We’ve all been there, where we’ve said something or we acted in a way that was hurtful, it was harmful. Cultivating peace isn’t always easy, but it’s certainly worth the pursuit.
In this talk, we will explore how to cultivate peace because many of the great wisdom traditions consider this to be a keystone in spiritual awakening.
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[The following is the full transcript of this episode of “Dare to Awaken Podcast.”]
Welcome to episode number three, Cultivating Peace, of the Dare to Awaken podcast. This is Travis Eliot, and it’s always an honor to get to spend this time with you.
Peacefulness is really the opposite of chaos, of violence, and peace is considered to be one of the great benevolent qualities of humankind. Without it, we as individuals suffer. And without it on a collective level within our societies, we also suffer. Wendell Berry writes, “If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully, and as bravely as we now prepare for war.” You could easily argue that just as we have a Department of Defense, departments of war within our government, shouldn’t we also have a Department of Peace, that this is something that we want to cultivate within our societies? A branch of the government that’s out there doing everything that they can to mitigate unnecessary conflict in warfare? In yoga, the word for peacefulness is ahimsa. And ahimsa means non-harming, non-violence, to not harm other forms of life.
There was a story that I heard from one of my teachers, Jack Kornfield, about a man named Jarvis Masters in the San Quentin prison system. Jarvis Masters, a death row inmate in San Quentin, tells the story of being in the prison yard one winter day when a seagull landed in a puddle of water. A big young inmate next to him picked up a rock to throw at the seagull. Jarvis, who had taken up the Buddhist precept of non-harming, raised his arm to stop the stone thrower. The young inmate shouted angrily, “What the hell you think you’re doing?” Everyone in the yard, including the guards, got real quiet to see what was about to go down. In prison, you don’t mess with another private person’s space unless you expect a fight. Jarvis turned back and spontaneously blurted out, “That bird got my wings.” This shocked the young man, who peered at Jarvis quizzically, trying to understand, and gradually lowered his stone. His face softened, and everyone relaxed. For days afterward, inmates on the cell blocks would ask Jarvis what he meant by, “That bird got my wings.” Jarvis never answered. He only smiled. Yet instinctively, everyone knew that Jarvis, confined to a lifetime behind the bars, could find the freedom of spirit by imagining the seagull spreading its wings over the San Francisco Bay. So even in the prison system, we have people like Jarvis Masters that take up these precepts of non-harming, of ahimsa.
You see, a peaceful mind produces a whole karmic chain of events within thoughts and speech and actions than does a chaotic mind. A peaceful mind creates one type of karma – you could call it a peaceful karma, a good karma – and a chaotic mind, a violent mind, is going to create bad karma. It’s going to create more of the same that is perpetuated. We all have different levels of the mind. On a deep level, we have what’s called the limbic or the reptilian part of our brain. This is the part of our brain that’s super-reactive. It’s that knee-jerk response to things. We’re not even thinking about how we respond. We’re just immediately reacting. But we also have evolved as a species, thank God, where we have another part of our brain that’s the prefrontal cortex region of our brain. It’s the part of our brain that can reason things out, that can take a broader, more elevated perspective on situations and instead of reacting, can respond. Can respond from a place of centeredness and from a place of peacefulness.
There was an army veteran who had come back from fighting, over in the Middle East. And as many of our veterans do, he suffered from PTSD, a very highly reactive mind, and had a difficult time controlling his anger. So he was advised to begin to do meditation, to begin to do mindfulness practice. And one day he was in the grocery store, on his way home at the end of a long day, and he gathered his items. And as he was about to go check out, he was cut off by the last second by an older woman holding a baby. And he could start to feel his blood beginning to boil. And the lady put her items onto the conveyor belt, and she exceeded the limit of the express lane. So now his blood began to boil even more, as anger was getting exasperated by gasoline poured on the fire of his uncontrollable emotions.
And then, to make matters worse, the lady handed the small child to the person working at the grocery store. And now he was about to lose it. He was about to have a total breakdown. It was just one thing after another, and the straw had broken the camel’s back. But then, at that last moment, his mindfulness practice kicked in. And he was able to observe the sensations that he was feeling in his body. He was able to become aware of the thoughts and how his thoughts were feeding his emotions. And he was able to create a little bit of space between the stimulus and the response. And so things begin to cool down within him. And then his thoughts began to shift and he began to realize that he wasn’t actually really in a rush. And he didn’t really need to get anywhere super-fast. He wasn’t that hurried. And eventually the young baby was passed back over to the customer. She got her belongings in her bag and left the store. And as this army vet went to go pay for his groceries, he commented to the employee. He said, “What a cute, cute child.” And the lady’s eyes begin to tear up, and she said, “My– my husband was killed in combat. And now I have to work two jobs, day and night, and the only time I get to see my child is when my mom brings her in to see me.”
So we never know the story of what people are actually going through. We never know what’s really going on behind the curtain. And we also are so dangerously on the precipice of making matters worse and creating more harm, and more suffering, for other people and therefore ourselves. So through these practices of yoga and meditation and mindfulness, we begin to broaden that gap between the stimulus and the response so that there isn’t that knee-jerk reaction where we’re just reacting from that limbic reptilian part of our brain. As the great Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Or as William Butler Yeats writes, “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather around us so that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” And the beautiful thing is, is that when we do this internal work – when we shift what’s going on within our own minds and our own hearts, emotionally – it also has an effect into the outer environment.
