There can never be peace between nations until there is first known
that true peace which is within the souls of men.[i]
— Black Elk
For centuries, saints and sages have taught that world peace originates from an inner source. Yet it has taken millennia for us to recognize the impact our collective lack of inner peace has had on the world. The very survival of humanity depends on understanding how inner peace tangibly and practically contributes to global harmony.
In the past thirty years, technological advances have empowered humanity to speed up and amplify our lifestyles, giving rise to massive consumerism and an economic globalization that potentiates the pursuit of happiness. The resultant spiritual crisis is wreaking havoc on the environment and contributing to deadly violence around the world.
For me, this awareness is neither an academic exercise nor a religious philosophy. My awareness of inner peace as a global responsibility comes from my love for the people of Sierra Leone, West Africa—a country consistently listed near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.
Sierra Leone: Love Affair and Heart Break
A.K. and Tendy with three daughters When I was in the Peace Corps from 1985 to 1989, I lived in two small remote villages in Sierra Leone— Kagbere and Masongbo. There were about 30 houses in each village, which meant there were approximately 300 people in each community. There was no running water, no electricity, and no telephones. My friends were largely subsistence farmers—like the Conteh family in Masongbo, or school teachers—like A.K. Sesay in Kagbere. They all lived on less than a dollar a day. Yet their lives were richly connected in a way I had not experienced in America.
Without the distractions of television, shopping malls, and the like, I found myself “keeping time” with friends in these villages—connecting to the very essence that held together large extended families and communities. For all its lack of Western conveniences, Sierra Leone was rich in social connections. There were frequently three or four generations living together in the same hut. The elderly were respected for their wisdom and life experiences, and were often available to help take care of the younger ones.
A.K. Sesay and the Contehs welcomed me into their hearts and homes. A.K.’s wife, Tendy, cooked for me while their daughters washed my clothes on rocks in a nearby stream and carried my drinking water in buckets on their heads. In return, I paid for the girls’ school fees and became their friend. The Conteh brothers and I fished at a nearby river and together learned how to make fishing lures from sticks and wires. We ate dinner collectively, usually from the same plate. We would pass the nights sitting on the veranda telling stories, or they would try to teach me to play drums, a futile process that always ended in laughter.
I often marveled at how each person seemed to know his or her place in their family and village. This was in part because of the education provided by the “secret spiritual societies,” ancient traditions that existed right alongside Christianity and Islam. These secret societies initiated young boys and girls into adulthood, teaching them about their roles and responsibilities in the community and their relationship with the spiritual realms of ancestors and nature.
The Contehs and Hellmich ate together almost every nightThere also was a deep sense of spirituality that came from a daily connection with nature. As subsistence farmers, people followed the rhythms of “hungry season,” the time to plant when the previous crop yields were gone, and harvest season, when there was abundance. There were rainy seasons and dry seasons, and there were the cycles of the moon. On nights with a new moon in the rainy season, it was dark and people went to bed early. When the moon was full in the dry season, there was lots of “village electricity,” or light, and children laughed and played throughout the night.
It would have been easy to romanticize village life if not for the fact that Sierra Leone was, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world, where one in every four children dies before the age of five. Decades of government corruption had all but destroyed the infrastructure, which seemed to upset me more than my friends in the village. The country had vast natural resources of diamonds, gold, and rutile[ii] that benefited only a minority of people. There was a huge contrast between rich and poor as government officials and wealthy businessmen could be seen in the towns with expensive vehicles while most of my friends barely had sandals to wear.
Meanwhile, signs of Westernization were ever present in often bizarre ways. Throughout the country, even in the most remote villages, people wore t-shirts and other used clothing from the United States. Goodwill and Salvation Army dumped extra goods on the global market through companies called “junks” that shipped America’s hand-me-downs to Africa. The result was that the local textile industries could not compete with the flood of inexpensive clothing. I frequently saw people wearing clothes that looked utterly comical from my perspective, such as an elderly man who was unaware that his shirt read “baby on board.” Yet, the social tapestry in Sierra Leone appeared to be holding together under the strain of poverty, corruption, infant mortality, and onslaught of Western influences.
When I left Sierra Leone, the few movie theatres in the country were showing Rambo. As I watched young boys imitate Rambo on the streets, I had no idea of the hell that was about to be unleashed on the country and people I loved.
Reverse Culture Shock: Going Inward
It was when I returned to the United States that I realized how much the experience in Africa had changed me. I was suddenly aware of the wealth, material abundance, and incredible waste. Electricity was accessible 24 hours a day with the flip of a switch, meaning the cycles of the moon went unnoticed. Safe drinking water was readily available and stores were filled with everything a person could ever want. I couldn’t help translating the cost of everything into cups of rice and calculating how many Conteh family members the same amount of money could feed.
