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Cultivating Inner Peace
Exploring the psychology, wisdom, and poetry of Gandhi, Thoreau, the Buddha, and others
By Paul R. Fleischman
Pariyatti PublishingCopyright © 2003 Paul R. Fleischman, M.D.
All rights reserved.
The Quest for Inner Peace
INNER PEACE CAN BE STUDIED the way the naturalist George Schaller likes to study pandas and snow leopards — as an endangered species. How can I stalk this elusive species of human emotional life, track it to its lair, and then, like a modern environmental naturalist rather than an old-fashioned safari hunter, not merely capture it, but instead meet it upon trusting and intimate terms, proclaim its territory a sacred preserve, and so ensure its continuity and vigor as a free spirit in the world for years to come? If my hunting of this legendary mood were successful, I could return to America and write an article for National Geographic, promoting the Inner Peace International Wildlife Refuge and illustrating with Kodachrome photographs its exotic and enchanted terrain.
In fact, I have made many such expeditions to the last hideouts of wild peace, but my slides are all blank. The cat wasn't in the viewfinder. Like all psychological phenomena, inner peace is rare, intermittent, developmental, like a friendship patiently cultivated with a lynx. You will find it impossible to merely saunter up and pet it, for your subject will simply vanish at your approach. Before you can befriend inner peace, you have to shed your old ways and enter its ground on its own terms. It will take tenacity, faith, and maybe even years of observation before you find yourself face to face. At your first glimpse of this wonderful manifestation of creation, you will chuck your camera. The only way to know whether you have captured it will be whether any change flashes into your demeanor.
Although inner peace is so cautious in letting you approach, everyone has had the glimpse. Inner peace is a universal experience, filed in memory among the mother-breath of soil and living grass, which were so close to us when we were toddlers, yet which faded from our familiar touch.
At some young, innocent hour, when you and I were only ingenuous inhabitants of the green world without corners, we passed inner peace in the sunlight. Our memory of this fleeting encounter has continued to animate our hopes for a deeper union. In the same way that sexual feelings disrupt the cozy sanctuary of childhood, rupture our satisfaction with our parents' homes, and scatter us into the world to seek that magic Other who will complete the preamble and initiate the great middle chapter of our lives, similarly, peace has a deep claim on our hearts and drives us toward consummation. There is nothing I desire more than the development of inner peace.
Inner peace is much more than a nostalgic cloud. It's an adult concern, an urgent yearning that can motivate mature lives, a potent life force. Without peace, we feel our days and years haven't brought to fruit the truest, deepest seed in us. It is a call from the center of ourselves, from the place behind the waterfall.
If inner peace is really as I have described it, a natural phenomenon, a sweet memory, and a provocative force, then why does it remain furtive behind the hubbub of our ordinary days? Something is in the way. A conflict in human nature blocks us.
Human life has two directions: survival and transcendence. In the best lives these opposites come full circle and complement each other, but more often they stimulate antithesis. Let me describe first our survival-oriented nature.
As mammals, we are impelled to eat, to provide, to earn, to build, to create warm, safe homes, neighborhoods, societies for ourselves and for those with whom we identify, our families and fellows. Our bodies scream for necessities. Every day hunger stalks us — at least three times a day, and for grazers like myself, continuously. And we still inhabit jungles of violence, in which our flesh right down to the hair follicles rises with outraged fury against those who threaten us on the street, in schools, or in our kinsmen's countries. Based on millions of years of evolution, every human being is an animal adapted for vigilance and survival. Such an animal as we are in our adaptational mode has no room for inner peace. Not only would that drain time and energy away from the tasks of safety, but is in itself an opening, an unlocked window, over the sill of which danger can intrude its eerie hand.
This mode occupies most of our waking hours, and it should. Every one of us carries memories of the terror that can befall us. In my psychiatric practice located in pastoral, collegiate New England, survivors of every war of this century have walked wounded into my office. Many people have faced the maximum horrors, and those who haven't all know that someday they might.
People don't focus on success and safety alone. As the human mammal evolved, another inspiration came to the fore to rival security, so that people are pulled along by two mighty horses competing in the same harness. I believe that the most human trait isn't language, intelligence, or knowledge, but awareness of death. From the consciousness of the reality of dissolution, cessation, nonbeing, derives the impetus for spiritual life, for transcendence and peace.
