STOPPING THE WAR: A Meditation on Peace

STOPPING THE WAR: A Meditation on Peace March 18, 2012

A Meditation on the Way of Peace

18 March 2012

James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


The unawakened mind tends to make war against the way things are. To follow a path with heart, we must understand the whole process of making war within ourselves and without, how it begins and how it ends. War’s roots are in ignorance. Without understanding we can easily become frightened by life’s fleeting changes, the inevitable losses, disappointments, the insecurity of our aging and death. Misunderstanding leads us to fight against life, running from pain or grasping at security and pleasures that by their nature can never be satisfying.

Jack Kornfield in A Path With Heart

Let me tell you a story. It happened a couple of years ago on a weekday here at the church. I almost always keep my office door open. So, no surprise when I looked up from my computer where I’d been pounding away at my newsletter column to see Walter leaning in through the door waving his hand at me.

“James,” he said. “There’s a call for you.”

I asked, “Who is it, Walter?”

He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. Walter is a numbers guy, something he excels at, a critical member of our team. Phone answering, however, is not his strong suit. “He asked for Reverend Ford.”

Well, that told me something. If they ask for the pastor or the father, I know I’m about to be asked for money. When asked for by name, well, it still can be about money, times really are hard. And churches are right there on the last resort list. Those conversations can be so difficult, particularly as we have so little money to give. Still, having some version of that conversation once every week or so comes with the territory. And it certainly keeps me in touch with reality.

But, this was a bit different. With my name involved a call from an unknown party can also be about other things. Or, at least, so I hoped. I thanked Walter, turned back to the phone, picked it up, and said, “James here.”

The person on the other end of the line introduced himself. Let’s say his name was Donald. He said he read my blog. So, I immediately assumed he was a discerning sort. He then said he was hoping to swing by and talk a little. Nothing unusual here, people hear about us, and want to explore what our church is a bit more. I said, sure, I have some time tomorrow. Would that work? He apologized and said he’s shipping out to Iraq and will be on a plane tomorrow morning.

Iraq. We were still fighting there. I replied that if he could get here in the next forty-five minutes or so, I could give him an hour. After that I had appointments stacked pretty much into the evening, when I would be attending a committee meeting. Donald said he was staying with his girlfriend at Brown, and how he could easily be here in a fifteen-minute walk.

I explained where to look for the complex of offices in our Parish House hung up and signed off my computer. When Donald arrived I figured he was eighteen or nineteen. He was thin and didn’t look military, or rather, wouldn’t have except for the close cropped horseshoe of hair on an otherwise shaved head, telegraphing to me he was probably a Marine. Although I don’t think we ever actually discussed which branch of the service he was in. He was good looking, but there was something vaguely distracted in his manner, haunted. I’m sure you know what I mean.

The pleasantries included his explaining he was on leave before returning for a second tour in country. I had to revise my estimation of his age up by a year or two. He then said how he really needed some guidance.

I thought perhaps we were going to be talking about conscientious objection. If he really followed my blog he’d know that while it mostly is concerned with spirituality, it also touches on cultural issues, and it includes more than a little about politics. And it doesn’t take reading many posts to know where my opinions are around a number of issues, including my profound concerns with our current military engagements.

Instead, he said, “I have nightmares.” I reset my assumptions and decided to let him lead us where we were going to go. I asked if he was seeing a counselor. He said he is not. And he will not as it could keep him from returning to Iraq with his company. He said, “I’m tired. I want some peace.” He paused. And then added, “I think meditation might help.”

Peace. Two and a half millennia ago the Buddha spoke of our broken hearts, our persisting dis-ease, that sense of anguish, which seems to follow human life no matter what we do, no matter who we are. And he spoke of peace, of a way through to another shore. Since that time, people have been investigating what that shore might look like, what is the geography of peace, and how we might find it.

Young Donald was just the latest pilgrim launched on that quest.

“Meditation might help,” I responded. “I’m sure it will. But, talking with someone can help, as well, particularly if you’re having nightmares. Want to start there?” I waited. Turned out not really. Too personal, too hard. I shrugged, I hope only mentally. We start where we are. And we do what we can from that place. As a spiritual director, I’ve learned much of the art, is the art of waiting.

And, of course, this story is old, much older than the great physician who diagnosed the problem of our broken hearts and prescribed a cure in the eight-fold path. Whatever the circumstances of our lives, somewhere along the way we notice things are not as rosy as perhaps we’d been led to believe they were going to be. We have a bad relationship. Health issues. Hating one’s job. Boredom.

Or, worse things, there are worse things. Now, in our culture, which has a measure of insulation from the worst things that can happen, actually witnessing hunger, grinding poverty or the ravages of war can, when they happen, be devastating. What is a low-grade anxiety can become a crisis.

It certainly appears Donald saw some of the worst of the ugly and the hurt up front and without any option to ignore it. What precisely, I never knew. What I could be sure of was that the world’s sadness seeped into his dreams. That sadness he called nightmares.

