How do you find peace?
This is a question everyone asks at one time or another. I’ve been on a personal journey to answer it since last year’s Lenten season. The 40 days of fasting and repentance opened my eyes to the fact that in almost any given moment I was unsatisfied. Not unhappy, just unsatisfied. Restless, like I wast perpetually missing something. And I unknowingly tried so many ways to settle my restlessness, but always to no avail. When my mind wandered I would check out on social media, or grab some junk food, or go buy something, or reorganize the books on my bookshelf. Anything to avoid being fully present in the moment as it existed.
When I came home from the office I would often bring my restlessness with me, mostly because I felt like I had accomplished so little at work and needed to get something done. So at work my mind was restless, then at home my mind was restless because I spent the day in restlessness at work!
During Lent last year I gave up meat, which forced me to be very intentional about what I ate. I couldn’t just “grab something” whenever an urge hit. I began to notice that by forcing myself to think about what I was eating, my mind was much more focused on what needed to get done. Since food was no longer an escape, somehow that helped my mind be satisfied with the moment. And when I was able to be satisfied, the other vices began losing their appeal, and eventually I was rarely looking for an escape.
Robert Pirsig refers to three levels of understanding in our search for peace: Physical, Mental, and Value. THIS IS THE FIRST THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our physical behavior (like giving up meat for 40 days) influences our Mental state, which then creates a “Value Quietness” in which “one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, and that seems the hardest of all.”*
Once I realized this, I was forced to ask: “But what was I escaping from?” And that’s where the real journey begins. We fall into the trap of thinking we have no peace because our environment is not peaceful. And, to be sure, we ought to intentionally work toward a peaceful environment. We are a loud, busy, multi-tasking people who rarely stop for the sake of being present. Environment does play a part, but it’s only a small part. But simply removing the thing causing distress doesn’t get at the heart of the problem itself; namely the question Why does that stress me out?
I have a friend who is a foster/adoptive dad with a large family. He once told me that shoes on the stairs causes him great distress. As he kept talking he began to acknowledge that the location of the shoes wasn’t the problem, but rather the disrespect he felt as a father by his kids not putting things where they belong.
And that’s where his journey toward peace must begin.
THIS IS THE SECOND THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing our environment is not necessarily bad, and can sometimes solve the problem. But more often than not, what is really needed is not a change of environment, but a change of Self, because there’s only so much control we have over our environment. Unfortunately, changing the environment is always easier than changing our Self. As Martin Luther once wrote: “The Self dies hard.”
BEGIN TO CHANGE YOUR SELF WITH THREE QUESTIONS
THIS IS THE THIRD THING I’M LEARNING ABOUT PEACE: Changing your Self is never complete; it requires time and maintenance. It also requires intentionality and a recognition of restlessness when it occurs. For example, I was at my 12-year-old son’s basketball game recently. It was a close game and came down to the final shot. My son’s team got the ball off a missed free throw and immediately called time out. They had 7 seconds to move down the court and get a shot off. I try not to be that obnoxious parent at my kids’ sporting events, but sometimes I get outside of myself and a little too wrapped up in the game. That was the case on this particular night. I just wanted them to win so bad!
So, during the time out, while all the players were off the court, I actually paused and asked myself three questions:
Will I be at peace if they win?
Will I be at peace if they lose?
What must I do to have the same peace either way?
This, for me, has become the central focus. I want the same peace if my son’s team loses as I would have if they won, and I want to intentionally work to maintain it. The work of maintaining peace starts with recognizing how little control we have at any given moment.
As a spectator – not a coach, nor a ref, nor a player – I had no control over any aspect of that game. If my peace were contingent upon my environment, then I would have been fighting a losing battle because it was completely out of my hands. And that’s the case for most of life; life is imposed on us more than we impose ourselves upon it. Loosening our grip in moments like a 12-year-old boy’s basketball game reminds us of this fact, and leads us toward a cultivated sense of peace.
