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Cultivating Peace: Becoming a 21st Century Peace Ambassador

Cultivating Peace: Becoming a 21st Century Peace Ambassador

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by James O'Dea

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This profound guidebook reframes and expands the mission of building a global culture of peace. Going far beyond conventional techniques of conflict resolution, James O’Dea provides a holistic approach to peace work, covering its oft-ignored cultural, spiritual, and scientific dimensions while providing guidance suitable even for those who have never considered


This profound guidebook reframes and expands the mission of building a global culture of peace. Going far beyond conventional techniques of conflict resolution, James O’Dea provides a holistic approach to peace work, covering its oft-ignored cultural, spiritual, and scientific dimensions while providing guidance suitable even for those who have never considered themselves peacebuilders. O’Dea is unique in his ability to integrate personal experience in the world’s violent conflict zones with insights gathered from decades of work in social healing, human rights advocacy, and consciousness studies.

Following in the footsteps of Gandhi and King, O’Dea keeps the dream of peace alive by teaching us how to dissolve old wounds and reconcile our differences. He strikes deep chords of optimism even as he shows us how to face the heart of darkness in conflict situations. His soulful but practical voice speaks universally to peace activists, mediators, negotiators, psychologists, educators, businesspeople, and clergy—and to everyday citizens.

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Cultivating Peace

Becoming a 21st Century Peace Ambassador

By James O'Dea

Shift Books

Copyright © 2012 James O'Dea
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9848407-7-9


Peace Is the Real Game Changer

Traditionally, we think of peace as a serious matter. When people demand peace, it is usually because their lives have become a hell because of war and terror. We see the expressions on their faces: agony, despair, anger, humiliation, and the loss of innocence. We have become all too familiar with the deep wounding of our veterans both physically and mentally: blown-off limbs, broken families, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and elevated suicide rates. Even in the faces of those who protest war, we see the tightened contours of moral outrage and frustration at our human inability to settle differences without resorting to horrifying levels of violence.

I was very angry for a long time. I worked for Amnesty International for a decade, serving as the director of its Washington, DC, office. In those days, I believed that I had to pump up an adrenaline fury to fight the monstrous acts of governments that went to any extreme to silence their own people. We saved many, many lives and rescued people from obscene cruelty and torture, and that was no light achievement. In time, I came to learn that too much seriousness is deadly. We hugged a lot, laughed a lot, and even became highly inventive in playing elaborate jokes on one another.

Now, I don't intend to entertain you with black humor. Nor do I seek to cheer you up with a series of false positives designed to make you feel good or to spirit you away from contemplating the vile truth of human brutality. There will be time for tears, for honorable tears, and for opening the heart's core to the suffering of humanity; indeed, as we will see, it is only through understanding our wounding that we can cultivate healing. But for an important reason, I choose to begin this book by sounding a different note.

You see, it is hyperfanatical seriousness that gets us into trouble in the first place. Rage just isn't funny, is it? Any kind of overbearing behavior — be it self-righteousness, bigotry, aggression, condemnation, arrogance, or finger-pointing — is an interruption of the body's circuitry of love, joy, and play. It is the prologue, and the trigger, to deeper hostility and violence.

Not surprisingly, when we cultivate love and joyful service, we live longer, healthier, and happier lives. We don't need science to tell us this, but plenty of research backs it up. I learned this in my role as president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, where I had daily access to the world's best research on consciousness studies and mind-body medicine. The other side of the coin is equally obvious: stay continuously angry, and you will die younger. Whether or not we do violence to others, we do violence to ourselves when we fail to build networks of harmonious relationships in our lives and when we constrict our hearts around old resentments or fail to forgive or to move on.

Let's face it: people who instigate violence are uptight. In fact, they are constantly cooking a biochemical brew in their bodies that is toxic at every level — physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. They shut down the body's exquisite ease, delight, and pleasure signals and replace them with hypervigilance and stress alerts. They develop serious authority fixations because the only relief they get is through dominating others, pushing people around, or by themselves submitting to the safe orderliness of a rigid hierarchy.

When humor enters into this somber mix, it can be hijacked to become sarcasm or caricatures that are demeaning to others. The worst kind of racial and ethnic humor often shows up when threatened people are trying to reinforce their own in-group ties. In such contexts, jokes can have a strange way of revealing sadness, emptiness, hostility, and even viciousness. But true humor does not carry a poison pill. Think of the Dalai Lama, a great force for peace, constantly smiling and chuckling even as he faces enormous challenges on behalf of his people. See how his sweetness is a flowering of nonviolence, and you will understand what a contrast such a man of peace is to oppressive seriousness.

The absence of ordinary smiles and natural good humor can be a mark of ill will. Psychologists advise law enforcement and airport screeners to look out for the absence of natural smiling behaviors, because terrorists intent on killing others are usually pumping a biochemical brew that prevents them from smiling.

