Tezikiah Gabriel and Kimberly Weichel
“Each one has to find his peace from within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Our experience as long-time peacebuilders is that it is much easier to live in peace when things are going well, than during a time of crisis or challenge. A crisis can come in many forms – a global pandemic, the ending of a relationship, losing a job, financial loss, a health crisis, the death of a loved one, loss of a home, or other. When crisis hits, our lives can be thrown into turmoil, disrupting all aspects of our daily lives. We feel that this is when nurturing inner peace is most significant, as it can be our greatest source of strength. It can also be a survival mechanism that not only helps us cope with the crisis at hand but gives us the fortitude and authenticity to be a compassionate, caring, and responsive support to others. Authentic peacebuilding calls us to live the experience of peace ourselves, regardless of our external environment. It is both a challenge and reward.
We take comfort from the notion that we can choose and create peace through the choices we make. That means that while we may have little or no control over the external forces that surround us in our complex world, we can, during chaos and adversity, choose peace. Nurturing our inner landscape through daily practices that keep us centered, balanced, caring, positive, and compassionate makes moment-to-moment choices easier and more durable.
We are inspired by the countless stories of people throughout history that, when experiencing extreme hardship, injustice, violence, and abuse, chose to respond with compassion, forgiveness, and hope. We might ask, how or why did they consciously choose those responses over understandable anger, hopelessness, and despair? The answer appears to be that each one, on some level, recognized that their survival and sustainability depended on it. They knew that succumbing to their unjust and inhumane circumstances would not serve them, the people around them, or the circumstance. And they knew how to draw on their inner resources to respond with strength, courage, and compassion to be able to survive.
Today, we recognize that hopelessness and powerlessness, and the resulting apathy and immobilization, does not serve us or the peace we wish to see in the world. The importance of embracing inner peace is based on the awareness that individual, group, and community survival and sustainability depends on achieving some measure of it.
As Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl (1) reminds us, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
How can we create and maintain inner peace during a crisis, for ourselves and for others? We believe the first step is to nurture our inner landscape, the place where peace resides. Each of us will choose to come into inner peace through actions and practices that fit our unique needs. Perhaps we have the inherent capacity to remain centered and calm, or perhaps we will choose to “do” something that nurtures our inner peace. Whatever our choices, it is likely to involve positive ‘self-talk’ and practices that support, nurture, and help us sustain our peace. As the Buddha said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
The following are some practices that have worked for us during a crisis that we hope might inspire your reflection and action.
- The Importance of Self-Care
We all have busy lives, and that typically doesn’t change in a crisis. Our priorities may shift, or we might have to maintain some semblance of “life as usual” while also dealing with the crisis at hand. In difficult times, it is even more important to take time for self-care. This includes any practice that nurtures our mind, body, and Spirit. What practices help you stay healthy, calm, positive, and balanced? It could include a daily walk, playing piano, reading a good book, practicing yoga, journaling, spending time with friends and family, meditating, taking a bath, doing an art project, eating healthy foods, or other.
At the heart of self-care is knowing that we are worthy of love, and that self-love is essential for us to love and care for others. Being agents of change in the world begins with caring for ourselves. Having a healthy social network is important for support and to not feel alone. In addition to friends and family, your social network may include involvement in a faith community or other organization. Often others will respond favorably if we communicate our needs and ask for support, including the time we need to deal with the crisis.
Self-care might also mean protecting our inner peace by honoring our own limitations and saying ‘No’ when our plate is full. This can be hard if others are depending on us and expecting us to say ‘yes.’ It might mean restricting situations, activities or relationships that interfere with our well-being. The crisis itself might contribute to additional feelings of vulnerability, making it even more difficult to say ‘No’ and to set limits and boundaries. Crisis can consume all our internal resources, so it’s helpful to check-in and be lovingly honest with ourselves, determine our priorities (those things that must be done) and give ourselves permission to limit our external obligations.
If we face a crisis at work, we can try to either change the situation or change the way we respond to it. Can we adjust our work to make it less stressful? Are we working unsustainable hours? Is there conflict at work that needs to be addressed? If so, it may be time to find ways to change the stressful situation, meet with our supervisor to discuss possibilities or to look for a different job. Since work often dominates much of our time, we want to spend that time doing work that sustains us.
Any crisis can lead us into depression as we struggle to cope with the impact. Our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth can decline, sometimes exacerbated by our ‘Inner critic’. Our inner critic (our critical inner voice) amplifies or exaggerates self-criticism, creates negative self-talk, and interferes with the confidence we need to take positive action. We want to be aware of this and any self-sabotaging thoughts that might hamper our healing, including feelings of unworthiness, that we somehow caused the crisis, or other beliefs that get in the way of our healing.
