Towards a New Spirituality on the Field

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series - John Paul Lederach

John Paul Lederach is widely known for his pioneering work on conflict transformation. He is the founding director of EMU's Conflict Transformation Program and its associated Practice and Training Institute. He serves on the faculty of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame. Annually, he either teaches or mentors CJP students in a retreat or classroom setting. He has extensive experience as a peacebuilding practitioner, trainer and consultant throughout Latin America, Africa and the U.S. He has been a pioneer in developing elecitive methods of conflict resolution training and practice, and is a widely published theorist in both English and Spanish. He is the author of When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation, (University of Queensland Press, 2010), The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005), The Journey Toward Reconciliation (Herald Press, 1999), Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (USIP, 1997), and Preparing for Peace: Confliction Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse University Press, 1995). Lederach holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Colorado (1988).

Yago Abeledo: I have been impressed with your last two books "The Moral Imagination" and "When Blood and Bones Cry out," as well as your talk given at the Kroc Institute called "Compassionate Presence." Your writings and talks convey not only your wisdom but also the deep stage of reflection on which you are now focusing your life as a practitioner. I sense that you are entering into a mystical realm within the field of peacebuilding. Does that fit with your experience? 

Sufi Dancer
Sufi Dancer

John Paul Lederach: Yes, it does. I have had a lifelong interest in the mystics. When I lived in Spain in my undergraduate years, a key mentor was Mennonite Theologian John Driver who had done studies on the mystics, particularly in the Catholic tradition; so the interest dates back a long way. More recently, with work that has taken me to Asia and Central Asia, I have developed a keen interest in Sufism and the Japanese Buddhism, particularly the Haiku tradition that has had a big influence on me. You are right to say that as the years have gone on I have given myself permission to let that be reflected in my academic work. My first books were written with more of a mainstream academic focus. 

Yago: In the introduction of your book "The Moral Imagination," you write: "How do we transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch our human community while still living in them? ... this is the question that, at every step of the way, peacebuilding, this noble endeavor to break beyond the shackles of violence, must forcibly face."

I understand that this is an invitation to enter into the spirituality of the practitioner. I believe that in order to be able to transcend the cycles of violence while still living in them, the practitioner must be able to transcend him/herself while being fully immersed in reality. This implies a profound level of healing and inner processing or transformation of the pain carried within. In "Compassionate presence", you talk about the practitioner as the "wounded healer," mentioning Henry Nouwen. You state that the practitioner heals, brings peace to conflict, because he or she has that job as a priority. Can you go deeper into this view of the practitoner as a wounded healer who is in the very middle of violence but is still able to transcend that demanding situation?

John Paul: You are touching at the heart where a lot of my reflection has gone during the last few years. Certainly the talk at Kroc/San Diego on Compassionate Presence emerges from a volume I am working on during this sabbatical year, although I think it will take longer than this year to complete this book because I am finding that the things I sense, feel and experience are not easy to convey or fully understand. In our professional field, we concentrate a lot on process design, analysis, and technical skills that often form the mainstay of our work. These are core capacities we hope people build and learn. Academic studies focus on empirical evidence to one approach or another which makes a difference. All this remains important and provides a way to insert ourselves and be taken seriously on one hand in a world of academics and on another hand in an environment of politicians who may have some suspicion about the things we do in this field we call peacebuilding. We want and must show ourselves as professional and competent. This layer of professional activity and technical expertise forms maybe 90% or more of what we do. From "The Moral Imagination" forward, my search has explored what I call in the book, and I am now developing, "the below and the beyond."

The below refers to something that goes deeper and penetrates under the surface of the technical layer. Rather consistently I have found that when you have a real connection with people, when you get to the below, you touch something deeply connected to, or reconnected with a basic and shared sense of humanity. Simultaneously I experience this as connected to something transcendent.
This holds a paradoxical quality: Those things that are the most transcendent are also those things that reconnect us with being human. This bridge leading to a quality of connection has less than to do with a particular technique or approach and much to do with a quality of presence with people. This is the intuition and insight I have been trying to follow. For many years I would have focused more on the technical side of what I was doing, exploring, developing and describing the expertise. And I still do. I am called on to bring my expertise. So it is not like you take your expertise and throw it out of the window - because it remains an important element, to be able to think and analyze clearly or respond with proposals and options.

