Manifesting Peace*

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.

In the movie The Interpreter, a fictional ethnic group, the Ku, who live in a fictional country, Matobo, engage in a thought-provoking practice. As protagonist Silvia Broome says,

The Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There's an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He's taken out on the water, and he's dropped. He's bound so that he can't swim. The family of the dead then has to make a choice. They can let him drown or they can swim out and save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they'll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn't always just...that very act can take away their sorrow.

Silvia also utters the statement opening this post about vengeance being a lazy form of grief. Regardless of whether the above description comes from someone's imagination or a "real" practice (after all, they are both human constructions), I find her words about revenge and the Drowning Man Trial to be instructive. They suggest that we tie ourselves up in knots, and sometimes cause great harm to others, when we become mired in thoughts about how we have been wronged.

Domination, oppression, and injustice are prevalent and very real, particularly for the most vulnerable individuals and communities. Like many others, I would like our world and society to devote more energy to cultivating dignity, compassion, and empathy so that we may create more peace and less war, within ourselves and between people. But how do we do this?

Tara Brach often says, "Where our attention goes, our energy flows." If our attention goes to avenging injustices, our energy will flow toward strategic planning and violence. If our attention goes to alleviating the suffering caused by injustices, our energy will flow toward understanding the matter more fully and clearly before choosing our response. After all, reaching for a weapon, whether physical or verbal, suggests we do not have other tools at our disposal to restore a sense of well-being and peace.

But this "peace work" is so much harder than abstract language suggests. When we feel wronged, we want our lives restored to "rightness." And that is the rub. Oftentimes, without recognizing what has happened, we insert a lot of expectations into the restorative process that are rooted in a moral philosophy of rightdoing and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this good/bad view of the world automatically deletes a lot of context and history that could assist us in gaining more clarity about the various forces contributing to the situation. Those forces need our attention if we aspire to restore a sense of wholeness, of integrity, with our response. What is more, this narrow view takes us away from the present moment and into our stories of how life "should" be. In contrast is "living without an agenda":

Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we're not entirely certain about who's right and who's wrong? Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say, not make the person wrong or right? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are? It is powerful to practice this way, because we'll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again--to make ourselves or them right or wrong. But true communication can happen only in that open space.**

As usual, my own personal experience has drawn me to this topic of manifesting peace. Back in June, I wrote about my upcoming wedding. Since that time, I have come face to face with old family wounds and realized just how much sorrow I have been carrying around. I most certainly have turned to vengeance--in the form of lashing out with harsh words--when the grief has felt too overwhelming or shameful, and particularly when a lot of external stressors are present. Inspired by Old School, I have been only half-joking about carrying a horse tranquilizer gun at the wedding so I can take action if the going gets too tough.

But I have found that when I allow myself the time and space to dig below the anger, frustration, and judgments, the vulnerable sorrow at the root of things becomes a conduit for connecting with family members and the human experience more broadly. As uncomfortable as it is, I have been attending to and befriending my grief. As a result, I am better understanding the intergenerational nature of my family wars as well as the conditions that foster a sense of separation and brokenness. That understanding, combined with my aspiration to pay "wholehearted, intelligent attention,"**  has allowed me to begin to grow peace within and with individual family members. In conversations, that peace-making has involved attentive, non-defensive listening and generated validation of our own and the other's experience as well as compassion for the suffering that is present, regardless of whose suffering is there. Slowly but surely, I am arriving at the expansive freedom beneath the mourning, to which the Drowning Man Trial speaks. When I am able to stay present and arrive at that open space of "true communication," I encounter the love and tenderness that were there all along.

Pema Chodron gets the final word on how, in our daily lives, we can turn toward and foster peace-making:

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.**

* This piece draws heavily on Tara Brach's September 11, 2013 talk "Peace Work."

** These quotes come from Pema Chodron and appear in The Pocket Pema Chodron.