Saying daily positive affirmations (such as “I am worthy”), practicing self-compassion and getting support from others helps overcome our inner critic. Making intentional choices will help restore our confidence, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth through a focus on the positive. Healthy people know when it is time to reach out for professional help or to engage with positive friends and family members. Even though we often cannot control our circumstances, we can control our reactions to our circumstances, seek help when we need it, and do our best to be and stay centered.
Hope is a quintessential ingredient for survival and thrival. Maintaining hope, knowing you are not alone, embracing an optimistic attitude, and recognizing that this too shall pass, assist in the healing process. What are the ways in which you care for yourself? We have found that contributing to the well-being of others, seeking gifts that may be embedded in the crisis, and finding peace and joy in simple moments are ways to create and maintain inner peace.
- Living our Values
Focusing on our values gives us a sense of peace and control over our world and helps us ride the bumps and challenges in our life, especially during a crisis. Many powerful emotions can be unleashed – fear, anxiety, anger, hurt, loss, betrayal and more – and we can give ourselves permission to feel them, allow them, and accept them. While these feelings are a natural part of the healing process, it may not be the right time to make major life decisions until we can better balance emotion with judgment.
When all else fails us, gratitude can restore our weary spirit and bring us back into balance. It helps to practice gratitude because it provides peace of mind and reminds us to appreciate what we have rather than what we are lacking. Building a sense of optimism supports the practice of gratitude. For many, gratitude is not just a virtue but also a survival skill. Daily practice of embracing gratitude provides a direct connection to our Spirit.
Finding or remembering our sense of purpose inspires us through the crisis and provides motivation and direction that can keep us on track and feeling fulfilled and happy. Focusing on actions that fulfill our purpose helps us transcend our current situation by engaging our passion in opportunities that have meaning to us and that make a difference to others. Pursuit of purpose is a core element in sustainable well-being.
A crisis calls on our courage to face the challenge, feel our feelings, ask for help as needed, and discern some good next steps. Courage does not mean being fearless, rather it is the ability to face our fears and move forward anyway. We have found that crises may provide opportunities to look at underlying issues that had been avoided in a relationship, work, or health situation, and suddenly must be dealt with to resolve the crisis. This can ultimately be an opportunity for positive growth and change.
- Avoiding Overwhelm
Overwhelm is often a natural response to a crisis, yet it can be counterproductive when it takes us into unhealthy coping mechanisms. Typical coping strategies might be to work more, faster, harder, or to eat fast food and avoid good nutrition – just when we need good fuel for our bodies to deal with the crisis at hand. We may not be sleeping well, and compensate by drinking too much coffee, and then wonder why we are depressed or irritable. The energy needed to cope with a crisis can be all-consuming.
To avoid overwhelm, we need to allow time to reflect and to examine how we can conserve our time and energy. This is the time to establish realistic expectations of ourselves, and to establish clear boundaries. Ultimately, our overscheduled lives can limit us from doing what really calls us, as we are too busy to listen to the voice of our inner landscape. While always a good practice, it is essential during a crisis to take stock of our priorities, so that we know and can dedicate time to the things that truly must be done, leaving time and energy for us to nurture our way through the crisis. We suggest being bold about nurturing and protecting our inner peace, as each of us is worthy of taking the time to care deeply about our self.
- Responding to Loss and Grief
Any change, including changes that come through crisis, typically result, to a greater or lesser degree, in loss. It might be a more general, ambiguous loss of the large and small things that have changed during a pandemic that brings sadness or grief. A natural response to crisis is a loss of one’s control. When we experience loss, we also experience some common responses to grief. These grief responses include crying, exhaustion, powerlessness, short-term memory loss, a loss of focus, forgetting things, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, among many others. We may be wishing for things to “be the way they used to be,” or we may feel that we have lost ourselves, or our sense of self. Times of crisis call us into radical self-forgiveness and acceptance of these emotions and responses. Pushing them down or repressing them only extends the time for the natural grieving process to unfold and come into acceptance. We need to be kind to ourselves. While things will be different on the other side of the crisis, a “new normal” will bring us back into the strengths and skills that make us who we are.
