Seeking Peace: Doing More of What Doesn’t Work, Doesn’t Work

I feel sick this week. Sickened by the acts of terror in Paris and sickened by the call in my country and others to respond to these attacks with more terror, more violence, more prejudice, more hate. How will we ever find a way out of these endless cycles of hatred and violence?

Image by Happychan. Flickr Creative Commons copyright

Image by Happychan. Flickr Creative Commons copyright

As a psychiatrist, I commonly see clients stuck in a cycle of suffering, trying to fix their difficult situations by doing more and more and more of whatever approach is not working. For example, you see unhappy couples, repeating the same argument over and over, yelling louder and louder, doing what is familiar in the hopes they will get a different result this time.

One of the jobs of the psychotherapist is to point out that following the same pattern in the same way never changes the outcome. If you do the same thing, you get the same result. The therapist has to help them try something different; they have to change the pattern if they want to change the result. I commonly use mindfulness-based interventions to help clients become aware of the ways they are stuck and develop a new approach to their problem.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, I can’t help but think about this phenomenon every time I hear someone advocating for rushing to war or blocking the settlement of refugees. I recognize this as the same pattern I see in my office. Violence and aggression hasn’t accomplished much yet, so let’s try it some more. Of course if we do more of the same, we will get the same result; if we only respond with violence we will simply foment more hatred, more terrorism. We need a mindfulness-based world therapist to help us change this insane pattern.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” Backing away from the impulse for more violent reprisals and turning instead towards peaceful solutions is going to require that we all become our best selves. To turn towards peace we will have to balance fear with reason, and insist that our leaders do the same.

The best tool in my personal tool chest for developing this steadiness of mind is my mindfulness meditation practice. My meditation practice helps me see fear and worry without being overwhelmed by them. It helps me understand when my actions cause suffering and when they decrease suffering. Importantly, my practice helps me see how connected I am to every other living being, recognizing we all wish for safety, security, health and happiness. It becomes impossible to wish these gifts for myself without also wishing them for all.

Is it just insane naiveté to think that those of us drawn to this practice can make a difference in the world? I like to imagine that if we all work together, developing our own wisdom and compassion, and doing our best to share these qualities with others, then these gifts will spread, in an ever-widening circle that may someday surround the globe. I for one am willing to try. Are you in?