passes through the world of action.

Visitors to United Nations headquarters today are shown the Room of Quiet on the ground floor. It is a meditation space inaugurated by and designed by Hammarskjöld in cooperation with an architect and a fresco painter. Visitors are welcome to take home a printed copy of the message he wrote for its inauguration:

We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer.

At the end of this brief statement — unmistakably his own credo — he wrote: “There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.”

What did Hammarskjöld know of love, of that part of the bodhisattva way? He was famously reticent when the occasion called for reticence, a diplomat through and through, but in a late entry in Markings he wrote: “You wake from dreams of doom and — for a moment — you know : beyond all the noise and gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half light of an early dawn.” In his worldly role, he had grasped how to embody compassionate concern without being thrown off balance by it. He said, “You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.”

Such wisdom is the fruit of worldly experience grounded in religious tradition. But for those drawn by Hammarskjöld’s example, there won’t be any easy wins. The relations between spirituality and political life are intrinsically difficult. Each domain, fully lived, requires long apprenticeship and dedication, and they tend to expel each other. Men and women on rigorous spiritual paths have their own work and challenges. Participants in political life know that it is a hard-knocks world of competition, compromise, periodic humiliation, and frequent disappointment.

“I don’t think it will surprise you,” Hammarskjöld once wrote to a fellow diplomat, “to hear that we all manage to remain in good health and in good heart, catching as they pass those bricks which can be built into the structure and dodging, if we can, those we fail to catch.” Realistically, how can spiritual practice — whatever that is — help? One tries to do a little good between elections. Isn’t that enough?

All the more reason to care about Hammarskjöld’s example and thought. For him it wasn’t enough. For him politics was an exercise in awareness, empathy, and objectivity. It was grounded in a life of prayer and aerated by what he discovered in stillness and silence. Mind for him was a work in progress, an incredible instrument for discerning the way to the secret ground of experience no less than the way forward in international life. Engagement in political life at the highest level of responsibility and risk became, perhaps to his surprise, an integral element of the way he followed.

“Blood, grime, sweat, earth,” he once asked, “where are these in your world of will?”

“Everywhere,” he answered. “The ground from which the flame ascends straight upward.”

Bodhisattvas wear disguises. They must. Hammarskjöld had, in effect, thought this through. “While performing the part which is truly ours,” he wrote, “how exhausting it is to be obliged to play a role which is not ours: the person you must really be in order to fulfill your task, you must not appear to others to be, in order to be allowed by them to fulfill it. How exhausting — but unavoidable, since mankind has laid down once and for all the organized rules for social behavior.” The best will look like everyone else. There will be no obvious wings, no crowns of light. But look in their eyes.

There is no settled path toward spiritual grandeur and effectiveness set against the immense difficulties and conflicts of our time. Hammarskjöld lived it in his way, unique in background, character, and opportunity for service. Others will live it in their own ways, entirely different yet under the surface the same. It isn’t something one explicitly prepares for. One trains as much as possible to be real and awake. One digs out one’s talents, some familiar, some unexpected. How all that fits with the world remains to be seen.

“Forward!” Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings. “Thy orders are given in secret. May I always hear them — and obey.” This also is a hierarchy. The high orders secretly spoken, the uncertainty of one’s listening, the uncertainty of one’s willingness to obey. And the immense promise that, after all, we can know what to do and have courage.