The Emerging Art and Science of Peace: How You can Awaken Your Positive Potential
By Philip M. Hellmich
Peace, love, and compassion are qualities of the soul. Peacebuilding is the art and science of awakening these soul qualities in practical ways that help to uplift humanity and all of life.
— Philip M. Hellmich
Do you ever feel like you live in an alternate reality? I sure do!
When I watch the news, I’m surprised to see so many stories filled with anger and fear, fueling polarization and fragmentation. For the past 20+ years, I’ve had a different experience of humanity, one where I know in my heart and soul that humans are capable of compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness; that there is by far more potential for peace than conflict; and, that finding common ground is possible even in difficult situations.
If what we appreciate appreciates, I say let’s focus more on the positive potential. Let’s harvest the wisdom that can help us improve personal relationships as well as positively impact larger dynamics like political polarization in the U.S. and other countries.
For 14 years I worked with Search for Common Ground, one of the world’s leading peacebuilding organizations. On a regular basis, I met “odd couples” working together as friends to bridge divides: Democrats and Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis, Iranians and Americans, etc. Common ground was a beautiful way of life.
Search for Common Ground believes that most people want peace, that conflict is natural, and that we need to transform how we deal with conflict. The keys to this transformation are to first believe that peace is possible; to help polarized people rediscover their common humanity, assisting them to bring out their innate goodness; and then address shared problems together instead of attacking one another.
Time and time again, I saw these fundamental principles play out in personal, interpersonal, and larger societal conflicts.
For example, Rob, my friend and former colleague at Search, had worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. for years. He said there were good people on both sides of the aisle, and that they were simply trapped in a bad process. While at Search, he incubated and gave birth to Convergence, an organization that successfully brings together a wide range of stakeholders to advise on policies, and, in the process, build trust and friendship between people who would normally battle each other.
In the United States, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia, I met inspiring Search staff and partners. The most moving examples of transformation I encountered were in Sierra Leone, a country where I lived for four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer prior to its civil war. Search established a radio studio called Talking Drum Studio that produced programs by people from both sides of the conflict, reaching 89 percent of the country’s population.
One of the most popular radio programs was Golden Kids News, produced by children for children affected by war. Stephen, a former child soldier, was a producer of Golden Kids News; he set a wonderful example for other children to put down their weapons and come home. It was a dream come true to visit my friends in the villages where I had lived and to hear how much they enjoyed Talking Drum Studio radio programs.
Seeing the personal, interpersonal, and societal transformations that were happening in so many countries inspired a deep yearning to better understand how is it that we can awaken the positive human potential in practical ways. I could see that Search was leveraging universal ancient wisdom around compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, and love in grounded and practical ways appropriate for each cultural context.
Seven years ago, my experience at Search led me to my current position as the Director of Peace at The Shift Network. My colleagues and I have explored the deeper essence of peace by interviewing hundreds of people working on peace from inner to international levels and across multiple sectors of society — science, spirituality, education, business, arts and music, military and security, etc.
These interviews were part of The Shift Network’s annual Summer of Peace done in partnership with dozens of organizations including Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Education and Research, the Alliance for Peacebuilding (an association of over 100 peace organizations), The Peace Alliance, the Charter for Compassion, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Search for Common Ground, Pathways to Peace, and many more.
From this bird’s-eye view, we can see that an exponential growth of peace-related activities has been quietly emerging around the world the past few decades — personal peace (the spread of yoga, meditation, mind-body-health...), interpersonal peace (nonviolent communication, peer mediation...), community peace (restorative justice, peace and conflict resolution programs in schools, alternative dispute resolution...), national peace (groups like Convergence...), and international peace (United Nations, Alliance for Peacebuilding...)
It’s clear that an evolutionary impulse is giving rise to the emerging art and science of peace and awakening the innate positive potential of humanity.
The Shift Network has made a commitment to peace with a specific focus of providing insights that you can apply in your daily life so you can bring forth your positive potential.
Key Insights & Tools Around Finding Common Ground
- First and foremost, you must believe that peace is possible.
- Extensive neuroscience research is proving humans are wired for compassion, altruism, and collaboration, along with fight-flight-freeze. This is excellent news for hope! We can use science to better inform how we can create the conditions for peace in our lives. (See Peace Re-Wire.)
- Anger and fear can create a fight-flight-freeze response that limits access to the higher capacities of our brain, reduces the range of options, and narrows our identity, often to one: Democrat/Republican, Israeli/Palestinian, etc.
- While it’s okay to feel anger, strive to transmute your passionate emotions into constructive action. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Anger can be like electricity: It's just as useful and it's just as powerful, but only when we use it intelligently and effectively.”
- When we can expand our identity and see our common humanity with the other, compassion is often a natural result, opening the higher faculties of our brain and creating a wider range of ways to solve problems.
Self-mastery Tips for Finding Common Ground
- Catch yourself if you start to stereotype, demonize, and/or dehumanize anyone. While it might be tempting to make fun of others, especially political figures, these behaviors contribute to polarization and, in extreme situations, to violence.
- Practice tools to help you quickly relax so when you get triggered you can stay out of fight-flight-freeze and access the higher capacity of your brain. (One of my favorite tools is HeartMath’s Quick Coherence Technique.)
- Look for what you have in common with people (music, food, sports, love for family...) and talk about those subjects before moving on to more challenging ones.
- Challenge yourself to fully listen to people while letting go of judgments or thinking about how you’ll respond. Ask questions to better understand their interests and reflect back what you heard. We all want to be heard and acknowledged.
- Study and practice how to communicate compassionately; my two favorite ways are Nonviolent Communication and The Connection Practice.
Tips for Addressing Political and Societal Polarization
- Be aware of the neuroscience of politics. People representing extreme positions often have the loudest voices and will use anger and fear to drive their agendas. Even though they may be in the minority, their behavior can send people into fight-flight-freeze, emotionally hijacking public discourse and reducing our collective problem-solving ability. (Read: Brain Politics by Mark Gerzon)
- Monitor the media environments you visit. Seek out inspirational sources that are solutions-oriented and help rehumanize people. (Visit: ABC’s More in Common and Peace News Network)
- Expand beyond media “echo chambers” that reinforce your political perspective and/or dehumanize the other. (Visit: Allsides.com)
- Explore resources to help you talk about politics in thoughtful ways. (Visit: LivingRoomConversations.com and Make America Dinner Again)
- Support and/or join one of the many organizations working to bridge divides, such as Convergence.
Video: Catalyzing Common Ground Using the Commonway Process — Here is an exceptional interview with Shariff Abdullah that was part of The Shift Network’s Summer of Peace Finding Common Ground Summit, co-hosted by my dear friend and colleague Sister Jenna and me. Drawing on experiences in over 120 cultures, Shariff has learned that creating peace means changing perspectives.