Peace In Our Heart

Christmas, 2006

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And once we have the condition of peace and joy in us, we can afford to be in any situation. Even in the situation of hell, we will be able to contribute our peace and serenity. The most important thing is for each of us to have some freedom in our heart, some stability in our heart, some peace in our heart. Only then will we be able to relieve the suffering around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of Peace.

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you:
Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

John 14: 27

What did Jesus mean - "Not as the world giveth"? Did Thich Nhat Hanh mean the same thing when he said, "The most important thing is for each of us to have... some peace in our heart"?

"In our heart" was not then, and is not now, where the people in authority were looking for peace. In Jesus's time the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace") was in effect. Beginning in 27 B.C.E., the reign of the Emperor Augustus brought an enforced "peace" to the territories under Roman control, a "peace" enforced at the tip of the Roman spears. Any subjects of the empire who offered resistance were forcibly subdued, such as Britain's Queen Boadicea and thousands of her followers.

Those same enforcers filled Judea, shutting down rebellions such as that of the Zealots before they caused civil disruption. They would have looked harshly at anyone whose supporters claimed they were following a King. Jesus knew the danger he faced, and he knew he would soon be taken from his disciples as he spoke of "leaving" peace with them.

Can we draw any parallels to the twenty-first century? "Peace" in the countries we claim to support means a continuing military presence, producing resentment in the citizens of these occupied lands. There is no peace in the hearts of those who are conditioned to hate the people they see as their oppressors. Rather than gratitude, they develop a desire for revenge which may haunt us for years to come.

For now, the legions of enforcement abroad and at home secure the "peace" at the points of guns and bayonets. There is ever more secrecy; ever less tolerance for dissent.

There is no more Peace on Earth than when I wrote in 2000. But there can still be peace in our hearts, in spite of terrifying circumstances.

How can this be?

Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I quoted above, is an 80 year old Zen monk and peace activist. Exiled from Vietnam, he has lived and taught in France and the United States. In his book, Peace Is Every Step, Nhat Hanh describes the components of meditation.

Conscious breathing: of course, breathing is automatic. We don't have to think of it. But when we make ourselves aware of the life process, we find peace as we take time to appreciate the gift of breath.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

We are so busy, we have lost the art of dwelling in the present moment. The word for our age is "multi-task." It's a mark of a high achiever to be able to do several things at once. When carried to extreme (eating, talking on a cell phone, and driving), multi-tasking can be life threatening! If we would learn to live in the moment, perhaps we would find our more memorable, rather than all rushing by in a blur.

Mindfulness: we can be totally aware of our surroundings and actions. The opposite of mindfulness is "going through the motions," performing our daily tasks without thinking of their significance to our lives. Mindful living can be facilitated by conscious breathing, which produces such an awareness of our own life processes.

Nhat Hanh mentions eating as a prime example of mindful behavior. Mealtime has lost its special allure in our age, as we devour fast food on the way from one appointment to the next. Even in a fine restaurant, or in the special presentation of a home cooked meal, we may fail to appreciate the labors of love which entered into the preparation of our food.

From Peace Is Every Step:

Eating a meal in mindfulness is an important practice. We turn off the TV, put down our newspaper, and work together setting the table. During these few minutes, we can be very happy. When the food is on the table and everyone is seated, we practice breathing: "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile." We can recover ourselves completely after three breaths like this. Then we make eye contact with the other persons sharing our meal, and we smile at one another.

After breathing and smiling, we look down at the food in a way that allows the food to become real. This food reveals our connection with the earth...We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread! Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.

I don't know about you, but I have a long way to go before I reach the goal of mindful eating. Still, I do believe it will work to make me more at peace with my place in the world.

Mindful living can be practiced in many other daily situations. Perhaps the second great opportunity for mindfulness can be found in taking a walk. While walking, we can be aware of our breathing and of our surroundings. It's possible to meditate while walking slowly - the journey, rather than the destination, is the object of the walk. Hence, peace can truly be in every step. As we learn to be mindful of ourselves and our surroundings, we develop a peaceful spirit which is evident to others.

I will mention two other aspects of our lives which can help bring peace to us. They are simplification and sense of place.

Living a simpler life means so much more than a silly television show placing rich young urban women in a rural environment. It means living in ways that do not produce stress and anxiety. Living within our means is a great stress reducer. On the other hand, so many persons today buy as large and expensive a house as they possibly can, leaving themselves with huge interest payments on their loan. They become "house poor" with all their investments tied up in this one structure. One might also be "car poor," "clothing poor," "vacation poor," and so forth. Credit card debt mounts and bankruptcy may threaten. How stressful is this?

We can get by with less than we thought. That doesn't mean we should be miserly or too frugal, but living within our means can save us from much worry.

Establishing a sense of place means knowing our role in the universe. This is particularly hard when we are faced with the loss of one we love. I must remind myself that we – Babe, Margaux, me, all of us – are not outside observers of this world. We are participants in the drama of life, each playing a part. Much of life involves learning that part and being content with it. We have all done the "why me" complaints, but it's so nonproductive. When we realize: this is the hand I've been dealt, we can play the game to our best abilities.

As I look at the life of Jesus, I think it's clear that he practiced a simpler life experience and was very aware of his sense of place. What a contrast his life was to the mansions and wealth of today's religious empire builders.

I wish I could tell you I'm expertly practicing all these pathways to peace. I am, at least, aware of their helpfulness, and making the attempt.

So, peace to you and yours this season of Christmas 2006. May you find peace beyond your circumstances, living each day mindful of the great gift of life. Look to others who have not been so blessed. Simplify your life so you will have resources to share with them. As we practice love, we experience peace.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4: 4-8