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Philip Hellmich on God, Conflict, and Peacebuilding

Interview with Philip Hellmich by Phil Bolsta

Watch Philip Hellmich’s interview:

Welcome, Philip. Thank you for joining us today.

Hey, Phil, thank you so much. It's a delight to be here with you.

Allow me to introduce you. Philip Hellmich is The Shift Network's Director of Peace, a position he's held for seven years.

Philip, I've just finished reading your book, God and Conflict, and I was mesmerized by your journey of exploring the inner and outer dimensions of peace, and the friendships you made all over the world. Can you hold up a copy of the book?

Yep, there you go, Phil. God and Conflict. It's available on Amazon and on Kindle. Want to check out the picture there at the back, in the Peace Corps there back in the late '80s with Sparky.

Richard and Phyllis Hellmich
on their wedding day

Great. Now, you grew up in a large family in rural Indiana. How did your humble beginnings get you started on this global peace journey?

Yeah, Phil, my family, I am so blessed with my family. I grew up in a small farming factory town, Greensburg in Southeast Indiana. My parents were married when they were 17 years old. They had 10 children. I was the only one that was planned, number five. It was a different time. People would ask my mom if they're Catholic, and she'd say, "Yep, no sense of rhythm," and my dad would say, "Yep, we love each other and I can't keep her off me."

I have the nine siblings by birth and then we picked up one more brother later, when his parents died, and my parents really just did a... I mean, I just am so grateful for my parents and my siblings. My mom said she knew if she kept us clean and we did our homework, other kids wouldn't laugh at us for not having a lot of money. My dad worked in a factory.

Richard and Phyllis Hellmich today

The Hellmich Family Pyramid

And then there was just love and support. Love and support in school, love and support in athletics. The siblings, we would support one another, we were always looking after one another, and being the fifth, being the middle, I was aware of the older ones and the younger ones, kind of always being aware of people's needs and, if need to, mediating a little bit.

But my parents taught us to be aware of the neighbors, particularly the elderly, to go shovel snow and mow grass, do the right thing. It was an all-white county and my parents really brought home tolerance. They would not allow any racial comments whatsoever, and they just really encouraged us to thrive and be loving.

The Hellmich Family today

All of us put ourselves through college. Some got graduate degrees. My oldest brother went back to Germany to find our family roots and encouraged us all to travel, and to this day, Phil, my family is an incredibly close-knit family. There's a lot of love and support, text messages, Snapchats. Text messages, between mom and dad and my 10 siblings, will be anywhere from 15 to 30 messages a day.

And so that foundation of basic goodness, taking care of one another, love and support and acceptance of others and tolerance and service, it really created the foundation of who I am and really set the foundation for going off to start exploring peacebuilding.

Speaking of which, after college you went to live in Sierra Leone for four years working with the Peace Corps. How did that experience change you? Or perhaps a better question is, how did it not change you?

Oh God, Phil. I’ve mentioned, I grew up in this farming factory town in Southeast Indiana, all-white county, and then I went off to the Peace Corps. My brother, Tom, had done medical service residency in Liberia and I heard about it, and friends applied to Peace Corps, so I applied. I picked Sierra Leone because it's next to Liberia, and I was going to stay two years and ended up staying four years 'cause I just fell in love with the people.

I was assigned to Kagbere, a small remote village of about 30 houses, about 300 people, out in the bush, and then after two years moved to Masongbo, another one out in the bush, about 30 houses, no electricity, no running water, and the communication back home was via aerograms. I was the only white person, and people in Sierra Leone just opened their hearts and took me into their homes and treated me with so much love and respect just right off the bat.

Young girls after a “Bundu” secret society
initiation in Kagbere, Sierra Leone

It was powerful. My friends being subsistence farmers living on about a dollar a day or less... the cycles of the crops, the cycles of the moon, the rainy season, dry season, and all of this just slowly started to transform me. And again, the basic goodness, the love, the kindness, seeing people be happy with materially very little, there was a deep sense of connection with nature, with the crops, with spirituality. There was Islam and Christianity in the village and then there were these ancient, traditional, spiritual secret societies that would initiate young boys and girls, and all of this just steeped into me.

