By chance, I’m in Geneva at the same time as a stream of black cars full of world leaders, and we’re on peace missions of different sorts. Events of the past two weeks spur reflection on the ways in which their big mission and my little one intersect.
I arrived in Switzerland feeling brow-furrowed about potential US military strikes against Syria and their uncertain consequences, but it was inner peacemaking that brought me here this time: an irresistible invitation to jump in and help a group of dear Swiss friends put on a three-day program with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation master of the Bön tradition. I’ve long and much appreciated Rinpoche through his writings and webcasts, but hadn’t had the chance to see him in person until now.
One of the perks of hosting such an event (in addition to the karma cookies) is the opportunity to spend a little time in the company of an inspiring human — an educator who lives what he teaches, who embodies peace and kindness while he works to spread them.
Naturally, Rinpoche, too, was concerned about Syria, as we quickly learned. A Swiss TV team had picked him up from the airport in order to have a bit of time with him before filming an interview at the place where we awaited him, the home of two of my friends who were part of the team organizing the event. Not long after he walked in the door and greeted us with hugs, we got to talking. Rinpoche, who now lives in the US when not traveling internationally to teach, asked if I thought the US would strike.
It was looking likely. President Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace merely for a campaign promise to abandon the mad cowboy aggression of the Dubya years, was poised to nab a second award for contortionism, adopting the unilateral warrior’s stance while attempting to project a compassionate face. Just last Tuesday, responding to increasing public opposition, Obama said, “when with modest effort we can stop children from being gassed to death… I believe we should act.”
A deeper look at the Libya crisis
No one of sound mind wants children to die — of any cause, let alone such a truly horrible one as chemical weapons. So, clearly, action of some kind is called for. But a rational person must ask what kind of action seems most likely to achieve the desired result. Is it military intervention, intensified diplomatic pressure, or other nonviolent solutions?
More to the point: What historical precedent provides any confidence that a “modest effort” with bombs might be a dependable way to restore peace in the Middle East? If anything, don’t all of the Asian military campaigns of the past half century suggest the opposite? And if a “modest” bombing were to depose Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, who would fill the vacuum, and how would they behave toward those Syrians with whom they don’t feel aligned?
Another (most deserving) Nobel Peace laureate, Archibishop Desmond Tutu, put it plainly in an interview published in yesterday’s Financial Times: “You’re going to smash him [Assad] to smithereens, and what do you put in his place? Because that’s not going to solve the crisis in Syria, because you have all kinds of factions there, it’s better to try the long route…”
Tutu, as perhaps the world’s most authoritative living voice on national-scale conflict resolution, should be given our most attentive ear when he speaks on this complex and unpredictable issue. But let’s face it: At this point in human evolution, the “long route” is not our strong suit. As a species, we are capable of fantastic feats of creativity and perseverance under optimal conditions, but we tend to be less likely to rely on those gifts under stress.
In crisis mode, we tend to lose our patience, our finesse, and often our common sense. Why? These three days with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche would shed some light on this.
Over a polyglot lunch (languages spoken at the table included French, Italian, German, Spanish, Tibetan, Hindi, and English), gazing across a serene lake in Fribourg Canton, Rinpoche mentioned that recently he had watched a documentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis, a case study in the escalation of fear that very nearly led to a nuclear confrontation between the USA and the USSR. We observed parallels: increasingly strident political rhetoric, fearmongering in the media, and a conspicuous absence of serious multilateral diplomacy. Once the psychological machinery of war is set in motion, it is difficult to park.
A deeper look at human nature
After a siesta, we took Rinpoche to the venue, an art gallery in Bulle run by friends, where he was to deliver a public talk to kick off the first night of the program. But just as we rolled into the parking lot, Rinpoche announced he wanted take a quick walk, and asked if I’d like to join him. This was the sort of tête-à-tête I had quietly held hope for without any expectation, so I was delighted. As we hit the sidewalk, he joked, “I’m supposed to give a talk on the awakening mind, and what would help my mind awaken is a cup of coffee.”
The only place in Bulle I knew for a proper cuppa, a bistro called “le 43,” was just a block away, so off we went, briskly. “Une tasse de café, s’il vous plaît,” and the bartender set to pouring. I wanted to get the check but Rinpoche beat me to it, offering to treat me to a cup as well. But he had only euros, and I had only dollars, so we both drew our plastic, only to see the bartender shake his head apologetically.
Witnessing this, one of the patrons at the bar, suit-clad, fresh off work, turned to us and said with a hearty mountain smile, in richly textured, Swiss French-accented English, “Let me buy your coffee. Welcome to Bulle.” Rinpoche’s reply drew a laugh: “Now I feel like ordering dinner!” He and I were touched by this kind generosity toward strangers, and we spent the next ten minutes happily sipping espresso while he offered me tactful and helpful reflections on staying balanced and healthy while living a busy life (with the option of the occasional caffeine boost).
Returning to the gallery, Rinpoche paused briefly just before the threshold and switched gears with one breath. The jovial and soft-spoken friend we had spent the day with instantly transformed into a powerful orator, concisely delivering a stream of penetrating insight into the nature of consciousness and our human capacity to find connection and fulfillment within, and thereby interact with the world more effectively and more gracefully. In the course of this, he presented an overview of what his tradition refers to as the “nine winds,” a taxonomy representing states of individual and collective consciousness, ordered from the most sublime to the most agitated. The ninth and last of these translates as “era-destroying wind,” which Rinpoche defines as the escalation of fear within a society (or group or relationship) to the point of self-destruction. [For more on the nine winds, see Rinpoche’s book, Awakening the Sacred Body.]
The truth of this is clear when we look honestly at our lives and our world. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience research confirm what contemplatives of many traditions have known for centuries: tension (physical/mental/emotional) is the enemy of clear thinking, good choices, and effective action. As tension increases, the human mind becomes a progressively blunter instrument. Conversely, the more we connect with stillness (of body, mind, and spirit), the more the mind becomes supple and thinking becomes clearer and increasingly nuanced and creative.
In this light, we see the problem of escalation holistically. The threat of violence overheats us. Fearmongering in the public discourse polarizes us by making nuanced thinking more difficult — not only emotionally, but also on a physical, biological level. It squeezes all subtlety out of the room and leaves only crude options on the table. A limitless world of possibilities is reduced to primitive binaries: to hit or not to hit.
When pushed to the furthest extremes of fear, humans are ready to kill with no rational thought of the possible consequences. And when this happens on a societal scale, that is the “era-destroying wind” described by the sages — the very worst potential of our nature.
So, how to get back to the best in us?
There is a physical, biologically driven necessity for us to cool off, to connect with the stillness that is always within us, as an aspect of our nature, so that we regain access to the serenity, sensitivity, and creativity that support to our best thinking, catalyze our most inspired solutions, and engender enough trust between people to give peaceful proposals a chance to succeed. We must first connect with the best in ourselves, and then open ourselves to connect with the best in one another.
“Peace begins within” might sound hackneyed or hippie, but this isn’t about some indulgent personal bliss. It’s a pragmatic prescription for safety, stability, and prosperity. And, when push comes well beyond shove, it is the key to our survival, as individuals and potentially as a species.
Try as we might (and must), we can’t pacify the entire world, of course, but we can pacify our own responses to tense situations. And if enough of us do that, then that changes the world.
For more on Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, including a free video archive of recorded talks, see ligmincha.org.