Human Connection
Human Connection

But in some ways the process of maturing, perhaps from so many years of working close to settings of deep conflict and violence, has brought me full circle back to the understanding that what matters as much as anything is the human connection. When you have around you a politician that you are meeting who is under threat, or a person expressing a deeply held ideology who has experienced a lot of oppression and who feels the only recourse that remains is violence, with those people when you are able to connect at a human level, more nuanced and richly textured exchanges and viewpoints become possible. People open up a side of vulnerability they tend to protect or in some instances reject within them.   

I have been working a lot with this word, vulnerability. One of my poet friends, Mark Nepo, suggested the Latin origin of vulneris has to do with wound. To be vulnerable is to carry a wound gracefully he suggested. In some ways the wounded healer lives in this way. I am having difficulty in my writing to find a way to express this adequately. But some of the ways I have been looking at suggest the need to be attentive enough to notice that of myself in another and that of the divine in the other. Compassion or a compassionate presence essentially reflects the capacity to really see yourself in the suffering of another and to notice how the divine is present in them as a gift to remember your own humanity. The great mandate of love in the Biblical tradition was to remember you were once a stranger. Compassionate presence functions like a pathway that permits us to find our way home, back to just being people, back to humanity.Recently in Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was with a group of thirty people who work in mediation. Many years after the peace agreement, it is not clear what all has been accomplished. Even though Northern Ireland is held up as one of the best examples, there is still a lot of day to day violence that happens, especially in the interface communities. One person expressed this in a simple phrase that formed a haiku. This is one of my spiritual practices, I guess you could say. I listen for poetry in everyday language. Often the greatest insights come in a haiku simplicity but hold a great insight. 

                                                                                        "Maybe," he says,"                                                                                                                                                   This is as good as it will get.                                                                                   Peaceful bigotry."

Ferron - Folk Singer and Poet
Ferron - Folk Singer and Poet

The insight suggested that while peace was signed, hatred lived on. We will live without guns but we will hold onto the security of our enmity and animosity. In this context our group looked at themes of compassion and how you sustain hope over a long period of time when it seems hopeless. In the course of the workshop, I played a song by singer songwriter Ferron called Cactus. Deeply reflective and philosophical, it narrates the loss of a loved one with vibrant memories and yet a sense of deep lament. I lifted out one line for us to reflect on in the workshop. Ferron sings:

It seems to me that the tools for being human are wicked crude.                                                                              They are not so slick and smooth and shiny as some stranger might allude.

So I had this phrase, -the tools for being human are wicked crude – and suggested to the workshop that being human requires great vulnerability. We work with crude tools and too often cruel circumstances. To be human requires you open yourself up where you will experience pain. There is risk in being human. We spend a lot of our lives creating ways to protect ourselves. All the things we do to protect that soft, vulnerable inside of the-who-we-are because it reveals so much we fear may not be perfect or accepted. What if we aren't light? What if we are torn apart? What if we are taken advantage of?With her phrase, I had people in the workshop go on a walk and talk, a walking conversation. It has never made sense to me why we sit so much in classrooms assuming that sitting is the best way to learn.

Actually, almost all of the great teachers of history taught by walking. Jesus is the most prominent example from my faith tradition. He did almost all of his teachings while walking with disciples. School was in the streets, on the way. So I sent them out to walk and then to come back and write a little bit.
I had one question with a context. The context was this: For years they had attended workshops and trainings to learn the tools of mediation and conflict transformation. But had they ever thought about the tools to be human. If they were to identify five key or central tools for being human, what would those be? 

It was an interesting exercise. I may try that again sometime. I think in some ways it is probably where I am at right now in terms of your question of contribution. I am really trying to figure out what these tools for being human are and it seems to me they return over and again to our quality of presence. They form and are formed by what we may refer to as spiritual disciplines. At essence: How to cultivate openness, humility and patience. I find humility a particular challenging notion. Because especially in the field of conflict, humility more than anything requires a kind of attitude of that you have not yet arrived, that you don't know, that you are not certain.

