peace

Peace Like War Must Be Waged: What It Takes To Develop Inner Peace

This week my wife and I were in New York City for some business.  We had never taken the public tour of the United Nations Headquarters before,  so we got our visitors passes and went.  I was very moved as the guide took us around the headquarters building and described both the history of the UN and the many initiatives the UN continues to work on around the world. One of the most impressive statements to me was on a plaque:  "Peace like war must be waged."  Turns out actor George Clooney used that statement in a public service announcement to highlight the important work of the UN Peacekeepers.  Here's the 60 second spot:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-2rv8s8Zmg]

"Peace like war must be waged."  We often don't think of peace in those terms.  We talk about fighting wars, waging battles in order to have territorial, national, and international victories.  War is synonymous with action and powerful initiative.

And yet peace takes the same kind of energy, intentionality, and powerful initiative.  Peace doesn't just happen.  You can't sit around and hope for it.  You have to work for it ... hard!  You have to want it so badly that you're willing to expend lots of energy and personal resources to obtain it.

Here's what Clooney's ad stated:  “Peace is not just a colored ribbon. It’s more than a wristband or a t-shirt. It’s not just a donation or a 5 K race. It’s not just a folk song, or a white dove. And peace is certainly more than a celebrity endorsement. Peace is a full time job. It’s protecting civilians, overseeing elections, and disarming ex-combatants. The UN has over 100,000 Peacekeepers on the ground, in places others can’t or won’t go, doing things others can’t or won’t do. Peace, like war, must be waged.”

Think of all the peace movements in history--the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr., Indian independence and equality with Gandhi, the women's suffrage movement for voting rights and greater equality.  None of these or any others just happened.  Peace had to be waged just as hard and as strategically as any war in history.  Huge obstacles had to be overcome.  And those peace battles continue needing to be waged even in our present in order to build on the successes of the past and bring about ever greater levels of equality.

Peace like war must be waged.

I'm thinking a lot about this as I prepare for a public speaking series here in San Francisco in 10 days (3 nights: October 19, 26, November 2).  My  topic is "Living Worry Free:  Developing Inner Peace in an Age of Anxiety."  Here's the link for the invitation.

The reality is, inner peace isn't something that simply happens or shows up in your life, either.  You can't just sit up on top of a mountain like the stereotypical guru meditating peace into your life.  Since most of us have to live "normal" lives in the "real" world, we can't be on retreat 24/7 away from the hustle and bustle.  Meditation is, to be sure, a highly significant tool (I'll be talking about that in my series).

But for you to have the ability to live life in the midst of all the chaos, uncertainty, anxiety, worry, stress, and busyness with a deeper sense of calm, contentment, and nonanxious presence, you're going to have to work at it--develop the ability--wage the battle to experience and enjoy this deeper place.  You're going to have to battle all the forces in our culture and world and our own divided selves that can keep you from that inward attitude and experience.

So how are you waging for peace in your life these days?  What strategies are you utilizing to build a deeper inner peace?

It can be strategies as simple as thankfulness--keeping a regular gratitude journal--or mindfulness (the "be here now" mantra which says, "In this moment, I have everything I need").

Believe me, as simple as using those tools might seem, we all battle internal walls that make it challenging for us to utilize them.  I'm going to talk in the upcoming series about what these obstacles are and why they're so difficult to face.  But if we neglect these available tools and resources, we push away the possibility for lasting and meaningful inner peace.

Wars are fought in this world to protect something of great value.  Even the desire to expand territory comes from a place of fear to protect something.  Imagine how many human lives have been sacrificed for these causes.

Even so, peace--that inner place of sacred calm--must be established and protected at great cost.  But instead of being motivated by fear, the development of peace is motivated by love.  And the reality is, our motivations impact our strategies.

What are the ways we can proactively engage in this protective pursuit?  How can we protect our inner sanctuary where God's presence dwells so that we are empowered to show up in life with more calm and peace, grounded in the divine goodness?

That's what I'm going to talk about in my upcoming series.  And I'll blog about each session so those of you who can't be here in San Francisco in person can get in on this hugely significant content.  For some of you, some of the strategies will be new.  For others of you, they will be reminders.  But for all of us, we will be able to center on the truth that even in the midst of chaos both outside and inside us, we can clear the way for a peace which passes all understanding which radiates out to transform our worlds in profound ways.

