“The Path to Peace” is a new series aimed at exploring different aspects of peace. Today, we are going to look at inner peace, a quality that we all hope to achieve. On Mother’s Day our topic will be how we live those peaceful, compassionate lives that make our mothers proud. Finally, in our third week we are going to take what I like to call the balcony view, and examine what our communities and our world might look like if we lived from a place of peace. On the fourth Sunday, we’re happy to have our friend Iraj Khodadoost from the Baha’i tradition discuss the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, on peace.
There is a story in the Taoist tradition which goes as follows. I’m taking this version of the story, and commentary on it, from Taoist author Derek Lin.
Once upon a time in ancient China the Emperor was in his study, greatly agitated. He found it hard to concentrate and so he summoned his most trusted minister and said to him:
I wish to focus on the affairs of state but my mind is agitated and unsettled when I feel like this. I need something to help me regain peace. Have the best artist in the land create a painting that has the power to calm me down; I want the theme of this painting to be ‘true tranquility’.
A few days later, the minister reported there were three artists considered the best in China. He had given them the task and they had begun to paint.
When the work was done, the Emperor went to the studio with the minister to see for himself. The first painting they saw was an image of a placid lake surrounded by beautiful mountains. It was a wonderful scene – the surface of the lake was still and calm, and the painting simply conveyed peace. The Emperor said it was beautiful.
The second painting showed magnificent mountains covered in snow. It evoked the silence in nature after a snowfall – a silence that is more than the absence of noise because snow seems to absorb all ambient sound. The Emperor said it was very beautiful as well.
They looked at the third painting which showed a raging loud waterfall. “I am sorry Your Highness,” the minister exclaimed. “I believe this artist did not understand the task. Let’s disregard this painting, we will choose from the first two.”
The Emperor stopped him and murmured, “No, look closer. This is the painting for me.” The minister was astonished and replied, “I do not understand, Your Highness. How can this painting compare to the other two in conveying peace?” The Emperor answered, saying, “The waterfall is not the most important thing in this painting; look again.”
The minister took another look at the painting, but more carefully. He saw that there was a tree next to the waterfall, and one of the branches of the tree held a nest. A bird was asleep inside that nest.
The Emperor said, “See how the bird is able to relax and rest even though the deafening torrent is so close to it. It has such a profound quietness within that external conditions have no power to irritate or disturb. Now that is the essence of true tranquility!”
True tranquility, true peace, is the ability to remain calm and at peace while the torrent swirls around us. True inner peace is when we can retain our center no matter what is happening around us. We carry it with us, instead of looking for the world to hand it to us.
Digging A Little Deeper
So Derek Lin talks about the story a little more. He says it’s very possible to take the above point of the story and leave it at that. However, it’s also possible to dig a little deeper into the meaning of the story.
The first painting represents a calm lake. However, Lin suggests that this is really a superficial kind of tranquility. The surface of the lake may be still, but underneath there are currents, movement, and all kinds of living activity. The lake looks undisturbed, but its appearance is more peaceful than the water actually is.
The painting of the snow also represents an environment of peace. It embodies an air of tranquility, a place we contemplate to find serenity outside ourselves. Yet, being in a place of stillness, even extraordinary quietude such as that represented in the painting, does not guarantee us peace inside.
So the Emperor turned to the third depiction of the waterfall and the sleeping bird in the nest. This picture represents true tranquility, because it shows us that when we have a center of peace, it doesn’t matter what disruptions or chaos circle around us. Lin writes, “this was what the Emperor actually needed—not so much a tranquil environment, but a tranquil heart.”
Recalling that bird is a useful image when we find ourselves in times of high stress. We realize that maintaining peace in our heart is not about running away to a remote place where no one bothers us. Rather it is about the serenity we carry within, no matter what our outside circumstances.
