Although the Dalai Lama was probably not the first person in history to say it, he is undoubtedly the most well known in recent times. Paraphrased, what His Holiness said was this: World peace can only be attained through inner peace.
It’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? Upon just hearing the idea as it flows from the written words on the page into the voice of our minds, the simple statement feels like some morsel of ancient wisdom being reborn from an unchronicled time before geopolitical conflict. It seems like an idea that conveys a forgotten teaching; a teaching that although once lost, rings true with a familiar resonance like we’ve heard it before. It’s almost like the very thought strikes the tuning fork in the core of our being. World peace can only be attained through inner peace.
Does inner peace indeed lead to world peace? And if so, how? How exactlydoes something as complex and seemingly unattainable as world peace spring forth from something as simple as inner peace? Is a real and lasting world peace even attainable? Or is it just a pie-in-the-sky wish of some forgotten hippy generation that is now off collecting cash for their retirement accounts, while the rest of us are left with some falsely pious gesture of mentioning world peace at Christmas, or Ramadan, or Rosh Hashanah?
As you know, in business school and even in regular life, we are taught that goals aren’t real goals until we have an actionable plan that leads us to their attainment. And until that moment of having an actionable plan, goals are just dreams. So is world peace a goal or just a dream?
For me and others like me, it’s a goal, and a very realistic and attainable one at that. Coincidentally, the plan for that goal does not lie in getting leaders of conflict groups to a bargaining table in an attempt to adjust their perceived needs or ambitions. This negotiation-type approach has failed for eons. No, our path lies entirely through the process of helping leaders and all their followers attain inner peace, just as the Dalai Lama suggests. And before you scoff at the intended task of delivering a large number of people inner peace, which may seem even more impossible than getting the various conflict leaders to lay down their arms, I should probably warn you that there’s a fair bit of science in our corner that this approach is actually extremely realistic. And so if you are unfamiliar with the exact route of how inner peace is attainable, and how that then leads to world peace, if you will indulge me, I will explain in both scientific and philosophical terms how the idea moves from dream, through goal, into a global reality in the short span of this article. We will first start with some neuroscience, pass through some key points connected with emotional intelligence and how our brains process emotions, and then conclude with an actionable plan of how we can use this information to attain a lasting world peace by changing the face of humanity itself. And it is at that point, that we will then understand how spreading inner peace is the most important activity any of us could ever engage in.
The reason conflict arises in the first place, regardless of whether its a shoving match on a playground or an intercontinental ballistic missile war between nations, starts with how we as humans work. Specifically, it starts with how our brains work. Whether you believe God designed us this way, or whether you believe that evolution is the driving force that led us to this very moment (or maybe even a mix of the two), it’s a simple fact that the governing influence within our bodies is that of survival. Biologists use words like “biological imperative” and “homeostasis” to explain how our cells work together to create our main vessel of humanness (our bodies), and how these cells’ main governing influence is that of perpetuation of cellular existence and the prolonged existence of the larger organism (us). They explain how our cells take individual and group actions to keep things humming along into tomorrow, taking dramatic action when necessary to handle any unexpected bumps in the road such as infections or injuries. And it’s in this charter of helping us to survive another day, that one of the main mechanisms in the brain designed to assist us in our survival steps into the spotlight; the limbic system.
The limbic system is the main portion of our brain that helps generate our emotions. It scans our immediate environment through our senses in the search for potential threats. It even scans our thoughts and imagination for threats. The result of the limbic system’s analysis in a large part is what catalyzes our basic emotions.
Now, our emotions are an unconscious process designed to keep us safe. When a bear walks out of the woods near us, it is the limbic system that immediately reacts, urging us into that fight or flight reaction we’ve all heard about, dumping adrenaline into our blood stream, focusing our attention to where time almost seems to stop, and allowing us to prepare to either defend ourselves, or find the quickest safest path away from the bear.