The opposite of humility is arrogance, and that of course we know very quickly. We feel the presence of arrogance immediately. It says, "I am better than you. I know more than you. I am superior. I have a greater knowledge". In conflict settings, arrogance forms part of a protective façade and emerges as a weapon, not just as a tool, a weapon. The weapon comes out when I or we believe we have the Truth, so much so that we no longer need to search for it and that the searching is finished. Humility says, searching and Truth seeking are endless. I don't have the Truth, and then of course you are in a place where it is a bit disconcerting. How do you continue to have faith and believe when you don't have the Truth? It is a kind of unnerving way to live to be honest. But it has a lot to do with how you interact with other people, and of course especially true of how you interact in inter-religious dialogue.

Yago: This connects very well with the third question. While in San Diego, you stated: "I must confess that I have many more questions now than when I first started this work… in reference to faith I am less certain of the certainties I once had. Though I must also say, that living in the face of violence, alongside people of extraordinary courage, has deepened my faith… For me faith is not about quantity and certainty… it is about essence… be yourself… be open…. be curious… know that Truth unfolds endlessly…"

I think that you have already touched on many of these values in your previous answer. Diarmuid O'Murchu in his book QuantumTheology, helps expand our vision of different entry points to the experience of the Divine, not only in beauty but also in its pain and destructibility. He says: "The creative process itself, with its beauty and elegance, but also with its pain and destructibility, is our primary, tangible source for experiencing the divine energy" (Quantum Theology, 80).

I think that in fact what new science is telling us is that there is no way to create without previous destruction. Chaos is the gate-way to beauty, to something new emerging, to new possibilities. The integration of both, creation and destruction creates a sense of Oneness of life. Only a mystical paradoxical mind can comprehend this. It is to say "I am because we are".

It is to say that deep within, I am that very conflict I am living in. Somehow the practitioner is invited to first say a big "yes" of basic acceptance to the pain as well as to the destruction happening in the conflict that is being faced, then paradoxically, to work through the numerous "no's" that create identity and boundaries of dignity before bringing light into the complex art of peacebuilding. Richard Rohr contributes on this point in his book the Naked Now. What is your understanding of this idea? 

John Paul: I think that is fantastic. Yes, I would agree. What you have been describing has a great parallel with the things I have been struggling to understand. What I am arriving at is that from my own understanding, the mystical tradition carries a practice that chooses to live in the space that is created by embracing paradoxes. A paradox is very different than a contradiction, and that is one of the things that differentiate mysticism from other theological traditions. Some theological traditions would wish to arrive at more definitiveness, with definitive answers, so they tend to work much more in what you might call the tradition of contradiction. I am not a theologian and this is not probably the language they would use to describe themselves, but the tradition of contradiction would say: "I need to arrive at a definitive and therefore exclusive answer.

"Towards Non-Dualism" (Yago, Dublin 2012)
"Towards Non-Dualism" (Yago, Dublin 2012)

It is either this or it is that. And I choose this because it is closer to the truth that I know, and it differentiates itself by contrasting itself with that". So you could have for example a Catholic tradition and an Anabaptist tradition. Because you are living in an Anabaptist [tradition], you would hear probably on more than one occasion how people would describe the history of the Anabaptism, and they will use it by contrasting with Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century. So, I know who I am by contrasting our belief with something else. The terminology I am using for that is the Tradition of contradiction and contrast. One way you portray that is the way you approach truth.  

When we are in conflict settings, we have a lot of this happening. One group's view of history is contradicted by another group's view of history. One group's interpretation of a particular event has to be contradicted by another group's, so it's oppositional and contradictory, framed in either/or choices. And in the conflict field of course, we try to develop a capacity for both was well as ways of framing. It is a surface technique. Mysticism actually chooses (maybe by opting out of), to live in ways that transcend that tradition of contradiction and they do it by what you could call tradition of paradox. Let's imagine a place where there are two, three, even four or five potentially competing views that on the surface may appear contradictory but you choose to live them as a family. That is if you hold them without choosing one against the other and it is a difficult and intense place to live. In a tradition of paradox, you may find that you reach something that was not fully known before and in some instances you may find a deeper more unifying truth that brings them together. But this unity for the mystic does not ultimately seem to be what we seek.