Don’t our lives give us so many opportunities to practice? At my house, we have four small dogs, two of whom are yappy little pooches. They bark at anything and nothing – a leaf blowing by, a bird outside. Don’t even mention someone coming to the door. So, I can be sitting there quietly, and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. I cannot tell you how quickly the stress hormones burst out of our heads and become splattered all over the wall. Unless you work on learning how to remain calm and centered—and our daily environment is actually a gift for learning how to maintain a calm center. It doesn’t always happen, but there’s always a chance to learn.
The Peace Pilgrim
One of my personal heroes is an activist who called herself simply Peace Pilgrim.
Born in 1908 in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey as Mildred Lisette Norman, she was the oldest of three children of a couple who owned a small poultry farm. Her parents instilled a deep ethic of peace in their kids, and, indeed, considered themselves ‘free thinkers.’ Peace Pilgrim also grew up to be a free thinker, however, she married someone much more traditional than herself and the marriage predictably fell apart.
After the disruption of the great depression, Peace Pilgrim made two important discoveries. She writes that the first discovery was that making money was easy. The second was that making money and then spending it was completely meaningless. She realized she had to be on this earth for something more.
Sometime during the year of 1939, she spent a night wandering through the woods seeking spiritual guidance. She underwent what she called a “great spiritual experience” in which she felt that God called her to a life of service. She said it was a point of no return. It was the beginning of what she called “living to give, not to get.”
The Peace Pilgrim spent the next decade searching for her purpose and calling. She worked with senior citizens, those with emotional problems, and then volunteered for peace organizations.
She began to simplify her life, getting rid of unnecessary possessions and surplus activities. She became a vegetarian, trained herself to live on $10/month, and reduced her wardrobe to 2 dresses. She wanted to learn what she called “the great freedom of simplicity.”
She started to build up her physical stamina. She joined a hiking club and took wilderness treks.
On January 1, 1953, at age 44, she adopted the name Peace Pilgrim, put on a blue tunic on which she wrote her new name in big letters, and set out to walk. She chose blue for her clothing because it is the international color of peace. Between that day and her death 28 years later in 1981, she crossed the United States 7 times on foot and walked over 25 thousand miles. At some point along the way she stopped counting the miles.
Carrying in her tunic pockets her only possessions—toothbrush, comb, pen, and, later, her Steps to Inner Peace pamphlets—the Peace Pilgrim took a vow to walk penniless and to remain a wanderer until mankind had learned the way of peace, “walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.” She had no 501c3 behind her, no van driving right behind her to offer food, water or shelter. She took no money.
She simply began walking for peace, talking to anyone on the way who wanted to talk.
She introduced herself to people as a pilgrim – walking not to a place but for an idea.
The Peace Pilgrim’s Message: “Overcome Evil With Good, Falsehood With Truth, And Hatred With Love.”
Her peace message was this, and she said to all who would listen: “This is the way of peace: overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.” Her definition of peace included peace among nations, among people and individuals, and the most important peace, that within oneself—for only with inner peace, she believed, can all other kinds be achieved.
Peace Pilgrim wrote of her path to inner peace, and I’d like to share it with you. Each of us has our own path, but I think it’s instructive to learn about the principles that drove someone to take the extraordinary steps that she did.
She began with what she called Four Preparations – methods to change your thinking and approach to life.
- Assume the right attitude toward life
Peace Pilgrim would have felt very comfortable here at One World. Her belief was that “no problem ever comes to you that does not have a purpose in your life.” She tells us to face life squarely, live through our problems instead of what she called living on the surface and escaping them.
That’s what she did, during her years of discontent. She could have stayed where she was, told herself life’s not perfect for anyone, everything is fine. But she didn’t; she continued to examine what she was feeling and what she was being called to do. In Joseph Campbell’s language, she ‘answered the call and stepped into her soul’s highest adventure.’
- Live all the good things you believe in.
