Waging Peace, One Thought at a Time

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This post is my monthly contribution to Bloggers for Peace.

Sometimes you read something and it never goes away. It’s a nagging thought, a bur under the saddle, something that whispers in the background. This is my bur: Thoughts as acts of aggression. When I first read Practicing Peace in a Time of War by Pema Chödrön, I had a knee jerk reaction when she suggested that peace, on a grand scale, starts in our heads. I saw thoughts as generally harmless, internal, a way of coping with stress. I humor my irritations, my opinions, my stubbornness, never realizing that my kind of thinking starts wars.

We live in a time when digging in and shouting and taking retribution reigns over the softer voice, “wait, breathe, think”. I consider myself a reasonable person, until I start to think about parenting choices, conservatism, women’s issues and racism. Then I know, I am an aggressive, angry thinker. I have hard edges resistant to the other side. I am not listening. I am not waiting for reasoned dialogue. I have trained my brain to shut up tight, protecting its opinions to the detriment of my own enlightenment.

Many years ago, when I was in a management position, I said something unflattering about another employee. I was overheard and subsequently called to the mat for it. I was angry at the person, who overheard, for reporting me and angry at my employers. I worked quickly to rationalize my behavior by saying things to myself like  “It was true – it wasn’t that awful of a thing to say. Why did she have to be so sensitive? She’s a jerk. I loathe her. I can’t believe that I worked for my employers for so long and they immediately took her side.”

The incident would have passed had it not been for the aggression I felt. That thought cycle churned in me until I felt I had no choice but to resign from my job.  It took several months after leaving the job for me to soften. I wasn’t angry at other people. I was disappointed with myself for being so unprofessional and unkind. I was sad that I had upended many years of good service by not maintaining appropriate boundaries. I allowed my shame and embarrassment to become anger and resentment because I did not want to deal with the pain. I would rather quit than feel that pain.

Aggression, whether on the battlefield or in your head, becomes a self-feeding cycle, solidifying more intransigent and bitter thoughts with each shot fired. We teach ourselves to hate so that we can continue the fight. If we stop for a moment, patiently waiting for our true thoughts to emerge, we soften. We feel our own vulnerabilities, our pain. We begin to see that our opponents really want the same things – safe homes for their families, healthy and happy children, the opportunity to work and create and feel needed, education, food, all the basic human needs and wants. The heat of war becomes untenable. They are no longer the enemy.

Most of us don’t deal with life and death issues in our everyday life, but all of us experience thoughts of aggression. There is that cliché Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy? When I first heard that, I shrugged it off. It sounded like being conciliatory for the sake of peace, as if one has no principles or opinions. I see it differently now. Being right means being closed. It means hardening yourself to the point that no amount of negotiating or explaining will help you see the other side. It means waging war, instead of listening and having dialogue.

I struggle with thoughts of aggression everyday. When anger arises, I ask myself, What is this about? Even taking that moment softens me, prevents my thoughts from solidifying into armor. Stay open. Wait. Breathe. Think.

More Bloggers for Peace:

The Mirror That is You at KM Huber’s Blog

Road Peace at This is My Corn

A Split Second to Peace at everyday gurus

59 Comments on “Waging Peace, One Thought at a Time

  1. I really like how you thought this through and explained it. You are right. Aggressive thoughts can lead to aggressive acts. It’s a fine line between fighting for what we believe and trampling on others who get in the way.

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    • It’s a really tough thing to grasp. I’ve been thinking a lot about it in terms of the gun debates. While I can disagree until I’m blue in the face, it doesn’t further the conversation. We just dig our heels in until there is no movement at all. We’ve made compromise such a dirty word and it advances nobody’s cause and does nothing for the common good. This post had another 300 words to it, but I decided to cut it, due to the format. There’s so much to say about this particular concept!

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  2. This is so true, and so important to understand. On my trip to a troubled region this past week, I observed that people sense when our thoughts are (or are not) peaceful, even when nothing is said. Thanks for an excellent post!

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    • And that’s an important aspect – not just how our thoughts affect our ability to be open, but how they affect others’ abilities as well. Thanks for this comment!

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  3. I needed this today I’m feeling a little pissy. 🙂 At myself and others and anything random at the moment. Impatient. You know the drill. And for no particular reason. I know it’s human nature and always a challenge to soften up and just be nice. To others but also to ourselves.We also have to accept that when we’re angry or bitter or want to lash out it’ll pass.