Mystics have struck me as having this expansive view. Coming back to my preference or my liking of the word "humility", mystics often have a view of God, if it is in the tradition of Christianity. The Buddhist of course would not see this in terms of the Divine figure or a God. The Buddha himself has this notion of the expansive understanding which would be the dharma or the Nirvana which is ever sought for and ever growing. In all these mystical traditions, there is a view of the divine as so enormous, so expansive, that one can only perceive oneself as a small tiny, little thing in this greatness. By virtue of that, you have a lived humility that constantly seeks the unfolding of something that is greater than what I now know as such Truth is ever unfolding. So when I was starting to write this chapter in the current book, the way that I framed this has three basic practices portrayed as a confluence of paradoxes. 

Confluence means different aspects of paradoxical understanding or insight flow alongside each other without needing to eliminate each other. So, rather than saying my truth against your truth, they say we have certain truths that therefore require us to be exclusive. Let me give you an example: it is as if in Christianity right now my tradition would say that Mennonite/Anabaptist theology has a parallel to Catholic theology. So if I am a very evangelical Mennonite, I would say the key to Truth is that "if you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Lord and confess Him to be your Saviour, you will have eternal life". Those who do not confess this will not be included in the eternity. I have never felt comfortable with that theology. 

Coming back to my three practices, the first one was that vulnerability is made up of the practice of honesty and humility. I think Honesty is that you share to the best of your understanding the truth that you have, but humility requires that you stay open and seek to ever find how that may be increased, deepened, expanded and changed, and the source of that expansion may come from the most unexpected sources. Those two things combined create a very vulnerable place to live and it has a lot to do with quality of presence.

Going back to the way you talked about the practitioner in the setting of conflict, I think more important than a particular technique we bring is our ability to be fully human. Where we are honest and in many regards humble with people, it creates environments that invite others to be honest and humble. That honesty added to that humility mean that people will take away some of the layers of protection that they have. And then they will be honest about their experience and what they believe and what they think has happened, but they will be humble in a sense that says "even those very scary of me, I may have to admit that they are others who also have something to add to this". Even the one I perceive as my enemy may have parts of the truth that I, myself, am afraid to even admit. That is the level where I think it is not so much in reference to the technique that we may possess or the particular process that we may have learned. Rather, it has something to do with the quality of presence of who and how we are with others that creates a place and space that has emergent, creative, unexpected qualities. And this represents the difficult, hard point of theory.

Quality of presence is not a kind of one time event. It has to emerge in committed relationships over time. So it is about how people do this over a span of time, if not a lifetime, as opposed to much of the process and technique which is about how I will do it with you tonight in the two hours we are going to have this conversation. Instrumental technique pursues a conversation with the small c. I am talking about The Conversation with a capital C., commitment to Conversation and relationship with evolution over time. That to me is where much of what you were describing lies. I think this has a very mystical quality to it, mystic in the term of mystery and transcendence, not fully known, entering a space of the burning grounds as Van Morrison sang it, the burning bush if you will. 

"Burning Bush" (Yago, Dublin 2012)
"Burning Bush" (Yago, Dublin 2012)

It is a sacred kind of a ground, you have to take your shoes off in this Conversation kind of ground. Those kinds of conversations are potentially very powerful but they are particularity powerful when they come in the context of a committed relationship. That is, they have iterations, they have a process of engagement over time, they open toward depth and evolving understanding of Truth.

Yago: In your personal experience, can you perceive the presence of the Divine in the very middle of conflict? How do you experience the Divine?  

John Paul: I have had a lot of those experiences. For me, the important part is to develop the capacity to see more regularly. That is [in] a normal everyday basis to be aware of the Divine in others and in our conversations. Sometimes it shocks you because you are in a context where you suddenly find that someone –this is why I come back to the notion of honesty and humility – has revealed a part of themselves that was done so at great risk and in so doing you felt moved in the connection you felt with that person in such a way that you experienced something that was simultaneously very human and very divine. And it is then in that moment that you notice something of God in the other.In San Diego, in a follow up conversation with students, we had a conversation and the question that was asked to me was very similar to the one you have just mentioned. And it was one of the first times that I publicly talked about an element that has at least for the last six or seven years been evolving but now it is starting to take a shape that I am noticing much more. I will try to repeat it like I answered it. I am actually not a person who is overtly devout. My tradition is one where we show our devoutness by our external expression like our dress. 