I remember it was also the first time I could hear the hum of the earth at times, it was so silent, or the first time I see the moon shadow, and yet there was this sense of connectedness and belonging, and at the same time it was hard. It was a hard life, physically hard, and high infant mortality rate. So all that, it just really started to transform me in ways that didn't become apparent until I came back to the United States, Phil.

When I came back, at that point, I realized how a media fast... I mean, the only media was a little bit of shortwave radio, no billboards, and everything was naturally recycled, and when I came back to the United States, it was such a reverse culture shock of seeing the incredible abundance and the waste, the waste of water, the waste of food going out, just garbage, and it was mind-boggling. I couldn't understand it. And then people seemed to be more fast-paced, just seemed to be pursuing things. This western pursuit of happiness through massive consumerism didn't make sense.

I knew it was impacting the environment, I knew it was impacting people in Sierra Leone. Like all the hand-me-down clothes at Goodwill and Salvation Army, which I give to, when they can't handle it, it all gets dumped on the market in Sierra Leone and local textile industries can't compete with that, and rice exports from the U.S. get dumped onto the markets at Sierra Leone and the farmers can't compete with that.

So I could see how this western pursuit of happiness on an individual, large-scale level, through massive consumerism had people seemingly more stressed out, less happy and connected with one another and nature than my friends in Sierra Leone, and so I was just really confused, Phil. So that's where Sierra Leone became a mirror for me to really revisit western lifestyles.

I still had a deep connection with my family and love for my family. God, my poor family — when I came back, they didn't know what to think. So that's how Sierra Leone really impacted me. People in Sierra Leone, my friends there, just deeply opened my heart and provided a mirror to look at lifestyles.

During those four years, did you come back to the U.S.?

I came back once after two-and-a-half years for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a wedding, and I think I put on 20 pounds through that time. I did get sick. First few months in Sierra Leone I got sick a little bit: dysentery and malaria and stuff, river blindness, and stuff like that.

The Conteh brothers and Philip fished on the Rokel River and together learned to make fishing lures from local resources

So I came back and I had a joyous time, but it was when I came back and the thought of like... I didn't know if I wanted to still be in the U.S. My heart was with people in Sierra Leone, the projects we were doing were taking off, fishing lures, water wells. We were doing great work and I was learning a lot and I loved the people there, so I was confused when I came back, Phil. I was rife with questions.

When I was reading your book it really struck me when you said you heard a quiet hum in Africa, which you just referenced. Can you explain what that hum was?

It wasn't until later when I started practicing yoga that I realized that there are these subtle sounds that are always available, and in yoga they would say they're astral sounds. But with the earth, just that stillness, it's just like there's a humming, and later, when I taught on the Navajo reservation, just hearing, just being with the earth, there's a presence.

And yoga, jumping forward, Kriya Yoga and meditation really provided me with an understanding that everything is vibration and everything is manifesting through vibration, and if there's stillness, you can actually start to hear these vibrations.

It was funny in Sierra Leone because I went to the missionary doctor and he's like, "Oh, let me give you some Valium." His name was Dr. Payne, which was a funny name for a doctor. But it wasn't until later it was just like, wow, if a person can really be still and go into silence, there's a presence there, and so Sierra Leone was kind of a glimpse into something that would come later.

Philip and the Contehs with a Nile Perch

One story in your book that really made me laugh was when a friend of yours in Sierra Leone said, "Crocodile done get Phil Bob!” Can you explain that story?

Oh yeah, okay. So, just a brief context. As a kid I used to fish a lot with my brothers. The biggest fish I ever caught was a 5-pound bass. It was huge. So in Sierra Leone, I went fishing with a friend and her boyfriend, now husband, who had been the director of Care Intentional. The first fish I caught was 25 pounds, which was just amazing. So I stayed another two years, continued with the projects, moved to this village, Masambo, which was close to a river so I could fish in the dry season. Only guy with western gear and I was catching these huge fish.

