Cultivating peace in times of unrest

Zen meditation and Mindfulness

Cultivating peace in times of unrest

Like so many across the world, I am finding it really difficult to watch the media’s coverage and hear the news about the war in Ukraine. I cannot begin to image the fear, trauma and unrest that so many are experiencing right now, every single day. It’s beyond heart-breaking.

I feel for the terrified refugees fleeing from all they know, in hope of finding safety and a roof over their heads. And I feel for the Russain’s apposed to the war, the same people who are just like you and I. They long for a world where we can all live in unified peace.  I felt pretty helpless when I woke up to hear the news of the invasion. The natural response to something so distressing is to want to do something to help.

Aside from the practical things we can do to help like donating food, medical supplies and clothes to various charities. Or donating money to the same charities that are providing direct humanitarian support, I found myself contemplating what can I do to promote peace.

It made me think of the famous story from Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Naht Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk who took on a very prominent role of peace activist during the Vietnamese war. In the story he speaks of the Vietnamese refugees desperately fleeing the war in small boats.

When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person remained calm and centred, it was enough. They showed the way for everyone to survive.”   

Later after the war in Iraq began he shared his wisdom of how we can all use mindfulness and meditation to influence promoting peace in the world.

“The most important practice for preventing war is to stay in touch with what is refreshing, healing, and joyful inside us and all around us. If we practice walking mindfully, being in touch with the earth, the air, the trees, and ourselves, we can heal ourselves, and our entire society will also be healed. If the whole nation would practice watering seeds of joy and peace and not just seeds of anger and violence, the elements of war in all of us will be transformed.”

This is why during times of unrest, even if that unrest feels so big and so unreachable for us to make any change from where we are, we need to go inwards. We can turn to our meditation and mindfulness practice to cultivate a deeply rooted and stable peace within ourselves.

In Zen we view our life as non-separate. We are all so deeply energetically intertwined, that when we fail to address our own unrest, turning away from our anger, our fear, our jealousy and our suffering, the accumulation of the energies connected to these emotions conintue to ripple outwards.  When we believe that we are separate, ‘Me versus the big bad world’, the suffering continues within us.  We fail to see our deep connection to the collective human consciousness.

When we find ourselves witnessing the conflicts of nations and world leaders, we must try to find the courage to sit with the conflicts and unrest within ourselves first. To make space to notice with a gentle curiosity all of that which causes us pain. To consider what it may be like to remain open enough to contemplate what it is that we hold on to. What is it that we find ourselves instinctively wanting to push away?  Maybe it all just feels too frightening or uncomfortable to face, and that is fine. Even making space to acknowledge there are things within us that in someway cause us suffering is the start of the process.   

Maybe we could begin by asking ourselves if we need to find courage to explore forgiving those that have hurt us. The people whom we felt in some way abandoned us or caused us to suffer greatly? Is it possible that we may need to simply start by looking at forgiving ourselves first? This too may be too painful to explore initially, but recognising that we are holding on to hurt relating to this kind of thing is the beginning of coming face to face with our fear.

Or maybe we could begin by contemplating the times where we ourselves could have acted more skilfully?  Can we find the courage to honestly and openly reflect on the pain and suffering we may have caused to others due to our own confusion, fear or anger?

Could we start by maybe exploring the kind of things that cause us to experience what we woulkd describe as unpleasant feelings or emotions? Do we find ourselves being triggered by certain people? Or even the conversations, beliefs or actions of others?  We do not need to all agree on everything, but we can try to respect our differences and open heartedly search for common ground.  

And when we find ourselves in situations that leave us feeling emotionally threatened, instead of reacting from the place of our fear, we can simply pause, make space, and ask ourselves before we respond “Do I want to add more anger to the world or do I want to add more gentleness?”

This practice takes time and courage, and we must approach it with a tender heart. It’s not something we can force, every step must be trodden lightly and with great care. But just having the courage to be open to start the process is a great place to begin.  We can sit quietly and simply ask what would it be like to meet myself exactly where I am right now, without judgement or aversion?

When we approach life with this fearless heart, softly cultivating the ability to sit in the deepest pools of self-compassion, over time we develop the courage and ability to gently cradle our own suffering and fear, until this too can progressively soften and change. We begin to see more clearly. Even when the winds of change or challenge arise, our pool remains still and calm underneath its surface. Instead of causing the waters on the top of the pool to become unsteady and rough, the winds just act as a catalyst, sending ripples of peace outwards towards the hearts and minds of others.  Over time, when our practise is strong, we may even find ourselves slowly able to cradle the fear of others with the same gentleness of spirit and softness that we have cultivated within ourselves.

If we want to actively help in healing our world and our planet, we can begin by healing ourselves. Practising loving kindness towards ourselves, is spreading loving kindness outwards to the greater cosmos. Learning to cradle our pain with softness, helps us cradle the pains of the world. So if like me, at times you have found yourself feeling helpless about how the world is looking in 2022, maybe we can all follow the innate wisdom of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and keep watering the seeds of peace and compassion deep within our hearts, in hope that some day they may bloom and thrive in every corner of the world. And I for one think that is a beautiful place to start.