There can be no more significant achievement than to gain a measure of inner peace. It is the foundation upon which is built all progress for all men and women. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate its importance for seekers. It is the master-key, the first, middle and final step. At all stages of the path to light, inner peace is both the way and the destination.
Throughout history the great philosophical and religious traditions have warned us against the destructive, selfish aspects of human nature, urging us to find instead the peace which lives within the heart of everyman. Whether it’s Lao-Tse who teaches that
“Having emptied yourself of everything, remain where you are… After blossoming for a while, everything dies down to its root. This going back to one’s origin is called peace…”
Or the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita:
“That man attains peace, who, abandoning all desires, moves about without attachment, without selfishness, without vanity”.
The importance of this peace for Christians is reflected in the solemn beatitude:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God”
Christian mysticism presents Christ as the author of our peace. It firmly establishes inner peace as ‘the kingdom of God within us’, and Christ as the prince of peace, the saviour of mankind and redeemer of souls.
Hui-yuan in his ‘Song of the White Lotus of the Pure Land in the West’ provides a remarkably similar perspective:
“There Amitabha stands in shining dress
Preparing for the endless festival.
He draws each human soul up from the abyss
And lifts them into his palace of peace . . .
Where they shine in the garden of redeemed spirits”.
The path of peace is a difficult journey because it requires us to do something about ourselves. We all at some point fall way short of our best. It’s been the case for all men and women at all times in history; so much so that it’s difficult not to assume it’s a large part of what it is to be human. We are all it seems in need of the redeeming power of peace, however much the worldly-wise might sneer at such ideas.
Seekers on the path to peace constantly strive to rise again from their failures; and they ever try to keep their high ideals in view. They have a strong sense of who they ought to be and what they need to do. And at some point on the way they realise that they cannot even begin to live up to their ideals unless they find at least a measure of inner peace.
After but a few steps along the way we realise that to travel this path is to walk ‘to the beat of a different drum’. We soon know that we cannot pretend to walk it; it demands of us sincerity. It asks us to examine our motives in the light of who deep down we know we should be, to submit ourselves to the penetrating light of conscience. Eventually, sooner or later, somewhere deep within we decide. Somewhere deep within we cast a spell, as it were, and conjure up an undying determination to rise above the petty selfishness of our lower self. And however uphill the path might be, eventually, slowly and fitfully, we begin to free ourselves from the worst in us, we learn to be bigger and better than our little selves, we begin to find at last a measure of blesséd peace. But, the ancient wisdom warns, beware of trying to force the process. Trying to live up to impossible ideals is profitless. Who has not stumbled on the bit of the path closest to his feet by focussing all his attention on the unreachable horizon? The path begins where we are. Our materials are those that make us who we are, rather than who we would like to be.
That we ‘reap what we sow’ has become a cliché. But almost nobody really accepts that it’s true. You’d think that science with its infrangible causes and effects might have convinced us by now, but sadly not. Initially, even those who would describe themselves as seekers often don’t actually believe it. On the contrary, it seems that
“Men believe that they can sow the seeds of strife, impurity, and unbrotherliness,
and then gather in a rich harvest of peace, purity and concord by merely asking for it”. (Allen)
No, our selfishness and unrestrained lower passions will not bring us to the gentle light of peace, but instead will lead to greater darkness, doubt and destruction. We choose our way and we reap our due rewards. It’s obvious; it’s common sense; but how many of us can say that we have taken note and acted accordingly? How many of us have sustained a degree of peace within, or can say that we have at all times even tried to do so? And however much we choose to trick ourselves by trying to justify our bad actions, the plain truth is that until we are sincere in our efforts to take a step towards inner peace we are not yet on the path to light; we have not yet been able to find the mystic way of return.
And nor is it enough for our seeking to be a mere intellectual seeking. While the intellect may have an important place, all the intellect in the world will not bring us to inner peace. Rather, without peace of mind intellectual reasoning brings only perplexity. The labyrinth of anxious thoughts and opinions of the lower self, surrounded by the noise and clamour of the workaday world, are barriers to the calm certainty of inner peace.
“In the silence is the highest peace, because wavering is the intellect’s unreal work” (Sankaracharya)
The man or the women who has entered the silence to find peace knows it to be superior to all intellect, truly a ‘peace that passeth all understanding’. This going within in search of silent peace is the very essence of the mystic way. And the deeper we go the better.