In childhood we transiently cross paths with peace; at the earliest stages of life we also receive glimmerings of mortality. Even as children we begin to realize that we will die, lose everything, face final and ultimate extinction. Unlike other mammals with whom we share our survival focus, humans have a spiritual life because we understand time, change, death, and our own proportion. We are very, very small, a vapor, a drop of dew, a part of something bigger, nothing by ourselves.
Human lives, like middle-aged eyes, are always bifocal. In the most desperate times, or in the most humdrum hours, we adapt by thinking, planning, saving, spending, moving, or fighting, but we also relinquish adaptation to yield, to accept, to turn away from our own fate and open to something bigger. Since I'm going to die, and everyone and everything around me will pass away and millions of years will pass and they will also vanish ... why not live my life now with peace?
Inner peace is an aspect of spiritual life that derives from the awareness of our own insubstantiality. Inner peace isn't a single emotion, but a felt relation to the vast project of finding meaning and purpose within the context of incomprehensible infinitude. Like any relationship, peace has its moods, ascents, nadirs, eclipses, and laws.
Inner peace is like marriage. It isn't a one-mood state, but a particular context for all of them, reflected in one endlessly beloved face.
You can now understand that when I write about inner peace, I am not referring to an object, a fixed, blissful glee, but to a dimension of existence that is complex, variable, and multifaceted, which nevertheless leaves only its own footprints, has exactly its own visage. We have all known it, lost it, found it, thrown it away, wanted it again. But don't you find, as I do, that the longer you live, the more value you place upon it? How can you turn your life toward the peaceful transcendence of your own limited time without becoming foolhardy or inept, remaining worldly and skillful, yet focused more and more on peace?
* * *
INNER PEACE WILL GROW in your life in proportion to its importance to you.
No one could imagine an entrepreneur who devoted twenty minutes twice a day to his business and expected it to prosper. No one could imagine a mother who took care of her children one day a week and expected them to thrive. Like a business, like a child, inner peace will flower only from the sunshine of your focalizing effort.
But realistically, how much time can you spend pursuing inner peace? If twenty minutes twice a day isn't enough; if one whole day a week isn't enough, will you have to give up everything in order to pursue this course?
Over the years that I have studied people who obtained deep, recurrent, long-abiding, life-transforming and outward-reaching experiences of inner peace, I have found one salient common bond they all share. Inner peace is found by an intensity of devotion to the goal so relentless and powerful that it bursts through the bidirectionality of life, and suffuses the survival-oriented, adaptational daily tasks with the transcendental, all-permitting light.
The first rule on the quest for inner peace is to make it the number one priority without disrupting or devaluing the spectrum of daily life. Twenty minutes twice a day, or one day a week isn't enough, because inner peace has no separate time or place. It is the infusion of mundane savvy with transcendental fervor that marks "wisdom" — a psychological truth to be found in every culture, religion, and era. Peace comes from the holy fire of concentrated intention. Still engaged, the man or woman truly on the path seeks every moment as the one in which to activate life's highest blessing.
This intentional concentration translates best into contemporary phrasing as the word "pace": appreciating what you have or do, and not having or doing more than you can appreciate. I'm using the word "pace" in contrast to "distraction," which presages dissatisfaction. Our lives are our feelings, and feelings unfold slowly, cued by their invisible tempo. The most obdurate obstacle to peace in the lives of many people today is the rate at which they move and think, without allowing time for the glow of peace to filter up and pervade their pauses. The punctuationless, run-on sentence of modern life derives not only from obligations in work and family, but ironically from the harried pursuit of pleasure too.
It's important to appreciate at the outset that peace is a dynamic product of the way you live, and not a mere parenthesis or vacation from who you really are. This way, your whole being can become entrained behind it, and can contribute to your momentum. Don't look for a safe platform, but for a direction recurrently renewed, until your friendships, your diet, your work, your reading all add to your downhill, first-class, express train of peace. Another way of describing "dynamic" is: committed, forgiving, patient.
If you want to find inner peace, you will need a new criterion for all your life choices, and that is the criterion of emotional tone. You will need to initiate decisions based not upon convenience, success, or conformity, but upon how the outcome will affect your peace of mind. Inner peace will have to become the rudder by which you navigate the straits of great and small decisions.
It is often said that the Psalms contain the greatest nature poems ever written. Many passages are replete with the authors' direct encounters with stars, mountains, and deserts. The words feel deeper because we know that they have sprung from lived experience. For the authors of the Bible, as for us today, the planet, the cosmos, provide metaphors for lofty attitudes and states of mind. All seekers of peace familiarize themselves with wind, water, and dawn.