    All very well illustrated here, thanks for posting.

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    • Another great point, Pete. Softening towards ourselves as well. Those pissy feelings dissipate faster when you notice them for what they are. Sometimes I end up laughing at my own snarkiness, because I know I’m being human, but silly.

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      • I grew up with a very angry father, so my example has always been to NEVER be angry. It’s not wrong though sometimes it’s right. We have to accept that but learn how to funnel that into a reasonable response. As today goes on I’m sure it’ll turn around for me. It always does. 🙂 And is already actually! Cause of YOU baby!

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        • I had the opposite reaction growing up with angry parents. Anger is my “go-to” for every emotion, because as a child, I was a peacemaker. It’s taken years for me to call things by their real names: sadness, hurt, fear, loneliness, etc. We humans are complicated!
          So glad things are looking up – I can usually turn myself around as well – it’s a good skill to have. We’re snuggling in for bitter cold temps here and for some ridiculous reason, that makes me feel happy!

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  4. I like the terms by which you define of peace as the act of controlling aggressive thoughts before they turn into actions. I believe that many of us apply these techniques in our daily life, some more successfully than others, without necessarily having formulated the concept in these words.
    I wonder though how the concept extrapolates to a larger scale peace where at some point along the line, you have to throw in materialism and the quest for power into the formula. This is when well calculated and determined mean and evil actions take over the impulsive anger and the need to be right.

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    • I wonder what drives the mean and evil actions of humans trying to gain power and feed materialism. I don’t mean to justify the horrible things that people do, but how did that person get to the point that having power at any cost would drive their existence? What does power represent to them? What need are they trying to meet? What are they afraid of?
      This is why evil can, in the end, arise from mundane and mediocre circumstances – there’s a human being who is trying to meet his/her needs, but on a grand scale. Throw a few of those people in the same room and there’s your evil empire. To answer it with our own thoughts and acts of aggression does not solve the core problem. Do what we can to prevent harm or injury, but never assume evil is an otherness or else we cannot begin to create a solution.
      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment – it brings a lot to the table, in terms of conversation.

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      • That is absolutely true!
        There is even a theory put forward by I don’t remember now which biologist which states that every human action from drinking water to conducting a world war is ultimately traceable to a deep and innate emotion.
        I never understood the need for power myself because I have never experienced any form of that feeling not even in my sleeping dreams. Maybe it’s a by-product of greed; I don’t know…
        Thank you for writing often about such interesting subjects.

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  5. Michelle, Thank you. Thank you for the tears in my eyes. Thank you for your honesty and courage to tackle this very personal, yet essential topic. Thank you for giving me hope that peace is possible and that we are all part of the solution.
    Maybe your post moved me so much because one of my wedding vows was “I will always choose to be happy rather than right, even when I am right.” haha. {{{Hugs}}} Kozo

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    • Thanks for coming up with the idea “Bloggers for Peace”. It’s a marvelous idea, because we get to see what peace looks like to other people – so many different perspectives and ideas! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Nice wedding vow. I’m fond of “Til death do us part. You first!”

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  6. Wonderfully said! I have tried to live this for some time now, and yes, it is hard. Now, if only those idiots who disagree with me would read this. LOL (Just kidding, of course.)

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    • Very funny! It’s like the wedding vow Kozo mentioned above.
      It certainly requires mindfulness – so much of our thinking is habitual. I think that’s the hard part – slowing down enough to notice.

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  7. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone off the rails and then regretted it. This is a great reminder to take pause before reacting. More difficult is to go back and try and repair those relationships where I didn’t.

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    • I think that’s what I’ve realized as well. It’s so much easier to pause than it is to have to go back and apologize (that’s another challenge for me).

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  8. Pingback: Peace, mah homies, peace « Living La Vida London

  9. I linked your blog in my blogging for peace bit, but I don’t know how to do ping backs D:
    So I thought I’d let you know myself and hope that it’s okay? 🙂

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  10. Yes, I know that feeling of directing the anger at others when deep down, we’re really just having issues with ourselves. It’s important to be aware of this, it can a long a way. Anger is often a veil for another, deeper, often less-desirable emotion (such as fear or pain). A few years ago I lost my job and I too, was angry at everyone–my supervisor, my colleagues, the whole system–and then I realized that I essentially made myself vulnerable to my fate. I didn’t exude confidence. I didn’t believe in myself. I still don’t blame for myself for what happened. I didn’t “deserve” so to speak, but I do know where I was responsible. And there is a difference between owning up to personal responsibility and placing direct blame on yourself. Often there is a good balance.