Peace like war must be waged.  The United Nations is on to something here.  Maybe we need to emulate the passionate and intentional initiative in our spiritual lives.

What Is Faith and How Does It Impact Your Life?

I heard of a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School ending every class with the question, "So what's the cash value?"  His point was that theology, any discussion about God, any view of the nature of God and words and descriptions of God, theological ideas have real effects on the world, they must result in something practical and ethical for the good of the world.  There must be "cash value" from both the ideas and the conversation. So what's the cash value of faith?  How do you define faith and what difference does that faith make in living your life?  In truth, how we define faith radically shapes both how we show up in the world and what kind of life experience we enjoy.

Is the Universe Friendly?

Albert Einstein once said, "The most important question you'll ever ask is, Is the universe friendly?"  His point was that how a person views the universe impacts the way that person responds to the challenges of life and uses available resources for those challenges.  Here's how he put it:

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly, and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.

"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially 'playing dice with the universe', then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.

"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe [and cooperating with it]."

His point is that how we see the universe is ultimately an issue of faith.  Faith has cash value - it radically impacts the way we react and respond and behave toward ourselves, others, and our world.  It takes the form of both attitude and behavior. It impacts how we use all the resources available to us - either in love-based or fear-based ways.  Everything we think, feel, and do will follow our faith correspondingly.

God Is Love

Sounds a lot like the biblical perspective emphasized in 1 John 4:  "God is love, and all who live in love life in God, and God lives in them.  And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect.  Such love has no fear because perfect love expels all fear.  If we are afraid, it is for fear of judgment, and this shows that his love has not been perfected in us."  (verses 16-18)

Love is the central value and force in the entire universe.  Love is the very nature of God.  No wonder Jesus made the same claim by saying that all of God's commandments are summarized into two:  loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself.  All of God's totality manifested in words are summed up by love.  Love is the operating force in the universe.

Fear is antithetical to love.  Fear judges.  Fear condemns.  Fear criticizes.  Fear chooses against the other.  Fear coerces.  Love and fear cannot operate at the same time.  Human life is comprised of making the choice to think, feel, and act in love or in fear.  Life works best, the way the Creator of the universe designed it, when it is lived in harmony and alignment and congruency with love.  Faith is believing enough to stake your life on the centrality of love, even when it seems counter-intuitive in a situation you're encountering.

What Is Faith?

Marianne Williamson, a spiritual teacher and author, in her book Return To Love, describes the cash value this way:  "To trust in the force that moves the universe is faith.  Faith isn't blind, it's visionary.  Faith is believing that the universe is on our side, and that the universe knows what it's doing.  Faith is a psychological awareness of an unfolding force for good, constantly at work in all dimensions.  Our attempts to direct this force only interferes with it.  Our willingness to relax into it allows it to work on our behalf.  Without faith, we're frantically trying to control what it is not our business to control, and fix what it is not in our power to fix.  What we're trying to control is much better off without us, and what we're trying to fix can't be fixed by us anyway.  Without faith, we're wasting time ... We learn to trust that the power that holds galaxies together can handle the circumstances of our relatively little lives."  (p. 52, 56)

Two Ways Faith Impacts Life

So what's the cash value?  Here are several implications I'm learning. One, relax.  Have you noticed how much of life is lived with anxiety, uncertainty, chaos, conflict, power struggles?  We invest an inordinate amount of personal energy in those negative energy fields.  Think of the "fights" you have with your significant other, for example?  How much energy is used up in those fights?  Over what?  Universe-altering issues?  Global-impacting concerns?  Do or die principles where life will literally come to an end if the situation doesn't resolve according to your idea?  So this implication is hugely significant.  Relax.

But what does faith have to do with my ability to relax?  If I believe that God is working for my greatest good, and I'm willing to surrender the results to God in every situation, allowing only my self to learn what I need to learn as opposed to having to teach everyone else what I think they need to learn, I can relax.  I can have a greater inner peace about stuff.  Why?  Because I'm not obsessing, anxiously trying to control and fix everyone and everything else around me according to what I think everyone needs.  I'm not desperately trying to hang on to a specific outcome.  I can relax in a trust that the Power holding the galaxies together, the Power behind even our own laws of gravity and photosynthesis and thermodynamics in our world, for example, can and is handling the convoluted and chaotic circumstances of my own inner and outer life.  I can relax because I am choosing faith, love, and surrender.