And, his response was a longing for peace. Possibly, probably, in part a desire to run away. To get away is one of the primary animal responses encoded into our hearts. But, he chose to come to a Unitarian Universalist minister who is also a teacher of Zen meditation. Whatever the reasons, whatever the ideas he brought with him, the currents of his mysterious karma led him into my office, and to have a brief conversation about meditation and peace.

Our English word peace derives through Anglo Norman back to Latin. It has to do with a pact or a covenant, and means to end hostility, to put an end to war. Works for me. In the Bible the Greek word eirene which means completeness, and the Hebrew shalom, which, among other things means safety or welfare, or even prosperity, are both translated as peace. These also work for me. In Buddhism the term santi is what we usually find translated into English as peace. Its distant roots appear to mean ceasing to labor, to rest. And, that works for me, as well.

I suspect the constellation of our heart’s longing is somehow putting down our burden, stopping the war, finding that moment when and where all is right, that which completes our hearts. Not a pause in the war, that’s a truce. Peace is its end. When we say peace, we usually are seeking, to use that felicitous line from the King James Bible, a “peace that passes all understanding.” And sometimes, as with Donald at that moment in his life, we’re seeking it urgently, like that man whose hair is on fire, trying to put an end to the pain.

I explained to him as best and briefly as I could what Zen meditation looks like, at least as we begin it. He seemed grateful. I also said meditation as central as it is, still, isn’t enough. I noticed an old and worn copy of Robert Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen on my bookshelf. I thought, a bit dated, but serviceable. I pulled it down and gave it to him. As he left I gave him my email address and I reminded him it could be a very good idea to talk with someone about those nightmares.

I never heard from him again. I think about him, and that war, which rages in our hearts. Wars. War. I’m sick to heart that every week, week after week I have to read that list of young men and women, who wearing uniforms of our nation have died in or because of combat. I’m sick to heart knowing those names stand for many, many more, combatants and civilians who’ve died unnamed to us in this decade of war. And now this terrible thing where one of our own caught up by demons we may never understand did this terrible thing in Kandahar, again a sign, a sign of unspeakable things that go on with grinding regularity within the shadows of war.

I am not a pacifist. I believe in self-protection. I believe in protecting those who cannot protect themselves. And that said, while I know there can in fact be a bad peace, there is never a good war. The ripples of unintended consequences, the many shades of sorrow, which follow violence like night follows day should caution us whenever we are tempted to unsheathe hell’s sword.

And here we are a decade after being drawn into war, at first chasing after those who brought terror and death to our people, and to my mind with the additional possible good of bringing down a misogynist tyranny. But then in a heart beat distracted by foolish men blinded by other agendas we were diverted to an unnecessary war and got bogged down, and now a decade later, here we are having fallen into a deep pit.

It is time to stop. It is time to climb out of that pit. It is time for our troops to come home. It is time to stop the war. Both wars. The wars among people and the war within us.

But how to stop that war? How do we stop the war? Here we find some terrible truths. Among them I suggest there can be no peace in this world if we do not also seek the peace of our hearts and minds. These two things, the wars of peoples and the wars within people are intertwined so intimately that it becomes difficult near impossible to fully untangle them. If we truly hope for meaningful peace, we need while attending to those matters of our communal lives, of how to physically extract ourselves from the cycles of violence, to also attend to those matters as they touch our interior lives.

And that inner work, dear ones, is what brings us together into this place. Our gathering in this sanctuary, opening our hearts to explore without turning away provides us with perspective, and allows our decisions and actions in the world to be less damaging, and possibly even healing.

A student of the way once asked a great master what is the way to peace. He was told pay attention. The student said is that all? The master said pay attention. Pay attention. The student asked, what else? And was told, pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.

Jack Kornfield in his lovely book A Path With Heart tells us, “To stop the war and come into the present is to discover a greatness of our own heart that can include the happiness of all beings as inseparable from our own. When we let ourselves feel the fear, the discontent, the difficulties we have always avoided, our heart softens. Just as it is a courageous act to face all the difficulties from which we have always run, it is also an act of compassion.”

We start by paying attention. There are any number of assists for this. But, the essence of it is simplicity itself. Pay attention. You’re not? Well, then stop, and pay attention. Your mind has wandered? Just come back and pay attention.

Is there more to it? Of course there is. But nothing good will happen without this start. But here’s some good news. We do this over and over again, and gradually we find our wandering minds, our wandering hearts, will come to rest, even if only for moments at a time. And at those moments of rest we can be begin to see.

And what do we see? We see connections; we see how we are bound together by our actions and our longing. We keep attending, and we find how intimately we are connected, each of us with each other, and, indeed, all of us with this poor, lovely, hurting world. Here we find our moral compass. Here we find how to act. With courage. With compassion.

Pay attention. Just this ends the war.

Pay attention. It stops the war.

Pay attention.

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