Whether it’s a basketball game, a work situation, family life, marriage, church, school, community, neighbors, weekend getaways…we are always given the opportunity to ask:
Will I be at peace if A happens?
Will I be at peace if B happens?
What must I do to have the same peace either way?
Peace is cultivated, not grasped. Nurtured, not achieved. Peace is maintained. And maintenance is more of an art form than a science. It involves routine and structure, but great perspective is also required. For me personally, I’ve found a few things to be helpful in my effort to maintain peace:
- Wake Up Early – Obviously this isn’t going to work for everybody, but waking up before our kids** is the first step toward starting the day in peace for me. I typically wake up around 5:00, then go to our living room and practice a series of yoga stretches and poses, followed by some silent meditation in the dark. I spend about 5-10 minutes being as aware of my surroundings as possible. Some call this mindfulness. The discovery of mindfulness has been an extraordinary gift to me in my search for peace. Usually, though, at that time of morning the only thing to be mindful of is our snoring dog on the couch beside me. But these few moments of waking up peacefully set the tone for my whole day.
- Guided Prayer – I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director for the better part of a year now. He’s a retired Catholic priest named Father Bob. We meet most Wednesday’s at the Little Rock diocese where he and a few other retired priests now live. Each week he asks about my prayer time from the week before, then gives me some thoughts and scriptures to guide my prayer for the coming week. I’ve also begun using a prayer book. I’ve settled on The Book of Common Prayer. It provides a daily prayer structure that begins with ancient scriptures and liturgical readings. That way by the time I get around to praying for myself, my prayer is shaped by scripture and by spiritual mothers and fathers so that my personal prayer finds context in the great tradition of our faith.
- Deep Prayer Getaways – Here in Little Rock we are blessed with the Arkansas House of Prayer, a beautiful sanctuary on a hillside west of town. It’s on the grounds of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which is also a beautiful sight. I try to spend a couple of hours on Tuesday’s at AHOP in what I’ve begun calling “Deep Prayer.” That is, a time of deep and focused interaction with Jesus, guided by scripture and liturgies and my own imagination (imagination in prayer is something I hope to write on soon). I also recently attended my first 3-day silent guided prayer retreat at St. Scholastica monastery in Fort Smith, AR. The sisters at St. Scholastica provided wonderful direction, and I was silent for three days, spending at least four hours per day in focused prayer, and the rest in companionship with Jesus. If you ever have a chance to participate in a guided silent retreat, I highly encourage you to take it.
Yesterday I started working on a space in the woods behind our house for an outdoor contemplative prayer space where I plan to spend my mornings once spring arrives. The hill on which our house sits backs up to the Arkansas river and provides incredible views of the sunrise each morning. So when everything thaws and life starts to bloom, I plan to cultivate peace in the nature of our own backyard.
We plan to move out of our current house in the next 18-24 months, and the thought occurred to me as I was lugging rocks through the trees that in only a few months I won’t have access to that space. But that’s the beauty of cultivating peace; you begin to realize that it’s not about a particular place or a particular space or even a particular time – peace is cultivated where you are, when you are, with what you have. In my case, I currently have access to a beautiful plot of woods behind our house. Perhaps our next house will be in a more urban area with only a small patch of grass out back. But peace is not contingent upon my environment, so an entirely new journey toward peace will open up as I will learn to experience it in a new place.
May that be your experience; may you see life as a perpetual journey toward the peace that Jesus offers, that you might be in a constant state of satisfaction regardless of your circumstances or environment. And may you find joy not only in the peace itself, but also in the cultivating work that you pour into it. May your yoga practices and quiet meditations and guided prayers be filled with a divine sense of work, and from that work may a beautiful harvest of peace rise up within you.
*Robert Pirsig; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values; William Morrow Modern Classics, p. 302
**Did I mention that my wife and I have eight kids? At the time of this writing they are ages 12, 9, 7, 7, 5, 4, 3, and 2. So yeah, don’t tell me you can’t do these things.