Two, cooperate.  My ability to relax is directly related to my willingness to cooperate with the universe's law of love.  If I believe that the fundamental nature of the universe is love rather than fear (as both Einstein and 1 John 4:16-18 suggested), then when I make the deliberate decision to love rather than to fear in any specific situation I am intentionally placing myself in harmony with God's universe.  I am choosing to come into alignment with God's fundamental nature and operation.  And here's what happens:

"When we love, we are automatically placing ourselves within an attitudinal and behavioral context that leads to an unfoldment of events at the highest level of good for everyone involved.  We don't always know what that unfoldment would look like, but we don't need to.  God will do God's part if we do ours.  Our only job in every situation is to merely let go of our resistance to love.  What happens then is up to God.  We've surrendered control.  We're letting God lead.  We have faith that God knows how."  (Ibid., p. 57)

Here's how this works.  Surrender, cooperation, means giving up attachment to results.  I realize that most of my personal angst in both my relationships and my life experiences are often because of I grab a hold of a specific outcome (result) and refuse to let it go at any cost.  So when it begins to appear that others aren't working for MY results, I get threatened and insecure.  I often fight back to try to ensure I get my way.  And painful conflict results instead.

But when I surrender to God (cooperate with God), I let go of my attachment to how I think things are suppose to happen on the outside and I become more concerned with what happens on the inside of me.

"The more important it is to us, the more important it is to surrender.  That which is surrendered is taken care of best.  To place something in the hands of God is to give it over, mentally, to the protection and care of the beneficence of the universe.  To keep it ourselves means to constantly grab and clutch and manipulate.  We keep opening the oven to see if the bread is baking, which only ensures that it never gets a chance to."  (Ibid., p. 58)

What's the Cash Value?

So imagine being able to live life with a more relaxed attitude toward everyone and everything.  Imagine seeing all of life, including yours, in the hands of a benevolent, loving God who loves and provides equally for us and everyone else.  Imagine experiencing a profound peace from being able to surrender everything in your life to Love and no longer having to control or manipulate or coerce or connive life to conform to your expectations.  Imagine the transformation possible from only having to look at your self and aligning your self with God and letting God take are of the rest.  Imagine a world where others are doing the same thing, where Love is the reigning, guiding force in all relationships and life experiences.  Wouldn't that be Heaven?  Not bad for cash value.

How to Vaccinate Yourself Against Spiritually Transmitted Diseases

So are there any spiritual vaccinations to bring protection and healing to the spiritual diseases we can fall victim to described in my last blog (10 Spiritually Transmitted Diseases)?  Let me suggest several. David R. Hawkins (MD, PhD) for the last several decades has been on the leading edge of the science of behavioral kinesiology which is the study of the relationship between thoughts-feelings and muscle strength.  Research repeatedly shows that our consciousness has a powerful impact on our bodies - some thoughts and feelings make our bodies go strong, others make us go weak.

If you haven't already, you can experiment with yourself and a partner.  You stand erect, your right arm relaxed at your side, your left arm held out parallel to the floor with the elbow straight and both hands open. Your tester faces you and places his left hand on your right shoulder to steady you. He then puts his right hand on your extended arm just above the wrist. Now, he tells you that he is going to try to push your arm down as you resists. He quickly and firmly pushes down on the arm, just hard enough to test the spring and bounce in the arm, but not so hard that the muscle becomes fatigued.  This is simply to test your basic resistance level with a neutral stimulus.

The testing continues with you holding a negative thought about yourself in your mind - what is a limited belief about yourself that you tell yourself from time to time?  Think about it and the negative feelings associated with it, hold it in your mind as your partner tests your muscle strength.  Repeat the testing with a positive statement about yourself that you hold in your mind.  Compare the results.

The point is, our thoughts and feelings do make a powerful difference with the way our bodies respond.

Dr. Hawkins, from his extensive research, has developed what he calls a "map of consciousness" - it charts the progression of the states of thoughts/feelings from the weakest to the strongest, along with accompanying worldviews, picture of God, primary emotions, and life processes for each state..  The results are quite profound.  If you click on the following Map (c), you'll see a bigger, clearer image of it.

Notice that the weakest state of thinking and feeling is shame (3rd row from the left, bottom), followed closely by guilt, apathy, grief, and on up the chart.  Courage is the tipping point toward everything strong.  Everything below Courage tests weak.  Courage and everything above test strong.