The abundance was accompanied with a barrage of media. Everywhere I turned, people were tuned in to TV or radio, and there were billboards, newspapers, and magazines with advertisements. I was astounded by the overpowering messages valuing youth, beauty, and sex, and the many ways one could obtain those things through the purchase of products.
The most troubling part of being back was the pace of life in the United States. People seemed to be in a hurry, heading some place to do something or get something; yet, many people did not seem as happy as the Contehs or A.K.’s family. People spent less time “keeping time,” which meant there was less connecting with one another. I often found myself at night, alone, looking at the moon, wondering about A.K. and the Contehs in the villages.
To compound matters, the United States was heading to war in the Persian Gulf. And then, the unthinkable happened: war broke out in Sierra Leone. The causes for the Persian Gulf War were easy to see, the U.S. dependence on oil being a large factor. The conflict in Sierra Leone was more subtle and would take years for me to understand.
Alienated from my native culture and distressed about what was happening in Sierra Leone, I began to experience a personal crisis. Feeling I had nowhere to go, I went inward. I started to explore mind-body health, yoga, and meditation, all in an attempt to find meaning and, ultimately, a sense of connection and belonging to fill the void left by my African experience.
Meditation – Seeking Peace and Balance in a Material World
After four years of exploring several spiritual traditions, I was drawn to Kriya Yoga, a type of meditation that appealed to my rational mind and opened my heart. Although these methods are several thousand years old, the meditative process was explained to me in terms of energy and consciousness, often referring to emerging scientific research. One of the basic premises was that Spirit/Cosmic Consciousness/God (whatever word works for you) is manifesting through each person. The soul is the point where Spirit becomes an individual. Energy flows into the individual through the medulla, in the back of the head, down the spine and back up. As the energy rises, it goes through each of the chakras and is focused outward by our engagement in the world through our senses and actions. The intention of my meditation practice was to reverse the flow of energy and consciousness inward and upward, to identify with the soul and merge back with Source. The process of going inward required stilling the body and mind by withdrawing energy from the senses. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10) was the very essence of my practice.
My goal was to develop a direct personal relationship with God. Through daily meditation, I began to slowly have my own experiences of different states of consciousness. One of the first signs of contacting Spirit was a negative peace—an absence of happiness, sadness, or boredom, followed by a positive peace. On occasion, this opened to an expansive feeling of bliss, joy and even ecstatic love, other impersonal aspects of the Divine. When in these expanded states, I felt a sense of oneness and connectedness that satisfied my heart’s longing, far beyond what I had experienced in the villages in Sierra Leone.
As I dove deeper into this tradition, I began to better understand the fundamental and scientific challenges of massive consumerism: seeking happiness primarily through external material objects focuses the attention outward, robbing us of the experience of the deep inner peace and joy that exists within the soul. The temporary pleasures gained through the fulfillment of material consumption don’t last and need to be stimulated again and again by the acquisition of something else in what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill.” This leads a person to seeking the next item, like a dog chasing its tail—needing to make more money, to buy more things, leaving a wake of waste and destruction. So it became clear to me that the accelerated pursuit of happiness through consumerism is actually a spiritual crisis.
Rambo and Diamonds
RUF combatants that occupied Masongbo under the command of teenageWhile for me the primary goal of meditation was to have a direct personal relationship with God, the second part was to play my role in the world to the best of my ability. Meditation is not an escape from worldly responsibility. In fact, Paramahansa Yogananda—who brought Kriya Yoga from India to the West, had been close friends with Mahatma Gandhi who also was a Kriya Yoga initiate.
As I dove deeper into meditation, the news from Sierra Leone grew increasingly bleak. I had no way to contact A.K. Sesay, the Contehs, or other friends. The reports about the number of people killed or atrocities taking place in Sierra Leone were not just bad news stories about some poor people overseas. These were real people to me, people and communities I loved deeply.
As I worked to cultivate peace in myself, I so much wanted to help. The opportunity came when I started working with Search for Common Ground, an organization with the ambitious goal of transforming the way the world deals with conflict, away from adversarial approaches and towards cooperative solutions.
In 1998, I was assigned to return to Sierra Leone with “Search” on an assessment mission. During that trip, and several others during and after Sierra Leone’s war, I got to see firsthand the impact of deadly violence on my loved ones. Several friends had been killed, others raped, and many beaten. I heard about the cutting open of pregnant women’s bellies and saw the evidence of the hacking off of limbs of men, women, children, and the elderly.
Some child soldiers were as young as eight years of age.In Kagbere, A.K. Sesay and others spoke about “September 9,” the day Kagbere was attacked by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. It was the day that changed their lives forever, just as September 11, 2001 changed the lives of Americans and the world. Most villages across Sierra Leone had their own September 9 or September 11, and they spoke about those dates with the same eerie expression as people in America do when speaking about the Twin Towers and Pentagon being attacked.
