Psyche and System: The Peace Movement Evolves

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Credit: Creative Commons/Brooke Anderson.

We are all familiar with the symbolic story of the monkey who cannot retrieve much-desired peanuts from a narrow opening in a crate without changing his tactics. He discovers that the only way to get the treat is to turn the box upside down and shake it so that the peanuts fall through the aperture, which is too small to allow a clenched fistful of nuts to pass through. The peace movement has been doing its own version of turning some old concepts upside down and even opening clenched fists. But unlike the monkey, there are no instant rewards for peacebuilders, no instant conversion, no “Halleluiah, I got Peace!” In fact, realizing our longing for peace calls for a new kind visionary resilience that invites us into more nuanced and complex territory. This is really good news for the evolution of the global peace movement.

Much as our demise has been reported in the media, we haven’t gone away, and we are still struggling against arms profiteering, casual military adventurism, violently imposed “solutions,” occupation, gross injustice, or the flagrant denial of human rights. The fact that the streets are not crowded with protest does not mean the peace movement has grown weary or gone to bed. I passionately believe that something far more dynamic is emerging. We are learning that peace is never a quick-fix. It is a whole-person, whole-system shift. Good slogans can be cathartic: “What do we want?” “Peace!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” But instant peace is a “Wonder Bread” illusion. Peace needs to be cultivated.

Because in its essence peace is justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness, it delivers itself into explicit and manifest forms and behaviors. It cannot be faked. It cannot be imposed. Peace is an idea, a moral state of being, and a spiritual longing that reveals itself in the full actualization of practice. Far from being illusive and intangible, peace is palpable in healing past wounds, creating well-being, nourishing relationships, enhancing skillful means to deal with conflict, and providing maps for plurality to thrive in the context of unity. In other words, peace brings together the inner landscape of harmonized being, feelings, and spiritual aspiration with the visionary, creative, and imaginative work to mirror the inner in a vast network of interfacing systems, from family to community to nation to planetary civilization.

For every protest banner that is gathering dust in an attic, there is a peace activist who teaches nonviolence as a parent, who brings a heart-centered awareness to the classroom, who is involved in any number of therapeutic practices, who makes conscious choices about mindless material consumption, who is practicing dialogue when faced with the polarization of differences, and who is genuinely committed to “be the change.” Tired of screaming at the gates, many of us breached the walls and are working to change systems from within. Today there is a plethora of new names for us peaceniks and peace activists: change agents, sacred activists, social entrepreneurs, citizen diplomats, social healers, social artists, deep ecologists, and conscious activists, to name but a few. Of course, systems have a way of swallowing our ideals and cloning us for their survival purposes. Rather than thinking of colleagues to whom this happens as sell-outs, think of them as compadres who have fallen on the new frontline of synchronizing personal, institutional, and systemic transformation.

For a long time in my own life, I felt there were only two modalities available: oppose and protest injustice or propose legal remedies and impose legal sanctions on violators. On the one hand, try to wake people and catalyze change through the high decibel expression of moral outrage, and, on the other, attempt to create new benchmarks of peaceful progress, human rights, and civility through new legal norms or threaten penalty, prosecution, and sanctioning. But the exercise of persistent condemnation matched with experiencing the inadequacy of law as a sufficient agent of social transformation led to classic activist burn-out. A whole part of my being was itself oppressed by living as a firebrand of judgment or punishment. Like many of us who met the teacher as burn-out, I learned that there can never be peace without healing. Psyche withers in the absence of play, without the connective energy of empathy or the kind of moral imagination which stays fruitful because it lives inside great solutions rather than sinking into the hypnotic, snake-eyed, energy-sucking entropy of endless problems.

Psyche teaches us that we ourselves are whole systems that need to be watered with self-care and compassion. We learn that over indulging in anything is unhealthy and that righteousness is a very sneaky indulgence that unobtrusively inflates a lot of ego into our perception of the moral order. We learn that we have to heal not just from bad things in the world around us but from inherently bad processes in our own development. How wonderful that we can evolve only when we are ready to give up our attachment to being right. Being right is such a deceivingly safe and comfortable place that we cling to it, and that causes us to claim the truth as our own. But truth is never a partisan of selective perspectives. Truth is a process which reveals larger patterns of connection and causation with extreme precision.

