On a recent trip home from Amsterdam (my former home) to Washington DC (my current home) I reflected on the fact that it has now been 10 years since I moved back to the States. Coming back to the US was a kind of “mission” for me. I was settled in Amsterdam, after 17 years of building a satisfying life. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about life outside of the US and to see how a society (the Netherlands) can co-exist relatively peacefully – less crime, less violence, less poverty, healthier, well educated – based on different values and norms from what I was exposed to as a boy growing up in NYC (my first home).
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had a huge impact on me; President Bush’s speech declaring war set things in motion in my life. From years of study in peaceful philosophies of martial arts, Taoism and Buddhism, I couldn’t find it in me to accept Bush’s message to the world, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Such an approach would not solve world problems or create lasting peace. I already understood that conflict arises from such polarized thinking – “I’m right, you are wrong”; “I’m good, you are bad”; “I’m the victim, you are the perpetrator”. Not only does this kind of thinking create separation, it also unconsciously gives the victim – the supposed good, righteous one – permission to do harmful things to others.
If each individual took true responsibility for his own actions, words and thoughts, and if he or she made an effort to connect with others with respect and understanding, new solutions to old problems would have a chance to emerge. Such a shift would require courage and patience and a willingness to accept that the way you see the world is not the way the world is. As I witnessed another launch into a large-scale war, I asked myself what I could do to foster practices connected to reconciliation and a recognition of local and global interdependence. These very thoughts, and my sincere intention to be of benefit, compelled my move back to the States.
I remember that particular flight well: I looked out the window at a dark clear night. We were somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. The pilot interrupted my thoughts with an announcement from the cockpit: “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to inform you that we have just entered United States air space and that means that it is against the law for groups of people to gather anywhere in the plane.” His words shocked me. Then I felt anger. How could this make sense? On one side of an international borderline, people could gather in the airplane, and then, a mile later, gathering in groups was against the law. I felt that we had left a more globally aware European paradigm and had entered into the American paradigm of suspicion, fear and defensiveness.
I engaged my practices of grounding and focus to regulate my reactivity. When I was back in balance, I found a more generous perspective. I remembered the words I use to start all my trainings and lectures: My truth does not equal the truth! With this insight, a clear sense of knowing and purpose came over me. THIS understanding provides an antidote to most of our conflicts and suffering. It was not my place to judge someone’s truths. Better to observe. I saw nothing to support the notion that my truths were better or more righteous than someone else’s. In short, I took my own advice from one particular lecture of mine: That the need to be right could be sabotaging the mission.
At these lectures, I sometimes get a comment like this: “But Joe, I am right. The planet is in big trouble.” I reply by suggesting that it’s not a question of right or wrong, but more of how you communicate your truth so that it can lead to lasting change.Each person perceives a situation from his or her own perspective, and this perspective is the result of factors, including point of view, culture, upbringing, and of course, which news network he or she may choose to watch.
Arguments, fights, wars and conflicts start when an individual, or a group of people, say that THEIR perspective on the situation is THE truth, not just THEIR truth. Conflicts around the world arise when those on the fringes hold and act from the most extreme, fundamentalist, polarized viewpoints. To provoke conflict one need do nothing more than stoke the fear and insecurities of others. Their “opponents” will find themselves backed into corners where they can no longer open their hearts to those who are different. The ability to see nuances and different layers of truth in any given circumstance will become elusive.
For instance, while in Amsterdam, I was sitting with a good friend whom I would describe as a very intelligent, peaceful, compassionate person. During our conversation, he said, “Oh, I will never come and visit you in the US. I’m boycotting the US. It is so corrupt and causing so much pain in the world.” I was shocked. He used to like visiting the States. He always had his concerns about US policy around the world, but his comment revealed that he had lost the sight of subtler shades of truth. I asked him, carefully, “Do you believe it’s all Americans who are corrupt and causing havoc?” He answered, “It doesn’t matter.”
He had become stuck in polarized thinking. I said, “There is so much good that has come from the US and at the moment there is so, so many who are moving the country and the world forward toward more evolved ways of being. We even have a congressman, Tim Ryan, who wrote a book on Mindfulness! Can you see that it is not ALL Americans, but the power of the extremists and the apathy of the majority that is causing the current conflicts?” But he wouldn’t go there – he wouldn’t see any shades of gray within the black and white.
I saw this habit of polarization clearly during my time leading women’s rights organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and with my time in Israel. I saw the suffering that both the Palestinians and the Israelis caused by the unyielding need for both parties to be right, to identify as victim and to see the other as bad. I had no intention to go to this region to address the larger cultural issues. Instead, my plan was to work with these organizations and help them to see how such patterns play out on an interpersonal level. It didn’t take them long to see that much of their frustrations and challenges with working together had to do with the quick, reactive habits of needing to defend their point and look outside of themselves for the problem, as opposed to seeing that perhaps one cause for their suffering came from within themselves. Every situation has many shades of truth.
When participants came to understand this core truth, they could open their hearts further to those around them; this shift helped them return to cooperative, creative, and productive ways of working. By the second day of the training, several participants approached me to share that they had applied these principles and practices of Respectful Confrontation with their families the evening before, and that they saw positive results – less yelling, more listening, and more connection. The idea that there are more than two truths in any given situation inspired them with hope that perhaps new solutions could eventually emerge where there has only been gridlock in the past.