We do that often in the area of prayer, prayer is often externalized, at meals, at certain kinds of services, and people with genuine sense of expressing their faith do so by way of oral prayer. I grew up in that tradition - I understand it - but it was never something I felt deeply about. It felt like it was a kind of requirement; something that you maybe did to show to someone else that you were faithful. I always found prayer in other things, but they weren't very normal, so I didn't know quite what to do with it. For example, song was much more prayerful to me than the actual prayer in a service; connection to nature was far more prayerful. One of the things that nature does is that it makes you feel small, you realize once again how small you are and for me that is powerfully prayerful. You reconnect to your place in the world. You have something to give but you are part of something big.

But the things that I became more cognizant about in a more intentional way were people's faces and how unexpectedly a person's face would come to me, for instance when I think of a person like Gustavo Parajón, a man I worked with in Nicaragua who has now passed on.When I think of him, the first thing that comes to me is his face. Sometimes out of the blue that face would come. So I started this little internal tradition or discipline that whenever a particular person's face came to me I would take just some few seconds, sometimes more depending on how strong the presence of that face is with me, and hold that face, that image, and to remember that person. This to me was prayer. I was in prayer with that person for that moment. What was present was the face.

It came back to some things that I had worked on in an earlier book called "The Journey toward Reconciliation."

It is one of the few books that have some of my own theological reflections and one of the forming stories in that book was the Jacob and Esau story, the two brothers who had separated. When they came back together after nearly 30 years of estrangement, Jacob has this interesting experience the night before he meets his enemy brother Esau. He fights all night with this figure, and the figure some people would say is like an angel, could be the divine, maybe Jacob is fighting with himself, maybe he is fighting with his brother in that night, his memories - who knows what all was going on. He survives the fight and in the morning he builds an altar, because he wants to remember that place where he says, "I saw the face of God and I survived. Here is the place that I saw the face of God and I survived."

Then he goes out and he meets his enemy brother, they embrace and have this discussion, and as part of this discussion, Esau says to Jacob, "You know, you didn't need to send all these things to me," and Jacob says, "but I wanted to find your favour because to see your face is to see the face of God." I always felt that there is something extraordinary powerful in that. Only during the last years I am starting to embrace this as a ritual or discipline. It has become that for me. Those are more powerful moments of prayer, when I hold the face of another in my presence, more powerful than anything else that I do because it is to hold the face of God. Then when you were asking about the times I had experienced the Divine in conflict. What I have found is that there is something in that moment that almost literally I carry with me a much deeper sense of the face of that person, those faces actually are what return to me, when I think of that person. I may think of an anecdote or incident, but actually what comes back is the face. I have come to believe that maybe there is much more power than we think, in really, truly looking at the person and holding that face. It becomes something that has the capacity to transcend space and time that you carry with you, and how hard it is actually to look at people. 

Beggar (Al Farrow. Bronze)
Beggar (Al Farrow. Bronze)

You know how hard it is when you are walking in a big city on the street and a beggar comes up to you and you are in a hurry, how little discipline I have, how little of the divine is in me, because I cannot even take a minute or fifteen seconds. What I notice that I do, the very first thing I do is to avoid their face. Because if I look at the face then it is God looking at me! What happens if we are practitioners and what we do is we are actually looking at these faces, and how these faces get contorted with pain of generations of things that have happened, of what is in them that cannot let them out, and what is out there that they do not want to let in, if I were to be honest and answer your question. I have very few things that I do that I would call devout but I have become far more intentional about noticing faces and I think there is something in this that has a transcendent quality I do not fully understand.  