When I went to Masongbo, the Contehs told stories about how a teenaged boy named “Colonel Rambo” had been in charge of the rebel unit that sacked and held the village. Rambo and his “men,” many being child soldiers too, had been trained in part by watching Rambo and other violent films. They raped the women at will and took all the food and belongings they wanted from my friends who already lived on less than a dollar a day.
The author with the Conteh family during a return visitEvery time the Contehs said, “Colonel Rambo,” I cringed. I thought about Sylvester Stallone and wondered what he, Chuck Norris, and other actors would do if they knew their characters were role models for child soldiers. The role of Hollywood, Bollywood, and other film industries in contributing to a culture of violence increased after the war. Thousands of “video parlors” sprung up across Sierra Leone and much of Sub-Saharan Africa – another sign of how technological advances were changing the global landscape. For a small fee, children and youth in towns and villages could watch movies on a TV/DVD setup in a tin shack. The popular films were the most violent ones, thus reinforcing role models that were all too real and believable.
Needless to say, the situation in Sierra Leone was heartbreaking. I tried finding solace in meditation, though I often struggled with anger and sadness. It was hard to understand how a country that had been so peaceful could fall into such chaos and violence so quickly.
Even though there were many factors contributing to Sierra Leone’s war—including decades of corruption and regional politics— it was clear that the conflict was fueled in part by the global economy. For example, diamonds—the symbol of everlasting love— were sold to purchase AK47s, RPGs, and other weapons to arm rebels. Meanwhile, Charles Taylor in neighboring Liberia clear cut vast forests to pay for his war efforts. And the global economy soaked up these natural resources to feed consumer demands.
Global Awakening through Personal Awakening of Inner Peace
I later traveled to other countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, including Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, and Rwanda. Most of these countries had experienced violent conflict or were desperately trying to avoid it. After these trips, I came back to the United States with a deeper appreciation for the basic necessities that could be so easily taken for granted – violence-free elections, infrastructure (roads, electricity, schools), professional police and military, economic opportunities, and other features of American life that my friends in Africa did not enjoy.
While grateful to be home, I also was disheartened to see media obsessed with the ridiculous exploits of Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, and Donald Trump or the latest “reality” TV program. Meanwhile, Wall Street had taken the individual pursuit of happiness to new extremes by manipulating markets for short-term gains, often throwing morality and the life savings of thousands of people out the window. It seemed most Americans were caught in a dream of distraction and self indulgence that was only accelerating, yet scientific studies were showing people were less happy than they were decades earlier. There was a disconnect between the pursuit of happiness, the inner void it was creating, and the suffering it was causing around the world.
In response to the mindless consumption in the United States and witnessing the hardships across Africa, I dove deeper into my Kriya Yoga meditation practice. At times it seemed a battle was raging inside as I struggled to calm my restlessness, anger, and confusion. Other times, towards the end of meditation, I would sit in stillness and experience an expansive peace. Inner peace became the “Comforter” (John 14:26), a source of healing, helping me to release the trauma of being exposed to the impact of deadly violence.
In essence, inner peace became an experience of my own soul and Spirit, an anchor and reference point in the midst of a chaotic world. Inner peace became a treasure, one I guarded carefully, tending it like a garden or lover. By returning to that peace in meditation and attempting to carry it throughout the day – at times failing miserably – I felt a gradual transformation.
Inner peace allowed me to feel my oneness with humanity and nature, thereby opening me more to the suffering of the world. Peace was the container for the alchemical process of shattering the heart, subjugating the ego, and discovering purpose, passion, and power based on a sense of interdependence and interconnectedness.
It seemed my daily actions were increasingly guided by the silent Friend—taking time to greet neighbors; reaching out to homeless people; consuming only what was needed while ever mindful of the people who produced the goods; and planting an urban garden in order to have a relationship with food and the Earth, like my friends in Kagbere and Masongbo.
Tapping into inner peace became the means to sustain taking action, even in the face of tremendous suffering. And at times it seemed grace would open doors to collaborations and initiatives I never dreamed possible. Over time, I began to wonder who was “pulling the strings” and was reminded of what Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, once said to me:
Look, there are billions of stars and planets in the Milky Way. There are billions of galaxies, all with billions of stars and planets. Science is discovering more and more galaxies all the time. All of them are guided by some intelligence and by natural laws….All you have to do is turn to that intelligence and it will guide you….That intelligence is much more creative than what you can ever come up with on your own.
It will take attuning with Universal Intelligence to help humanity find solutions to our global challenges. Going inward and finding inner peace are the first steps to accessing that Intelligence and to becoming an instrument of Its peace.
[i] Black Hawk, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (New York: Penguin Books, 1953).
[ii] Rutile is a major ore of titanium, a metal used for high tech alloys, such as heat shields of jet aircraft.
For more on inner peace and international peace, see Philip Hellmich’s book God and Conflict.