A piece of the peace

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 21, 2013 – 12:00am

Violence at a marathon: Throughout history everywhere, man has always done violent acts against his fellowman. It’s hard to fathom. But to the minds of the perpetrators, they always appear justifiable.

The mayhem at the Boston Marathon shook me to the core. I was close to a state of shock as I watched the explosions on TV rip through the crowd of spectators who were by the sidelines cheering the runners on. In my mind ran so many questions. I am sure many of you asked the same things. How can anyone do this? Who in his right mind could perpetrate something this horrible? What could have been the motive? How can anyone hurt innocent people for whatever cause?

Throughout history everywhere, man has always done violent acts against his fellowman. We have seen assaults and muggings, bullying, murders, slavery, massacres, ethnic cleansing, great big wars that sometimes lasted for decades, some even surpassing 100 years. And they are still happening now. The reasons may be many and hard to fathom. But to the minds of the perpetrators, they always appear justifiable.

I was hesitating to write this piece that deals with violence for a few reasons. For one, I am appalled when I witness anyone subjected to violence. I feel an abhorrence and my first instinct is to run away from it and disappear. I want to have nothing to do with it, not even as a spectator.

Another reason, though farfetched is, I have often wondered that if put in a violent situation, will I discover I may become like the violent people I abhor? What if I realize I am not too different from them, and even join in? Maybe that’s exactly what happens to many good people during activities like hazing. One can get caught up by the moment and lose one’s convictions or morals. It could also happen to me. And so I would rather stay away.

I know the scope of the subject is wide and may take volumes to encompass, but I am writing about it even if it is only in my small column because it is something we must try to understand, control and if possible, outgrow as a species.

I am very fascinated by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela who were subjected to a lot of violence in all its forms but chose not to retaliate accordingly. Instead, they looked at their tormentors straight in the eye and vowed deep inside not to be like them. They resisted the great temptation to get even as most people would have even if they certainly had enough justification to do so. But in resisting the urge to react violently, they changed the equation. No more tit-for tat. Violence must end.
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The initial scorn heaped upon them by their enemies slowly but surely turned to great respect, and even awe. They converted many of their enemies to become not just their followers but defenders. Such was the strength of their character and convictions.

Dr. Jose Rizal once wrote that, “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.” I have often observed this to be true in many occasions of human interactions. When one refuses to live the role expected of him, a new dynamic between the participants develops. The “play” itself changes. The codependence ends.

Look at the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the boy had no idea of how he was expected to react, and so candidly called out the emperor’s nakedness. He was unlike everyone else in the town who was into the “play,” or the “trance.” Refusing to play along can be good when the situation is potentially toxic. All it takes is to do the unexpected and the trance is broken. In this case, simply being truthful was all it took.

But how do we handle the instinct of wanting to retaliate? It is so hard to resist the drive to get even. And in one’s anger, a person can lose sight of any shred of humanity the other person may possess and so it is easy to justify why he/she must be “destroyed.

Not as dramatically as the Boston mayhem, was a news item that told of 30 people attending a wedding in Afghanistan who were all instantly killed by a drone. It is no less tragic. A lot of us momentarily pause when we hear of such things, and just simply dismiss it with the statement, “Sad! But what can we really do?”

There are practices one can do to become a more peaceful person or at least have a more compassionate disposition. Let me share some.

One way to go beyond an instinctive reflex action like immediate retaliation is to have the ability to be more circumspect and deliberate rather than emotional. In short, one must be able to respond more than just react. I personally recommend meditation as a means to help develop this ability.

When you meditate, you learn to control, and to stop controlling at the same time. When you sit regularly on a mat and commit to do so without moving for a set time, you learn to reign in your instincts such as scratching, or looking around, or even entertaining too many things in your mind. The net effect of that is a peaceful stillness you experience within yourself.

You become unperturbed by phenomena going on around and inside you. You experience a detachment, a freedom from things, and even from long held opinions, biases and tendencies. You are still aware of them, but are not at the moment pulled by their orbit. Because of this, an emptying or spacious calm and equanimity is created within. And in this space, one really begins to see options on how to respond and not just react. And with enough practice, this spaciousness inside becomes not just easily accessible but develops compassion as well.

Another good practice is to constantly remind ourselves how to have empathy for people. By this, I mean looking at people as human beings who laugh, cry, love, dream etc., just like we all do. Often, we look at people according to how they function or act — far from the totality of who they really are. On the outside, they are merely, say, Americans, Afghans, young people, oldies, students, workers, politicians, prostitutes, etc. They are an ‘other.’ It is easy to lump them into simplistic labels thereby reducing their humanity to something much smaller. In a war setting, calling the deaths of people “collateral damage” is just one way we reduce their humanity, and perhaps we do so as a way of coping with the heartlessness of the violence we inflict.

A way to peace is to simply practice listening and suspending judgment as much as you can.

Something that will also work for everyone is trying to stop being egotistic all the time. An egotistic person thinks the whole world revolves around him. I try and practice looking at myself as a third person, not always through the lens of my ego, or “I.” As a third person, there is more of the spaciousness I get in meditation. My ego does not occupy all the space. I learn to dismiss big chunks of my egotistic wants and needs and even make light of them until they do not matter. It is good to realistically look at ourselves with all our faults, weaknesses and without being too defensive, and just accept ourselves as ordinary and “not special.”

Not everyone of us will be in a position to unleash war, or inflict violence on people, thank God. But each of us can be instruments or constituents of peace by practicing it in everyday life. And it starts with each one of us. I wish to end this with a few lines I wrote into song in 1988 called Piece of the Peace.

I hold in me a piece of the peace

And inside of you is a piece of the peace

If only we can put it together

A greater peace will come together

The wounds of war are the same everywhere

There is no peace if there’s war anywhere

It’s just one world so let’s keep it alive

Destroy the earth and all of us die

You and I, we must agree

That there are too many problems for us to live in apathy

We must protect this galaxy

Not just for you and me

But for everybody’s children’s children

So they can have a world of harmony

Inside of me is a piece of the key

The key to save humanity

Together we can make it better

So all life can live forever

Everyone must come together as one human family

We must treat the Universe as our responsibility

There can be no talk of changing unless we all change from within

Every father, mother, brother, sister must now lend a hand