She wrote that this was a process. If she was doing something she knew she should not be doing, she stopped doing it. Quickly. She said the believing took a while to catch up with the doing, but it did. Sometimes our behavior has to change before our heart does.
In the words of C.S. Lewis:
Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.
- Find your place in the Life Pattern.
You have a part in the scheme of things. What that part is you can know only from within yourself. You can seek it in receptive silence. You can begin to live in accordance with it by doing all the good things you are motivated toward and giving these things priority in your life over all the superficial things that customarily occupy human lives.
She wrote: “If you know but do not do, you are a very unhappy person indeed.” [story of man who said “well, that doesn’t pay”]
- Simplify life to bring inner and outer well-being into harmony.
Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. Many lives are cluttered not only with unnecessary possessions but also with meaningless activities.
I always admire those who grow to understand their boundaries. We are often so tempted to say “yes” to people who ask us to do something, even when it’s packing onto an already full plate. I remember someone once told me “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
Cluttered lives are out-of-harmony lives and require simplification. Wants and needs can become the same in a human life and, when this is accomplished, there will be a sense of harmony between inner and outer well-being. Such harmony is needful not only in the individual life but in the collective life too.
Peace Pilgrim also spoke of other ways in which she began to live her intentions. She spoke of what she called the Four Purifications.
- Purification of our bodies.
Are you free from all bad habits? In your diet do you stress the vital foods – the fruits, whole grains, vegetables and nuts? Do you get to bed early and get enough sleep? Do you get plenty of fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and contact with nature? If you can answer “Yes” to all of these questions, you have gone a long way toward purification of the bodily temple.
- Purification of the thoughts.
Again, this wise woman would be a charter member of any New Thought community:
It is not enough to do right things and say right things. You must also think right things. Positive thoughts can be powerful influences for good. Negative thoughts can make you physically ill. Be sure there is no unpeaceful situation between yourself and any other human being, for only when you have ceased to harbor unkind thoughts can you attain inner harmony.
- Purification of the desires.
Since you are here to get yourself into harmony with the laws that govern human conduct and with your part in the scheme of things, your desires should be focused in this direction.
- Purification of motives.
Obviously your motive should never be greed or self-seeking, or the wish for self-glorification; you shouldn’t even have the selfish motive of attaining inner peace for yourself. To be of service to your fellow humans must be your motive before your life can come into harmony.
Peace Pilgrim also spoke of a number of what she called Relinquishments – what we might call releases. We release those attitudes, judgments, feelings, attachments that keep us in distress.
[Relinquishment of all negative feelings.]
Work on relinquishing negative feelings. If you live in the present moment, which is really the only moment you have to live, you will be less apt to worry. If you realize that those who do mean things are psychologically ill, your feelings of anger will turn to feelings of pity. If you recognize that all of your inner hurts are caused by your own wrong actions or your own wrong reactions or your own wrong inaction, then you will stop hurting yourself.
- Relinquishment of attachments.
Only when you have relinquished all attachments can you be really free. Material things are here for use, and anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you. You can only live in harmony with your fellow humans if you have no feeling that you possess them, and therefore do not try to run their lives.
We also relinquish the false belief that we are separate, and we stop living in ways that support that false belief.
- Relinquishment of the feeling of separateness.
All of us, all over the world, are cells in the body of humanity. You are not separate from your fellow humans, and you cannot find harmony for yourself alone. You can only find harmony when you realize the oneness of all and work for the good of all.
Finding Peace Within
Peace within is the result of the way we live our lives, of every thought we think and choice we make. I don’t believe it helps to live a frenetic life, daily dashing from here to there, and then spend 20 minutes to meditate. Inner peace is a result of a life lived in connection with ourselves and those around us, day in and day out.
When you find peace within yourself, you become the kind of person who can live at peace with others.
~ Peace Pilgrim
This blog is based on Rev. Melanie’s talk on May 7, 2017. You can listen to the entire talk on our website or on YouTube at our One World Spiritual Center channel.
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center