Mar 15, 2009 Practicing peace in the face of war
On March 11, 2009, I wrote about strength through fearlessness of death.
Of similar importance to success in life and trial practice is practicing peace even when surrounded by literal and figurative war. Finding and practicing inner peace and calm is essential to effective t’ai chi practice and battle. In that regard, recently I picked up Pema Chodron’s Practicing Peace in Times of War. As it turns out, the book goes well beyond practicing peace during conventional war, nuclear war, and guerrilla war, to cover the practice of peace through any kind of inner and outer turmoil, disharmony, pain, and even death.
How often do people wake up all peaceful on a Monday morning, only to have their stomachs tied up in knots, their veins popping, and their blood pressure bursting three hours later when they arrive at work and perceive that after leaving work the previous Friday, one or more people screwed them over, whether intentionally or not? This probably has happened to everyone, which makes Practicing Peace in Times of War so essential. The book is universal to people of all religious faiths, agnostics and atheists, because Ms. Chodron draws from her Buddhist tradition without seeking converts.
Pema Chodron advises to focus not on escaping one’s present circumstances in the search for more happiness, but to focus on working through problems. She reminds us that everyone will experience sickness, old age, and death. To the extent that we continue experiencing pain and suffering, she says, we are able to be more compassionate about other people’s trials and tribulations. She focuses on the importance of not thinking that we are inadequate and have a long road to fix our inadequacy, but instead that we are where we need to be right now, and that we can improve upon that along the path. This is not about some superficial "I’m okay, you’re okay" approach, but instead is about self-empowering ourselves towards harmony rather than having us debilitated by thinking we are losers.
For the practice of peace in times of inner and outer turmoil, Ms. Chodron summons the image of fish talking about how not to get caught by the hook of a fishing pole, with the answer not being to frantically try to move away from the hook, but of the need to focus on the now, soften one’s heart, and not bite down on the hook in anger or frustration. I add the importance of not getting angry at the fisherwoman or fisherman — and even trying to understand the fisherperson and his or her motivations — just as a human presumably would not get angry at an attacking lion or bear.
To focus on the now, Ms. Chodron in part talks of the benefits of meditation. While sitting meditation is beneficial, I focus on the moving meditation of t’ai chi, which well enables one to defend against an attack at any moment. I do my best to apply t’ai chi principles to everything I do. When faced with a fight or flight situation, I try to relax and sink my chi into my tan t’ien, which is not far below the navel. Other beneficial ways to interrupt the common human cycle of reacting negatively to a stimulus is to focus on the life-giving nature of one’s breath, or the radiating sound of a bell or to chant a beneficial mantra (including "breathe", "now", and "peace").
Ms. Chodron speaks of people who do harm by their words and deeds — including those motivated by racial hatred — as people who harm themselves in the process, and people whose pain we need to understand and be compassionate about, and not to get angry at it. It is all much easier said than done, and Ms. Chodron admits that she still experiences situations where she gets feelings of significant imbalance, but she tries to work through the problem mindfully, and without biting on the hook of the fishing pole.
Practicing Peace includes discussion of death row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters, who became a Buddhist in prison and authored one of Ms. Chodron’s favorite spiritual books, Finding Freedom while on death row. Practicing Peace mentions how Masters answered an inmate’s question about his view towards the more difficult prison guards by answering that he was concerned that if he lashed out at such guards, the risk would have increased that the prison guard would have taken it out against his child at home.
One day, a fellow inmate in the prison courtyard started hurling a rock at a bird, and Mr. Masters held his arm up to block the path of the rock. The angry throwing inmate asked why Mr. Masters did that, and he replied that those were his wings out of the prison; the prisoners understood that yearning, and this eliminated further escalation of the tension.
Mr. Masters entered prison in 1981 at age nineteen, and was sent to death row over allegedly being a co-conspirator four years later to killing a prison guard and to preparing the blade that killed him. The website by Mr. Masters’ supporters reports that he remains on death row, with post conviction appeals continuing.
The death penalty must be abolished. My main reasons for opposing the death penalty include the irreversibility of any death sentence errors once the execution is carried out, the many proven instances of innocent people being sent to death row, the begetting of violence from violence (including from the death penalty and all other state-sponsored violence), and the wrongheadedness of the government killing to express that killing is wrong. Furthermore, Jarvis Jay Masters is an example of the many death row inmates who enter prison in great disharmony, to say the least, and who move well beyond that as the years pass. Imagine all the people inside and outside of prisons who are inspired by Mr. Masters’ words and stories of attaining and living a peaceful life, and all who will lose out when he dies.
Practicing Peace in Times of War is a quick and essential one hundred-page read. Jon Katz