What is Practical Peace?

Head to Head or Heart to Heart?
The Body and Soul of Practical Peace

Excerpted from a talk at Harvard Memorial Church Faith and Life Forum, November 2007

In this talk, I am going to first say what I mean by “Practical Peace”. It’s an interesting expression. I will talk a little bit about where it comes from in my life; how I arrived at some of what I think I know about it. I’m going talk then, also, about that convergence between the peace teachings in many traditions and the knowledge of our body and mind that we have available to us through science in modern times. And then I’m going just talk about a handful of really helpful practices to get from theory to the lived peaceful life.

Let me start by saying, “Practical Peace”, what is it? I want to say a couple of things about what it’s not. First of all, the “Peace” portion of it is not an ideal. It’s not something about a future perfection. It’s about here and now in this messy world. And it’s not an abstract, because abstracts can turn into absolutes and be dogmatic. They can become a hammer really fast. So it’s not an abstract. It’s here in our lives. In this room.

Now “Practical”. Just because it’s practical doesn’t mean it’s wimpy. It doesn’t mean when it’s convenient. And it doesn’t mean “until I can’t”. And it doesn’t desert you when somebody steals your car. And it doesn’t desert you when somebody cuts you off in line somewhere. And it doesn’t desert you when somebody flies a plane into the tallest building in your land.

Practical peace is a way of understanding the world, along with some habits and practices that make it possible to act out that understanding. For me, if it’s going to work it has to be flexible, it has to be creative and it has to reflect a pretty good understanding of what the forces are that we’re embedded in; how things work.

I actually have found, in my life, two sources of that kind of knowledge. One of them is what I think of as very good science. And that’s science that now, as it does in the 21st Century, has really come to understand complexity and the interconnectedness of things and the contingency of things and emergent properties. So there is a lot that I’ve learned from that world.

But there is a lot about this that I’ve learned from guides and teachers from all of the peace traditions. They arise over and over and over in human cultures; and they persist because they produce good outcomes. As Karen Armstrong would say, “They issue in practical compassion.” So there really are two rivers of this teaching and I find their convergence important because whenever different ways of knowing line up and don’t contradict each other, I begin to have a lot of trust in them. So that is, for me, the powerful origins of this understanding.

I want to talk some about the gritty origins in my life of this kind of understanding. I started my adult life as a warrior, as somebody who thought I was fighting for everything true, right and just. And part of why I had to learn a different way is that as I was engaged in that struggle for dominance about what was going to happen—what would be the history of our country, what would be the product of all of our resources—

I experienced what are the really ugly consequences of that power struggle. And that is that people die and people are deprived of their family and horrible hardships ensue. And there is no way out of that consequence of the struggle for dominance. I also learned that it doesn’t feel good, inside, to be pushing and fighting all of the time. I just wanted another way to be in the world. And so a lot of what I’ve put together just comes from longing for that other way to be in the world and from looking around— “Who’s got it? Who’s acting that way? Who’s speaking in a voice that soothes rather than inflames?”

So, I encountered the peace traditions first in Christianity, which is the tradition I was raised in, with the “God is Love” teaching. I went to a Franciscan high school, so every day I started the school day singing, along with my classmates, a very modern kind of melody for the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis, invoking, every single day, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”

One of the really valuable things about traditions is the music and the daily practices that bring this to a very present awareness, and also as I’ll talk about in a few minutes, into our body. That ritual is embodied. That singing emerges not from our neo-cortex, but from our breath, our heart, our throat.

I encountered another expression of the Christian teaching in the mission statement hanging on the wall in a YWCA gym. In its challenge to racism it called on “the barrier-breaking love of God.” And I thought, well, that’s IT. That’s a really important way of looking at things.

Certainly in Judaism we have the idea of “Shalom” as a state of affairs where well-being, tranquility, security and prosperity are present. At Temple Beth Zion we have the expansion of soul that’s the essence of Shabbat, and of a prayer during Shabbat, “The Lord is my Shepherd/ I shall want nothing.

Notice the thread here, that there is enough. We should be at peace; the very nature of being is filled with good things. We certainly have that in Islam, where the word itself derives from the concept of peace. I’m thinking about when God Bless America sentiment was coming out all over. Somebody on public radio had the presence of mind to go out and ask a lot of different people who were preachers, “Well, what do you think of God Bless America”? One Imam said, “God Bless America? Well, of course! God bless the whole world! Of course God bless America!” And I thought, “Yes,” that’s the truth, the wholeness that’s something in me is starving for and desiring.