But there were also crocodiles in the river. I would see tracks of them. And there was one night I went to the river and I just had a bizarre feeling, like this is not the night to be in the river, and it was a weird feeling. So I got kind of into the water and then I asked my friend Bokarie Conteh. I said, "Bokarie, where's that crocodile?" He was like, "You know that he is not here." And so I started yelling that I'm here to fish, just to let the crocodile know.

The Contehs and Philip ate together almost every night

But anyway, the feeling was just really strong not to be in the water, but I needed to take a bath because we hadn't built a water well in the village yet, and so I gave the fishing pole to Bokarie, and I take a stick, and I'm checking the rocks, and then I step in, and then I step and the next thing I know is, my entire right leg, up to my hip socket, is in extreme pain and I just started shrieking.

Philip Hellmich with Adama Conteh, Masongbo, Sierra Leone, 1988

It's one of those sheer moments of terror where there's so much pain in the leg, it's like the mind is freaked out already looking for crocodiles, and Bokarie comes running over, "Crocodile done get Phil Bob! Crocodile done get Phil Bob!" and he's yelling, and I'm scrambling on all fours to get out of the water, and then I get out of the water and Bokarie's there, and there I am stark naked, he's like, "Na wetting? Na wetting? Na wetting?” (West African Krio for “What is it?”) I was like, "Electricity." Bokarie fell to the ground laughing. It was electricity. There was no electricity anywhere for miles. I had stepped on a West African electric catfish, which puts out 400, 500 volts of electricity. So here I am, afraid of crocodiles and I step on 400 to 500 volts of electricity that just shocked the living daylights out of me.

Sanpha (right) and Moses (left) making fishing lures from local materials

And there's one other funny story on this. So that's funny. There's another one where I thought I was drowning, once. I was in the canoe and it was in the area with the crocodile, and the storm came, and the canoe goes down, and I'm starting to swim to the shore, and then I think, "Don't think about crocodiles," and then my legs got tangled up in something and then my head went underwater and I was like, "I'm going to drown in West Africa." At that point, I put my legs down and stood up and I was in three feet of water, and so that became a moral. The moral of that story for me is like, whenever I feel like I'm in over my head, just stand up.

So anyway, lots of stories. And Phil, these fishing trips with my brothers, the Conteh brothers, and we would fish and then we'd learn how to make fishing lures out of local materials, and fast-forwarding... they were family, they are family. I don't know if many of them are still alive, but that's the key part is that deep loving connection with my friends in Sierra Leone.

Adama Conteh (right) cooking over a three-stone fire in Masongbo

Yeah, those are hilarious stories, and I loved in the book when you wrote about going back after a number of years and seeing them all again, which is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, but I also wanted to ask that in your book you wrote, "Arguing over God seemed utterly absurd, like waves on the ocean arguing who knew the ocean better or who was the chosen wave." What brought you to this realization?

Well, that's really kind of fast-forwarding a little bit. When I came back from Sierra Leone, I was having a hard time with the reverse culture shock, I started doing some writing. I went to Florida with some family, and someone mentioned the Temple of the Universe. I went out to hear Michael Singer, who also goes by Mickey Singer, talk. People would recognize Michael Singer. He has since written two New York Times bestselling books. One is The Untethered Soul, and the other is The Surrender Experiment, and that really started a journey for me.

Philip met Michael "Mickey" Singer in 1989 at The Temple of the Universe

I think Mickey said it really well in one of my first meetings with him. This is back in '89, '90. When you read The Surrender Experiment, this is when Mickey was just starting to get his software business going, and I remember I went to Mickey and I was talking with him about the way things were in Africa, the starvation and the pursuit of happiness and this and that, and he looked at me and he asked, "Who asked you how it should be?" And I was confused. I didn't understand what he was saying.

And then he said, "Look, if the planet Pluto was orbiting in a way that you did not like, what are you going to do about it?" And that just confused the daylights out of me. And then he said, "Look, there are billions and hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and planets," and he's like, "There's hundreds of billions," and later I found out there's over two trillion galaxies, and Mickey said, "All of it is guided by an intelligence. All you’ve got to do is turn to that intelligence and it will guide you in a way that you can never imagine."

