To the disappointment of many activist-minded folk, it is becoming resoundingly clear that little change in the way of peace will ever occur through politics.
As many people worldwide are beginning to realize, our global political system is thoroughly corrupted to its core. In their quests to secure money, power and fame, wealthy politicians respond only to the narrow concerns and interests of their big-money donors and corporate constituencies.
Viewed in this light, the popular political vehicle of voting is a charade played by the wealthy and powerful few to promote the illusion of choice. It is also a cynical ploy designed to win our allegiance to a system that we all know to be morally wrong.
Voting is also a superficial and ineffective means to bring about peace. Expecting peace to arrive through electing people whose impulse it is to wage violence is about as sensible as hiring a known scam artist to manage your finances. Henry David Thoreau was correct when he once wrote the following about the futility of voting:
While the horrors of institutionalized violence will not end through formal political channels, nor will it cease through violent confrontation with the system itself. Much to the disappointment of self-described ‘anarchist’ youth everywhere, employing violence to dispose of the system’s warmonger ways is definitely not an effective moral strategy to bring about peace. Pure anarchism neither condones violence nor welcomes chaos as an organizing principle of human relationships.
As ruthless as governments and corporations can be, meeting their institutionalized violence with mob violence only winds up begetting more violence! As the wise Jesus eloquently put it millennia ago:
If we as a species intend to ever transcend our bloody cycle of aggression, we need to ground our actions in love and understanding. Everlasting peace can be achieved in no other way.
How can you expect to inspire cynics of world peace, if all they see is violence in the streets that’s meant to achieve otherwise noble goals? Governments and corporations are made up of living and breathing people, with the same capacity to feel as you and I.
One of our responsibilities as humans is to encourage others to come out of the darkness of hate and into the light of love. Employing violence to bring about peace is an internal contradiction. There is a reason that great leaders like the late Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are so fondly remembered. Both men won over the hearts of even their most bitter adversaries through peace and love.
The limitations of protesting for peace
Non-violent, direct protest has been the most popular path by which people have attempted to address grave social and environmental injustices. This collective tactic has proven effective for bringing about peace, only when its participants manage to transcend the political theatre of separation. Ram Dass, an infinitely wise spiritual teacher, fully captures this point in saying:
True movements for peace are deeply rooted in love and aim at purifying the hearts of all people. The anti-Vietnam War and civil rights protests of the 1960s are powerful examples of peaceful action. Both movements began as political demonstrations against war and inequality, but eventually evolved into spiritual testaments of love.
The 2016 protests by indigenous peoples against the construction of a massive oil pipeline, near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, is an inspiring example from current times.
In that instance, indigenous peoples from around the world united against the proposed desecration of the sacred Earth. For several months, these brave souls camped out, kept continuous prayer circles and endured savage displays of cruelty at the construction site. Despite the violent reactions by authorities, the original peoples remained peaceful as a testament to their faith in humanity and their indigenous traditions.
However, each of these examples are exceptions to what commonly occurs during peaceful protest. All too often, demonstrations become muddled in the illusion of separation.
This is the challenge that all sincere peace activists must eventually confront and transcend. For whenever protesters fail to love the persons they are protesting as much as they love themselves, they descend into the murky waters of self-righteous action. The result is that some activists wind up releasing the same negative vibrations of fear and hatred as the groups they are protesting against.
History is rife with examples of once-peaceful protests becoming violent or consumed by divisiveness. From my own past experience as an anti-war protester, I can recall two instances when anger built up within the hearts of the participants and escalated into verbal conflict. Such experiences only reinforced the false ‘us’ versus ‘them’ duality and severely damaged the credibility of our message.
The problem of maintaining momentum in protest is an added issue that impacts the success of peace movements. Unquestionably, though, protesting remains among the most dramatic and effective ways for bringing attention to mass violence.
Marches, pickets, boycotts and symbolic occupations are all effective tactics for uniting otherwise disassociated groups in society. However, once awareness is raised and interested groups begin unifying under a common banner, the inevitable question arises, “Where do we go from here?”
Often, the answer to this question is to direct the momentum of protest activity into influencing political elections. This strategy may very well result in the achievement of significant short-term victories for peace—particularly within our local communities. Still, in terms of advancing the vision of peace, electoral politics accomplishes little when it comes to striking at the root of our aggression and violence in the first place. That root is ego.
We all need to look within
While non-violent protest can be a powerful means for bringing awareness to and mobilizing activists for peace, it alone will not alter our tendencies to inflict harm on one another. If we as one human family wish to work toward an everlasting peace, we must each find our own inner peace by looking within through the power of prayer and meditation.
Imagine if all human beings learned to pray and meditate regularly. Two positive outcomes would immediately result. First, every person would refuse to inflict harm on any other being. Second, as a collective, we would no longer support those structures that are fundamentally unpeaceful.
Once we all learn how to achieve peace within ourselves, violence will no longer be an issue. Aggressive outcomes like war and environmental devastation are collective reflections of our inner states of turmoil. If we hold fear and hate within our hearts, then hate and fear will guide us in our power roles as statesmen, corporate officials, law enforcers and even protesters.
The key is to cultivate the peaceful intentions of tolerance, forgiveness, compassion and love within yourself. Before setting out to change the world, we must first change ourselves.
Each individual’s path to awakening may take years or even lifetimes. And that is OK. We are each endowed with the ability to awaken. The path to becoming a peaceful being begins with tapping into that natural space of stillness that resides within us all. This space has been called many different names—Oneness, God, The Great Emptiness, the Atman or Absolute Being.
The Chandogya Upanishad—a sacred Hindu text from the larger collection of Upanishads—describes this space as far beyond fear, separation and ignorance. It is a space of faith, unity and wisdom that is more vast than the mind can comprehend.
The text goes on to describe the feeling of bliss in this space:
There are two primary channels through which we can access the inner space described in The Chandogya Upanishad: the first is through the power of prayer, and the second is through the practice of meditation.
Prayer can be thought of as an invocation or act of soulful communion during which one shares their faithful intentions and conscious desires with the Universe. Meditation is the act of stilling your mind and tuning your soul towards the vibrations of the Universe. In the depths of meditation, one learns how to listen for the Universe’s insights and guidance.
In accessing this inner space, it is important to understand that prayer and meditation are not duelling counterparts. Just as joy and suffering are part of the same cycle, so it is between prayer and meditation.
No seeker of peace may be said to truly know the one without the other. Our faithful intentions and conscious desires cannot be fully known and expressed in prayer without us first coming to know them through the stillness of meditation. Conversely, we won’t fully know how to listen for answers in meditation if we have not yet learned how to cast prayer onto our hopes and dreams.