Today, September 21, the world celebrates the International Day of Peace—a day declared by the United Nations in 1981, asking humanity to commit to peace. On this day, we press pause on our disagreements, set down our weapons, and join together as one human race.
This year, however, Peace Day feels particularly far-fetched, especially in the United States. While in the midst of a debilitating global pandemic, citizens have turned on each other. We’re seeing videos of people harming their fellow Americans in our nation’s cities. It’s commonplace to see brutality toward Black lives, protesters, and police officers, and we’ve seen local businesses burn to the ground.
This violence can be found beyond our streets. Every day, I see clear evidence of fear and anger on social media platforms. I have friends on both sides of the political aisle, and I can feel my own agitation arise when someone shares a post that contradicts my personal values. When I scroll down and read the comments, I’m appalled by the vitriolic words volleyed between opposing sides.
In the midst of this violence, disrespect, and utter disregard of humanity, is it possible to find peace?
I believe it is. We can start small with just a moment of peace and let that be the fuel for a peaceful day, and, eventually, a peaceful society and world.
Creating a Peaceful Moment
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the author of Full Catastrophe Living and creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction, writes that mindfulness can help us be “at peace with things as they are, moment by moment.”
In other words, you can achieve peace in this moment—and this one and this one. By taking small and simple actions throughout the day, you can find peace. Try these two simple techniques for creating peaceful moments.
1. Take Slow, Deep Breaths
If you’ve ever attended yoga class, you’ve probably practiced pranayama, or yogic breathing. Have you noticed that those deep slow breaths help you feel calm and centered?
Research indicates that slow breathing techniques can lessen anxiety and feelings of everyday stress by engaging the parasympathetic nervous systems (which is the opposite of our “fight or flight” response). The parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us “rest and digest” and “tend and befriend,” calms the body and slows the heart rate.
One technique you can use for finding peace in the moment is the 4-7-8 breathing method, developed by alternative medicine expert, Dr. Andrew Weil:
- Start by opening the mouth and exhaling the air out of your lungs, making the sound “whoosh.”
- Inhale slowly, counting to four in your mind, and fill your lungs to capacity
- Hold your breath for seven counts.
- Exhale slowly out of your mouth, counting to eight in the mind, and make the “whoosh” sound with the exhale.
2. Come to Your Senses
You can also engage your senses to help you feel grounded and peaceful. Focus on the object of attention—something you see, hear, smell, feel, or taste—and when you notice your mind wandering, gently usher it back to that anchor.
Here are a few mindfulness exercises that involve the senses:
- Press your thumb into each fingertip on your hand, one at a time. Rub them in a circular motion and play with the pressure to see if you can notice the ridges of your fingers.
- Close your eyes and notice the sounds you hear. First pick the sound farthest away from you, and tune into that sound for a minute. Then notice a sound nearby. You can also focus on the sound of your own breath.
- Look closely at an object for a minute or two, noticing colors, shapes, textures, and any movement.
- Close your eyes and inhale deeply to notice what you smell. This works well if you’re in nature, cooking dinner, or even folding clean clothes.
- Take a bite of your favorite food or sip your favorite beverage, and notice what you taste. Tune into that taste in your mouth until you swallow. It might help to close your eyes in order to fully engage with your sense of taste.
You can sign up for Compassion It’s 30-Day Challenge to help you prioritize mindfulness. By intentionally creating moments of present moment awareness throughout your day, you can create inner peace to support you during this uncertain time.
Creating a Peaceful Day
Now that you’ve created a moment of peace, can you string together enough moments to create a peaceful day? Imagine how that might feel.
I have one simple suggestion for creating a single day of peace: Unplug.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that technology allows me to connect to others, particularly during this isolating pandemic. I’m grateful that I can video chat with my aging mom who lives across the country from me, and I’m glad my friends and I have stayed in touch even though we can’t spend time together in person.
Nonetheless, technology bombards us with a barrage of addictive notifications, “likes,” and comments. It’s easy to become mindless and lose any inner peace I might have achieved during my moments of mindfulness. For example, I might look at my phone to check the clock, and find I’ve lost 20 minutes because I’ve been sucked into an Instagram story sinkhole.
Why not experiment with a day untethered from technology? You may find that disconnecting for a day helps you feel more connected. By setting aside your devices, you can offer your full attention to yourself as well as your family members, roommates, and neighbors.
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend several week-long meditation retreats over the years, so I’ve experienced, firsthand, the benefits of disconnecting from technology. These retreats left me feeling connected to nature, connected to humanity, and connected to myself.
Luckily, you don’t need a formal retreat to disconnect from technology. It’s possible to take a day off from technology and take a retreat from the comfort of your own home.
Here are some steps for a tech-free day:
- Plan ahead and pick a day on the calendar that doesn’t coincide with a work deadline or an emotionally charged anniversary.
- Give a heads up to your close friends and family, and provide them with contact information for someone who can contact you if there’s an emergency.
- Wake up and turn off all of your electronic devices. It might be helpful to hide them in a cabinet or under your bed so that you’re not tempted by them.
- Take time to meditate, practice yoga, exercise, journal, or walk.
- Weave in moments of mindfulness as often as possible. Practice mindfulness as you wash your hands, eat, wash dishes, and take a stroll.
- Notice the pull to turn on your phone or computer, but don’t beat yourself up about it. That’s normal.
Creating a Peaceful Society
As I mentioned earlier, society seems far from peaceful. It might seem impossible to move our society forward, but I believe we can.
I appreciate the idea of looking upstream, a phrase I heard used by a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center Dan Heath, the author of Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. He discussed this idea while he was interviewed by actor Dax Shepard on the podcast “Armchair Expert.” In a nutshell, he posits that we must first discover where the roots of the problems lie. We can fix the root in order to prevent the larger issues that present themselves later, or “downstream.”
For example, let’s say we intend to end crime. One common approach is to punish anyone who commits a crime. If it’s a violent crime, we would incarcerate the person for many years, even until their death, so they pay for their actions. One might think that this method certainly prevents people from committing violent crimes because they wouldn’t want to end up in correctional institutions. We know all too well that this approach doesn’t end crime.
If we take an upstream approach, we would ask ourselves, “What causes people to commit crimes in the first place?” If our society solved for the root of the problem, it would eradicate poverty, improve inadequate schools, provide healthcare, and take care of individuals with mental illnesses.
To create this peaceful society, we have to keep in mind that individuals are products of larger systems. In order to make real and lasting change, we need to create systems that prioritize compassion. When these compassionate systems heal the root of the problems upstream, they will prevent the downstream outcomes.
Creating a Peaceful World
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he said, “The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”
Nearly five decades later, our world continues to advance technologically, and we also continue to wage war on each other. We are far from “living together as brothers.”
Early in the pandemic, I hoped a fight against COVID-19 might bring the nations of our world together. We could see ourselves as part of the same “team” with a common enemy. I even saw glimpses of unity when the world embraced Italy during its early fight against the virus. It didn’t take long for that theory to evaporate, though, as the nations of our world retreated to their corners.
Instead of bonding over a common enemy, we need to instead recognize the common thread we all share. We are all human beings, and we all belong to the same human team. If we continue to allow ourselves to be separate from one another because of nationality, religion, race, gender, and class, we can never reach peace.
In King’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he presents nonviolence as the blueprint for ending racial injustice, poverty, and war. It’s high time we heed his advice, “We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.”
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