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Personal Transformation as the Pathway to Peace

 

 

Three weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a week-long workshop on peace literacy, joined by several friends and colleagues.  "Peace literacy," a term coined by peace activist Paul Chappell (Click here to visit the Peace Literacy Website), is essentially a process of educating each other about how to engage in peace and peaceful existing rather than maintaining the status quo of persistent conflict (war, racism, genocide, etc.).  While the intellectual content of the workshop was interesting, I left with a greater appreciation for what was absent from the experience than for the material presented. 

 

Throughout the week, my peers and I had an ongoing conversation about our shared experience and what we felt was missing.  We were looking for the pathway to transformation and struggling with the absence of experiential, relational, and embodied practices that felt necessary to internalize the content and feel more connected.  In the absence of those practices, our minds were engaged in the intellectual content of the workshop, but the experience felt incomplete.

 

I had been hoping for a viable and accessible process to transform our corner of the world through fostering peace in our communities and societies.  I left the workshop with a certain clarity that "peace" is not something that can be “taught” intellectually as an abstract concept or a 7-step set of skills.  Rather, the process of fostering peace is one of experientially developing empathy in the context of relationality, thereby increasing compassion towards both others and the self.  Perhaps it is self-evident that if we hope to bring healing to communities we must start with healing individuals.  If we want a more peaceful world, it starts with a more peaceful world within.  If we want greater wholeness in the world, we must start with helping people, including ourselves, become whole.  Those living from a place of wholeness are more likely to engage others as whole persons.

 

In the early 1900's, philosopher Martin Buber eloquently described this sacred form of relating as "I-Thou," where the whole self of the "I" respects the "other" as having inherent value.  He contrasted this to "I-It" relationships, in which the "other" is viewed as object, only having value for what they can do for the self.  "Buber explains that the self becomes either more fragmentary or more unified through its relationships to others...In I and Thou man [person] becomes whole not in relation to himself [themself] but only through a relation to another self. The formation of the “I” of the “I-Thou” relation takes place in a dialogical relationship in which each partner is both active and passive and each is affirmed as a whole being. Only in this relationship is the other truly an “other”, and only in this encounter can the “I” develop as a whole being." (Scott).  

 

Paul Chappell points out that, across all of the terrible human conflict that has plagued our history, war and interpersonal conflict depend upon a devaluing of the other; a reduction in (or elimination of ) the human status of the enemy.  Dehumanization is a frequent tactic of wartime propaganda, such that the enemy is made out to be some version of sub-human, animalistic, monstrous, and crazy.  Turning some-one into some-thing, and specifically some-thing less-than-human, makes it easier for us to override our natural capacity for empathy.  Thus, dehumanization serves as part of the cognitive gymnastics necessary to bypass our natural human aversion to inflicting violence on a fellow human being, allowing us to act in ways that we may otherwise avoid/condemn (Chappell, 2017). 

 

All violence between human beings requires the dehumanization, at least temporarily, of the other.  Human violence has a profoundly disruptive impact on both parties involved.  “Interpersonal violence tends to be more traumatic than natural disasters because it is more disruptive to our fundamental sense of trust and attachment, and is typically experienced as intentional rather than as ‘an accident of nature’” (ISSTD, 2009).  And the brain's innate reaction to trauma leaves many parts of the brain, including those responsible for compassion, empathy, and mindful, intentional behavior, offline.  So then, how do we work to increase peace in our world?

 

Last week, I received at least part of the answer to that question, illustrated beautifully by this video of efforts being made in Israel and Gaza to bring peace to the region:

 

What's depicted in this video is the model of Mind Body Medicine, which aims to change the paradigm of modern medicine and to bring hope and healing to traumatized people all over the world.  The Center for Mind Body Medicine has developed a model for fostering peace, both within the individual and within the worlds/communities in which those individuals exist.  Faculty from CMBM are implementing that model in communities around the world where violence and conflict are experienced as a daily reality.  Those who practice the model recognize that peace between is only possible if there is peace within.  With this knowledge, they have developed a comprehensive group-based program to empower people all over the world to begin to take control of their inner world.  This means beginning the difficult process of developing awareness within the self and, in the process, becoming more connected with one another, deepening and strengthening the muscles of empathy.  This process is particularly challenging for people who have experienced trauma, where in order to survive, frequently detaching from one's internal experience is a necessity.  

 

Neurobiological research has shown us that empathy is a product of healthy developmental experience (see the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, specifically the work of Dr. Allan Schore and Dr. Daniel Siegel).  Given our modern understanding of neuroplasticity, we now know that we can continue to develop empathy across the lifespan.  Mindsight, a term developed by Dr. Siegel, is the "human capacity to perceive the mind of the self and others" (e.g., empathy) (Siegel, 2010).  The development of mindsight is essential because it allows us to effectively engage in the world with a sense of both self and other.  