Yago: John Paul, thank you for sharing deeply. Earlier you had talked about the quality of presence and about the importance of having a paradoxical mind. Before, the people who were called to develop a paradoxical mind, like for example the contemplatives, felt the need to exclude themselves from society. They took refuge in monasteries and convents, but today we are called to be "monks outside the walls" and "missionaries within the walls". All of us paradoxically integrate both vocations in our journey, to be contemplatives and mystics in the middle of the world, inserted into the "mess" of life. But as you insert yourself with a paradoxical mind, you are surrounded by dualistic minds. I think that behind the shift from conflict resolution to conflict transformation, there is a very important spiritual dimension. In your talk in San Diego, you mentioned how to promote mindfulness in the students, how to accompany them and to walk with them. In short, what is your vision in the curriculum of a master or doctoral program as far as equipping a practitioner to be more mindful, to have a paradoxical mind, to be rooted in the quality of the presence?

John Paul: That is a terrific question. I have struggled with it a lot. There are occasions where I have had opportunities to teach courses where that is the primary purpose. Personally, I think it is grossly under-estimated and under-included in our general curriculums, even in the ones that are in the programs like the University of Notre Dame with a Catholic ethos to it, or the Eastern Mennonite with a Mennonite one. This is still perceived to be somewhere on the periphery.

Yago: But this is the very core…

John Paul: I believe that is not only central but the fount of everything. But it is not always easy to know how it enters into the formal academic curriculum, the very notion of the formality of study. So it's like in the beginning of this chapter that I was just writing, they ask me to write about spiritual practices, I said that seems to me to be an oxymoron, meaning that something is inherently odd or wrong about two things that are held together. The oxymoron I was saying is spiritual practices, because practices are in some ways those things that are very mundane, every day. Spirituality points toward mystery, mysticism. So how do you hold together mystery and the mundane? But this is the paradox that most mystics work with. 

Thomas Merton, or Buddha himself would say that when you wash dishes, it can either be a very mundane task that you are frustrated with or it can be a moment of enormous transcendence. I have to have that particular experience with washing dishes, but who knows my moment may still come!
The times I have taught more directly on this quality of presence was in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, with one exception which was a course on vocation at Notre Dame, a senior seminar. The purpose of the course was to have students engage much more deeply in what I would refer to as the vocational work, vocation here used in the origin of the word, to reach and touch something of your voice. Not so much vocation in the traditional sense that you are choosing like in the Catholic tradition a particular order. 

I am using the term much more in reference to how you come into a sense of who you are and a sense of purpose and how you live with that purpose across a lifetime. The term I would use for that is you are able to touch in a deeper level your sense of voice. Most of those questions were built around the book "The Moral Imagination." Methodologies were quite different than normal teaching methodologies. They were in my estimation among the most interesting and fun courses I ever taught. How to include it in a course like Introduction to Conflict Transformation and Strategic Peacebuilding, this is a much greater challenge because you are supposed to cover an academic literature in conflict transformation. You are supposed to infuse people with a certain skillset. You are supposed to introduce them to ways that NGOs do strategic peacebuilding like when they are in Los Angeles, Nairobi or Kathmandu. I find it much more daunting. 

My sense is that there are some practices. As I become older in my years of teaching, I find I am more willing to take certain risks, and the risks come with two potential sources. One risk is that with your colleagues, other academics, their way of inquiring about the rigour of your teaching, you have questions about the things that you are doing because they don't seem to fit the academic tradition, and that is a risk that I am increasingly willing to accept. The other is the risk with the student, because to be quite honest not all students are interested in this element because they don't feel it will be useful if they get a job, in Brussels, Washington or New York. The NGO hiring will not include this in their interview.

Yago: Perhaps another important element is to consider the age of the student, in programs of that kind you can have students in a spectrum from 20 to 60 years. It is often in the second half of life that you develop a paradoxical mind, or at least to become sensitive enough to agree to undergo the test. It is not easy during the first half of life to see the need to have a paradoxical mind, there are other preoccupations related to personal development…

John Paul: Yes, during the first half of life basically you want the tool. You don't want the process that invented the tool, or the question that catalysed it. But that is where I would like to take students, the journey away from the tool and toward the intuition that sparks the curiosity for innovation and creativity. That's actually where I try to live all the time. 