I had the honor of working with Ben, a US combat vet living with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury). He was part of a group of veterans who came to Boulder Crest Retreat Center during a program I co-developed with skilled and dedicated practitioners, called WARRIOR PATHH, a week-long experience that integrates alternative healing methods into practices aimed at addressing PTSD, depression, and issues effecting veterans and their families.
During this retreat, I introduced the principle that “my truth does not equal the truth“ and asked them what they thought. Ben said that he was glad I said that, because he has his own beliefs that are different from my more Eastern approach to the world. He mentioned that he is a devout Catholic, and while he would be open to listening and trying out what I had to offer, he had his own “truths” about things. He then shared that one of his truths is that he believes that all Muslims are bad and that he still wants to kill them all. At first I was thrown – his comment caused my reactive behavior of judgment, fear and closing my heart. Once again I used my practices and skills to get back to balance and an open heart. I knew that Ben was a good man with a big heart. I was, of course, grateful for his honesty – this is what I encourage in my trainings. And I saw this as a learning opportunity for me!
Ben did an amazing job during the retreat of re-discovering his joy and creativity and his deep love for his family and his faith. I spoke with him about two months after the retreat and he shared with me: “I’m doing great. I can communicate with my doctors and my family better; I’m excited about the future. I even see that there are beautiful things in all religions. The problems come from the extremists in all religions, even Christianity. I can even see that there are some good things in Islam.” I was stunned. I reminded him about what he said during our first session in the retreat, and he said, “I know, so much is changing in me.”
I’m not intimating that Ben’s growth is exclusively due to my teachings; he has been getting so much good support from so many. But I do see how this simple concept can be effective in overcoming struggles within one’s self, with others and even within society.
On the airplane, I had time to contemplate my own rigid, polarized thinking where I’ve lost the ability to see the different shades and lump many people into a single stereotype. A dear person in my life recently confronted me about my unconscious one-sided viewpoints about the Israel/Palestine conflict when we were discussing my time in the region. I could ONLY see the oppression of the Palestinians. For instance, I could feel the depth of pain and fear when driving back and forth through the checkpoints from Jerusalem to Ramallah – I felt my own fear, frustration and sorrow elevate when I observed very young Israeli soldiers with machine guns humiliating older Palestinian men and women simply because they can, or when I was asked to step out of the car, questioned and bags checked, feeling like a criminal.
While my experience was very real, I was lumping all Israelis and Palestinians into polarized opposites of Oppressor and Oppressed. But I remembered my friend in Holland and considered how I needed to seek out some gray in the situation. When I could see the conditions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a more subtle, generous way, I remembered that the current Israeli government leans more towards extremist views which have exacerbated problems, and that there are many Israelis who are committed to reconciliation; and also that BOTH sides are using terrorist tactics and violence to persevere. Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator is not so “black or white”.
I took this line of thinking further: What is the next step when you understand that truth has many shades? My answer: COMPASSION. One simple tactic I use to help me is to replace the word “but” with “and”. For example:
- I may not agree with the policies of the more extremist members of the US government, who are causing unprecedented gridlock, or the oligarchs who have bought their governments, or the terrorists, or the religious fanatics who are using the Judeo-Christian bibles and the Quran as propaganda material to manipulate others. AND, I can see that their truth, their paradigm, has imprisoned them in a deep state of fear and desperation, and that allows me have sympathy for them. Even the most wealthy and powerful are victims of polarized thinking.
- Bullies use harm and threats as a way to manage deep anxieties and fears. They are suffering and they are crying out for help. AND, I would like to believe that I could listen to them with an open heart and learn new perspectives that could lead to deeper respect and understanding.
So, there I was, on the plane, heading back to the United States, the country where I was born and where I grew up. I am proud of this country, AND I know that there is an enormous amount of work to do. I am so grateful for what I have received: the freedoms, the opportunities. AND I am also grateful that I lived in another part of the world, studied different cultures and could learn new paradigms, new ways of seeing the world and how to co-exist on this planet. I continue to take the best of the American ‘truths” and integrate the “truths” I learned from other cultures to create my own philosophy based on personal freedom, self-actualization, equality for all people, fair distribution of wealth, non-violence, respect for the physical planet and all its beings, and a strong belief that I am only happy when others are happy as well, I can only really thrive when I empower others to thrive as well.
I seek to provide a multi-shaded perspective on long-standing beliefs and systems that remained stuck when seen from one side or the other. We don’t have to agree with one another, but reconciliation begins with allowing the other to have their own way of seeing things as a starting point. We must commit to staying engaged with respect and generosity.
The Peace Pilgrim said, “We are not going to solve our global problems until each one of us addresses our own personal psychological violence and how we are harming ourselves and those close to us.” The way to reconciliation, healing, and new solutions starts with taking responsibility for one’s actions, words, and thoughts. Then, we can share our truths and remain receptive to hearing truths of others, and subsequently, gather everyone’s perspectives, combine viewpoints and seek new solutions based on these more informed findings. Truth is not one solid thing. It is an ever-changing array of perspectives that provides the flexibility and adaptability that leads to the empowerment and inclusiveness of all involved.