 

The model of Mind Body Medicine offers a comprehensive program for wellness (both within and between), which includes breath-work, meditation, guided imagery, yoga and exercise, biofeedback, genograms, and self-expression through words, drawings, and movement. These self-reflective practices are taught within the context of small groups where people can receive support to deal with stress and trauma (CMBM, 2016).  This model has been implemented with both children and adults in some of the most traumatized communities around the globe, and to incredible effect.  Why is this approach yielding such powerful results?  

 

The answer likely has something to do with the powerful effects of mindfulness being practiced within the relational container of a group.  Dr. Siegel refers to mindfulness as a form of internal attunement.  The benefits of mindfulness practices have long been recognized by an array of spiritual traditions and, in recent decades, demonstrated and confirmed by modern research studies.  If we want to move towards wholeness, we must first encounter the pain, suffering, and darkness within ourselves.  We must learn to be with — to attend to — the parts of our internal world that we might otherwise dissociate from, disregard, and avoid.  Mindfulness offers a pathway to doing that work.  

 

The practice of mindfulness has been shown, across various studies (Davis & Hayes, 2011), to reduce rumination, decrease stress, improve working memory, improve attention and focus, reduce emotional reactivity, increase cognitive flexibility, and increase relationship satisfaction.  It has also been shown to enhance self-insight, facilitate moral decision making, improve intuition, enhance the modulation of fear, increase immune functioning, and improve information processing.  When mindfulness has been studied in a population of psychotherapists, it has been shown to sustain empathy, increase compassion, improve general counseling skills, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve global quality of life .  So mindfulness is a proven means to an array of positive ends.  In the Mind Body Medicine model, all mindfulness skills are taught in the context of a group.  

 

So, what does the group context provide over and above teaching individuals skills?  Studies show that groups "provide social support, they improve social networks and they can reduce stigma, isolation, and feelings of alienation among members" (Paturel, 2012, p. 48).  In an effort to deepen empathy, compassion, and the inhibition of anger and aggressive behaviors, the group setting provides the ideal context.  By teaching mindfulness in a group setting, each individual is slowly taught to shuttle between internal awareness and relational connection.  The group reflects together, each individual sharing the results of their internal self-study.  And then — vulnerably and authentically — each individual shares the insights and realizations that emerge from within.  

 

The group context mirrors the optimal developmental experience as each individual reflects within on their experience, then hears from others what others' internal observations are as well.  The individual's experience is mirrored and reflected back to them in a way that both validates and invites deeper reflection and study.  When done well, the group experience becomes the ideal avenue of supported self-study.  In this shared process, we see our self in the other.  When I can see myself in the other, it allows me to have greater compassion for other and also increases the capacity for compassion for myself. 

 

In the Mind Body Medicine model, any sharing within the group context is guided to also be reflection on one's own internal experience.  One person shares and rather than group members resorting to advice giving or analysis of what has been shared, they are encouraged to reflect internally on what is happening within, their reaction/response to what the original person shared.  In the process it becomes clear that, even within a group of highly diverse people, there are aspects of sameness as well as difference.  And sameness and differences are both honored.  What is fostered through these group norms is a reciprocal curiosity to understand a different person's experience while monitoring one's own experience.  It is the interplay between self-experience and attending to the experience of the other that enhances the neuro-pathways of empathy, allowing us to engage the world from a place of compassion and intentionality.

 

Buber stated, "That people can no longer carry on authentic dialogue with one another is not only the most acute symptom of the pathology of our time, it is also that which most urgently makes a demand of us.  I believe, despite all, that the peoples in this hour can enter into dialogue, into a genuine dialogue with one another.  In a genuine dialogue each of the partners, even when he stands in opposition to the other, heeds, affirms, and confirms his opponent as an existing other.  Only so can conflict certainly not be eliminated from the world, but be humanly arbitrated and led towards it's overcoming.” (Kramer & Gawlick, 2003, p. 1)

 

If we truly want to teach and practice peace, we must work to heal the internal wounds that impair our ability to see/experience ourselves as a full self.  Just as importantly, we must also learn to engage the other as a full self.  This moves us into the relational ideal of Buber's I and Thou.  While there are likely many ways to do this, Mind Body Medicine offers a beautifully packaged model.  Attending to and sharing our own experience is alternated with attuning to the other, both parties revealing their authentic selves in the group setting.  Perhaps this form of genuine, honest dialogue is the pathway to relating, healing, and ultimately peace.

 

References:

 

Center for Mind Body Medicine. (2016). About Our Model. Retrieved from https://cmbm.org/our-work/

 

Chappell, P.K. Peace Literacy Workshop, July 17, 2017

 

Davis, D.M. & Hayes, J.A. (2011). What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research," Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198-208.

 

International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. (2009). What is a trauma? Retrieved from http://www.isst-d.org/default.asp?contentID=75 

 

Kramer, K.P. & Gawlick, M. (2003). Martin Buber's I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue. Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press.

 

Paturel, A. (2012). Power in Numbers. Monitor on Psychology, 43 (10), 48

 

Scott, S.  Martin Buber.  Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/buber/#H1

 

Siegel, D.J. (2010) About Mindsight.  Retrieved from http://www.drdansiegel.com/about/mindsight/

 

 

 

 

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