I am always humbled and excited when I get the opportunity to speak at an event such as this, particularly when the event is coupled with the Hands Around the Lake and in solidarity with the People's Climate March happening in Manhattan right now. Thank you for inviting me to participate, as I feel very passionately about all these issues.
I think we pretty much all know that we can't have world peace until we have individual peace; that we are all part of the equation. When making this assumption, we usually talk a lot about the importance of social, environmental and economic justice, but today I want to really dive into inner peace and what it takes. And I've got some really good news!
So, the first piece of good news is that inner peace is literally in our own hands and is not dependent on external conditions or circumstances. We can't say, "I'll be at peace when the world is at peace." because we are part of the world. This also speaks a lot to the importance of proper perspective and our relationship to everything. We are part of it and we are helping shape and co-create it moment by moment.
Interestingly enough, science is beginning to grasp and articulate what spiritual masters from all traditions have known for eons--that we do create our own reality, literally and figuratively. Never before has that been so well seen as with what science is calling neuroplasticity. This is the ability of the mind--our thoughts--to change the physical structure of our body--our brain, in this particular instance.
What does that have to do with inner peace? Well, we now know that we have the power to affect the part of our brain that marks where happiness and contentedness lay. We can effectively bring ourselves happiness, contentment and the feelings of inner peace by stimulating this part of the brain. Simple, right? Simple, but not always easy. And it takes time.
How is it done? First and foremost, we can change our relationship with our mind and our thoughts through recognizing that the nature of the mind is to think. To have thoughts. And to not take those thoughts so seriously and so personally.
Would you ever ask your eyes to not see? Or your ears to not hear? When we ask our mind to not think, or we try to cover over its thoughts, we create an inner war--a war that can never lead to lasting peace, much like how small conflicts within a region will never lead to lasting peace. So, if we equate inner peace with a quiet mind, or a mind not at war with itself, by engaging with the mind to be quiet, we will never reach that state--or, maybe we will briefly when we lose our diligence and grace enters.
On the other hand, if we change our relationship to our mind and instead of asking it to stop doing what it does naturally--think--we turn our awareness to what it does, without judgement of that, the inner war part ends. The war ends and then we are left with the content of our thoughts. What do we do then? Then we get to use discernment and decide first if our thoughts are true, and second, based on our own value system, whether they need a response or action. Mindfulness practice helps change this relationship to our thoughts.
Did you know you don't have to believe or react to all of your thoughts? Did you know you don't have to believe or react to any of them? That's a pretty freeing awakening, really.
What I'm talking about here is not denial about what is really happening--it's not about plugging our ears and singing "lalalalala" so we won't hear what the thoughts are saying. It's quite the opposite, really. It's about using our mind and our values to engage more fully with our thoughts, while retaining an understanding that we are not our mind and we are not our thoughts. There's a part of us that can consciously create thoughts and there are thoughts that generate themselves without our outward effort. They are usually in reaction to input of some sort, but we'll put that inquiry--where thoughts come from--aside for now..
Now to the next piece of good news, which goes back to the neuroplasticity nature of our brains. We can actually use our thoughts to change the very fabric of our brain, which in turn changes our experience, which in turn, changes our thoughts, and so on.
A study done by neuroscientist Richard Davidson revealed that during compassion-based practices, the part of the brain that distinguishes between self and other gets quiet, which effectively leads to more open hearts and minds to each other. It blurs the line of separation of self and other. This was across the board for novice and long time practitioners. So that is an immediate benefit of compassion practice. You can imagine what this can do for relationships in leading to a desire of non-harming--both of ourselves and others.
But even more powerful. I thought, was that these compassion generating practices actually stimulate the brain in the left prefrontal cortex area, which is the area that marks contentedness and happiness. The longer the person had practiced, the more activity was noted in this area in the brain and less activity in the right prefrontal area, which is associated with negative moods, etc. Long term practitioners experienced more of a sense of happiness and contendedness. This area had more stimulation over time.
So how does this translate? What does this have to do with world peace? If we can affect our moods and create more happiness through simple exercises such as mindfulness practice that changes our relationship with our mind and thoughts, and compassion practices, which lead to an experience of more happiness and contentedness, then we are less likely to look outward for our happiness or fulfillment.
This means we may be able to end this incessant search and grasping for the next thing, the next object, next relationship, next whatever we think will fulfill us or make us happy. We may even stop destroying our home, the Earth, in that search. And we for sure could stop harming others in this search, because the experience of a separate self and others decline with this practice.
When we generate loving kindness for ourselves and others, we are less likely to do harm. And isn't that really what we're talking about in wanting world peace? To stop harming others?
I'd like to end with this piece by Rumi that I heard one of my favorite teachers talk about the other day:
Sit, be still, and listen, because you're drunk and we're at the edge of the roof.
These simple acts of sitting, stilling ourselves and listening--deeply--will end this drunken obsessive search for happiness--and if we don't do it now, we are headlong on our way to falling off the roof.