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    • It’s probably always a good idea to look towards ourselves for what the authentic feeling is under all our varying emotions. The difference of blaming and accepting personal responsibility is a difference of compassion and problem solving. Blaming, whether it is be ourselves or someone else, is as productive as anxiety and guilt. It doesn’t move us forward and keeps us stuck.

      I’m sounding very wise today – time to go and make some mistakes!

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  11. Great story Michelle – funny, how we have the tendency to talk about people who are acting like jerks (especially on the corporate front, or wherever). It really brings you down. Lovely post…enjoy your day! – Bill

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    • I think we’re all fully capable of being jerks in our own way, so the rock-throwing should be kept to a minimum. Thanks for stopping by, Bill and commenting!

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  12. Interesting that you wrote this; the topic of anger has been on my mind a lot lately, largely due to how work is making me so angry these days.

    I had a dog that trained me out of emotional outbursts (she was very sensitive about that), and over time the urge to break things lost its power (but the urge remains). [One thing: I have never laid an angry hand upon another. Any actual violence I felt was always directed at defenseless objects, like doors or walls.]

    Here’s my question, my life-long struggle: what do you do when the stupidity and cruelty and ignorance and greed of humans fills you with a deep, deep anger? What do you do if you revere justice and fairness and despise with every fiber of being how the world really works? What do you do when you’ve come to understand just how Big Money completely controls the world and consider that a blackest of evils?

    What do you do when you feel like, if only there was a button that would destroy it all, they would have to kill you to prevent you from pushing it?

    What do you do on those days when you view humanity as a pestilent infection on the skin of the world?

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    • I’m the last person to espouse a Pollyanna attitude, but rage is a paralytic – a form of powerlessness over one’s own emotions. I took parenting classes when my daughter was young. Parenting can be very frustrating, especially when you are sleep-deprived and your child just Monet-ed an entire wall with crayon while you were folding laundry. The class taught us to learn to recognize when we were close to boiling point and to recognize the factors that led up to that point where you are tempted to toss your child out a window.

      What I took away from that class was a mindfulness of my emotional patterns. There were always factors that led up to an explosion and once I knew what they were, I had more opportunities along the way to defuse emotions that would, in the end, only make me feel worse. If you make your emotions about the rest of the world, the rest of the world owns you. That should be the thing that unsettles you most when it happens, because that’s power you have willingly surrendered.

      I like the Buddhist approach regarding detachment and one thought is to let go of one’s attachment to a specific outcome. That’s a pretty huge subject, but is worth looking into when you are biding your time in a job you loathe. You’ve given me about 15 new ideas for posts, so thank you for commenting!

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      • I’m not sure I can agree with equating rage as a paralytic, although I get your point. Rage can drive action, which is why I think paralytic isn’t the right word. But it can be blinding, and it can disable your higher mental functioning (which is what I think you were getting at).

        I would also like to distinguish between what I described and those moments where a specific, unexpected action (such as the “wonderful” Monet-ing of walls by child or the “helpful” tearing up of linoleum floor by puppy) triggers your anger. I note others have mentioned anger over perception of injustice in the world, and that’s what I’m getting at.

        There are things that, if I think about them, they can’t help but make me mad, because the situation is just so without redeeming qualities. There are the personal small things (like how my (ex-)wife treated me) or the huge things (like how the world so often treats women) and there are the in between things (like people driving while using cell phones).

        The personal stuff is my problem, and the huge stuff hard to wrap my head around, but that in between stuff… The daily stuff that people do that makes the world a shittier place… That. Makes. Me. Crazy. And I don’t know how to have it not make me crazy without becoming a completely different person.

        I think that learning calm in the face of unexpected events is an exercise in character and understanding, just as you say. Dealing with humanity’s ignorance and mistreatments… that seems a whole other level to me.

        I’m just not a detached sort of person, and I don’t think I particularly care to be one. Since high school I’ve had an identity as an artist and a strong, abiding belief that artists have the job of feeling, of not being detached. Our feelings drive our art, so I’ve always tried to be connected with mine.

