In times of war much is said about ending war and making the world peaceful again. There are protests against war, diplomatic negotiations behind the scenes and peace movements of all kinds. But what is it that truly prevents war or dissolves it? One scenario that set me thinking about this question relates to the battles of the indigenous Dani people of Netherlands, New Guinea. For decades the Dani engaged in “ritual killing” with a rival tribe nearby. The Dani would engage in battle with their mortal enemies until an enemy warrior had been killed on one side. Then, after the battle, the rival tribe would grieve while the Dani people celebrated. Then the entire phenomenon would start again. A battle would occur until a warrior had been killed on the other side, and then the situation would reverse. The other side would celebrate their victory while the Dani people grieved the death of a son and warrior.
This endless eye-for-an-eye/warrior-for-a-warrior loop was practiced by these warriors’ fathers and their fathers’ fathers ever since the Dani could remember. Mothers and fathers knew that their children would be raised only to kill and be killed, without any sane alternative. An equally inane form of reciprocal killing is antlered animals’ dance of death. Within some antlered species large bucks lock horns and then fight to the death. Each buck tries to kill the other, but the sad reality is that once their antlers are entangled, so too is their shared demise.
Perhaps we see the absurd sadness of the Dani and of the trapped bucks, but is there nothing like this in our own condition? Psychologists talk of the reciprocal rooster and hen-pecking of husbands and wives. Anyone who has ever entered an intense verbal battle with an associate knows that such quarrels may quickly escalate into an oral arms race in which former friends can truly lock antlers, sometimes until the death of the friendship. Any of us may engage in the ritual killing of substance and bonding.
At the heart of preventing social war is the art of preventing war within one’s self, and thus with one’s immediate friends, family, colleagues and neighbours. Being a peacemaker is first and foremost an inside job. We must learn to live in inner stillness and to bring an active, radiant state of peace into our world. At the core of preventing outer entanglement is the state of being neither offensive nor defensive in the first place (i.e. we must be disentangled within ourselves.).
What then may we specifically do to engage in personal disarmament? How may we demilitarize the outer world with our disarming inner characters? Those of us who are on a spiritual path are used to hearing advice which takes the form of general positive directives: give thanks, let love radiate, be still and pour out a blessing. These creative commands are valuable and not to be underestimated. But if we truly wish to be peacemakers, a more exacting additional discipline exists that involves specific personal work.
The discipline I have in mind is a step-by-step process that could be called personal disarmament. During the U.S.-Soviet tensions of the 1980s some friends and I gave workshops on how to melt our own personal defenses and offenses simultaneously. It’s my contention that such a collective discipline is needed now as a means to let my and our presence truly transform the world. If we look at the causes of war, and find such causes also in ourselves, then we may begin to take steps towards ending the ritual killing, the antlered entanglement and the dance of death. This personal homework may be augmented by an emphasis upon positive actions—prayer, meditation, sanctification and unconditional radiance—such that my life is not random but rather a tool in the hands of the reality of love at my core.
Taking this approach into account we can look at the causes of war and terrorism, find corresponding feelings within ourselves, and search for ways to dissolve our own personal department of defenses. Here are some areas where specific personal inventory and change may be undertaken:
Territoriality – What territory are we protecting? Are there people, objects, plans or activities that we see as “ours” rather than part of the seamless flow of spirit? Do we dispute boundaries with people—theirs or mine? Why not relax our grip whenever we’re uptight or possessive?
Rigidity – Fundamentalism, political ideology and national policy are often inflexible. They proffer the notion of an absolutely wrong “enemy.” Are there areas in us that are stiff and stubborn? Are we convinced of our righteousness and the dishonesty or manipulation of others? Is there another way to see and be? Why not open ourselves to other angles of observation and to the flow of life?
Perspectivism – Often “enemies” live in a maze of mirrors, as in a carnival sideshow. I see you in a concave mirror and you see me through a convex mirror. So to one enemy the other looks fat and grotesque, while to the other enemy the first appears obscenely thin and featureless. This is the nature of propaganda and political cartoons, in which both sides demonize the other and create a perspective by which to caricature the other’s faults. What perspectives do we create to maintain a subtle condescension towards other people? What kind of frame do we create to make ourselves above others in the eyes of our peers? How do we reinforce this insider/outsider distinction within our group?
Guided oral missiles – Do our words pierce the hearts of others like darts? What criticism, blame or accusation have we been aiming at anyone? Thoughts can also be heat-seeking missiles. We have the power to find mental “targets” in our consciousness or the power to see such people anew. We can, for example, make a list of the “difficult” people in our world, find their redeeming qualities, seek to understand the basis for their differentness and begin to love them whenever they come to mind.
Resentment – War and terrorism are often the outcome of a marked inability to forgive or a sustained inability to apologize. Latent or expressed resentment keep the lid upon any tendencies toward repentance or personal change. Dr. Wallace Ellerbrook noted in his research with cancer patients that, although many inherit cancer through genetic and other physical reasons, others seem to carry a specific psychological profile; they carry the sustained inability to forgive if they are “wronged” or to apologize if they are “wrong.” Can we contact burdened parts of our heart that we have suppressed because we could not own up to our part in a “battle” with a friend or group? Have we done all the work to let go of whatever might bottle my anger, fear or resentment?
