PEACE. Pax. Shalom. Salaam. Every language has a word for it. We have images and signs for it, the peace sign being one of the most recognized in the world. There’s the famous song, “Give Peace a Chance.” There’s the Peace Movement and the Peace Corps. And as I write this, this month of August, 2018, is National Peace Month. Peace is one of those ideas we take for granted we know what it is; that, like art, we know it when we see it. But do we?
We say we want it badly, yet a lot of the time we don’t seem to do much to get it. Sometimes it looks like while we talk about peace, our thoughts and feelings are really focused more on fighting and war. We wage wars on everything: drugs, poverty, terror, and climate change, to name a few. Maybe the truth is that peace is a stranger, while war and conflict are more familiar. But what is it, actually? What is peace when you dig down and look at it? And how does it relate to our efforts in recovery?
Years ago, when I was wrestling (there’s another one of those fighting metaphors) with a lot of emotional difficulty and felt like I didn’t have enough energy to deal with everything life was throwing at me, I called a well-respected Asian healer who had written extensively about cultivating energy, or Chi, as life-energy is called in Chinese. I asked him, “So what can I do to increase my energy?” He answered, “That isn’t the right question. The first question is, ‘Why do I not have energy right now? How am I losing energy?’ Energy is everywhere. You already have it. Where are you losing it?”
His reply set me back, and redirected the way I had been thinking about the problem. He was asking me to pay attention to the roots of the issue, before I worried about the branches and leaves. This turned out to be very helpful, as I took inventory of my daily life and identified many of the energy “leaks” in it. Maybe if we follow the same line of thinking about peace, and examine the problem, first—which for anyone in recovery is addiction, the opposite of a peaceful condition—it will shed light on where we want to be, in a state of peace.
Addiction, of course, is the very essence of a state of conflict, in which a variety of forces are fighting inside us, and we find ourselves pulled into doing things that we know are harmful to us and those we love, and that the saner voices in us keep trying to break us away from. This is nothing new, and it isn’t exclusive to those tangled in addiction. Nor is it unfamiliar to those doing spiritual work. One of the most ancient statements on the dilemma comes from the Apostle Paul, in the first century of the Common Era, who lamented, “the good that I would do, I do not; but the wrong that I would not do, that is what I do.” All of us go through this at times.
The Medical News Today (MNT) Editorial Team speaks to this when they write, “People with an addiction do not have control over what they are doing, taking, or using.” This issue of control turns out to be central to both conflict and peace. It is when we do not feel in control of ourselves or our lives and become desperate that we become more inclined to reach for whatever will help us feel better, short term.
The MNT Team rightly notes that, of course, addictions are not always to a substance, but can also be to less tangible things, to processes such as gambling, shopping, or texting—“virtually anything,” they write. And they point out that often addictions start small, in a seemingly harmless way, as habits: “The person with the habit can choose to stop.” This distinguishes it from a full-fledged addiction. We start something like drinking socially, perhaps, not overdoing it at first, and then we get used to it; it becomes a habit. Today, what we know about habits is that the repetition of behaviors of any kind lays down neural pathways in the brain, and the more often we repeat the habit the stronger the pathway becomes. The habit obeys the laws of physics, which tell us that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless interrupted by another force. The habit acquires momentum.
With substance addictions, there is an added component that is insidious, and that is the aspect of chemical, biological addiction. Addictive drugs not only become hard to shake off because of the power of repetition and momentum, but also because they contain substances that bond chemically to our own bodies and brains.
And we now know that we are hard-wired to find it harder to develop positive habits than negative ones. As a function of evolution, of survival value, painful experiences make deeper impressions, lay deeper tracks in the brain, that positive or joyful ones. If we get bitten by a snake and survive, the experience leaves a deep impression upon us so that from then on we will notice it immediately if a snake crosses our path. Please, peace and joy requires more reinforcement, because unlike the snake and unlike pain, it poses no threat to our wellbeing or life. In her essay on 11 Different Meanings of Peace, Tami Shaikh quotes an eloquent passage from the diary of Chuck Palahniuk that speaks to this: “It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”
Mr. Palahniuk’s words put in poetic and bittersweet terms the scientific truth cited above—a truth I suspect most of us can relate to. How quickly the enjoyment of a great concert or a beautiful vacation fades; how long the hurt of a tragedy or even a careless insult can remain.
But from a spiritual point of view—the beat I’m covering in this blog—there is some confusion in us about these matters.
When I researched the words “peace” and “addiction” for this writing, and the causes described for both conditions, I was struck by how narrow and insufficient much of what I read seemed from the deeper point of view of the spiritual traditions, and even from my own personal experience.
