Peace comes in many forms from the transient to the eternal, from the trivial to the sublime. ‘Peace at last!’, says the mother when the kids are finally in bed. Peace in politics means the cessation of hostilities, which would seem like Heaven to the inhabitants of Sudan or Iraq. Moral peace comes from doing what you feel is right and being true to yourself. We can also be at peace if we philosophically accept our fate without complaint.
Yet peace is often a contaminated product. There is the spiritual serenity of detachment and indifference. ‘Everything passes, so why worry?’ Religions guarantee peace beyond the grave if you behave yourself, and the opposite if you don’t. Gurus offer permanent peace as a shining, but somehow just-out-of-reach, ideal. Finally, travel agents sell peace as part of the package at tropical resorts.
In a perfect world, we would feel mentally at peace every time we were physically at rest. Peace is utterly natural, yet to the chronically stressed, it may seem as unattainable as the moon. One thing is certain however: we can always be more peaceful than we are. The search for peace starts with the biological process of relaxation, and we all relax sometime. Is there some secret formula that allows us to move on from physical relaxation to mental stillness?
There are two media images of peace. The first is that of the seated buddha with his eyes open. The second is that of the yoga chick, with her eyes closed, sitting cross-legged on an empty beach. These two images tell us volumes about how to be peaceful. If we analyse them, we find that peace is not free or automatic. It comes at a price, and is dependent on certain conditions.
The buddha is depicted as being alone, inactive, mentally still and alert (i.e. with eyes open). We also assume he is leading a simple life in a natural setting. The yoga chick is doing a soft version of the same. She goes to a place outside the city with no boyfriend or family or job in sight. These images illustrate four key ingredients of peace: solitude, stillness, silence and simplicity. The more we can achieve any of these, even for a minute or two, the more peaceful we become.
At some deep level we know all of this. We can see that our lives are commonly too crowded, busy, noisy and complicated. These are four key ingredients of stress. Even if we understand this, it can seem impossible to get clear of them. ‘I can’t leave my kids, my mortgage, my internet, my city lifestyle, and just do nothing!’
Important as peace is, we don’t want it at the expense of everything else. In 1993 I met 150 other Western meditation teachers at a conference in California. Most of us had spend years in retreat, or been monks or nuns in the past, and had known inconceivably beautiful states of mind as a result. Nearly all of us however had abandoned that lifestyle and re-entered the world. We realised that there are higher goals than tranquility alone. A search for mental clarity at all costs is somewhat immature and unbalanced.
I left that contemplative life behind in 1985, but with a burning question. Could I maintain those calm, clear states of mind in the midst of a career, relationships and the city? Could I balance inner peace with the quite contrary demands of love and work?
I found that I could, but what came easily in the wilderness took ingenuity and effort in the city. In the midst of a crowded life, we can always be a little more alone, silent and still, if we value and cultivate those qualities. We can find islands of peace in the turmoil, and peace in our minds, even if it seems absent from the world around us.
Peace is about solitude. It is naturally antisocial. Perfect peace is almost narcissistic in its self-absorption. We find peace when we spend time apart from others. People are crucial to our well-being but we find peace on our own.
Solitude is not about abandoning people completely. It is about being mentally alone whenever we are physically alone. We can be fully alone while walking, going to the toilet, doing housework, sitting in a bus or falling asleep. More commonly, we hold lengthy conversations with and about people in our heads all day long, whether they are present or not. When you go to the toilet, are you truly alone? Or do your parents, children, friends, work mates and various TV celebrities all squeeze into the cubicle with you?
The seated buddha is making a statement. He has nothing to do, nowhere to go and very little to think about. For this reason, some people find a meditation class an extremely odd experience. For perhaps the first time in their lives, they sit still and literally do nothing for maybe 20 minutes. They even give themselves permission not to actively think (which is easier said than done).
Peace is about doing nothing and letting the body and mind return to balance, which is why it is so good for our health. Every day we oscillate between activity and rest, wakefulness and sleep, and we typically find peace in the rest and repair part of that cycle. This is why the idea of perfect peace is a myth: we can’t do nothing forever.
We can easily sit down and physically stop. It is much harder to stop the mind. We typically entertain ourselves with TV or reading or absent-minded rumination, without our minds ever coming to a halt. We can relax and even fall asleep this way, but we won’t be truly peaceful. The mind only becomes calm and still when it focuses on one thing at the expense of everything else.
The paradox is that even poor focus is so much better than eternally chasing our thoughts. Focusing simplifies our mental activity. It illuminates the detail of whatever we pay attention to, so we come to know it more deeply. In meditation, focusing can take us into trance and bliss. In everyday life, it makes us fully conscious and self-aware. In any case, the immediate payoff for good focus is a calm, still, observant quality of mind. This is vastly different from merely being relaxed or spacing out.
When the inner chatter weakens or stops, a remarkable new world appears. We hear the birds. We sense our own bodies. We know what we truly feel. When the words fade, so do the past and future and all their gloomy/hopeful stories. We live within the vivid, unpredictable beauty of the present moment.
Inner silence leads to a mode of deep thought that we can call contemplation. Our everyday thought is typically fast, linear and reliant on words. It scrambles from one thing to another all day long, and rarely comes to a conclusion. It can’t stop and it can’t listen.
Contemplative thought, on the other hand, emerges from a calm mind and body. It is familiar with silence. There are spaces between the words in which our feelings and our imagination can talk to us. The understanding and insights that arise tend to be visceral and pictorial rather than verbal. ‘In stillness and silence, the soul grows wise’ said Thomas A Kempis.
In theory, the buddha led a simple life. He begged for his daily food and had no thoughts for the future (In reality, he was a empire-builder with tens of thousands of followers). We can’t do that, but we should at least see the price we pay for our complicated lives. Given our individual temperaments, there is only so much complexity we can handle and still sleep well at night.
Just as our bodies have to digest every calorie of the food we eat, so our minds have to process whatever we take in. We pay for the junk food and chocolate, and we also pay for every skerrick of junk information. We can easily become more peaceful if we reduce the input. Just try to do without newspapers, TV, radio and unnecessary conversations for a day or two, and see how much calmer you feel.
Peace is dependent on solitude, stillness, silence and simplicity. Each of these are internal qualities and are far more attainable than we might assume. Because peace is so quiet and subtle, it is hard to see its value. In fact, it is crucial for good health, and a calm, clear, intelligent quality of mind. Perfect peace may seem impossible, but we can all be more peaceful than we usually are if we feel it is worth cultivating.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2006