Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Walter Mason on inner peace

What a treat! Here is your Universal Heart Book Club co-host, Walter Mason,
speaking so honestly and with such typical good humour about that most vital issue: peace in our hearts and lives. Do share your thoughts and comments below.

Walter writes: I was always rather keen on peace. I remember spending hours at a peace rally and then an extra 20 minutes at the end having a screaming argument with a man who’d parked us in. And blissing out at a candlelight vigil only to spend the bus ride home running through an angry and stinging argument in my head – and argument, incidentally, that never actually occurred. It’s just that I was furious with the person and wanted to get some burning put downs and one liners out in my own personal mental space.

I was a member of Amnesty and I’d roll my eyes and sigh audibly in frustration at the person in front of me taking too long to extract money at the ATM. I could argue peace for hours, and I often did, but my mind and heart were far from peaceful. And one day it occurred to me that perhaps the outer expressions of a desire for peace might also find some kind of more personal expression. I think it was shortly after I punched a laptop computer because the disc drive wouldn’t open quickly enough.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that: “As we cultivate peace and happiness in ourselves, we also nourish peace and happiness in those we love.” As a grumpy, impatient, judgemental and unforgiving person I was not contributing my own personal quotient of peace to the world; far from it. I expected others to behave peacefully in grand circumstances but, when faced with small things, I figured it was ok to let off a little steam occasionally. Except it wasn’t occasionally. It was a way of life, an habitual response that defined who I was and how others saw me.

Thich Nhat Hanh
So I decided to change. And of course, it was Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings that helped me to make this change, principally his moast-loved book Peace is Every Step. I remember reading while touring the Buddhist ruins of Sukhothai in Thailand, a beautifully peaceful spot. I would sit down at the feet of  a vast standing Buddha and be shaken to the core by Thich Nhat Hanh's simplicity and profound truth.

I must make the effort to be peace: to nourish peace and happiness in myself so that I may be a source of those qualities for others. You might be sad to hear that I have yet to approach perfection with this. Only yesterday I found myself bickering and finding fault with someone I loved, choosing to create a huge fuss over, wait for it...an esky that  hadn’t been cleaned properly. Have you noticed that it’s always the big things that cause these blow ups? I chose to make two people miserable over something that didn’t matter at all.

The academic and popular exponent of meditation Herbert Benson urges people to stop trying so hard when it comes to cultivating inner peace. Sometimes the strain of trying to be peaceful can get us all hot and bothered, even angry. Instead, Benson says we simply need to sit with the word: "Peace...one...peace....two......”  and see where it takes us. We have to make room for peace in our lives – it has to be allowed in. We cannot force it. Benson's book The Break-Out Principle is another that has had a profound effect on me, encouraging me to believe that I can change my mental patterns through meditation to reflect a more peaceful state of being.

Some people say that by making the decision to create a peaceful life at the most basic, small, level you are abrogating responsibility. I think that, on the contrary, acknowledging your role in being a peaceful person is essential to the creation of a peaceful society. It is, in fact, the complete acceptance of responsibility. If we are to love one another, it had better start with me.

That is why it is good, sometimes, to come out of the closet as someone who is to be held to higher standards of personal peacefulness. If you are hanging that peace sign on your rear view mirror you’d better expect to be scolded if you start screaming at the person who cut you off in constant traffic. Spiritual cultivation must take place in public as well as in private. We prove the measure of our peacefulness in the way we communicate with others, the way we treat those closest to us as well as those furthest away from us in the geographic or ideological divide.

I believe there is a place within us of pure peace. No matter how tormented our lives are, no matter how violent or adverse our conditions, there is a place of refuge always available to us, and it is in our hearts. In theistic traditions this is soul consciousness: awareness of the divine within. In Mahayana Buddhism it is called Buddha Nature, and Ram Dass writes that spiritual people greet one another they "honor the place of love, of light, of truth, of peace." Ram Dass is himself a great exemplar of honest peacefulness in teaching and being, and my late-life dicovery of him and his writing has been a true delight. For peacemakers I can particularly recommend one of his more recent books, Be Love Now

Choosing the spiritual life and the spiritual approach to peace is not solipsism and it is not resignation. That great Catholic convert and monk Thomas Merton referred to the spiritual life as “a matter of keeping awake.” The cultivation of personal peace makes us more alert to life’s injustices, not less. We realise that we can no longer abandon things or leave them to chance – we recognise our own important place in the scheme of things and we embrace it with enthusiasm and joy. To learn more about how Buddhism, and encounters with Buddhist monks, changed Thomas Merton's outlook, I would recommend a fascinating book called Merton & Buddhism, part of the Fons Vitae Merton Series.

As for me? I seek to be truly awake, not just to the faults of others but to my own contribution to discord. Better still, and far more truthfully, I seek to be truly awake to myself: a being and evolving instrument of harmony, happiness and peace.

Walter Mason's newest book is Destination Cambodia. You can enjoy seeing Walter give this talk which was recorded at the monthly interfaith, spiritually inclusive services held each month at Pitt Street (264) Uniting Church, Sydney. These are led by Dr Stephanie Dowrick and everyone is welcome. Third Sundays, 3pm.  To purchase any of the books Walter mentions, or any others, please consider using our bookstore links. And your comments are always welcome.

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