Certainly in Buddhism, we have the practical nature of these ways of understanding the world. And in Jainism, which arose from Hinduism, we have “non-harm” to everything.

So, there are all kinds of places that this has arisen in the human reflection on our experience, and it’s there to teach us. And it struggles alongside of something else, which is the world view that says, “There’s not enough. And you have to fight for your place. Because if you lose your place, you could die”.

I want to talk about where that arises in our body, and where the sense of abundance arises in our body, because is that a lot of the peace practices I have learned are ways of accessing it, and a lot of the ways of getting in fights are the reflex that’s called up by the dominance mode in our body.

So, I want to talk for a minute about oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone. Birds have it and mammals have it. Reptiles don’t. Reptiles don’t make friends. They don’t take care of their young. But birds and mammals bond. It’s likely, that evolutionarily, oxytocin is intimately connected with the nurturing of young. It’s the hormone that actually provokes the uterus to contract and expel a child into the world. It’s also the hormone that provokes the let down of milk for mammals. What’s really important to know about oxytocin is it’s not confined to pregnant or nursing women. Oxytocin is part of the bodymind package of all mammals, and more so in social mammals; and under its influence, we relax. Our blood pressure goes down, the calcium levels in our nerve endings are adjusted so that it doesn’t feel disturbing and twitchy to have somebody kind of close. So we can actually be physically closer to each other than we could if we were not under its influence.

The world view of oxytocin is abundance and plenty. Think about mammals and mother’s milk. There’s plenty. Under the influence of this hormone circulating, we have a schema of the world that says, “There’s plenty, we just have to figure it all out. No worries”.

Now contrasted to this, we also have the possible body state of scarcity. Scarcity provokes a lot of competition and fear. Adrenaline is the hormone that expresses it. It’s interesting that under the influence of testosterone, oxytocin diminishes, so that if men feel really territorially threatened, it is harder for them to relax, to think long range, to trust. In a society that is dominated by ideas that emerge from males’ bio-psychology, it is hard to have the public collective idea that says, “We could be okay if we all just worked it out calmly.” One of the values of reintegrating female bio-psychology into our collective life is that when women are under threat, we still have available a capacity to think about other things to do than fight.

Under the influence of adrenaline we also have a very narrow view: I am standing here, and there is something over there, and I have to have it or I will die. And there is somebody between me and it. Well, there is only one possible outcome; that person and I are head to head. We are going to have to fight until one of us gets that thing and can hold on to it securely. But if we are under the influence of oxytocin, we have a sense of abundance and plenty. We start at what looks like the same stance, but there are more elements to the picture, because under the influence of oxytocin we can see more.

So here I am standing on the earth that I emerged from, that we all emerged from. How much more abundant could it be than that we are here and living and nourished and have been through millennia. That thing that I thought I would die if I didn’t have, when I’m standing on this sense of abundance, I think, “Oh, it would be nice to have that, but there’s some of this over there and there might even be more of that over there…I’ll just look around”. Instead of seeing a human being that I have to fight for what I need, I can think, “Well there’s a barrier there. Hmm. I wonder, could I go around? I wonder, could I address the barrier and see if there is some way we could work together about what is keeping there from being more of this?”

So there are all kinds of much more spacious ways, when we’re moving from the heart, which is what’s affected by oxytocin, to be in that situation. Now, when I look, I say, “What is going to have a better outcome?” Doesn’t it seem obvious that the oxytocin state will bring about a better outcome?

It looks like I’m setting up a duality here, right? The oxytocin mode is “good”, and the dominance and competition mode is “bad”. Something in me always is a little resistant to anything so simplistic. So I pay attention to my own experiences of that dominance struggle.

Let me tell you about prison: From the moment that you wake up in the morning until the moment you fall asleep at night, there are opportunities to be in conflict. That’s the milieu. It’s a wonderful place to practice what there might be instead of the dominance contest.

When you don’t have dominance power—and this is often why the oppressed people come to this kind understanding before the comfortable people come to it—you have to figure out something else. You have to realize, “I can’t win here, in that conventional sense of getting what I need and just shoving that person out of the way.” So, I had plenty of time to pay attention to other ways of being and to desire peace and see if I couldn’t make that outcome.