Now, our emotions are mostly a good thing. From a 50,000 foot view, the fear we experience from encountering a bear, or the anger we experience associated with a personal attack, or the sadness we experience associated with a personal loss… all these are beneficial reactions designed to help us prolong our survival over time. But in today’s more evolved world, that same emotional process that served to protect us so well even up to just a hundred years ago starts running amok when the fear reaction that prompts us to lock the door and clean the guns is triggered by the opposing political candidate getting elected into office. Or when our anger that fuels the rage to kill someone is triggered by an argument with a rival sports fan. Or when our sadness which dumps stress hormone into our system increasing our risks for cancer is triggered by our loss of a job. None of these situations are immediately life threatening. But they fire up our life defense mechanisms anyway.
Why? Well, the body is wired to defend self. That’s accepted science. What isn’t as clear however, is how that defense-of-self wiring then creates all conflict within humans and all conflict between humans. So let’s look at that.
We know that body is wired to defend self, but to better understand that phenomena, we must then ask, “okay, so what is self?” Well, our primal sense of self begins with our body and senses, which is why our body rightly generates the beneficial ‘negative’ emotions associated with threats to said body. That’s the whole flight or fight reaction we have when we spot a potential predator out in the wilderness or a careening truck heading toward us on a city street. But in our latest human form, our sense of self also starts to expand beyond the ideas of being just our bodies into our attachments of mind. And so our ‘self’ expands into an augmented sense of self, with a longer laundry list of self stuff that then gets plugged into the same defense-of-self wiring in the brain. Our augmented sense of self starts to include the things we mentally equate to our personal existence; our family, our friends, our pets, our possessions, etc.
But again, that brain process is not all bad. This basic augmented-self brain process can be seen as beneficial when it comes to standard augmented-self items such as our children, and our family and friends. Having those folks on our definition-of-self map helps our brain invoke the strong emotions that arise when those people close to us come under attack. And those emotions can indeed assist us when coming to their aid. Even having our possessions make the sense-of-self list has some evolutionary value. If we’re talking about getting angry enough to defend our food stores against a threat to our food being taken away, that emotional process has life saving implications.
But then something weird happens. In our advanced society, our defense of self mechanisms start to go into overdrive as our mental sense of self keeps evolving and growing. We start to add things like politics to our sense of self. We add religion to self. We add ideas of race and heritage to self. We even add things like our favorite sports teams, our jobs and professional positions, our and our non critical worldly possessions to our sense of self. These then of course all need defending, sometimes with deadly force if necessary. And within this natural emotional process lies the source of all human conflict. Defense of our mental attachments of self is what starts the ball rolling.
Psychologist Jim Coan at the University of Virginia all but proved this is how our emotions work when he did an experiment with an electric shock collar coupled with a brain scanning fMRI machine. He had a test subject lie down on a gurney wearing an electrode on their ankle. After a flash of light was initiated, a brief pause occurred, then the subject could be shocked on the ankle after the momentary pause. After a pattern was identified by the subject, the pause between the flash of light and the shock on the ankle provided a great opportunity for Dr. Coan to measure the brain response in the subject, who after seeing the flash of light, experienced the fear or negative anticipation of getting zapped. Flash of light. Pause. Zap. The brain scans showed activation in the portion of the brain associated with catalyzing fear.
But then Jim went one step further. He then brought in someone familiar to the subject, who the subject cared about. He had them lay down on a gurney next to the subject and had them hold hands. He then put the ankle zapper on their companion, but left the light flasher on the original subject. Then he initiated the same process. Flash of light. Pause. Zap, except this time the subject was not being zapped, rather the person they knew was being zapped. What happened? In the momentary pause, the subject still exhibited a fear response in the brain when the person they cared about was about to be zapped. So this suggests, in those subjects at least, we have emotional reactions regarding people on our self map.
But then Dr. Coan took it even one step further. He brought a stranger into the lab, and removing the person familiar to the original subject, laid the stranger down on the gurney next to the original subject. He placed the ankle zapper on the newly introduced stranger. The subject and the stranger were asked to hold hands for congruency. Then the same process started again. Flash of light. Pause. Zap, except this time it was the stranger being zapped. The outcome? Between the flash of light and the stranger getting shocked, there was no fear reaction recorded in the brain. The stranger made up no portion of the subject’s sense of self, so no emotional reaction was registered.