It took me years and I still go back, I still read his books, and I love Mickey Singer. He's probably one of the most, next to Paramahansa Yogananda, was one of the most influential people in my life. Later I met Rick Levy also. And that thing about there being a natural intelligence, and it's like sometimes we can, with our limited mind... Mickey was pointing out that there's this incredible consciousness beyond our mind, this universal consciousness. The soul is the doorway to it and we can tap into it, and that intelligence is guiding everything. And with our mind sometimes we can think, Oh, I know this, I know that, and this is God, from that little perspective of a mind. But the mind is only a tool of the soul, which is a wave on this vast ocean of whatever you want to call it, Spirit, universal consciousness, God.

So I think that's where that question comes from. We're all a wave. We're all a soul, embodied, and we're having this experience, and the soul is part of this larger ocean of wave, and to say that this soul knows what... There's a saying that, "He who knows does not say; he who says does not know." I think Lao Tzu or something like that. But Mickey Singer opened vast doorways for me that later led to the Autobiography of a Yogi to Paramahansa Yogananda. I worked with Rick Levy later and then others. So that's where that comes from, Phil. There's a lot more I could say about this because that perspective, particularly when looking at service work and peacebuilding, is huge.

Yeah, I know that Mickey played a pivotal role in your spiritual unfoldment, and you talk about that very clearly in your book, watching your spiritual awareness grow from meeting him to your experiences later on until things dawn on you. It's really a nice progression in the book. After meeting Mickey and opening that spiritual doorway, you then started working for Search for Common Ground and went back to Sierra Leone during the war while maintaining a meditation practice that you had started after knowing Mickey. What is Search for Common Ground's mission? It sounds like it was a perfect job for you at that time.

Yeah, it was. Search for Common Ground's mission is to transform the way the world deals with conflict, away from adversarial approaches to cooperative problem-solving. There's some assumptions in that. One is, conflict is natural; it's a natural part of life and it comes about with differences. [It's how we deal with conflict that determines whether it's destructive or potentially an engine for growth and thansformation.] And also there are assumptions there... not to jump ahead, that I think really speak to the mystical traditions and neuroscience... is that there's assumptions of a basic goodness in humanity that can be leveraged.

So Search for Common Ground is a place that would see that in conflict there would be this tendency to go towards polarization, and when going to polarization, extreme positions would drive the agenda with anger and fear, and there's a whole dynamic there I could go into in more detail. And they knew that if people could rediscover their common humanity, it would awaken qualities like compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness, and people could then, instead of attacking each other, stand side by side to work on problems and address them together.

So I joined in '97, I got back from Peace Corps in '89. In between those years I worked on the Navajo reservation, worked at Peace Corps in Washington D.C., and then joined Search for Common Ground. And then they asked if I wanted to go back to Sierra Leone on an assessment mission. And Phil, I have to tell you, this is one of those moments in life where there's a part of me's like... The answer was clearly yes, but there was this other part of me's like, "I don't know if I want to go back."

Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war had thousands of children being used as weapons of war. Some child soldiers were as young as eight years of age. (Photo by Martin Lueders)

'Cause at this point, in the news were stories about child soldiers, there were stories of incredible atrocities being done by these child soldiers, and the country was in a war, bloody chaotic war that was fueled in part by the global economy — blood diamonds and timber trade — and so of course I said yes and did go back.

Imagine a place that's your second home and when you left it it was one of the most peaceful places in the world. Granted, there was poverty, but it was one of the most peaceful places, and to go back and landing in the airport and there's military everywhere, and then getting over to the capital and then buildings are shut up, burnt out, bullet holes everywhere, military everywhere, and then we went up-country back towards where I lived and passing vehicles that were ambushed and shot up and burnt out on a road that I used to ride all the time.

At one point the guy I was traveling with, John, he got nervous. He's like, "This is a perfect place for an ambush," and someone from the BBC had been killed in an ambush on that same road a week before just a few miles out further. So it was an intense experience, and at the same time here I am meditating two, three hours a day, and Mickey Singer's teachings are there, and I got to go back to Masongbo to see the Conteh brothers.