The lighter side of life has become the subject of much research and scientific inquiry. Humor and laughter are complex and difficult to fathom. But researchers universally agree that they are great for your health. Laughter releases endorphins and builds up our immune system. It removes the toxins of deep stress. For the mind in a state of stress, a moment of humor can set off a great game that starts off with the left brain's cognitive processing as it seeks to get the joke. The left brain alone, however, seems unable to work it out. So it passes the ball to the right brain, which synthesizes it and gets a gestalt of the whole picture. Then, when the humorous content is appreciated, the whole body joins in a chorus of emotional pleasure and sensorial appreciation.

Laughter is a signal that it is safe to drop our guard. It arouses our innate sense of play. It reawakens the primitive sense of freedom experienced by happy children. And there is quite a mystery in laughter, as it turns out: its power to bring people together to experience social communion in many instances defies rational explanation. Nevertheless, laughter has been the subject of serious research.

While we might quip that doing scientific research on this subject will not improve one's sense of humor, the research itself bears out that laughter and humor are only minimally linked. Something deeper than cleverness is at play. Studies also show that speakers are much more likely to laugh at their own jokes than their audiences are. I think this is probably especially true of politicians, who invariably seem to take themselves way too seriously. And here's an even more interesting fact: researchers have found that only 15 percent of the things people laughed at were humorous in any way. Strange indeed to find yourself dissecting jokes only to find that they are not funny!

But laughter is infectious. We laugh more in an atmosphere of laughter, just as we tend to be more fearful in an atmosphere of collective fear and threat. Laughter is essentially a communal activity; we are thirty times as likely to laugh with others as to laugh alone. Laughing is about the bubbling up of connection.

This effervescence of laughing and communing together and then our surrendering from there to the deeper joy of collaboration gives us a taste of the huge richness of this subject for peacebuilding. When we are plugged into the primal and unifying field of connection, for which laugher is an obvious but not exclusive door, our body and mind reward us with a cascading flow of inner delight that spreads to others.

Now, in light of these scientific discoveries, consider this implication for the peace ambassador: think of passionate purpose, play, high fun — indeed, the joys of working together to change a hugely depressing and dreary story — and you will be better able to take on the deadly serious merchants of war, oppression, scarcity, competition, and fear.

Peace is pleasurable, collective, and safe, but it needs the circuitry of connection to distribute its self-fulfilling reward. Humor, laughter, and play are among the best ways to make that connection as a peacebuilder.

Our bodies understand the rewards of peace

Sometimes a smile has the power to break the ice and begin a healing thaw. For good reason: the body prefers pleasure to pain. The body's role in supporting the ways of peace offers another layer for our consideration.

The body remembers rewards — just as it records pain and wounding. Our positive learning is connected to the production of the pleasure hormone dopamine. Video games, for example, are structured around dopamine hits: more rewards, more magic spells, more points if you keep winning. Once this positive hormonal reinforcement is better understood by ethical game designers, the element of overcoming risk and danger does not have to be linked only to bloody shoot-'em-up scenarios.

How we obtain our rewards and how they are marketed are always moral issues. Modern economies are oriented to rewards that are often accompanied by hidden costs and unsustainable inequities. Our bodies are constantly targeted to get them to consume things that will serve the profits of corporations more than our well-being. Part of our work is to de-condition our minds and bodies from artificial rewards and to learn to recognize the rewards that will come from living a more conscious lifestyle. Genuine peace will become possible when the rewards of health, wellness, and sustainability are the most attractive.

Peace is the ultimate reward to be experienced by the body because it is creatively self-renewing, but it occurs only if three conditions are present:

• if peace is experienced as dynamic, juicy, and empowering rather than as some kind of perpetually tamped-down flatland for righteous, serious, and supposedly virtuous people;

• if peace motivates our life's purpose by engaging our highest creativity and moral imagination; and

• if we manifest the passion, courage, emotional resilience, and deep generosity that peacebuilding requires.

Under these conditions, peace becomes the highest reward because it leads to serenity, acceptance, well-being, vitality, and a high quality of engagement with others. Peace is the masterpiece of our collective evolutionary striving precisely because it is not easy to acquire. It lures us to become our absolute best.

The central idea, again, is that tearing down the walls of separation is both deeply pleasurable and rewarding. There can be no peace and thus few rewards as long as we build our world behind walls that conceal fear, isolation, superiority, or distrust. But the kind of peace that stretches all the way from inner peace to international peace and security is capable of reversing the fortunes of a world that so often hideously inverts our highest values. That reversal begins in our individual lives when we feel aroused rather than obligated by the search for peace. And arousal is not fun if it does not connect with deep pleasure. In fact, it is meaningless if not directed toward reward.

The body collaborates with higher purpose to reward us with the biochemistry of pleasure in other ways as well. You have heard of the "helper's high" because it is true: philanthropy, altruism, and quality relationships are deeply rewarding. In fact, if we engage in these prohuman, pro-connective, and pro-community pursuits, research suggests that we will have better wellness indicators, more happiness, and more longevity. But the kind of pleasure I refer to is not accessible without moral commitment: it comes from surrendering to a vision or a call to service which then informs a life's work.