One of the things that happened to me was that there was an officer who liked to fight. She escalated every encounter she was in. She was proud of the number of people she could send to Maximum Security in a week. In fact, one time when she heard that there had been a fight in the yard, she couldn’t wait for an inmate to come in and tell her about it, blow by blow.

She loved to fight. She came in while I was talking with a pastoral counselor who visited the prison to meet with inamtes once a week. This pastoral counselor had her feet up on the window sill. I didn’t even think about. This woman grew up on a farm. She’s a veterinarian. We were both country. We’re kind of casual, and we’re talking about, “Where was god in your life this week?” And she’s got her feet up and who’s noticing? Well, didn’t Officer York push open that door and storm into that room and tell that woman that in this place we don’t let the inmates to put their feet up on the window sill, and we’re certainly not going to allow a visitor to do that, and if she can’t learn how to behave, she will be barred from the prison. The officer walked out, and the two of us were sort of shaken. I felt really disturbed because she had attacked this visitor who brought me so much. And because she had asserted her raw power to keep us from getting what we needed together. And she’d done it in a way that we couldn’t miss the brutality of it.

Now, this officer was the Corridor Officer. Everyday when I went to dinner, she was on the 3-11 shift, and she stood at the intersection of two hallways that we all had to walk down in order to get to the serving room. She was there to keep order. She checked that we had proper shoes, that we were not walking out with food. Every day I had to walk by her after this incident and say, “I don’t know how to be. I don’t know how to be. I don’t want to be an enemy to that woman, because I don’t want the state of enmity in me. I don’t know what to do, but I just know I don’t want to be an enemy,” So, every day for three days, twice, once to the dining room and once on the way back, I walked by Office York, and I just held in my heart, “What would peace look like? What could there possibly be here instead of enmity?”

Well the fourth day I’m walking by, and just suddenly out of nowhere, I am humming to myself, Dona nobis pacem, pacem… And my heart softened. And I thought, “Oh, oh, I got there. I got there!” All I had to do was keep at it with that intention and just not step in the other state and something finally came to me. Something out of that rich world out there of the teachings I’d found, the random accidents.

I really valued this and I tried to live it conscientiously. But there was one place where I just found it impossible—and that’s in the same cafeteria line. Here are a hundred people lined up in the hallway. Now, they’re not the most pro-social people in a society. That by definition is so, or they wouldn’t be where they are.

So here we are, all waiting in line for lunch now. Everyone has to wait in line sometimes, take turns getting onto the freeway. This is a really big part of life, and it depends on everybody doing it by the same rules. It feels disturbing if somebody is cutting us off, not letting us take our turn. And we look around for the police, “Where’s the person who is going to enforce the rules, before I go into road rage?” Because something in me is just responding that way. It is not how I want to drive, it isn’t how I want to live, but it’s coming up.

Well, I was in that line, and there would be a stream of other inmates, and they would be not waiting their turn in line, and they would be streaming past us and going to the front of the line. It was so unfair, it was collectively disturbing. We muttered among ourselves how much we wanted someone to make them stop. Everyday, people were cutting in line. Every day we were muttering, muttering, muttering. For some reason, this prison that was so committed to control and monitoring and order didn’t have an officer stationed in that corridor where this disorder was happening.

I have to give you a little background information: If I needed to be someplace earlier than the end of the line would take me, I could have been excused and sent to lunch ahead of everybody else in the prison along with the dozen other people who needed to be someplace early. And if they ran out of food, the food we got would probably be better than the food they were serving. So, what is it about feeling like my life is threatened when these people are just walking by and cutting ahead of me in line? I couldn’t figure it out. I brought every practice I knew to that. I breathed. I reframed. Everyday, I just tried.

One day it felt that that it was just too much. And I said, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to do a piece of non-violent resistance”, so I actually stepped out of the line and just stood in the path of the people cutting the line. And there was this woman coming at me. She was, fortunately, not six feet tall, but she was big. And she was as rooted to the ground as I was. And she just kept right on walking. I said, “You’re just not going to go by. You and all your friends, you’re just not going to go by.” And the next thing you know, we were practically in a riot. All the people I was defending were trying to get in the fight and all the people behind her trying to cut the line were getting in the fight. And I said, “You know what? This is not the outcome. It can not be. I went all the way to the wall with that one. All the way to the limits of the dominance thing and it’s not ever going to solve the problem. It’s not ever going to take away that reflex in me. I’m going to have to learn to live with that reflex in me”. But I hated that idea.