In much of what I read, when people tried to define what peace actually is, it seemed to me they were talking more about situations that foster and support peace than peace itself. I found good, solid suggestions for what will help those in recovery and everyone else establish peace, which is vitally important:
reach out to others, don’t be alone or isolated with your pain or addiction; find unity and kinship with those around you; forgive yourself and others for your failings; live in the present moment; relax the body and breathe fully and deeply; repeat positive affirmations, especially those focused on realizing that you can do whatever you desire to do; let go of perfectionism and accept what is, while working to improve things—the essence of the Serenity Prayer, so familiar to any of us in one of the Twelve Step programs. And they talked movingly about the benefits of many of the spiritual practices I’ve written about here, such as meditation, prayer, Yoga, Tai Chi, and so forth.
These are all absolutely true and worthwhile ideas. And I found three specific suggestions that struck me as particularly useful that I’d like to pass on to everybody, both because they work and because they are easy to use, which isn’t always the case. They are:
- Reading inspirational literature
- Watching YouTube channels for peace
In an online post from Taylor in 2015, she or he notes that “Words are containers for power.” Words, writing and the power of language were regarded as sacred gifts, as something magical, by ancient peoples, because they realized how they shape the way we see, feel and experience the world we live in. They conjure up the future and define the past. By focusing on words of beauty, truth and empowerment, we bring into our brains potent antidotes to the painful and destructive words that may have been directed against us by others, or by ourselves. We can literally reprogram our brains and minds to develop a stronger and more positive sense of ourselves, our lives, and our world.
Journaling also employs the power of words, but in an active way, whereas reading is more passive. Both are valuable. When we write down what’s going on for us in our lives, and what’s going on inside our minds and hearts, we can use the power of language to bring order and clarity to our confusion and hurt. We may be surprised by the insights into our problems that arise when we write about them; by the unexpected memories that surface; and by the creative solutions that some wiser part of us brings forward like a legendary sword from deep water. Keeping a dream journal is also a useful tool.
YouTube Channels for Peace
This is a great idea I found at morningsiderecovery.com. YouTube obviously has channels and videos on virtually everything. While I enjoy an entertaining cat video as much as anyone, I highly recommend checking out the many helpful, peaceful and supportive video materials on YouTube. These include music for relaxation; guided meditations; visualization techniques; and videos that enhance relaxation and peaceful sleep. These can be used and enjoyed at the end of the day, when you may be too tired to do anything more complex or difficult, but still have the energy and focus to watch a soothing video. And they’re free!
We become addicted, in part, to substances and processes because of a deficit in our personal history of exposure to healthy pleasure and positive, enjoyable, constructive influences of all kinds. Taking in these influences through all of the senses—sight, in watching videos or gazing at nature and animals; hearing, by listening to beautiful music or poetry or the voice of the wind in the trees; touch, in receiving the gentle, healing, stimulating touch of a good massage, or feeling the cool fingers of flowing water running the length of your body when you swim; taste, in experiencing the burst of flavors on your tongue in a favorite dish; and smell (the most powerful of the senses in terms of its links to memory), in receiving the fragrance of incense or candles or the fresh scent of a forest—can help us to restore and rebalance these all-too-common deficits of joy.
So what is peace, after all? The dictionary isn’t very helpful. It just tells us what we all already know: “freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility;” “freedom from or the cessation of war or violence.” A lot of it is just a list of synonyms.
But in the spiritual traditions of India, in the Yoga traditions and the great meditative traditions, there is a clear definition both of what peace is, in its essence, and of what gives rise to it.
From a spiritual viewpoint, things, objects, events, and processes not so much as the causes of what we experience, but more like triggers. From this perspective, we give too much power to things and to what happens. The power is actually in us.
From this perspective, almost all of us are “addicts” of a sort, not just those who fall prey to alcohol or drugs or some outward process. The Buddha’s descriptions of what he called “attachment,” which he saw as the root cause of suffering, is very close to our modern understanding of addiction: a compulsive grasping after temporary, limited sources of relief and better feeling, because we are not in touch at that moment with the qualities of peace, compassion, wisdom, generosity, and creativity we are born with. It is the loss of that essential state that starts turning the wheel in our minds of compulsive thinking and craving that leads us to addiction.
Peace, then, in these traditions, is understood not as some brief, temporary thing that happens to us, almost at random, but as our own most basic nature. It’s almost the opposite of how we usually look at it. In Sanskrit, the ancient spiritual language of India, the word for being, our core, or Being itself, is sat. It is the root of the English word “satisfaction.” It forms the basis of a kind of equation, what we might call “the Peace Equation.” The ancient Yogis spoke of sat-chit-ananda—roughly, “Being-Awareness-Bliss.” That is, “Being + Awareness = Bliss.” When we know we who are at the deepest level, when we know our own being, and what flows from that authentically in terms of who we are, what we love, what work we feel drawn to do, who we naturally love and who are our friends, and realize the power that gives us, the many different forces at work in us come into a state of balance and alignment, of smooth running. That state is peace.
When we know and love who we are, and stand in that place of power, peace comes as a beautiful, surprise visitor who graces us with her presence.