Every person not only wanders through, but is a manifestation of, nature. This is both a spiritual and scientific principle. People are nature, and observation of external nature is an entry to internal self-observation. Appreciation of the cosmogonical grandeur of the planet is only the vestibule to understanding our own nature, which opens out into even greater vistas. When we turn inward, to observe the nature of our selves, on the quest for inner peace, we will make discoveries peculiar to our own personalities, and we will also confront universal truths that pertain to all people, all nature, all phenomena.
I'll illustrate this point with an example. Please stand beside me on the bank of a river, where we can begin, like the ancient psalmists, to look for the laws of our own being mirrored in the riverine regularities.
Water flowing over river rocks holds a shape into which the submerged stones have molded its yielding fluidity. If you stare at a section of river, you'll see the same dynamic yet apparently constant forms of flow, like a sculpture garden, containing shoulders, buttocks, and elongated body-shapes looking as if they were designed by the sculptor Henry Moore. The smooth, watery, anatomical curves are a momentary illusion: one fleeting, glittering expression of sunlight, water, mineral, and earth-form in endless geomorphic play. The apparent solidity of shape is a temporary appearance over the ceaseless flux of nature. The river will be visibly transformed after the thundershower, after the heat wave, or next spring, as it is in fact invisibly changing every second.
Similarly, each moment is a river that is temporarily shaping matter into human and earth forms. All of the mountains, oceans, shoulders, and buttocks are molded by the millionfold contemporary conjunctions into their momentary form. Our bodies are exactly like the river. The shoulders and hands, thoughts and feelings, are sinuous shapes, matter rolling in the river of time. We are being born, living, and dissolving all at the same time, always. The whole world around us and inside us is part of this ceaseless process of transformation. Regardless of your age, as you read this page, you are still being born. Inner peace is predicated on the insight that the world is always an embryo.
In every molecule, every cell, every body, every river, every planet, every galaxy, the fundamental law of the material universe is change. The atoms themselves are not solid or elemental, but vibrating energy fields, rivulets, inconstant, changing. All scriptures tell us that mountains are washed to the sea and that life is temporary. Inside of us is the continuous tremble of awareness of our own pending death, because it is already in process. This law of change, decay, disappearance is part of our guts and bones. All temporary security or success at the worldly level will certainly dissolve in the river of time, so that inner peace can derive only from gripping, convincing answers to the question about what individual life means in the context of personality-obliterating time, death, and eternal change. Realization of peace at this depth is like obtaining an anchor that can stabilize you throughout surface storms. Deep peace that is affirmed rather than negated by awareness of ceaseless change can become yours, as these unfolding pages will clarify.
Arrival at this transcendent perspective doesn't justify neglect of your circumstances. The distant horizon and the foreground both contribute to the picture of your life. The skill that I hope the unfolding chapters of this book will help you cultivate is how to keep all of the components of the picture harmoniously related within the same frame. We human mammals are caught with two agendas we must fold into one: main tenance of our earthly life, and realization of its true proportion. Inner peace is the product of competence illuminated by ultimate reality.
* * *
I HAVE DESCRIBED how concentrated intention on peace leads to a pace of appreciation. And I have described how appreciation of inner and outer nature leads to a liberating perspective. To keep both of these attributes of the path of inner peace well toned in your life, there are exercises. Disciplined interiority, sustained reflection, meditation are the only ways by which your peace can remain vibrant and not just the occasional product of serendipity. Practicing peace is the way toward confident strides in its company. I have emphasized so far how your whole life can join your quest for peace, but it's also true that you need a sacred time and place, an enclosure, where your intention can bask. Every day you might well close your gate and contemplate your garden.
To develop inner peace in your life, you need to place it on your agenda ceaselessly, not compartmentalized to a ritualized time or place, but also with its own bower. Skill and inspiration must marry and walk down the center aisle together every day. You need to observe nature, joining the men and women of old under the stars, observing within your human nature the whirling, fluid embryogenesis of eons. Let yourself dissolve into the real dimensions, whose limitless horizons will hurtle you beyond chronological conceit into awe and devotion. The incense that arises from this sort of worship is peace.
Excerpted from Cultivating Inner Peace by Paul R. Fleischman. Copyright © 2003 Paul R. Fleischman, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
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