Grabbing our guns – Do we arm ourselves prior to meeting a particular person or facing a specific group? Subconsciously we might raise my defenses or create a particular strategy to overcome the politics of the situation. Can we spot this pattern in ourselves and rather than preparing for this “showdown,” instead “check our guns at the door”? In the American wild west checking your guns meant taking off your holster and leaving it in a room with the designated lawmen until a meeting or social event concluded. In what situations are our guns likely to “go off half-cocked?” Can we do some preparatory work before potentially volatile encounters? Rather than arming ourselves with convincing arguments we can let our defenses dissolve into innocence.
Aggressive advances – Do we seek opportunities for increasing our sphere of influence or power domain? Have we or might we hurt someone else in the process? Do we have tunnel vision focused only upon the job ahead or may we also use peripheral vision to anticipate the effects our next steps might have on other people? Battles are often triggered by an advance or a defense or usually a combination of both. Where are our own hidden advances that we cloak from ourselves? Must we acquire more of anything? A larger role? An advantage over a competitor? Better resources? Control over our relationships rather than shared power? As an alternative to such advances we can create a climate of gratitude for the abundance already in evidence.
Mistrustful withholding – Distrust can cause me to build walls and barriers by which we withhold our substance, spirit and heart. Why not take the first step to reestablish trust with possible adversaries or distanced friends? Are there people with whom we’re less than forthcoming and honest? My personal walls will be echoed by the building of high-security fences worldwide.
Anonymity – For a variety of reasons terrorists often go underground and devise anonymous actions. Do we ever work through other people by planting gossip or other hidden tools of destruction? Do we find ways to be behind the scenes and let others field the more visible roles of leadership? What are we quietly plotting in our minds rather than publicly owning?
Retaliation – Ritual killing is sustained because no one has the courage to tame personal reactions and attitudes. Even in subtle ways we can and do retaliate. What if we were to thank the person who criticized us rather than fight back? What if we could let someone insult me without becoming defensive? What if we knew when and how to turn the other cheek without being a wimp? What if we took the following attitude toward a partner when she seems to attack: “This is how my lover expresses her feelings. I do not need to defend or counterattack. I must listen more deeply to truly hear what she is saying without judgment.” Withholding all judgment is the first key toward avoiding a “retaliatory strike” in all relationships.
While there are many other ways in which we can arm and disarm ourselves, perhaps these ten areas are enough homework for the moment. If taken seriously, each area could be challenging work. Although we know that great athletes and artists must constantly rehearse, condition and train themselves, sometimes in the spiritual world it’s felt that no work is needed. This line of thought assumes that making the world right simply involves experiencing bliss or just trusting the universe. To me, far more daily conditioning is needed if we’re to become peacemakers. We must temper our behaviours and attitudes in exactly those areas where we may contribute to world war or to world peace.No doubt there are those who will say that this invisible work is far less useful than doubling the size of our armies and raising taxes to equip them. And yet sometimes the smallest thing matters. Three years ago it occurred to me that I had wronged someone five years earlier and so I wrote a letter of apology. I had struggled with whether to write or not for months, thinking that the matter had become so much water under the bridge. At first I had felt self-righteous about my stand, but over time an increasing maturity caused my inner voice to say “apologize.” At first this inner voice was a whisper; then later it was a shout. The recipient of my letter of apology was much surprised by my memory of the event and wrote back with delight, as if something deeply buried in the heart had been relieved. And then, much to my surprise, the other party—who had often relived the event mentally—said, “I apologize too.” Not much later a major country in the world apologized to another country for what had been done in World War II, over fifty years earlier. Although I’m not suggesting a direct causal relationship between my action and the global event, it’s obvious that nothing may be done in the world that has not first been done in a person.
Who knows how simple internal acts may affect a troubled world? If our own nucleus is disturbed we are, in essence, a nuclear reactor ready for meltdown. If our own thoughts are polluted, we’re a source of global waste. Why not make a difference where we’re most sure of what we’re doing—in our own backyard of consciousness?
Someone told me the other day about a nurse who could light up a hospital ward just by leaving it. I chuckled but I realize that the joke would not have been funny if there weren’t nurses and doctors who can, in fact, light up a patient’s room just by entering it. The punchline plays upon the fact that one’s presence may quickly make a difference within a public environment. How could this phenomenon differ in the world at large? We can lighten the world or darken it based upon our own spirit: are we DIS-arming spirits or do we raise the defenses, walls and aggression of our neighbours? What work must we do to “check our guns at the door” and remember never to pick them up again?
As greater acts of terror and military action increase in the world, the media increasingly focuses upon specific personalities, casualties, tragedy and sensation. We can easily become sucked into this endless serialized action thriller or we can focus upon our own spirit of being and light. As we focus upon lighting up a room just by entering it, it’s valuable to continue to check our own personal armoury. Do we have any remaining weapons or have all our swords been turned into ploughshares?
There’s far more to be done in our world than just preventing war. Stopping the dance of death is important, but it’s more important still to engage in the dance of life. St. Gregory of Nyssa reminded us of this greater dance when he wrote: “Once there was a time when the whole of rational creation formed a single dancing chorus looking up to the one Leader of the dance. And the harmony of that motion which was imparted to them by reason of His law found its way into the dancing.” Personal disarmament is simply a first step towards participating in the dance of life. It’s impossible to enjoy the dance in a suit of armour. But once the armour is gone there’s an entirely new rainbow of experience to enjoy.