So what does all this mean?  Contemporary science is confirming what ancient science has been saying all along.  Notice these ancient observations:

"Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life."  (Proverbs 4:23)

"As a man thinks in his heart, so is he."  (Proverbs 23:7)

All of this science is suggesting a hugely significant spiritual reality - what we think impacts our life experience.  And Dr. Hawkins has mapped out the strongest kind of thoughts and feelings - courage, trust, willingness, acceptance/forgiveness, reason/understanding, love, joy, peace, enlightenment.  This list, describing the attributes of a strong life, are mirrored in another piece of ancient wisdom which describes the attributes of the divine life.  Notice the parallels:

"So what does living the divine life look like? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others (love), exuberance about life (joy), serenity (peace). We develop a willingness to stick with things (patience), a sense of compassion in the heart (kindness), and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people (goodness). We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments (faithfulness), not needing to force our way in life (gentleness), able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (self-control)." (Galatians 5:22-23)

According to both contemporary and ancient science, the process of life transformation involves choosing to reflect upon, contemplate, think about these powerful, divine-like traits and qualities.  The very act of spending time thinking about them brings about spiritual growth and change.  This is one of the primary vaccinations against the spiritually transmitted diseases I talked about in my last post.

Here's the way another piece of ancient wisdom describes this spiritual vaccination:

"Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on the divine life. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize this divine reality, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." (Romans 12:2)

Vaccination one is to make the choice to fix our attention on the strongest qualities and attributes and thoughts and feelings in life possible.  Look at that list often.  Repeat it to yourself often.  The very process of doing that, says Dr. Hawkins and scripture, begins to transform our thinking and feeling which in turn makes our bodies strong.

One of the ways I've done this lately is to repeat these attributes of the divine life in my prayers, going over and over each quality in my mind and heart, asking for the divine spirit to grow that "fruit" in my life.  It's kind of a targeted prayer and meditation that helps to keep me focused, to fix my attention on the strength and power of the divine life.  You and I can exercise our ability to choose, our willingness to experience transformation by how we direct our thoughts and feelings.

Dr. Hawkins describes the dilemma of the human struggle as well as the antidote to it in this statement:  “The world of the ego is like a house of mirrors through which the ego wanders, lost and confused, as it chases the images in one mirror after another. Human life is characterized by endless trials and errors to escape the maze. At times, for many people, and possibly for most, the world of mirrors becomes a house of horrors that gets worse and worse. The only way out of the circuitous wanderings is through the pursuit of spiritual truth … At first, spiritual purification seems difficult, but eventually, it becomes natural. To consistently choose love, peace, or forgiveness leads one out of the house of mirrors. The joy of God is so exquisite that any sacrifice is worth the effort and seeming pain."

And this process leads to vaccination two. Here again contemporary and ancient science provide us with a profound and powerful transformation process.

In 1665 a Dutch Physicist and Scientist named Christian Huygens discovered what is now known in physics as the principle of entrainment.  It was during his research with pendulum clocks that Huygens noted the new physics concept. He found that when he placed two of them on a wall near each other and swung the pendulums at different rates, they would eventually end up swinging at the exact same rate. They fell into rhythm with one another. He realized that this concept applied to not just pendulum clocks, but as a basic law of physics:  the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony. It's easier and takes less energy for systems to work in cooperation than in opposition.  So the powerful rhythmic vibrations from one source will cause less powerful vibrations of another source to lock into the vibration of the first, stronger source.

Entrainment happens all around us, all the time. It's like Newton's Law of Gravity. It just is. It occurs biologically, such as when women who spend a lot of time together find their moon cycles synchronizing. It occurs sociologically such as when people in the same cliques or communities or social groups dress and think similarly. It happens mechanically, like all of the grandfather clock pendulums in a clock shop swinging together in unison after a few days, even if they started off unsynchronized.  It can be found on emotional levels too, such as what happens when you walk into a room full of people who are laughing and light-hearted and your mood magically lifts to match theirs. Even our brain waves follow this physics principle. It happens when people are subjected to certain stimulus and their brain frequencies shift to calmer states.