Masongbo Catholic Church during peacebuilding assessment mission, April 1998. Left to Right: Masongbo villager, Philip Hellmich, Bishop George Biguzzi, and John Langlois.

The Bishop was captured by rebels a few weeks after this photo was taken. The rebels retook much of the country, attacking the capital Freetown, killing 3,000 people.

The Catholic church negotiated the Bishop's release. Many of the Catholic priests and nuns were traumatized during the war, seeing their old constituents turned into killing machines... even abusing them.

At first we didn't think we were going to be able to go, and then the Catholic bishop says, "Oh, you're from that village. I'll take you there." Fourteen miles outside of his town. I didn't know who was going to be alive, and got there and there was the church, Catholic church, people were drumming and chanting, and I go in there and I see one of the Conteh brothers. I come up behind him and I tap him on the shoulder, and he turns around and he's chanting and he just starts smiling. He puts his arm around me and just starts pinching really hard to see if I was real. And then there's a few other of the Conteh brothers, and there was just joyous reunion.

Philip and the Conteh family during a peacebuilding assessment mission in April 1998

And Phil, it's one of these situations where there's just joyous reunion and then the poverty was really off the scale because of the war. The rebels had been pushed back, and people were coming up and giving me coconuts and kola nuts. They would just palm on... Whatever little they had, they were giving to me. They were so happy to see me. You know, the projects we've done, the fishing work, the water wells were still going on, and then I would hear these stories of atrocities. So there's this mixture of love, hearing stories of atrocity, and then one of my friends pulled out a fishing lure he had just made. They were still fishing to feed their families. And so there was this joyous connection.

On a later visit to Masongbo, Sanpha offers a 30-pound fish and home-made fishing lures. The Contehs’ love and generosity was overwhelming, especially when they had so little.

And then, when leaving, saying I'll be back, we went back to see the Catholic bishop, the bishop and the priest, and then I was leaving town, came across a horrific mob killing in this nearby town to Masongbo of a rebel, and I was within feet of it and got these horrific pictures, and I remember I came back to Washington D.C., and then I came into the office one day and someone put the New York Times on my desk. On the front page was a picture of a woman with both arms cut off from that area where I had just been and the rebels had come back through.

So this was a pretty intense initiation into just throwing myself at the feet of this yoga meditation tradition, and Yogananda would say, "If you ever want a response, you pray to the Divine Mother," and I just threw myself into that. There was so much shock in the system. My friend, Rick Levy, helped a lot with that, but there was so much shock in the system that I just really threw myself deeper into meditation and seeking God.

Members of the Conteh Family and Philip during a later return visit

Later in the book I talk about these experiences that were happening. It's generally not great to talk about mystical experiences, but basically starting to have mystical experiences and then later, two years later, starting to make regular trips back to Sierra Leone and Liberia and Congo and Rwanda and Burundi and Guinea and all across sub-Saharan Africa while meditating, and different times there would be these periods where I remember once there was like an attempted coup attempt that I barely missed, and then going to meditations there's this ecstatic experience of love.

That became a driver. It was like, how can there be these states of consciousness? Would Mickey Singer have lied to me? Paramahansa Yogananda talked about, you know, Rick Levy and others, and in yoga they say they're scientific. You go in, you do this, this, and this. You're not seeking experience but sometimes it can happen.

So I started to really question, like, how can there be this ecstatic, deep, divine love — and hell on earth with people that I know? Some of my friends were killed, some were raped, many of them were beaten, what little they had was stolen, and then there was children, six- to eight-year-old children, being turned into weapons of war, being placed on drugs. Masongbo, the village with the Conteh brothers, was sacked by a teenage boy named Colonel Rambo who's watching Rambo movies. And so this became a really intense diving into, where is God in the midst of all of this? God in conflict.