- Nurturing our Spirit
Spirituality might be defined as an “inner navigation system” that we look to for guidance or direction, or to bring us a sense of joy, peace, and comfort. It doesn’t matter how we define or name our spiritual source or how we see our “soul,” we know that it is core to who we are as unique sacred beings. Our connection to our soul gives meaning and purpose to our lives, and is expressed through our work, our relationships, and our work in the world. During a crisis, we may feel disconnected from our soul, the source of our identity. It can feel like we have lost the very essence of who we are. Our inner peace and joy might be diminished, and we may feel hopeless, powerless, and lost.
As the former monk and author Thomas Moore writes in Care of the Soul, (2) when soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. Our temptation is to isolate these symptoms or to try to eradicate them one by one, but the root problem is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, even our interest in it.
Since we are spiritual beings, our souls, or our life essence, require care and nourishment if we are to survive and thrive, just as our bodies do. While we never are truly separate from our source, we may feel a sense of loss of identity or “soul” when coping with and responding to a crisis. We will come back into a sense of our sacred identity as we heal from the crisis. However, we can quicken the recovery by paying attention to nurturing our soul through daily activities that give us comfort, peace, and joy. It could mean quiet walks in nature, connecting with your spiritual community, quiet reflection, meditation, writing, listening to sacred music or whatever else nurtures your soul and brings you back into connection with your sacred self.
Buddhist master Maticintins explains, “Everyone is nourished when you develop yourself spiritually—whereby, you know that you’re being true to yourself, and you can feel this richness unfolding, and it makes you feel more generous and patient to all of life around you, more loving—an unconditional kind of loving.”
Particularly in difficult times, it is often our spirituality that carries us through, gives us hope, and recognizes that this too shall pass. It is possible we might also see that there are gifts in every crisis that can reaffirm our connection to our sacred source, allowing us to see beyond our physical selves and circumstances.
6. Coherence and Building Resilience
To achieve balance during a crisis, it is useful to recognize the role of coherence and resilience. Dr. Rollin McCraty of HeartMath Institute (3) explains that coherence is the state when the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. “It is a state that builds “resiliency” – personal energy is accumulated, not wasted – leaving more energy to manifest intentions and harmonious outcomes.” The research based HeartMath techniques tap into an individual’s multiple intelligences to bring greater capacity to self-regulate, cope with crisis, and bring us into coherence, or inner peace. Used over time, HeartMath techniques also build resilience.
Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan (4) who studies resilience, explains, “Active resilience happens when people who are vulnerable find resources to cope with stress and bounce back, and do so in a way that leaves them stronger, ready to handle additional stress in more adaptive ways.” Her research indicates that resilience can be learned and is based on brain connectivity: “Our research shows that really depressed people have lost their power to remodel their brains, which is devastating because brain remodeling is something we need to do all the time.” Depression can be a natural response to crisis, and it interferes with our ability to feel balanced or to experience inner peace.
Brain modeling, which results in resilience, begins before birth and is shaped and informed by life experiences. Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity or ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences. Being resilient does not mean that we do not experience difficulty or distress, rather that we have a greater capacity to deal with the crisis. The practices we employ to survive the crisis can increase our resilience, which gives us the strength to tackle problems head-on, overcome adversity, and move forward in our lives. Self-care practices also build resiliency.
There are many ways to build resilience, including developing problem-solving skills to help us resolve issues as they arise. Surviving the crisis itself builds resilience. Being proactive with our health, finances and relationships can help to avoid unnecessary crisis. Taking care of our bodies, avoiding unsafe behaviors, monitoring our media consumption, nurturing our relationships, managing our finances, and not procrastinating can keep our inner landscape as free as possible from stress and the resulting crisis.
While the changes brought on by difficult times in our lives can create fear, uncertainty, and doubt, as crises usually do, it can also open new opportunities. We know that change is a constant part of our everyday life. We have found that embracing it and going with the flow is a much easier ride than resisting it. Remaining flexible helps us ride the inevitable waves of change.
As hard as it is, we have found that living through a crisis can make us stronger and more able to deal with life’s challenges in the future. We each have extraordinary inner resources – they are there, sometimes just below the surface. We hope this information has resonance with you and will be helpful in your individual journey with crisis. We know that nurturing our inner landscape can help us thrive in peace, even during a crisis.
“Peace does not mean being in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means being in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart.” Maya Angelou
1) Victor Frankl, Viktor Frankl – Wikipedia
2) Thomas Moore, Thomas Moore (spiritual writer) – Wikipedia
3) Institute of Heart Math HeartMath Institute
4) Huda Akil, Huda Akil | UM Neuroscience Graduate Program (umich.edu)