Creativity has a lot to do with spirituality because you have to live always at the edge of what is and to bring into existence something that does not yet exist. Creativity is very mystical. Most just want the tool, they don't want the invention process, they don't want to live in that scary space of not knowing.
So all those ten books I wrote that now you are reading, I am no longer there, although they may be useful and even if I still keep teaching some of them. It's like the shell of the walnut. I want the gooey inside that you eat. Then you plan to come back and eat it again. The shell is left on the ground, it is hard, it is protecting something. The shell is the tool. And if I give you the shell, and you'll walk around telling people, "I have the shell." I want something more than that. But it is not easy because the students are not always in a place where they are ready to enter that space. Although I have to say I have been encouraged. More and more of our students are willing to engage that level, if you create the right space for it. 

Typically in my introductory courses I have at least one or two sessions where I open this much more directly, but I often expand it a bit. For example, I will start class with 15 minutes of silence, and I'll ask them to write whatever they are thinking about during that time; just to sit quietly and write for a little bit. And at some point I want to come back to what is happening with that space. 

On a fairly regular basis I send people out in pairs to walk and talk. In the Summer Peacebuilding Institute on a very regular basis, everyday the whole class would walk together. And I do that occasionally in Notre Dame but in the winter it is more complicated with the severe weather. I quite often will walk with my class. These are small little bumps in the direction you are asking about.

The big bump I started two or three years ago. We got some money to run an experiment that we called "the apprenticeship program." The apprenticeship traditionally would have been a blacksmith, a leather maker, a shoe maker, or paper maker. They would take an apprentice. People that gave a lifetime to a craft, usually were people who were extremely skilled in the technical aspects of their craft, but they had a mysterious mystical relationship with their craft even though they may not have ever expressed it or written about it. There is a certain level of respect the Wood carver or furniture maker will have with the wood, or the paper maker will have with the paper, so I proposed that it would be interesting if in the peacebuiding field, we started thinking more in lines of apprenticeship, than in the lines of formal technical preparation for people in the academic programs. So we ran about a three year experiment on this and the way that I wrote about it when I first wrote the grant said that all my life I had been trying to find the way to develop the school of wholeness

"Stone bridge in Autumn" (Jason Tako)
"Stone bridge in Autumn" (Jason Tako)

Yago: Is it related to the hidden wholeness you talk about in the talk "Compassionate Presence"?

John Paul: Yes, that was the wonderful phrase of Parker Palmer who wrote a whole book about the hidden wholeness. The school of wholeness would be equally concerned with the development of the whole person as it would be with the intellectual development of their mind, the skillful development of their capacity to interact with the tools of the field. But it would go deeper into the areas that really started to open up questions of creativity and spirituality and the wholeness of the person.

We had three locations with what we called anchors or mentors. They were placed in Argentina, Thailand and myself in North America. Each of us chose three or four apprentices that we worked with over three years. We formed small teams and once a year the whole group would come together for a week, for retreat like format for reflection. All of us were directly involved in peacebuilding. Not all of us were involved in an academic setting. We had some vareity on that, but what it really started to point out was how deficient we are in our academic programs, our curriculums, for attending to these elements that are not well attended to by simply adding something to a course where you talk about spirituality or creativity.   

They are not well attended by doing a single course where people may experiment with it, they may be taught a bit of meditation, looking at the mystical traditions, etc. But what it would actually come into being at the very core of how we are developing whole people as practitioners-scholars, and not just practitioners or scholars. Because both of those point to aspects of the person. But they don't necessarily attend to the question of the wholeness.

Yago: Over these last years I have been quite touched by what the new sciences are discovering about reality. This is a very wonderful time because the new physics are coming to the same experience of what all the mystics throughout history have experienced. Scientific concepts are becoming very spiritual. You mention a bit in your last book, "When Blood and Bones Cry Out," referring to "string theory" and to micro-vibrations happening at the quantum level. What is your vision regarding the connection between quantum physics and peacebuilding? How can we include the new physics in peacebuilding?

John Paul: Probably the most influential writer for me on this was Margaret Wheatly. She was working primarily as an organizational consultant, with small and larger organizations. And really came with these understandings of how relationship is at the core of everything, how infinite the modalities of creativity are and how we rarely find ways to embrace that fully in our ways of constructing organizations and processes. Several areas of this influenced my work and writing.