And this doesn’t stop with just the people we get attached to. Dr. Tiffany Barnett White at UIUC showed that emotional reactions could be generated in people who have attachments to certain brands when they are exposed to good or bad news about that brand. Have you ever seen a flame war between fan boys of two particular brands on Facebook? Now you know why those occur.
So it is pretty clear that the things we attach to in life which become a portion of our sense of self dictate our emotional reactions. And this process is what allows the whole beneficial defense-of-self system of the brain to run horribly off the rails when our sense of self grows out of control to include things like our attachment to politics, or to our religion, or to our worldly possessions, or to more frivolous things such as our likes and dislikes, our preferences over brands, our ideas of racial identity, and yes, even our attachment to our respective governments. We react emotionally to what we attach to our sense of self… even down to the most minute degree. If we are a die-hard fan of bitter dark chocolate, we can actually become insulted if someone offers us a piece of sweeter milk chocolate. “Are you kidding me? The sugar in that bar totally counteracts the antioxidant effect of the chocolate. I can’t eat that.” Our habit of eating dark chocolate, our attachment to ideas about our health, our ideas about the benefits, the taste, the texture, etc. of the darker stuff… all those things associated with our sense of self as a dark chocolate person all come under attack from someone’s friendly gesture of simply wanting to share the milk chocolate they love. How messed up is it that we can be offended by such a mind and sharing gesture? Welcome to our emotional brain.
And so how does this brain process create war? Well, if you haven’t already figured it out, it’s simple. Just put two groups of people in a different geographical area with some natural resources that are different from each other. Give them each a different political system. Give them each a different religion. And then let them grow up in societies that attach to things that are polar opposites. The one group’s simple existence will seemingly threaten the other group’s way of life. That perception will trigger the fear response, which of course triggers the requirement to defend ‘self’. And of course, if we can do that by force, and from far away as possible with missiles, so we don’t actually have to see the death part, that would be great, thanks.
Of course we will have to overlook the fact that both groups are dealing with a defense of self reflex based on their differing sense of selves. No common ground can be recognized for a good war to break out.
“They’re worshipping a different religion than mine? Who can I shoot?” It’s as juvenile as, “They’re kicking my favorite person off Dancing With the Stars? Who can I shoot?” Because it’s the SAME EXACT PROCESS in action. And don’t you dare laugh at the comparison. A man in Michigan actually shot a hole in his television when Bristol Palin was kicked off Dancing With the Stars.
And so… it is because of our emotions system run amok in our ever changing world that we find ourselves in constant conflict, both internally and globally. And as we’ve seen, the catalyst of the conflict lies squarely in the things that we attach to our definition of self, and the follow up process within our brains that is designed to continually urge us into defending that augmented self.
Dr. Matthew Lieberman did an experiment at UCLA in 2007 where he showed naming an emotion helps tame that emotion in the brain by down-regulating portions of the limbic system almost immediately. In effect, he showed we can exercise control over our emotions by looking at them consciously. From a deeper perspective, what he actually showed us is that when we create a metacognition about our emotions (a conscious thought process about the unconscious thought process that creates our emotions), we go from being on the leash of our emotions to putting our emotions on that leash for us to better control and understand them.
So our way out of the pattern of creating conflict globally is that of improving our emotional intelligence, and adjusting our collective sense of selves that our brain is wired to defend. It is at the point that we can break down individually all the items that create our personal sense of self, and look at the process in our brains that create our conflict catalyzing emotions, that we can then take control of the emotions that causes us to launch missiles and fire bullets at other people.
And it is important to note here, that simply trying to get people to change their mindful attachments to be similar to ours so that we can all defend the same thing or be on the same team… yeah… that doesn’t work. “You need to follow my religion, or my form of government, or my racial views, or my whatever…” hasn’t worked since man was invented. That’s negotiation. Forget negotiating. We need to break the system that causes our whole defense of self mess in the first place.