Here's the power of this principle when it comes to our spiritual lives.  An ancient scripture describes it this way:

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we, who with unveiled faces all contemplate the attributes of the divine life, are being transformed into that likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."  (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)

When we deliberately and intentionally place ourselves in the presence of the divine life, as well as in the presence of those qualities being lived out in others, when we acknowledge our connection to God and reflect on the divine life and spend time in environments that reflect those qualities, we the weaker of the two energy sources are drawn into greater and greater synch with the stronger Energy which is God.  The result is increasing transformation into a likeness of the divine life.  The principle of physics results in profound spiritual growth.  The Spirit increases our freedom to become more and more of who are designed to be.

So how's your vaccination history?  Time for some more healthy antidotes?

It's so easy for me to allow my thinking to get lazy and distracted - to make an almost automatic choice to allow negative and unhealthy thoughts take over - to let my limiting beliefs about myself and others be my default mode.  But the good news is that life is like standing on the train station - our thoughts are the various trains set to leave the station to their destination.  When a negative trigger happens in our lives, and our automatic response tends to be to get on that negative train thought, you and I have the choice whether or not to get on the train.  We can actually let that train pull away from the platform without us.  We can instead choose to get on another more healthy train.  And when we make that significant choice, the ride ahead is much more enjoyable - for ourselves and for the others in our lives.

So here's to getting vaccinated!  And here's to getting on a good train for a good ride into the divine life!

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The Spirituality of Google's 'Undo Send' Button

Have you ever said or done something that the moment you let it out you wished you could take it back?  A lot of us live with a lot of regret along this line ... because you simply can't take back things you've said or done that might have been hurtful or disrespectful to others.  And our human tendency is to react quickly when our egos are threatened. So many of us do it regularly, in fact, that Google has added a feature to Gmail called "Undo Send."  Once you hit "Send" Gmail holds the email for five seconds, during which time you can stop the email from going out.

Wouldn't it be great if in the rest of our lives we had the option to simply hit an "Undo Send" button?  Unfortunately, once we've spoken the word or committed the act, it can't be retrieved.  Our words or actions hang out there creating consequences that can't be erased or undone.

But perhaps there's another 5 Second option that might prevent the words or behaviors in the first place.  The key, in real time, is to avoid the unproductive "Send" in the first place.  What would happen if we tried using the 5 second option before we hit Send?

Effective and healthy spirituality is about paying more attention to the way we are present in the world, learning how to live with greater awareness and compassion.  Which makes this 5 Second Option a potentially deeply spiritual practice.

Here's how it works.  Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, spoke to a friend of his (Joshua Gordon, a Neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at Columbia University) about this issue of why it's so natural for us to react negatively to a person or circumstance that threatens our egos.  And is there anything we can do about it?

Dr Gordon pointed out :  "There are direct pathways from sensory stimuli into the amygdala.  The amygdala is the emotional response center of the brain," he explained. "When something unsettling happens in the outside world, it immediately evokes an emotion.  But pure raw unadulterated emotion is not the source of your best decisions. So, how do you get beyond the emotion to rational thought?  It turns out while there's a war going on between you and someone else, there's another war going on, in your brain, between you and yourself. And that quiet little battle is your prefrontal cortex trying to subdue your amygdala.  Think of the amygdala as the little red person in your head with the pitchfork saying 'I say we clobber the guy!' and think of the prefrontal cortex as the little person dressed in white saying 'Uhm, maybe it's not such a great idea to yell back. I mean, he is your client after all.'   The key is cognitive control of the amygdyla by the prefrontal cortex."

So Bregman asked him how we could help our prefrontal cortex win the war. Dr. Gordon paused for a minute and then answered, "If you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response.  Slowing down your breath has a direct calming affect on your brain."

Which begs the very practical question, how long do we have to stall?  How much time does our prefrontal cortex need to overcome our amygdala?

Dr. Gordon's response:  "Not long. A second or two."

Sounds like Google is onto something with its 5 second "Undo Send" option.  Apparently there's significant biological / physiological / psychological (and dare I add, spiritual) reality to actually being able to overcome our immediate urge to react negatively and aggressively toward someone or something that is threatening our ego and beginning to make us want to attack back.  Imagine in the moment choosing to press "pause," taking a few deep breaths for 5 seconds, and allowing the immediate emotion to drain away even just a bit, so that you can then at least begin the process of trying to respond positively and with no regret later.