These “RUF” (rebel) combatants occupied Masongbo under the command of teenage age Colonel Rambo — a boy trained in part by watching Rambo movies (March 2001)

The other part, though, by working with Search for Common Ground, I was working on practical peacebuilding. I could see that the global economy contributed to the conflict. I could see that the unconscious western pursuit of happiness through massive consumerism, blood diamonds, timber trade, dumping AK-47s on the market, whether they're coming from Ukraine... the UN Security Council, the permanent members, are the leading exporters of weapons in the world. There's an economic factor there.

Search for Common Ground’s Talking Drum Studio radio programs reached 89% of Sierra Leone’s population and had a measurable impact in helping the peace and reconciliation process

I could see how the larger lack of inner peace in the western pursuit of happiness tangibly contributed to the conflict. And I could see that the peacebuilding work of Search for Common Ground was awakening compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness in very grounded, practical ways. We had a radio program, many different programs, with a studio that was reaching 89 percent of the country and was having measurable impact.

Through this I could see that there is this deeper essence in humanity, there's also incredible fear that could be triggered that can lead people to horrific things, and that that sense of separation is underlying that sense of conflict. And so on a practical peacebuilding level, it's helped people rediscover their common humanity, and then on the mystical level what we're doing is, on the yoga level, we're going into ourself, [and eliminating] any kind of sense of separation between the ego and the soul.

A Search for Common Ground “Golden Kid News” reporter interviewing other children in Sierra Leone

So, Phil, it was such an intensely ripe time, those years of making these trips, all across sub-Saharan Africa, in and out of places where Search for Common Ground has these amazing programs, Hutus and Tutsis co-producing radio programs within a year of the genocide in Burundi. One woman who lost 79 members of her family to ethnic violence was co-producing radio programs. I would see people doing just heroic acts of peacebuilding and that they would bring out this compassion on entire-society levels, and then there was this ancient yogic tradition, the same principles were being applied.

A Search for Common Ground sponsored peace concert in RUF (rebel) area

It was ripe, Phil. It was just such a ripe... And I have so much passion for it because there's something about... Again, many friends were killed, and so there's a passion here for me around what is this...? I like to say inner peace is a global responsibility, or inner peace is actually a global solution, because inner peace together with practical action, and there's a whole range I could explain on that and a lot of it comes back to Mickey Singer.

But let me pause there and see if you have another question, because this is the area that I just am so passionate about, Phil. And the work with The Shift Network has just been amazing to really unpack all of this.

Yes, you talk all the time about moving from inner to international on a continuum of peace and that's, I can see, the origins of your experience leading you to coining that phrase.

Yeah. When I was at Search for Common Ground, I knew, I knew from the experience of yoga and meditation and from direct personal experience of these different states of consciousness, I knew the peacebuilding work that Search for Common Ground was doing was leveraging the ancient wisdom of all the different spiritual traditions, the mystical wisdom about the innate divinity of humanity, of one soul, and it was leveraging modern science, neuroscience.

Thankfully, I was able to join The Shift Network. In the last seven years we've interviewed hundreds of peacebuilders. It was a dream come true. It was the first time that anyone has kind of taken a bird's-eye view to start interviewing people from inner, interpersonal, community, national, international, planetary, across 20-some different sectors of society, you know, the inner dimension from science and spirituality, and if you go to the WorldPeaceLibrary.com, it's a free offering from The Shift Network. No one had done that before. My colleagues Emily Hine and Stephen Dinan and the whole summits team and The Shift Network, we put this together.

From that view, I mean, there's several insights from here, Phil. First of all, from this bird's-eye view, Mickey Singer talks about there's an intelligence guiding everything. From that bird's-eye view we could see there is an intelligence in humanity that is expressing itself to help find peace and cooperation and it's doing it in all these different individual expressions. But from that bird's-eye view you can see there's a larger impulse of humanity, and in that impulse is really leading people to find creative solutions to problems that brings out the best of humanity.

Now, going a little bit further, we can see how conflict is natural. Conflict is natural and peace is our innate state of being. So conflict, this is where Tara Brach, the Buddhist meditation teacher, says, "We have our thoughts, we have our emotions, we identify with them, and we think that's who we are and then we have a sense of separation from the larger whole."