It has been shown through scientific study and experimentation that emotional intelligence is the most critical trait someone can have in their attempts to attaining success at almost anything. Success in business, relationships, self regulation, happiness, etc., all seem to have a huge emotional intelligence component connected with them. And now it seems that emotional intelligence is also the path to world peace.
So is it our actionable plan just to educate everyone on emotional intelligence, and we’re all good? No more wars after that? Well, kinda. But it gets a bit more complicated than it being just that simple.
I’ve recently gotten involved in a group that is spinning out of Google called the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. It is an emotional intelligence and mindfulness teaching program designed to help businesses increase their productivity and their employees’ capabilities to perform by reducing the turmoil in their minds which in turn helps them to better organize, think, complete work, and even develop leadership skills (science based). Google has been running it internally for a number of years to great success. A man named Meng Tan, Google’s “Jolly Good” Fellow is SIYLI’s cofounder and Chairman of the Board of the non-profit. He has stated his goal for this organization is to set the conditions for world peace within his lifetime. His idea is to teach emotional intelligence and mindfulness to the world’s corporations, which in turn create more emotional intelligence and mindfulness leaders and teachers, who then go out and teach EI and mindfulness to even more people, creating more enlightened leaders and teachers. And so on. This is a great and actionable plan. It does eventually lead us to the point where emotional intelligence is spread throughout the world via business channels, and as a result, we become a more peaceful global society. I’m on board with pushing this plan, and it is why I signed up to become a SIYLI instructor. However, my personal thoughts on world peace differ slightly, tho not significantly.
In my opinion, our present approach of getting world leaders to the table to attempt to negotiate peace through reason isn’t going to work. Ever. Emotions aren’t reasonable, and if we never teach people how to break the negative emotions system, we will forever be running in place on an unbreakable treadmill. For instance, even if we were to get two leaders in Israel and Palestine who agreed to end hostilities, it is only going to be a matter of time before another leader steps in to take their place… a leader who has their own set of beliefs and mind attachments that will need defending, not to mention having their own way of defending them. And so the peace will die immediately thanks to that leader’s brain justifying the preemptive action of shooting at the other side to protect their augmented self again. And then of course shooting just spreads at that point, because from the other side’s perspective, the potential threats have just turned into real threats as the bullets start flying past. And so our brains then keep us fighting. Again. Perpetually. Forever. Unless we strike at the problem at its cause. So I think our path to world peace has nothing to do with today’s leaders.
It has to do with today’s children who become tomorrow’s leaders. If we can teach tomorrow’s leaders about their brains, and about how their sense of self comes into creating their emotions (including the fear and anger required to create a war), and about the exact process their mind follows to create their turbulent emotions… especially their conflict catalyzing emotions…. as our peer reviewed published science suggests… THAT is when we have a real shot at creating world peace. Because from a global conflict perspective, it only takes having the leaders in control of their emotions to stop firing missiles. It only takes having the leaders be taught that their most primary sense of self item… is not that they are some particular nationality, or religion, or political party, or race… but that they are human… along with all other humans… and that their job in leadership isn’t to defend some government system by killing humans who bring challenge that system… it is to change the system to serve all humanity and the greater good, even if the traditional ideals of that government must be changed, and lines on a map ignored when providing food and health aid.
And so it is my thought that we start teaching the world’s children (tomorrow’s leaders) about emotional intelligence and mindfulness. Because when we start teaching our kids about what makes them fearful, and angry, and sad, and the exact process that creates the hate and fear that is the basis for all global conflict, we allow them to take back control of those contributing influences. And it is here that we can then let some science do some work for us.
First, in teaching kids to look at the process of their emotions, we allow them to invoke the Matt Lieberman UCLA effect that simply engaging in that cognitive exercise down-regulates their negative emotions so that they have better control over them. And initial results of emotional intelligence training in schools show this really works. Studies show that emotional intelligence decreases bullying incidents, raises grades, reduces antagonistic relationships, and promotes leadership. So along with training corporations about emotional intelligence, an additional step one is to teach emotional intelligence in schools worldwide. Or as worldwide as possible.