Peter Bregman applied the strategy to his recent situation:  "When Bob yelled at me in the hall, I took a deep breath and gave my prefrontal cortex a little time to win. I knew there was a misunderstanding and I also knew my relationship with Bob was important. So instead of yelling back, I walked over to him. It only took a few seconds. But that gave us both enough time to become reasonable. Pause. Breathe. Then act."

I don't know about you, but for me this 5 Second Option isn't as easy as it sounds!  I find it extremely difficult in practice when I'm facing some deep emotional feelings being stirred up and my buttons are being pushed left and right.  Maybe that's why the great spiritual traditions of the world have developed rituals and disciplines they call spiritual practices.  These disciplines and behaviors that are designed to produce greater peace and calm and centeredness in the midst of life's turmoil take intense practice.  Change doesn't happen over night.  Transformation comes as the result of determined discipline to engage in new thinking and new behaviors.

Which also (and most importantly) means you and I need to be patient with ourselves and with others.  We need to hold ourselves, including all of our mixed up and all-over-the-board reactions to life, gently.  We must give ourselves compassion, too - to honor ourselves as we are with the goodness we have in us that we ultimately want to express and let out more often than we do.  Maybe this self-gentleness and self-kindness would empower us to more readily hit the Undo Send button.

What would it look like in your life for you to use the 5 Second Undo Send button?  How much practice do you need to make this strategy more of a natural response, your more automatic default mode?  Pause. Breathe. Act.  I'm going to keep practicing this one.  I need it.  And living with regret isn't worth it.

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A Secret to Living in the Moment and Enjoying More Peace

[If you like these posts, feel free to share them with others - click on the share button to the right.  If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.] So what does it take for you to live in the moment - to be truly present in a place of peace?

Karen Armstrong is a former nun and now one of the world's foremost authorities on comparative religions with her latest book A Case For God topping the best-seller list.  She is also the recent creator of the "Charter for Compassion," whose signatories (like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama) fight extremism, hatred, and exploitation throughout the world.  She was recently asked by Oprah's O Magazine what it takes to live in the moment, to seize the day.  She replied:

"Sometimes you wake up at 3 A.M. when everything seems dark, and you think, 'Life isn't fair. I've got too much to do. I'm too put-upon.' It's a rat run of self-pity! But when you feel compassion, you dethrone yourself from the center of the world. Doing that has made me a more peaceful person."

It's amazing how much stress we put ourselves under when we sit on the throne of our lives, trying to be in control of everything.  Rather than producing peace, this worldview contributes to anxiety and distress instead.  It's kind of like trying to spin multiple plates on sticks.  The first few plates we seem to handle pretty well.  But as the plates get added, we're running around trying to keep them all from falling and breaking into pieces.  It isn't long before the task is simply too much for us, no matter how gifted or full of energy we might be.  So much for ruling our kingdoms with ease.

I like Karen Armstrong's perspective - what helps to dethrone us from the center of the world is compassion - having an outward focus of empathy and caring toward others.  Counter-intuitively, including more people in our lives that we give love to actually decreases our dis-stress and anxiety and centers us more in a peaceful frame of heart, mind, and spirit.  It's almost like we were designed to live with compassion.

And actually, we were!  Neuroscience research in fact reveals that compassion, helping others, triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure.  Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response.  In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others and enhances feelings of trust.

And the compassionate act doesn't have to fancy or extreme or complicated at all.  Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wrote:  “I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.” When's the last time you chose to actually pray a blessing for someone else?  How difficult is that?

So Karen Armstrong seems to be on to something when she talks about her personal experience of how compassion actually helps her live more peacefully.  The act of dethroning self with our obsessive need to control life by giving authentic love and compassion to others is a eustress rather than a distress - the positive, energy-producing kind of stress rather than the debilitating kind.   And the long term affects of this are truly transformative.

Compassionate acts as simple as loving, sympathetic touch are powerful, too.  According to experts in a study about emotion and touch, sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses:

"Female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust.  Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems."

The practice of compassion has the potential of radically transforming the life of the giver as well as the lives of the receivers.  No wonder Jesus, in concluding his public discourse about the values of God's kingdom, connected the giving of compassion, living a life of unconditional love and care for all others (including even our enemies) with a life characterized by freedom from worry, anxiety, and distress (Matthew 5-6).  Compassion, one of the most godly things we can do in life, puts us in place of inner peace and tranquility, a state of trust and unselfishness in the very heart of the Divine Life.

