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PCDN interview with James O’Dea, author of Cultivating Peace

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    Profile photo of Craig Zelizer
    Craig Zelizer

    PCDN interview with James O’Dea, author of Cultivating Peace

    James O’Dea is a world-renowned social healer with 15 years experience in reconciliation dialogue. Former Director of the Washington Amnesty International office, James is currently CEO of the Seva Foundation and a member of the Evolutionary Leaders Group. Numerous publications have resulted from James’ personal experience working in the field of peacebuilding. His last book Creative Stress: A Path For Evolving Souls Living Through Personal and Planetary Upheaval, published in 2010, demonstrates how ‘creative stress’, in comparison to ‘negative stress’, is a positive phenomenon which can be harnessed to initiate and further reconciliation processes.

    Building on this idea of the role of the individual in reconciliation is James’ latest book, Cultivating Peace: Becoming a 21st Century Peace Ambassador. In this work, James draws upon his knowledge of conflict situations to create a ‘roadmap’ for peaceful living, a practice which he purports can be the responsibility of every individual.

    Cultivating Peace has received critical acclaim. According to Mark Gerzon, author of Leading Through Conflict and Global Citizens: “This marvelous book has the potential to grow peacebuilding to the point that every school, every business, and every community incorporates these principles. James O’Dea’s life experience and skillful writing make peacebuilding personal and accessible.”


    General questions

    Can you give us a brief bio about yourself and how you got into the field?

    I think the salient features of that question are that I was an administrator at a school in Turkey during the period from the 1970s to the 1980s when there was a lot of civil violence between left and right and so I began to see violence close-up. In fact, I was knifed in that violence and my house was machine-gunned at one point and for me, trying to work through the commitment to stay in a place like that because I could have said “OK, it’s getting too hot.” In fact, a sense of commitment awoke in me, particularly to my students (I was working in a prominent school in Turkey at the time, the Tarsus American School), and from there I did a Masters in International Administration then I went to Lebanon with the Middle East Council of Churches to set up an ecumenical travel office to look at peace and justice issues throughout the Middle East from the perspective of the ancient churches of the region trying to reveal the mosaic of peace traditions that could live side-by-side. During that time the Israelis invaded Lebanon, so I was in Lebanon for the Israeli invasion and the siege of Beirut and the subsequent aftermath. The most pivotal experience for me was not actually the war itself but after the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] had been expelled from Beirut and the Israelis invaded West Beirut, there was the massacre of Palestinians at Shabra-Shatila, not conducted by the Israelis themselves but the Israelis were highly implicated. […] It was a very horrible event because the men had been expelled so that the primary targets of the massacre were women and children. It was for me a very bleak point for how I got into this work in the sense of feeling desperate and searching for justice and a little bit hopeless about humanity.

    Out of those experiences, I moved to the United States and became Director of the Washington office of Amnesty International where I started directly connecting with human rights work as a means of addressing humanity’s cruelty and injustices. I spent ten years in that role. The pivotal point in moving from that work was the beginning of a sense that Amnesty and that kind of human rights work is very good at calling out in public and performing a kind of ambulance service to rescue people but even though we did work at the legal level, we were not addressing what I call the root causes of violence. So after I left Amnesty I was for many years Director of the Health and Development at the Seva Foundation. I was also funded by the Fetzer Institute to develop an enquiry into societal healing processes, basically looking at those root causes. And once you get into those root causes, you have to start looking at the nature of worldview, conscious and human capacity. So I became President of the premier institute in California which investigates those kind of issues called the Institute of Noedic Sciences. So it has been a progression, leading from direct experiences to lobbying and meeting with governments to trying to intervene to stop human rights abuses to investigation of the deeper causal weave of violence itself.


    What ethics guide your work?

    When I left Amnesty, I felt I had two attention levels: moral outrage and legal measures to prosecute violent leaders and to create new norms and standards like the Convention against Torture, the Conventions on the Rights of Children and the Rights of Women to create a new benchmark in the law. And when I left, that quest for the root causes I think the guiding ethic became – not who is right and who is wrong – but rather who is wounded and how did they get so wounded that they would do the things they did? So it was a change in lens and in worldview perspective so that rather than always pointing the finger at who is wrong, you look at the perpetrators as wounded people who inherited an inter-generationally transmitted wound. So the ethic became much more: How do we allow the causes of justice with the quest to heal humanity? Which is a different kind of ethical stance to ‘Who are the bad guys? Who is wrong here? Who needs to be prosecuted? Who needs to be put away? Distinguishing between the righteous and the wrong . While that element is still an aspect, the primary lens or worldview is to heal those wounds that are transmitted from generation to generation. If we do that, then I think we are morally credible as we are addressing root causes.