We know that there’s something called limbic resonance. In the same way that the musical instruments can attune to each other through vibration, we also carry these vibrations within us. And we can carry the vibration of peace or we can carry the vibration of chaos. And we feel that within other people when we’re around them, we pick up on that, because of limbic resonance. Or on an emotional level, what we call emotional contagion. You go somewhere where everybody’s joyful and laughing and having fun, and that is very contagious. That is emotional contagion. So never underestimate the power of you getting on to your yoga mat, you sitting down on to your meditation cushion, and doing your practices. And training your mind, training your heart to be more in alignment with who you want to be and how you want to show up in this world, in this life.
Now, one of the big obstacles to peacefulness happens to be overstimulation, which is a huge problem that we’re now facing within our society. We have our phones, we have TV, we have our radios, we have the 24/7 news cycle just perpetuating itself over and over, we have a whole slew of social media. It’s hard to keep up with it. You have your Facebook, your Instagram, your TikTok, Clubhouse, YouTube, it just goes on and on and on. And I’m sure there will be many, many more. There is research that was done, and scientists estimated that there is more information in one day of the New York Times newspaper than the average 16th century person consumed in an entire lifetime. Isn’t that insane? Isn’t that crazy, that four or five hundred centuries later we are in this place where we are so bombarded with stimulation our nervous system gets overloaded? And when that gets overloaded, we lose peace. We’re in a state of stress. And when we’re in a state of stress, we’re in a state of survival. And when we’re in a state of survival we’re not in a place where we can create, where we can create health, where we can create vitality, where we can awaken to our fullest potential. So we have to find ways of cultivating peace because the things that you feed become stronger and the things that you neglect become weaker.
So naturally, if we want to see peace grow and become stronger within our life, then we have to feed it. We can do that in many forms, many ways. We can do that through exercise. And you know this to be true. You’ve had a really long, stressful day. Maybe you’re at work. A lot of challenges arose at work. And then you came home and you moved through a vigorous yoga class or exercise. And at the end of that, you were not the same person. You shifted your state. You shifted your energy. We can also do that through various forms of meditation and yoga. In fact, the word yoga means union, oneness, and yoga was defined by the ancient sages as being “yoga chitta vritti nirodha”, or the removal of the waves that disturb the peace inside of our mind. Yoga is peacefulness. And anything that is not peaceful is technically anti-yoga. So yoga, meditation. Marcus Aurelius says, “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions, than your own soul.” So I invite you to take time within your day, even the busiest days, to find five minutes. Maybe you’re at work, and you’re on your lunch break. And you go into your car for 5, 10, 20 minutes, close your eyes, and just go to that place within you. Take refuge within yourself to find that inner peace. Maybe you go for a walk in nature, a beautiful stroll through a forest or around the lake or through the hills or the mountains. Or you’re a surfer that gets out to the ocean. There’s nothing like being in nature that brings us back to peacefulness. In Japan, they have the forest bathing where they literally are bathing in the peaceful vibrations of the trees and the plant life and how that affects our state.
Another way that you can cultivate peace is to be very aware of how you transition at the end of your day into sleep time. Many of us are watching television, and we’re watching a program on television that’s very agitating, sometimes very violent, and very non-peaceful, right? And I’m guilty of this, too. We all like that stimulation at times. But even when I do that, I make sure that there’s a period of time where I’m reading, usually, a spiritual book just as long as I spent watching TV. And I’m taking time to unwind. Also, you want to make sure that you stay away from your devices. A lot of us bring our cell phones into our bedroom, and a lot of us are looking at our cell phones right before we go to bed, which is horrible for cultivating peace. In fact, my wife Lauren and I recently instituted a new boundary. Because you have to set these boundaries. Otherwise you are going to find yourself becoming a victim of what’s called attention engineering. And that’s where, through these apps and these programs, companies know how to captivate your attention. They know how to manipulate the human brain. And if you’re not strong enough and you don’t set those boundaries, then you’re going to become a victim to that. So we instituted a boundary where, in our bedroom at nighttime, we have a no-phone zone. We don’t bring our phones into the bed. We don’t even bring it into the bedroom. I have a drawer in my kitchen and I leave it in the drawer. And then, when I wake up in the morning, it’s still out there in the kitchen. So there’s also a period of time before I go and look at my phone. I’m not waking up and then just looking at my phone instantly.
So there’s many different ways where we can establish habits and practices of cultivating peace. Creating and cultivating peaceful moments throughout the day can lead to a big momentum shift that can literally change the game, where you begin to find yourself less and less stressed and more and more at peace. And peace is a close relative of contentment, of gratitude, of happiness, of fulfillment. So think about it like a garden. You plant seeds of peace and then you nourish it and then you watch it flourish.
Now, here’s a little poem called The Coal-Mouse Snowflake by Kurt Kauter. Kurt Kauter writes, “‘Tell me the weight of a snowflake,’ a coal-mouse asked a wild dove. ‘Nothing more than nothing,’ was the answer. ‘In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,’ the coal-mouse said. ‘I sat on a branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow. Not heavily, not in a giant blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch – nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.’ Having said that, the coal-mouse flew away. The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while and finally said to herself, ‘Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come about in the world.’”
So you never know, through that repetition, over and over and over and over again, that next snowflake that hits the branch, that becomes the catalyst to break the branch off, could be the thing that all of a sudden takes you into a whole nother paradigm where now you’ve wired your brain to become peaceful. And then you look at that, and the more of us that awaken, the more of us that cultivate these benevolent qualities, you could be the next person to effect major change within your family, your community, your nation, or even the world. You never know. By you being the embodiment of peace, you could be the one to cause the branch of chaos to fall away. Creating a zone of peace everywhere you go: at home, the office, the world. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and just like the Gandhis of the world.
Much health, much wealth, much love to you. May you dare to awaken.