So what empowers you to be able to live in the moment, to seize the day, even in the midst of stress?  Have you tried compassion lately?  As the spiritual and scientific experts reminds us, it just might help transform your heart, mind, spirit, and body.



Reflections on a Wendell Berry Poem

[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested.  You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message they observe is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.  I'm thankful that I came across one of Berry's poems this week, especially at this time of year when Spring reminds me of the promise of renewed life.  I find myself needing hope these days for a variety of reasons, but particularly in my work as I struggle with a sense of the lack of meaningful accomplishment.  Mr. Berry is writing to me.  So here's the poem, "The Peace of Wild Things."

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I don't know if you ever feel a sense of despair over parts of your life or the lives of those you care for.  I do ... especially lately.  Maybe it's the stage of life I'm in, roaring into my second half with lots of dreams and hopes, when at the same time having to come face to face with a more honest acceptance of mortality and that all my dreams might not end up being fulfilled and that many of them could've been a tad unrealistic anyway.  Maybe it's a wrestling with what success is and isn't - the difficult task of having to redefine it in more congruent ways - and yet still deal with a deep passion to have my life count for something significant.  Maybe it's also seeing my parents reaching their sunset years and struggling with health and mortality, realizing that I'm the next generation in line to take their place, having to pay more attention to my own health needs as time goes on.

We all face a sense of despair in various ways and for various reasons.  Sometimes it steals our sleep.  Often it steals our peace.  Too often it robs us of joy.  We lose hope.  What then?  Pop the pills?  Swallow the antidepressants?  Escape or run away?  Stay in bed?  Smother the ones we're worried about with our presence?  Hang on for dear life just because we're afraid of losing?

Here's where I'm moved by Wendell Berry's perspective.  Notice his process of dealing with his despair.  "I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." Berry has discovered that nature's ability to exist in peace is directly related to it not "taxing their lives with forethought of grief."  One of our homo sapien challenges is that because we have the ability to ponder, reflect, and evaluate everything, we are tempted to live in the past or in the future, with regret or fear, rather than in the moment.  We consequently tax our lives with "forethought of grief."  And wow, it is a tax burden, isn't it!  We're making payments from our emotional bank accounts all the time because of that tendency.  Grief is the result - a constant feeling of loss (loss of hope, loss of reputation, loss of significance, loss of meaning or fulfillment, loss of purpose, loss of love, and the list of grief from losses goes on and on).

Berry noticed that the wood drake ducks and the great herons seemed to exist differently.  He watched them sit quietly in the still waters, and patiently pick food out of the waters, and stand in the shallow water simply being in that place and in that moment.  It was a scene of peace to him.  So he intentionally placed himself there from time to time - and discovered that during those times, he was able to mirror that peace.  His mind and heart became still like the pond water.  He entered as fully as possible into those moments, letting go of his worry, fear, grief, and losses.

Looking up into the sky, he knew the stars were there behind the lighted firmament even though he couldn't see them at that time of day.  They were "waiting with their light," knowing that the time would soon come when after setting sun their light would be seen again.  Berry felt a sense of hope for his own life return.  Nature has its cycles, its seasons - times of fruitfulness and times of fallowness.  Nature seems to know this and it empowers its peace and persistence.  Day-blind stars will shine in the evening.  The barrenness of winter gives way to spring's new life.

I'm thankful for this reminder today.  Just reading this poem takes me to a place of more hope and peace inside.  Visualizing the wood drake floating quietly in the still waters, seeing the great heron now standing, now feeding, a bite here, a bite there - neither one obsessing or worrying or "taxing their lives with forethought of grief" - simply being and doing what they always do.  Can I allow myself to be in that place, too?  If even for a moment?

Berry ends his poem with, for me anyway, a helpful reminder:  "For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."  For a time.  We can't always live in this kind of secluded peace.  Life happens, the good and the ugly, with its joy alongside despair and grief, and we often can't predict it.  But I need more times to "rest in the grace of the world."  I need to carve out moments of grace, where simply being is enough, where I am all I need to be right then, and I am loved and embraced there, period.  Maybe that's what the Hebrew poet had in mind when he wrote about the Creator God, "Be still, and know that I am God."  In life's stillness and quietness, I feel the divine, the Sacred, and I embrace my enough in the mirror of the true Enough.  Resting in the grace of the world.  Does it sound as inviting to you as it does to me?