    How do you maintain a balance between work and personal life?

    Well this has been a lifelong quest and it is certainly an essential question. I am glad you asked it because it can become peripheral although it is actually central. If we are about human evolution and the search for peace then we have to learn as activists how to self-care and how not to do violence to ourselves. When I was at Amnesty, I would have to call my staff at midnight and say “Go home” because you can become so tortured yourself by the thought that “If I stay another hour, maybe I can save a life or rescue somebody from torture” but eventually you burn out so I think it is essential that you seek balance. In my own quest for balance, I have moved to a place called Crestone, in the mountains in southern Colorado [USA]. It’s a place where community, ecology and spirituality are very, very important. By participating in the life of the community, by living ecological values, and by giving more time to my spiritual life, I feel like I can better begin the quest to serve better. So I don’t think it’s an either/or question – I think at one point we thought that “I’d better jump on the pillow because I need to meditate” or “I need to jump off the pillow because I need to dash away and do a million things” and Thomas Merton [quoted in Communicating Peace, p. 48] makes note of the idea that dashing off and trying to save the world is doing a kind of violence to yourself, rather than you becoming the mirror of what health and wholeness and healing are about.


    What gaps do you think need to be addressed in the peacebuilding and development fields?

    This is a huge question! Peacebuilding work has two streams: in one stream, you have the work of creating laws and norms and interventions to support peace work, and there is much thought now of both increasing those international structures from international criminal courts all the way down to vital early warning signals in societies that tell us when things need to be addressed. The human rights community does that early warning work and now the peacebuilding community is engaging in activities around those early warning signals. So if you like, the professional, legal intervention including the prevention of war and violence and post-conflict, trauma-related activities constitutes ‘Stream 1’.

    The second stream of activity is the work of creating a culture of peace from the ground up, and my own emphasis and work, as well as a considerable aspect of the book Cultivating Peace, is about the culture of peace. I would say that in the culture of peace, what centrally needs to be addressed is the education of the whole person. We do have now this repertoire of tools and skills in peacebuilding that have been emerging in the last 30 years that for some reason are not incorporated into our educational system. Why not educate the whole person including that person’s social and emotional intelligences? There is an empathy curriculum in some schools and interestingly they see an improvement in the academic behavior in various subject areas as if empathy may be a root intelligence. […] With all this, we can create from the ground up a culture of peace.


    In your opinion, what traits and skills make someone successful in the field of social healing?

    Social healing is firstly multi-disciplinary because it incorporates elements of psychology, new science, non-violent communication and diplomacy and promotion of legal standards, social healing and trauma recovery. A second and very important element is what I call ‘front-line experience,’ whether in your own country or elsewhere, where you gain insights that come from directly witnessing and living in the context in which the violence you are studying is unfolding, whether this be bullying, racism, ethnic violence. In my own past, I was with a group of students in Turkey rehearsing a play called Billy Bud about authority and revolution within a context in which revolution was occurring when a student broke in and said that the principle of the next school had been knifed brutally in front of his students, and that the political violence and the authorities were closing down the schools. My students began to hoopla and dance and I was so shocked witnessing what the violence was doing to them immediately in front of me. They silenced when they saw the shock on my face and I asked them how they could be celebrating when a man in the school next to us had just been brutally knifed to death. And they replied that their family and neighbours were being killed. Having those front-line experiences makes you realise that violence is not something that happens between one person and another but that the entire community and social order are affected, sometimes obviously, sometimes subliminally, sometimes covertly.

    The third element in social healing would be dialogue: deep immersion into all that we know about the deep psychological space where wounds can be discussed, as well as narratives of the perpetrator and the victim. What we are discovering is that through deep, deep dialogue, when people really feel they are being heard, transformation beings. So often, social healing and social conflict get stuck because dialogue gets stuck as no-one is listening to us.


    Do you have any advice for people or students who want to pursue a career in the field of social healing or peacebuilding?