Mickey Singer really talks a lot about this and Paramahansa Yogananda. When we identify with our thoughts and emotions or our body, we forget the fact that we're a soul. And if you want to know what the soul is, sit down and just try to watch your breath for a few minutes and see your thoughts come up, bring your attention back to your breath and you'll start to notice that there's a part of you that can witness your thoughts, can witness your breath. That's the witness. Mickey Singer talks about the untethered soul and the surrender experiment. In other books he would say the witness is the soul.

Yogananda would say the soul has qualities that just... The first state of starting to contact one's soul is a negative peace, it's kind of an absence of all the mentally emotional disturbances, and that opens up to a positive peace, which opens up to a bliss and a joy, and those are innate qualities of the soul, this positive peace, this joy, this bliss, this love, compassion, and so forth.

So I like to say, now, when people ask me what peacebuilding is, peace, love and compassion are qualities of the soul. Peacebuilding is the art and science of awakening those qualities in practical ways that help uplift all of humanity. And so through the support with The Shift Network, we start to see... and what's nice is, neuroscience is starting to back up the fact that we're wired for compassion, we're wired for altruism, we're wired for cooperation, and evolution would say that's leading us to evolve. We're also wired for fight, flight, and freeze, so we can start to understand the dynamics in conflict.

Fight, flight, and freeze, the amygdala is triggered and we go into a survival mode, and the range of options are that, and so when there's fear... and we also start to narrow identity down to one: Hutu, Tutsi, Democrat, Republican, Israeli, Palestinian, and we see that happens in conflict. Search for Common Ground helps people re-establish their common humanity, see their overlapping identities, "Oh, I'm a brother, I'm an uncle, I'm a family person, I love to garden, I love music"... there’s a whole range and it starts to awaken compassion.

Another person I love that I interviewed in the World Peace Library, Richard Miller. There's an interview there on inner peace to global responsibility, and he's been teaching nidra yoga to veterans with PTSD, and he's able to say which part of the brain gets activated when we go into these yogic states. And here's the part that I think is about inner peace really being a potential global solution.

Richard Miller documented, when he works with people with PTSD, using yoga, they go into a non-dual state, it relaxes the trauma, starts to heal the trauma, it starts to open up the higher faculties of the brain so you can see a wider range of solutions, but it also helps a person have compassion for others, see that they're interconnected, interdependent, with beyond their self, particularly when you're fearful, and what it also does is it helps a person see their life purpose at this particular time, usually in service for others.

This is really key about the whole inner peace part, is when a person is able to do the work, and again, Mickey Singer's book, The Untethered Soul, The Surrender Experiment, there's a wide range of different traditions that help a person learn to go from being triggered to tap into these deeper inner states of consciousness, and then to awaken that sense of compassion and then a sense of purpose in service of a larger whole.

You can also then start to tap into this universal field of consciousness where intuition... and Mickey Singer's The Surrender Experiment book talks about there's this intuition we can tap into that our mind can start to implement. And so as more and more people go into whatever tradition it is, mindfulness, yoga... start to do these and then you layer that with practical action — and with The Shift Network, with the peace ambassador training, we were able to teach 1,100 people in 45 countries how to have a foundation in this area — and we'll layer on top of that compassion exercises, forgiveness, and then on top of that communication exercises, then you can see how we all could become better instruments of peace.

So, Phil, I am outrageously passionate about all this because it's just been an incredible journey. It's not a journey for the faint of heart, oh my God. And there's always challenges. But let me pause there, Phil, so you can have some more questions.

Well, I was going to say, your passion shines through loud and clear. Between your Peace Corps experience, your 14 years at Search for Common Ground, seven years as Director of Peace for The Shift Network, you've been immersed in peacebuilding for decades. Today, what do you see as the frontiers of peace, and how are we going to make progress in this critical area going forward?

That's a great question, Phil. Some of the exciting areas are at the intersection of neuroscience, spirituality, and peacebuilding. There's a group in Washington D.C., the Alliance for Peacebuilding, that’s doing a project around that. I think we're seeing a lot more innovation there where people who may be a little bit shy about spirituality will open up to neuroscience, so that's one area that excites me.

