Peace is Not the Answer
*Transcript of talk given by Rich Hayes at The Unitarian Universalist Church of Pittsfield, MA
on Sun. 10/26/08

Often on my way to work I drive past the church here and I always check out your message board.
I also travel with a note pad by my side and when I saw your message last month I immediately pulled over to write it down.
“Unanswered questions are far less dangerous than unquestioned answers”.

I knew I was going to use it somewhere, sometime.
Well, what better place and what more appropriate time could there be?

I regularly read a magazine called What is Enlightenment?
And one of the things that I really like about it, is that it asks questions-lots of them. In fact it asks many more than it usually answers.
And I suspect the people at WIE would be right on board with the sentiments of your bulletin board's message last month.
The magazine's well written and I learn things when I read it, and that's a good thing.

But there are also times I get annoyed as I read it, and that's also a good thing. After all, if I agreed with all of it, what would be the point of reading it?
I was thumbing through my last issue and an article written by the magazine's founder, Andrew Cohen, titled “Peace is not the answer” jumped right out at me. Peace is not the answer? You don't expect to see something like that in a spiritual magazine about enlightenment.

But maybe you should. And that was his point.

In the article Cohen tells of all the people he meets every year as he travels throughout the US and Europe giving talks and leading retreats. He says that it continually amazes him that the majority of spiritual seekers from the most affluent societies on earth- in other words, the people who usually attend his workshops- seem to be looking for one thing above everything else: Peace

But it's not world peace, though if asked they'd probably all be on board with that too. It's peace as a refuge from the stresses of their daily lives! They're seeking relief from the things that cause them pain and discomfort.

The question he's asking in his article is why so many people are looking for a way OUT of the challenge of human existence? What do we learn from that?

One of my all time favorite TV shows is “Six Feet Under”- and I always want to do a disclaimer here, to tell you all that I don't usually watch TV, which is only half true. I don't watch network TV….usually. But I do get hooked on a show occasionally. And this was one I got hooked on for the very reason that Cohen stated: the challenge of human existence. This show has it in spades. And I love the honesty, the way that life is shown, warts and all. At times it is not an easy show to watch for that very reason.

In the last episode of the series, Claire, the 20 something daughter in this very dysfunctional family-a family that finally, through -and even more importantly, despite of- all the awful things they'd gone through together and done and said to one another, had finally come out the other side and discovered the love and sense of belonging they all shared. Claire is preparing to leave and drive east to NY from the only place she's ever lived: the family home, which is also a funeral home, in sunny CA.

Claire is out in front of the house as everyone gathers to say goodbye to her from the front porch-everyone that is except her brother Nate, who died of an aneurism a few episodes earlier.

Anyway, Claire is fighting back tears as she lifts up her camera to take a picture of them all. Just as she snaps the picture, dead brother Nate, who is standing behind her and watching the whole scene, leans over and whispers in her ear “It's already gone…”

And you see her face and her eyes change as she recognizes what he just told her- it becomes a mixture of both absolute and devastating heartache, for the passage of this moment- and one of utter joy in having seen it and recognized it for what it is.

They love her, and much to her surprise, she realizes that she loves them. And the ecstatic joy and unbearable pain we see on her face is the recognition of this. It is the yin and the yang of it all. And we see that she “gets” this.

This realization did not come in a vacuum. It didn't come from fleeing the pain and the loss and all the dysfunctions.

It came about through the pain and the struggle and all the things that brought these characters face to face with themselves and their own demons.

And having slain her own dragon, Claire is rewarded with the ultimate irony: in having won, she has also lost; because it hurts so much more to say goodbye to what you love than to bid good riddance to what you don't.

But you see in Claire's face that it is worth it.

Another revelation thru TV watching came to me a few years back while watching “The AMERICAN Experience” on PBS.
It was about Bobby Kennedy. I learned how Bobby fell apart after JFK was assassinated. You see, he'd not only lost a brother that he loved and practically idolized, he lost his own sense of who he was.

So much of his life had been lived in service to his brother that it had become “Who” he was. It was his identity, and with Jack gone, that was also gone. He was lost to himself and he slipped into a deep depression that lasted for months. According to the show, Jackie, who was aware of what Bobby was going through, suggested that he read the Greek tragedies. So he does.

And in doing this he discovers a passage that resonates so deeply with him that he writes it out on a piece of scrap paper and slips into his wallet. And he carries this piece of paper with him right up until that fateful night years later in June of 1968.

This is what was written on that paper:
“And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until finally, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God….”