Second, we then let plasticity go to work. Plasticity is of course the phenomenon that allows the brain to do things more easily over time when you use your brain in certain ways. Just like we can get better at doing crossword puzzles over time naturally, it is also true that when we teach emotional intelligence and emotional regulation, our natural control and understanding over our emotions strengthens naturally over time also. I’ve seen first hand the dramatic effect that learning emotional intelligence can have on adults. It changes lives. Imagine how practiced our kids will be when we start teaching them about their emotional processing at a young age.
I can tell you from my own experience that, thanks to practice, I rarely experience negative emotions that last longer than just a few seconds. My existence is one of an awesome clear-mindedness that allows me to react to life without having to deal with a lot of unnecessary emotional turmoil first. A couple weeks ago I was even presented with the scenario of showing up to see my Mom at her assisted living apartment, and learning that she has now totally forgotten who I am. Though that development was a complete surprise to me, I did not have a reaction of sadness in that moment or afterward. Instead, a feeling of deep compassion and joy arose in me at that moment. The compassion was for what she must be going through, being a woman who has always prided a command over her sharp intelligence, who was now being faced with a stranger who says he is her son. What must that have been like for her? And the joy was for the opportunity that I was then presented to be that cool stranger who unexpectedly (for her) showed up to brighten her day. My point is that not one moment of self pity stole away my ability to be there for her. To serve her needs. To be totally attentive to her. Not one instant was spent dealing with whatever inner turmoil might have arisen in that moment had I not spent the last 15 years in mindfulness practice, and had not been in full control of my emotional landscape.
So am I a robot now? Devoid of all emotions? No. Emotions still arise in me. I just get to decide which ones to hold onto and use. Am I special? Absolutely not. I’m just practiced. Anyone can do the same thing. More importantly… I think everyone should do the same thing, because I think this path is our only path to world peace. It is the only approach that addresses the underlying cause of conflict; control over our human minds.
It is in looking at our minds’ machinations through meditating or other practice, that we then start to realize that… what we think and experience and all the things in our heads that we previously thought were “us”… aren’t actually us. They are illusions of us. Illusions that no longer need defending. They are just the playthings of a brain that is charged with keeping us alive another day that’s been hijacked by a more developed and more complex world. And it is at that moment of seeing the mind working from the point of an observer, seeing our emotions rise and fall as an observer, and seeing our reactions and urges from an educated observer perspective, that we then experience an expansion of our sense of self that extends past our personal mindful attachments into a space that shows us what we really are… a collective us. A human us. And it’s at that point of realizing we’re an us that we will start treating everyone in the world as an ‘us’ and not a ‘them’. In reality, there is no ‘them’. There’s only us.
Sure, sometimes we are going to be an us that is urged to become separated by our differing sense of selves. But all that means is that we’re all together in the same situation of trying to manage the same exact model that makes us all human. That’s a commonality. Not a big threatening difference. And at the moment we recognize the commonalities, any small differences become outweighed by our larger sense of self humanity, and at that moment… at that tipping point… war is done. Forever. When we all start to see through increasing our emotional intelligence and mindfulness practice what we are beyond our minds and our individual mindful attachments, we will finally be done killing our brothers and sisters.
So… we have an actionable plan. Granted, it may take a few hundred years or so to execute it and complete the process of getting everyone educated about their emotional turmoil and what inside them causes conflict and the need to defend “self”. (Should I have mentioned that earlier?) But the fact remains that if we don’t take action today, world peace will never get done. So help us take action.
Learn more about emotional intelligence. Take some classes. Teach your kids. Refer your friends. I offer a free video series at IAMSpirituality.com, Sign up for it. Learn what makes you tick and how to control that. And continue to develop your compassion and understanding for yourself and others. Be the change you wish to see in the world. We will get there eventually… if you make the effort to evolve and pass it on to those who come next. And although it may take some time. It is that simple. You can and will change the world, simply by changing yourself. And as we spread inner peace, we will eventually attain a permanent and lasting world peace.
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