The rewards of peace are to be deeply appreciated: it feeds the heart, nourishes relationships, and awakens deep empathy and compassion. Once you understand the rewards of peace, nothing will prevent you from cultivating them or mobilizing all your energy to end the self-punishing belligerence of a world in which fanaticism has many guises.

Peace reframes the whole story

We can't just switch on peace. We can't just buy peace. Nor does peace result from an instant conversion. Peace is not collectively pursued at this time in human history because we habitually choose short-term rewards. Even as technology gives us the opportunity for vast collaboration, too many of us default in favor of narrow self-interest when using it. But such myopia will never achieve the sustained rewards of lasting peace. We have not collectively cracked the codes of peace because they interrupt the fundamental patterns of how we live, do business, and conduct social, political, and cultural life on earth.

Genuine peace represents a whole new order of being and an evolutionary reframing that entail the transformation of communication and cultural processes, new forms of participatory democracy, and the redesign of socioeconomic systems. This comprehensive vision of peace embodied in individuals and actualized in educational and political systems represents a new map of social reality. This map can seem hugely ambitious because its codes are about reframing the whole story from inside the psyche of humanity all the way out to its structures of organization and development. The emerging peace ambassador is invited to work toward wholesale systemic transformation without getting lost in naivety or in the pursuit of shortcuts to the rewards of peace. He or she must also avoid the pitfall of succumbing to the pervasive fatalism of those who are so heavily invested in maintaining the status quo that they give up hoping for real change.

Fatalism, in the form of the retrenched and vested interests of the power elites, takes the guise of being the voice of humanity's development, but scratch a little deeper, and you will find the cynical grim reaper more interested in profit than in genuine progress. Power brokers who show little concern for such things as community sustainability invariably speak in terms of inevitabilities that favor their interests over collective ones. The new peacemaker must constantly face the reality that these elites appear to be blind to the rigid orthodoxy of their own narrow conceptions of progress. From the perspective of the peace activist, there is a soul loss, as well as concealed depression, in the vision that the goal of existence is material progress and ever-accelerating consumption. The subtext of this aggressive materialist worldview is that our destiny is to become the servant of things — because as long as we serve things, they will keep us fed and entertained, and we can pretend that our stuff serves us. In this worldview, you have to be really serious about making money in order to be free enough to get all the things you want! Progress has become a hamster wheel of acquiring more stuff — at almost any cost, it seems. And let us not pretend that this view of reality is not an inherently violent one as it pollutes and degrades the environment, exploits labor, and conducts proxy wars for resources.

Peace activists now seek to throw this deadly and servile seriousness on its head and to affirm the centrality of conviviality, reciprocity, communion with nature, and collective nurturance. When these elements combine with values-oriented collaboration, creative expression, and the exploration of the higher capacities of consciousness, the peace movement will become unstoppable. What the emerging peacebuilder is dedicated to is nothing less than a system-wide culture of peace. Think of this entire cultural reframing around peace as evolutionary transformation rather than as imposed revolutionary thought forms or a forced change. The difference is that we become evolutionary change agents and conscious cocreators of our future rather than servants of illusory progress or angry protesters narrowly devoted to opposing the worst excesses of the status quo.

Anger is a tool, not a way of being

It is interesting that these two words, cultivate and culture, have the same root. They both refer to an active process of tending, as when one tills the soil. Peace understood in this sense is an interactive process that arises when we care for the world around us. When we pray for peace, we are asking for something that cannot in its essence be passively achieved. And when cultivating peace, we are anything but passive.

In cultivating peace, we are asking for a dynamic interaction with love, with gratitude, with forgiveness, and with cherishing.

In cultivating peace, we are asking that our true qualities engage with everyone and everything around us in ways that are fruitful.

In cultivating peace, we are asking for the force that dissolves any form of rejection, especially the annihilating forms of rejection that create emotional banishment and social isolation and that spiral into resentment or hatred.


Excerpted from Cultivating Peace by James O'Dea. Copyright © 2012 James O'Dea. Excerpted by permission of Shift Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James O’Dea is the author of Creative Stress. He is the codirector of the Social Healing Project, the lead faculty of the Shift Network’s Peace Ambassador Training Program, a past president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the former Washington office director of Amnesty International. He has been recognized with the honor of “Champion of Peace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness” by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance and was a keynote speaker at the Berlin Peace Festival. He lives in Crestone, Colorado.
James O’Dea is the author of Creative Stress. He is the codirector of the Social Healing Project, the lead faculty of the Shift Network’s Peace Ambassador Training Program, a past president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the former Washington office director of Amnesty International. He has been recognized with the honor of “Champion of Peace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness” by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance and was a keynote speaker at the Berlin Peace Festival. He lives in Crestone, Colorado.

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Cultivating Peace: Becoming a 21st-Century Peace Ambassador 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
tolly More than 1 year ago
highly recommended and an excellent source for peace work