Another one is kind of really start to rebrand peace into more mainstream. There's a wonderful quote from Steve Killelea, who we interviewed. He said, " Sanskrit has 108 words for Love. Islam has 99 names for God. Japanese has 14 words for Beauty. We've got one word for Peace.” We don't have all the language to really describe all the different types of peace there are in the world.

So I think it's important that we start to really expand our understanding of peace and that we start to look at how can we accelerate what's already been growing exponentially, quietly without people being aware of it? I mean, exponential growth in peacebuilding; there's been an exponential growth of people practicing yoga and meditation; there's been an exponential growth of scientific research about the mind, body, health aspect; there's been an exponential growth of the spread of peer mediation, conflict resolution, the number of schools with programs; there's been an exponential growth in all these areas. There's been quietly a peacebuilding infrastructure, global infrastructure, growing around the world. Now we need to really learn how to mainstream it in ways where it can address the hunger of…

There's also a growing hunger in the world, because after working with Search for Common Ground I understand why there's extreme polarization in the world. It's a very, very simple explanation, and I actually have charts I could show you, but you just imagine... But anyway, extreme positions drive an agenda. It's kind of like a rainbow — extreme positions drive the agenda, and you want to expand the middle.

But what media has done, particularly in the United States, well, globally in the last few years, is give more attention to extreme positions, and extreme positions drive their agendas with anger and fear. When there's anger and fear, people narrow their identities down to one and they attack each other, so that's what we're seeing played out.

Search for Common Ground's work, there are all these different peacebuilding tools and technologies. We can help people get out of fear states, we can help people rediscover their common humanity, and we can help people learn to stand side by side. So I feel like a lot of this can be accelerated and The Shift Network, we're in conversations with groups all the time, with the Alliance for Peacebuilding, we are in conversations with a wide range of groups. How do we help the peacebuilding arena move outside of the bubble it's in, and also how do we help people who are spiritually oriented layer on top of their spiritual practices practical interpersonal and community peacebuilding skills?

So I think we're at a place where there's enough pain in the world, in terms of if anyone who watches the news and who might get frustrated around the way politics are done in the United States and others, that there's enough hunger here that if we can just find the ways to more mainstream techniques and information and where people can meet people where they are, in a language that works for them, where they can apply different tools and have their own direct experiences.

So that's what I see at the frontier and at the same time Mickey Singer will remind us there is a natural intelligence, it's guiding everything, and yes, believe me, that's still hard to surrender to when having seen the things that I've seen, so I think what all of us can do is have our daily practices, make a commitment to really tap in inside, and then serve whatever is in front of us with as much love as we possibly can.

So, Phil, that's a little bit of a long-winded answer without wanting to pull out the graphs. I love this part about polarization and how to move beyond it because I know we can. I've seen it.

Well, that's great. I've seen the fruits of your labors and it's really wonderful to see. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about and experience with peacebuilding, Philip. I really enjoyed this conversation and I know it will touch many people in important and essential ways, and I am blessed to call you my friend.

Well, it's mutual, Phil. I am grateful to call you a dear friend and a fellow colleague, and we want to send people to the WorldPeaceLibrary.com. There's hundreds of interviews in there. You can look under broad topics of inner, interpersonal, community, international, planetary, or you can look under categories which are different sectors to society, business, or education, or you can look via speakers. Well, Phil, my friend, thank you so much for this opportunity.

Yes, it was wonderful and I will definitely link to the World Peace Library in the transcript of this interview. Thank you so very much.

And Phil, they can find my book on amazon.com, and also godandconflict.net.

And I will link to that as well. Thank you, Philip.

All right, my friend.


Philip Hellmich is the Director of Peace for The Shift Network.

Click here to order your copy of God and Conflict.

Click here for more information and to read sample chapters.

Click here to read Philip's article about his experiences — and watch the video interviews he films — while at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo, Norway in December 2018.

Click here to read Philip's article about his life-changing encounters with Mickey Singer, author of The Unthethered Soul.

Click here to read Philip's Mother's Day tribute to his mother, Phyllis Mae Hellmich.

The Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive The Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 2: The Interview Issue