Whatever congregation we may have joined, whatever the group or body, whatever our allegiances and loyalties, religious or secular, the path of peace remains an acutely personal path. Our endeavour to gain, preserve and increase our measure of inner peace is private, our business and no-one else’s. It is for us alone to achieve. And we should not delude ourselves, however high in esteem he is held by others, whatever his social status, the man who is a slave to his lower self is not at peace. The man who is ill-protected from greed, envy, restlessness and worry, from hatred, anger or lust or anything of a similar nature is not at peace. When we are pulled this way and that by the turbulence of material life we are not at peace.
But a word of warning to the hasty: in taming the worst aspects of our lower nature, we must learn to do so without the use of whip or rod. Patient far-sightedness shuns the extremism of the ascetic. Balance is the key, and is itself an essential element of peace. To uncover and retain this balance is not easy. At first it seems that every step of progress is quickly reversed, and the ground we thought we had made is lost again. Make no mistake, the attempt to gain and keep our peace of mind is the first, and for many of us our most difficult test. But if we are not easily and quickly discouraged, and if we renew our efforts after the inevitable failures then we will eventually secure a firmer grip on our sense of peace within. And once this first step is secured we will discover many new and wonderful things in life.
The beginning of peace is relaxation. But learning how to thoroughly relax the body and still the mind is far from easy, and requires perseverance – another aspect of peace. Many seekers have found it helps if they isolate themselves from potential distractions before completely relaxing the body and gradually regulating their breathing to a steady, uniform rise and fall. They might choose to sit in a comfortable chair or lie on a bed – either will do as long as they are able to become completely relaxed without falling asleep. Once they are fully relaxed they try (without straining in any way) to enter an inner state of quiet or stillness by dwelling on anything they consider ideally peaceful or truly beautiful. It doesn’t really matter what they choose to ‘attune’ their minds to just as long as it helps them to still their thoughts and free their minds from all stress, unpleasant disturbances or any sense of inner struggle. The calm contentment and the freedom from anxiety and worry that we can experience during such meditations grows with practise, and allows us to build up an inner reserve which we can draw on whenever we need to. It can also place our mind in a state of receptivity allowing us to receive unexpected insights and inspiration.
To the inexperienced seeker it might appear that to give primacy to peace of mind is to advocate a kind of escapism, or perhaps a stoical resignation, unemotional and indifferent. But to think in this way is to be misled; peace is based on a positive striving not indifference.
“For peace implies not mere negative absence of disturbing desires and passions nor even merely the masterful control of them, but chiefly the right direction of them” (Channing)
To assert that inner peace is freedom does not imply that we should try to escape from our material duties; but rather that because we have won a measure of peace we are better able to tame, control and use our energies more creatively and wisely, instead of being in thrall to them. We are more able to maintain, through constant adjustment, a more appropriate balance between our physical, mental and spiritual principles. On the other hand perfect peace, wisdom in action, or the final and complete mastery is the supreme freedom, but this is not achieved in the course of a few short years; it is the work of many, many lives.
Yet we know we are making progress when we are able to bring an added harmony to life. We are on the path to peace when inner conflict begins to fade, when hungry ambition begins to give way to contentment, when we are naturally tolerant of difference, when we begin to feel the great power of gentleness and simplicity, when we remain calm, retaining our poise in the face of adversity. And what a blessing it is to be able to retire into the rejuvenating silence of peace within whenever the demands of life leave us in need of refreshment. To succeed in maintaining a measure of inner peace proves that we have gathered wide experience in previous lives and are now ready to make further progress. And after all, who among men can know that this is not the life in which the victory will be won?
The ancient wisdom tells us that the utmost creativity exists at the point of peaceful equilibrium between the polar opposites, and that this creativity brings with it the opportunity to make ourselves useful when we learn how to apply its principles to everyday life. For then are we are better able to carry our responsibilities – to others as well as to ourselves; only then can we contact the very best of who we are; only then can what we have to give get through in an undistorted manner; only then can we bridge the divide and make the stretch; only then can the above and the below dance their mystic dance; and only then can we begin to unravel the many coloured threads of rebirth. For then we know that the light we seek is peace and that it radiates from the centre of our being, a spark from the living flame, full of goodness, perfect, immortal and divine; and that it is the sun of our better self, a golden star shining in the clear blue sky of heaven, above the clouds of little self. Or perhaps a golden island surrounded by a sea of deepest blue. It is home; it is pure, unalloyed, sattvic; it is the heart of Nature that beats within the breathing silence of the peaceful night when:
“…The stars came out
Like angels from their dark blue gates in heaven,
Serenely calm, gentle and beautiful
As if no sin or suffering could come near
Their holy atmosphere of silver light.”(Kenealy);