        (Hey, wait a minute… isn’t that what women always say they want? A guy in touch with his feelings? And who can communicate articulately about them? :grin:)

        As for the job, we’re talking about making it through 95 more working days in order to reach a point where I can very likely retire from work permanently. If I leave now, I’d just have to find another job, and would probably have to keep working for quite a few more years. (And absolutely it takes a huge amount of detachment on my part to function there!)

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        • You’ve said a lot here! It’s a big topic. The only thing I want to clarify is that the Buddhist definition of detachment is a little different than how the term is commonly used, but Wikipedia has done a nice summary on it, to include its meaning from several religious and philosophical standpoints. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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        • Oh, sure, make me do research before I can reply! 🙂

          Being hugely non-materialistic (even anti-materialistic sometimes), I think I’m probably fairly far along the detachment axis in the physical desires sense.

          But the idea of detaching from beliefs about how the world could be a better place, which seems to also require beliefs about how the world isn’t yet a better place, seems like a non-starter to me, not even a desirable goal.

          I have a perception that many extremely spiritual people who’ve achieved that level are most characterized by their self-removal from society. I’m sure one can be quite calm while living in garden splendor and just navel-gazing all day. I know I would be.

          The real world seems a lot more complex to me.

          And maybe it boils down to having a “Warrior’s Heart.” It is simply my nature to fight for what I believe in or to fight in defense of what I hold precious. I am perhaps stuck with who I really am.

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  13. Great post! You know there’s that old axiom about bitterness or anger not harming the person you focus on – it actually harms you and ties you to the situation. I think it’s easy to not give enough weight or importance to our inner life – it can affect our outer lives, our actions. I’m not the best at letting go, but I know that I have to in order to keep peace in my spirit.

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  14. A very thoughtful and helpful piece. Thanks. I tend to get angry — mostly at injustice and violence. And ineptitude. And .. and … quite a bit of thinking I need to do!

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    • Anger at injustice is natural – I think the difference is what we do with that anger. Do we stew in it, cursing all humanity or do we turn it into a force for good to fight the injustice? I think it’s a powerful thing to realize that we have that choice.

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    • That’s the lovely thing about writing about those life moments that make me cringe – it opens a dialogue and makes people think about what arises in their own lives.

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  15. This is going to stay with me, a burr in my saddle 🙂

    I get worked up like this, too, and come from a long line of people who insist on being right and sacrifice being loving. It’s a lot to unlearn.

    Thanks for another thoughtful, honest, inspiring post.

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    • Rigidity is part of my family of origin’s motto. It has caused them and those around them a great deal of pain and disappointment. It’s something I have to fight in myself on a pretty regular basis. Thanks for reading and commenting, Kylie.

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  16. What a great post – and thank you for being so brave to share the incident. I’ve got a few similar ones in my past, too. Oh, how life would have been so different if I had chosen another gentler path! I spent much of the last 4 years in my job being angry at coworkers. I’m now making a sincere attempt to let it go, to see that they have fears, concerns, and needs. I hope to become a much kindler, gentler person.

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    • Sometimes I wonder if revealing the more embarrassing incidents in my life is useful, but so many people seem to share similar concerns and experiences. I would be more hesitant if I hadn’t learned so many good lessons. All we can do is try, cultivate awareness and attempt not to “rinse and repeat” too many times!

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  18. Beautifully put, thank you. Like you, I have been trying to transcend my kneejerk “what an idiot!” responses, but it takes a lot of time and patience (with myself, as well as with the other person).

    I do believe that peace begins internally: just look at Gandhi–I believe this was one of his primary principles. And no one can say he was a dreamy-eyed philosopher; dude got things done!
    Karen

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  19. This is a beautiful piece. Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy? That’s a mantra I could take. => It really takes time for us to look at ourselves, see where we have gone wrong, accept the mistakes and finally let it go. I found this so much happening when I was younger. When you grow older, you tend to become more tolerant and accepting of things. I for one learned to laugh at myself and let go and eventually say, Ok what’s next?

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    • I think learning to laugh at one’s self is a great gift, because it does make it easier to let go of those feelings that can make us very unhappy. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  20. Hi Michelle, I love your sincerity – everyone can identify with what you describe. I am linking this to my post today – Thanks!
    Tomas

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