Review: Practicing Peace In Times of War

“We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.” 

Pema Chödrön

We often harden our hearts against others because we want to protect ourselves from suffering. But if we continue in this way, ignoring and lashing out, repressing our unwanted feelings and distracting ourselves, after enough time, we will become rigid and closed off. 

We will become manipulative, not accepting people for who they are, but judging them based on what they can do for us. Our fear, anger, greed, and ignorance will follow us everywhere we go, whether we’re at work, at home, or sitting on top of a mountain. We will react blindly instead of with awareness, rationalizing our mistakes, ignoring our pain, attacking anyone who criticizes us, threatened by the unknown. Our suffering will spill over on those who are closest to us. 

“We point our fingers at the wrongdoers, but we ourselves are mirror images; everyone is outraged at everyone else’s wrongness.” (Chödrön, Pema)

When we alienate ourselves from people, rather than being vulnerable and open, we feed our self-righteousness and anger and discrimination. We blame and doubt. As long as we keep perceiving the world in these same unwholesome patterns, our suffering will never leave us.

“Whenever there’s a sense of threat, we harden. And so if we don’t harden, what happens? We’re left with that uneasiness, that feeling of threat. That’s when the real journey of courage begins. This is the real work of the peacemaker, to find the soft spot and the tenderness in that very uneasy place and stay with it. If we can stay with the soft spot and stay with the tender heart, then we are cultivating the seeds of peace.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We have self-destructive seeds within us, passed down through many generations. Yet at the same time, beyond our rigidity, we have a soft spot in our hearts. From our softness, we can discover spaciousness. From spaciousness, we can live in a boundless, ungraspable world.

We have to stay with what’s changing inside us, letting our hearts heal in those moments. While we may not be in control of what’s outside of us, we can be with our minds, breaking apart our unthinking habits of aggression.

“We don’t automatically react, even though inside we are reacting. We let all the words go and are just there with the rawness of our experience.” (Chödrön, Pema)

If we stay with our uncomfortable feelings, we will discover that there’s no real resolution. No absolute answers. There is nothing to cling to. Most people are afraid of that groundlessness, fleeing toward an absolute answer, a belief, a solution. They want to know what’s right and wrong, what can be defined and categorized, what can provide assurances of permanence.

“You have a choice whether to open or close, whether to hold on or to let go, whether to harden or soften, whether to hold your seat or strike out. That choice is presented to you again and again and again.” (Chödrön, Pema)

If we develop enough patience to be with our energy, even though we may feel afraid and angry and anxious, something within us will die. When we can let go, we will experience freedom through the death of our attachments, a release from our unwholesome approaches to life.

When we have thoughts, we can simply label them as thoughts. We can return where we are, over and again, disrupting our blind habits, minimizing our reactive tendencies, creating space within ourselves. When we are habitually unmindful, however, we are trapped as prisoners in our own minds.

We are humans. We cannot escape aging, illness, loss, and death. Phenomena will change during our lives as well. When we refuse to see these realities directly, clinging to pleasures while avoiding pain, we will cause ourselves and other beings suffering.

Our tendency is to seek out security, but if we are to transform ourselves, if we are to help others, we have to look at our minds first. We have to see the impermanence in all things.

“Instead of asking ourselves, ‘How can I find security and happiness?’ we could ask ourselves, ‘Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace — disappointment in all its many forms — and let it open me?’” (Chödrön, Pema)

Through our practice, we can become intimate with what threatens to harden our hearts. What barriers have we used to isolate ourselves from other people, so we could escape from feeling the pain of an orphaned child or war refugee, so we could protect ourselves from rejection and depression and fear? When we come to subtly recognize these barriers within us, they will begin to break apart.

“Becoming intimate with pain is the key to changing at the core of our being — staying open to everything we experience, letting the sharpness of difficult times pierce us to the heart, letting these times open us, humble us, and make us wiser and more brave. Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We can recognize in ourselves our prejudices and fears, guilt and shame. We can connect to others through our common humanity, knowing that we have all gone through similar ordeals, that other beings want peace like we want peace, that they do not wish to suffer like we do not wish to suffer. 

We meditate to know ourselves but our practice should extend to the rest of our lives. Our feelings will come and go, arising and passing. We don’t need to reject our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. They may take up our attention at times, but we can let go of our stories, our negative thoughts, our unhealthy desires, seeing them as clouds. Clouds drift on, changing in moments. They are neither solid nor permanent. Eventually they will fade into an empty sky.

Even in our spaciousness, we can still feel sad, happy, angry, and jealous. These things all come and go. Instead of merely reacting, we don’t have to take the bait. We can learn to be present with our unpleasantness and pleasantness. When we are aware, we simply are.

“Our interpretations and our opinions are just that — our interpretations and opinions. We no longer have to be under their control, or have them color everything we think and do. Strong reactions will continue to arise, just the way the weather changes. But each of us can develop our ability to not escalate the emotions so that they become a nightmare and increase our suffering.” (Chödrön, Pema)

Aggression begins in our minds. Violence begins in our minds. We can water the seeds of prejudice and anger, blaming others, rationalizing our behavior, believing that we’re the only honest ones around. Or we can sink into an awareness of our suffering and joy, completely vulnerable, breathing in and out, groundless, until something breaks open in our hearts. 

 “When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You’re able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently, endless opportunities to dissolve the seeds of war where they originate — in the hearts and minds of individuals like you and me.” (Chödrön, Pema)

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