My meditation teacher used to say, “Notice aversion.” So, I just lived with disliking it everyday. I noticed the feeling that I wanted to fight coming up. I noticed what it was doing to me, and I just didn’t act on it. I got that moment of time between the impulse and the action. And I said, “Okay, this is what is and it’s really not very peaceful.” I wondered if there was anything else.

And one day, I was watching this particular National Geographic something on television. It was talking about Africa. Our biology evolved in Africa, in a rainy season, dry season kind of world. At the end of the dry season sometimes, there is very little water. In fact, at the end of the dry season sometimes, there is not enough, and only some animals will make it through. So here’s this image of a seep that’s the only water for miles around. And there’s a twig. And the water’s coming off of that twig drop by drop, and there’s one chimpanzee getting that water. And that chimpanzee is not a child or lactating female. That chimpanzee is the alpha male.

When I saw that picture, I was suddenly struck with a lot of compassion for that drive in us at certain times to say, “There’s not enough and if I don’t fight for my place, I will die.” That has at some times in our evolutionary history been the truth, and it may be the truth again sometime. But what I want to do, what I think is the key to practical peace, is just not to get confused about ordinary everyday life and the things that come up and provoke that sensation, and the real time that there really might not be enough and the fight for dominance might really be the only thing possible. I’m going to test every situation I come up against where I have the impulse to dominate or to fight in a dominance competition. I’m going to say, “Well, is this that time?” I can tell you in all the years since I figured that out, it has never been that time.

There’s a philosopher, Lani Roberts at Oregon State University, and she says that the ‘just war’ theory is simply wrong because it says, “When there is nothing else you can do, then you can go to war.” But there is never nothing else you can do. The human capacity to think up new things that we might do is infinite and it is morally wrong to undertake an egregious action based on the fact that you haven’t figured out another solution yet. You just have to keep putting off that action and keep on finding the other solution.

So, I started to take it in that this impulse to struggle for dominance is in me, and I am going to bow to the wisdom implicit in evolution because that, to me, is the emerging work of the divine. And I’m going to say it’s messy and ugly, from certain points of view, I don’t like it. But it is what is, and I have to find a way not to fight it.

I recall some theology from Walter Wink. Walter Wink is a Christian theologian of peace at Auburn Seminary in New York State. He has written the books, “Naming the Powers” and “Engaging the Powers”. His cosmology is that everything is created in infinite love—to be perfect. And everything is, in his word, “fallen”. And everything is capable of redemption and awaiting redemption at every moment. So Walter Wink talks about the dominance institutions of our society that create so much suffering and are so clearly unjust, and that those of us who pay a lot of attention to them and have sort of a left analysis of our society have called enemies, have said, “Those are evil!” And have at times in our life we have said, “We have to destroy those.” Walter Wink says that we have to understand that sometimes, in some conditions, dominator orders emerge. And we have to resolve to be outside of dominance, to continue to act a different way. That will ultimately be the only thing that can create the conditions for a different order to emerge.
We have to take it in. We have to say, “Nothing is outside of creation. Everything. Everything is holy and I will not have aversion.” I will encounter it and I will say, “This is. Thank you, God”.

From that act of faith, I will try to figure out a practical course of action. But that is where I start.

I want to talk about just a few steps that I use to achieve Practical Peace, good outcomes in all of the situations that I find myself in.

There are two things that, for me, are the foundation. The first is mindfulness meditation. The reason for that is that in the bodymind system it buys time. It just buys time between the experience and the story we make about the experience, “Oh, that’s threatening my life,” and other possible understandings of the experience that might produce a wiser next step.

In terms of practicality, I have to say I am grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh for suggesting that you could just do this whenever you could. When I went to prison, I knew that I’m not the kind of person who’s going to get up in the morning and meditate. I didn’t know where I was going to make a space for that. And yet, I had experienced the power of it and knew I had to have it. I decided that every time I had to wait in line, I would meditate. Well, I got a lot of meditation practice in prison, because there is a lot of waiting in line.

Several years into that experience is a woman said to me, “I want what you have”. And she didn’t mean my lunch or my sweatshirt. She said, “Nobody can knock you off balance. Something comes along, you’re waiting in line, somebody cuts you in line. You say, ‘That’s not right what you did. We’re all waiting here, and we all need to be someplace. And you know that that’s not right and that’s not what you should be doing.’ I notice that nobody ever cuts you again. It really works. And you never get in any fights.”