One was the concept of a process-structure, that came primarily out of biology where some very interesting phenomena in life that are simultaneously structured but are ever evolving processes; a river is a very good example, the skin on your body, is even a better example. Skin has a certain function and purpose but everyday, every week, it is completely new yet it retains its capacity, purpose. I work a lot with that in peacebuilding because I think that we really have to be enormously creative about the ways in which we are forming structures of purpose in ways that constantly renew and that are ever evolving with a real capacity for creativity. That to me is also at the core if you will of the new sciences, the new physics, the ways in which they envision dynamic yet structured processes. That for me was a powerful insight because a lot of peacebuilding can move very strongly towards the structural side. You can have a ministry of peace, you can have peace processes and that thing is going to be defined with structures, and roles and functions, and all of a sudden everything that was creative about it dies. So how do we retain a sense of purpose but in an ever-evolving creativity, is really a big challenge.

"From Complexity to Simplicity" (Yago, Dublin 2012)
"From Complexity to Simplicity" (Yago, Dublin 2012)

Another one that for me was very powerful was the notion that you have some very fundamental basic essences that combine in infinite expression. This is of course part of the new sciences that deal a lot with complexity theory, and that behind complexity theory we find what we might better call a theory of simplicity. You are trying to get at the core essences that combine in infinite ways. It has a lot of applications for me. One of them is how I listen, and the ways you help people listen, that you listen in ways in that you are trying to get to a place where you are really at the core essence of what may be happening in a particular moment or context or set of relationships.

New sciences of course connect to old spiritual practices, so for me practicing simplicity within complexity was found primarily in haiku poetry, and the tradition of Buddhism that embraces haiku poetry, because haiku poetry is about capturing the essence, the elegance of complexity in its simplest form. If you do that, then you have a deep "Aha! Moment", a deep sense of connection and penetrating into an understanding that was not initially visible, and is retained for eternity if you will and so it has this momentary boundedness yet expresses something deep and eternal.  

The discipline requires attentiveness, mindfulness if you prefer, to some of the most simple and essential elements of conversation or analysing complex sets of conversations. This has a close proximity to parsimony, or what some will call in research the most elegant fit or theory. But these are not easy to convey or learn. They take discipline and forms of attentiveness.

Another interesting thing that I have found from the New Sciences in my peacebuilding work has been ways that you can connect the local, regional, all the way to global. And one of the elements, particularly in biology is that what you notice in the smallest unit has replicated out in the larger form. The fractals are an example of that.

Fern Plant
Fern Plant

The fern is an example of that where the smallest portion of the fern looks like the leaf and looks like the whole of the fern. The essence is replicated. So a lot of the work I do for example is I work in high-level political processes but often about 80% of my time has been in local communities. What I try to think through is how is the quality of what the local community might do, if they found ways of replicating itself in qualities that may be (let's say) at the regional or national. This is not easy to do but it is actually a form of fractal thinking, and so to be very attentive to the quality of relationship, the organization of what people do locally, may in fact hold the very seed that replicates out to wider levels; where as the other approach is that you are going to fashion something that is brought down to the local community by mandate. It becomes rather perfunctory, rigid almost and rarely is responsive to the quality of engagement and relationship it may need. 

Yago: I would add another deeper layer to the one of conflict at the level of relationships. It is related to our spiritual life. The closest "you" is carried deep within ourselves, and when this "you" is unattended it becomes our "false self" that interferes in our original plans.

Inside Out
Inside Out

John Paul: Exactly, It is also how you see it in yourself as well.

Yago: And many times the face that we don't want to see is not the one of the beggar on the streets, or the face of the broken people that come to the mediation meetings. It is the face of the wounded inner child that we carry within ourselves. I believe that it is first this "inner you" that calls for the "quality of our presence." Even through the spiritual inner life of a person we can gain many insights of how to solve conflicts in another fractal layer. As well as through our mediation and interaction in conflicts we gain insights in our own inner conflict process. We are invited to integrate the inner healing process of a person as a key fractal layer in our peacebuilding field.

John Paul: I agree!

Yago: Thanks a lot, John Paul, for giving your time to share deeply about your own inner process in the field of peacebuilding.

John Paul: Thank you Yago!!