Today Bobby is remembered as a champion of the civil rights movement. But not many people realize that before his long dark night of the soul, back when he was Attorney General in JFK's administration, he had little interest in the plight of the Blacks and had even cautioned his brother to not get too involved, but rather let the states work it out.

But reading Aeschylus struck a spark in him, and was the beginning of his way back to public life.

And that led him on a trip through the deepest regions of the south where he witnessed the awful poverty and racism and suffering of a people. And he was able to connect to the despair that he saw there- his heart ached with it.

He recognized it, because he knew what suffering and despair was. And, although a white, Irish Catholic from a wealthy family, he was able to empathize in a way that would have been impossible had it not been for his own struggle.

And that was probably why the Black community embraced him so; they could see that what he said and where he was coming from was from the heart and soul of his very being. People who have been through terrible suffering recognize one another.

But let's get back to what Cohen was speaking to in his article. He says that the lure of an idealized spiritual nirvana of peace and harmony as a place that the spiritual seeker will arrive at is a mistaken notion. It is not a natural state, nor should it be he argues.

He sites nature and the evolutionary process as an example, and says that all evolution, including spiritual evolution, involves struggle and often cataclysm. Just look at the Big Bang!

And to quote the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth. And whether we believe it or not, we are all spiritual beings who are having a human experience.

So given all this, what are we to do? How are we to navigate the things that come along and throw our lives into turmoil?
How are we to survive when things are falling apart? Is it possible to find peace? And if it is, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Let me ask you all a question: If you knew that the mother of all storms was coming, what would you do?
You'd prepare, wouldn't you?

Same answer here. And truthfully into each life there will always be storms-in some lives more storms than others.

Peace can come to you as a result of this preparation. It can be one of the fruits of the work you do.

But Cohen cautions us not to be seduced into making it our objective, for if we do we will only be deluding our self. The peace will not last.
Cohen knows that this is what drives so many people today to run from one thing to another in this search for the holy grail of the new age, “inner peace”.

So, returning to the question: how do you prepare?

You develop a set of practices, and you use them. Consistently, whether you feel like it or not. As a matter of fact, especially if you don't feel like it! Practices like daily meditation, daily readings of spiritual or meditative or inspirational materials.

Practices like prayer, whether you believe in God or not. I personally believe that the most powerful prayer is simply “Thank you”. I suggest you find reasons to say it often throughout your day.

And by the way, it might not hurt to become willing to reconsider the idea of a Higher Power or Divine First Cause that you say thank you to.

You practice looking at yourself when someone else makes you angry, and then you ask yourself what is it about them that reminds you of yourself.

You look at the things you're afraid of and ask yourself, “why do these frighten me?”

You practice dying everyday.
You heard me right. Face your own mortality everyday.
Pretend that you have died and look back at your life.
And then ask yourself: what's really important to me?

And mostly, you do your very best to remain open and teachable.
Notice when you feel yourself “close” and try to open back up, even when it hurts.
Especially when it hurts.

You folks have been kind enough to continually invite me back here to speak, and I appreciate it. I feel as if I have been saying the same thing over and over again, and I guess I have. But the truth is that I am really a one trick pony. And this is the message I bring: That the power of forgiveness, the courage of compassion, the wisdom of acceptance, and learning to differentiate the things you can change from the ones you can't; and the courage to look deep within to see what is in there, these are the things that can lead you to peace.

Here's the deal: no one is coming to save us. It's already been done.
We are the ones we've been waiting for. Each one of you has everything you need within you to accomplish what it is you will need to accomplish in this life. Within you is so much more than you've ever imagined-it is the stuff of the universe and the stars, and it is You.

Do the work and don't be afraid of going within to look at EVERYTHING, the beauty and the ugliness, because in truth, the only thing that points up the beauty is something to contrast it against-as it is with light and dark, one cannot exist without the other. In truth it is all part of the same thing.

And through this process peace will not be the answer you're seeking. But you may find that peace will find it's way into your life as a result.
It is the result of our journey into our own darkness, and despair and all the things that may frighten or terrify us, or repulse and anger us; it's the result of having struggled and lost and failed, again and again and again, until finally one day we come to see that there is nothing more to fear because we've looked at all the things within us that have scared us silly and we are still here, and they no longer are.

And there you will find “the Peace that passes all understanding” that you may have heard tell about.
And when you discover that, you will be Home- and to paraphrase Eliot, you will know the place for the first time.

This can be true for each of us as individuals, and it can be true for us collectively as a nation, and then perhaps, even as a world.