But mindfulness meditation trains the body and mind to pause and see what is really there in that moment when that visceral response says, “I’m going to die here or somebody I care about is going to die here.” It gets a chance to be processed into, “Oh, sometimes in our history as beings, that was so. Sometime in the future, it might be so again, but right now that’s not so. Let’s be with what really is so, right now.”

The second practice that I feel is essential on a regular basis is the compassion practice. The Metta meditation of Theravada Buddhism is one. And I have encountered one with Mennonites who have taught me so much of this practice from the Christian tradition. They try very hard to go through the moments in their life being really in touch with how loved by God they are. So, when they are in an encounter with another person, they are already in that body state and their practice is to say, “God loves that person, just so”.

Both of these practices are ways to get ourselves into the oxytocin state. And the practice of getting into that state easily and being friends with that state is really important. We need it to become available easily when we run up into a situation where we could be in conflict.

Another key idea of practical peace is gratitude, that aspect of the oxytocin state where we know that there is enough. We live in a culture in which the economy defines that there is not enough, there can never be enough, and the only way to survive is to compete for dominance endlessly. Gratitude is the antidote to that. We have to stop, I have to stop and say, “What is, is enough. I came from it. It brought me here”. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “I notice I am still breathing. My animal life is going on”. At this moment, gratitude. Gratitude first.

There is a practical way that I have acted out gratitude. Because ideas are here and they are good guides, but we have to train habits if we are going to make use of the ideas. So one of my practices is that whatever comes at me, the first thing to come from me is, “Thank you”. No matter what it is. That’s an act of faith.

One time I was in the prison visiting room and I went over to the vending machine to get a treat. The visitor could bring in this credit card looking thing and put it in there and you could push a button and get the potato chips or the popcorn. So I was there, and an officer who, again had a reputation for brutality on many levels, hollered across the room, “Ms. Power!” Now he had broken the rules right there, because nobody is supposed to call out my name, or any inmate’s name, in front of fifty people. But I’m looking up and he says, “Inmates are not to touch that machine!” And he was wrong. I knew he was wrong. I didn’t know what to do. Every eye in the room was looking at this potential for conflict. So I used my habit. I said, “Thank you, Officer Doherty, that’s new information to me”. And I went back and sat down. The thank you saved me from acting the fool. Was I going to argue with this guy who was wrong twice, in front of all these people? How can anybody win? I can’t win.

So for everything lovely and everything unlovable, for everything comfortable and everything discomfiting, “Thank you.” This is an act of faith. I take it as a given and make it my job to find out how it can possibly be true. Because gratitude is the only possible response to the abundance that brought us forth and sustains us. And we have to practice that.

Another important basic idea for practical peace is non-enmity. When I arrived at prison, somebody on the staff said to me, “There are guards here who hate you, and they are going to make your time here really hard.” I thought, “What do I do with that? How am I going to be with that?” I didn’t know. I had no idea. I just knew that I did not want to be enemies. Here is where I first formulated that word non-enmity for myself, “I just won’t take on enmity. It takes two. I will not participate in the dance of enmity, no matter what comes at me.” It is like when I decided that I wasn’t going to hit my child as a method of discipline. I had to come with something else.

Over and over, as with Officer York, I had to challenge my self to find a way to be not-enemies. And so, when we’re terrified and destroyed by somebody flying airplanes into our tallest building, the practice of non-enmity becomes a way that we can figure out how to be in a world where there is hatred and anger; where other people would come at us with enmity and we know that if we engage with them in enmity, endless destruction would ensue. And if we say “No” to that, we just have to say, “Okay, I have to keep working at it until I find a way. I simply refuse that relationship”.

Name Remember

About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances & Publications
3/12/19 Peace, Justice and Transformation, Parallel Conference to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, 777 United Nations Plaza, NYC
11/13/18 A Journey from Guerrilla to Grandmother, Lifelong Learners: An Independent Collaborative, Temple Shir Tikva, 141 Boston Post Road, Wayland, MA 01778
10/10/18 Provincetown Women’s Week Reading from Doing Time:Papers from Framingham Prison, AMP, 432 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA
4/6-9/2018 The Nature of Change, Radical Imagination Conference, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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