If justice is the proactive expression of peace, truth is its compass. How we view truth is redefining how we work for peace. Peacebuilders have become more fluent in analyzing how people frame their truth: from the social and cultural contexts they live in, the dominant patterns of conditioning, and the way personal experience all combine to shape a person’s worldview. In fact, we need to move out of right vs. wrong perspectives into these much wider frames to understand how we can explore deeper truths together. In peace work we cannot speak about truth without looking at a complex interrelationship between systems and psychology.

It is not that getting to the facts is not important. It most certainly is! But facts that tell us about who committed what act under whose direction give us much more than a map of culpability. They give us an entry into why conflicts arise. We begin to locate the hidden wounds which drive social and historical narratives. Once we enter this kind of territory, we begin to see how perpetrators are victims not only of the transmission of explicit abuse, but silent carriers of killer ideas, unexamined resentments, and vastly inaccurate stereotyping and shadow projection.

Again and again I have found when circumstances permit and you can bring people to thoughtful dialogue about their understanding of their conflicts in life, good process inevitably brings the conversation to pain and suffering. The truth of experience knows that we cannot by-pass the place of injury or where the hurt still hides out in our psyche. We all need to be able to share the truth of any event just as we experienced it. And that includes both the pain of actual trauma and humiliation as well as the truth that we were lied to, deceived, and manipulated. In the end, we find peace in ourselves and in relationship to each other not from some grand expose or (I believe) from punishing others but from experiencing what is essentially a psycho-spiritual revelation about the truth of pain and suffering.

Our pain and suffering become toxic and deeply corrosive to our well-being when we hold onto them, but in a quite mysterious way they serve to expand us when we release them with healing intention for ourselves and others. We discover that we are greater, more generous, more loving, more understanding, and more compassionate as a result. We don’t invite suffering, nor can we release it with simple, Pollyanna affirmations. My experience has been that people who do this work at the cores of their being become more attuned to the suffering of others. They become agents of healing.

Just like individuals, societies hold collective wounds that must be released. All that we have learned about consciousness and healing can be applied equally to the social body. But we have an added factor at the societal level because as peacebuilders we have to address both the intergenerational transmission of wounds and the systems that perpetuate violence, inequity, and unsustainable lifestyles. We must act as midwives for emerging, healthier systems. No wonder we are off the streets. This is a lot to accomplish.

I reside in Crestone, Colorado, where, like many members of small communities attempting to live more sustainably and more consciously, we are slowly trying to integrate economy, ecology, healthy community, and a wonderful diversity of spiritual practice. This kind of integral work is not achieved overnight. We have an emerging community restorative justice circle, groups studying nonviolent communication, alternative healing practitioners, and many other civic and religious endeavors. It will take a significant movement of villages, towns, and even cities before these kinds of initiatives affect mainstream political decisions. A values transformation that rejects hyper-materialist fixation is at the core of the emerging peace movement, but it is not enough to spread the word. As noted above, peace is an enactment. When we truly start to demonstrate how a culture of peace is cultivated from the ground up and the inside out, we will surely be back on the streets. But this time it will be to dance and celebrate the unstoppable arrival of peace on Earth and its whole-person, whole-system embodiment.

James O’Dea is the lead faculty for the Shift Network’s Peace Ambassador Training and a well-known figure in international social healing who has conducted reconciliation dialogues for fifteen years. He is on the extended faculty of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and is its former president.
tags: Activism, Nonviolent Activism, War & Peace   
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One Response to Psyche and System: The Peace Movement Evolves

  1. Sharon Porter January 11, 2013 at 11:20 am

    James, I so much appreciate your perspective and agree with your approach. My activism began in the Civil Rights movement (with Joseph Tieger), then anti-war, women’s movement, and finally consciousness and energy medicine. I ended up being a trauma expert because I figured out that when we are holding shock from generational or situational trauma there are limits to our ability to think straight, never mind be effective change makers. Going beyond affirmations, etc. requires that we learn to open our neural pathways and allow the safe, controlled discharge of shock. I teach complex training programs that give wonderful skills but are limited in their access to enough people. But I offer you my latest find that can be quickly learned by groups, such that people can then practice it at home and share it with others. I invite your readers to go to trauma and the work of Dr. David Bercelli, who made it his mission to help people traumatized by war. His simple stretches and leg positions enable the muscles to reconnect to the brain stem, which allows the body to tremor to its heart content, a little at a time, to release the stress and shock that hold our consciousness and our body in states of freeze. It might be a nice addition to your conversation. We are genetically encoded to experience trauma, discharge it, and evolve from it. Our capacity to tremor has been dampened by our intellect and our belief system. Resiliency can be restored and offers real hope.

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