    I think the greatest work I have seen is when people are very innovative, who take ideas upon themselves and do not wait to be led into the field. Step into it; learn by doing; don’t wait to be a master teacher but experiment. People I saw in Northern Ireland doing Theatre of Witness where they brought together parties from all sides. In a sense, we live in a very special time when you can really get creative if your predisposition is towards theatre, dance, communication or media, then you can work at that level. There are so many entry points into this field that my advice is step into it, trust that you have something to say, get creative and above all be a fabulous listener.

    Questions relating to Cultivating Peace

    In Cultivating Peace, you use several metaphors for peace, including that of a ‘peace map’. In your opinion, is peace something that can be ‘read’ in the same way as people use maps?

    Yes, I really believe that maps are important particularly because we have a new, emergent map. If you work with old maps, you probably tend to believe that peace is in relationship to war, which is a map which totally disregards the notion that we have to create peace. Peace is not only something we become conscious of when war arises. We need to know what the new science is telling us. Neuroscience is coming up with incredible revelations about the nature of human existence and if we’re not informed about contemporary neuroscience then we are probably not effective peacemakers.

    So the map is important but it is the territory which is really important, and ‘the territory’ means practice. As in my advice to those who want to go into the field: step in and start your own social experiment. The maps are incredibly interesting and we are learning to map social change and worldviews just as Piaget mapped cognitive development and Colburg mapped moral development and Abraham Mazlow mapped our hierarchy of needs and self-actualisation processes, so Don Beck has been mapping social development processes. I think it’s very important to understand that we have new maps available to us and that in order to step into the territory we have to actualise ourselves, we have to be peace, we have to learn about what it means to create a heart coherence.


    Can you talk a bit about the idea you put forward in Chapter One about the human body acting as a vehicle for peace?

    As a peacemaker and a social healer, you have your heart in a deeply connected space because in fact you have an electromagnetic field that radiates out to others and signals to them whether or not you’re in a state of quiet or peacefulness or tension. Let me just give you one example: in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict they discovered that people who were listening deeply and giving the fullness of their awareness to agitated people, who were genuinely not listening to their own mind chatter or rehearsing their own arguments, started to calm the EMIGDALA [a part in the mid-brain which sends the alarm for fight or flight] of the agitated person. If you are in a state of nervousness, the other person’s EMIGDALA will be alerted: Why is this person nervous? Why does this person remain tense? Don’t they believe me? Are they against me? So the state of one’s body, contemporary science now says, is absolutely pivotal in doing peace and reconciliation work. […] The state of the mind affects the wellbeing of the body: Science tells us that people who have good and loving relationships and are altruistic and serve other people tend to live longer and have better wellness and health indicators than people who are dominated by greed and self-interest. That is centrally interesting for us as social healers and peacebuilders.

    Many people assume that conflict is a negative phenomenon, but you make it clear in Chapter Three that conflict is a normal state of being; how we deal with conflict determines whether it becomes positive or negative. Can you briefly explain this idea please?

    This is central to the work of Search for Common Ground which has offices in maybe 30 countries: conflict exists, so it is neither positive nor negative; one simply has to try and work with it effectively. What we find is that when people are helped into this new approach to mediation work, they accept that you don’t want to dampen the conflict. As Johan Galtung says, you don’t even want to go for compromise because that is like short-circuiting the conflict and makes no-one happy. […] Conflict in itself can be the element which says, something needs to be addressed here, and at a higher order. Conflict can be a vehicle for transcending limited beliefs and can be a catalyst for great change – but the conflict must be addressed in a skillful and timely way.


    Your book is structured in such a way that each chapter concludes with a set of suggested activities with which the reader should engage in order to become a Peace Ambassador. Can you please summarise these points for PCDN members?

    I think the key point of the book is complexity. What we need to master to become skillful Peace Ambassadors and conflict mediators is a new order of complexity. I think for some people the book is a little difficult – there are several study groups studying it which is great for me to hear – but sometimes they feel I am not telling them, “Go do this, go do that” because I am trying to find that space that is complex and subtle. It’s a complex equation for some people. The book in many ways asks people to contemplate complexity. That’s one element of this book which I hope makes a contribution to peacebuilding, by adding in an awareness of the complexity of evolving consciousness. There is no simple, righteous dogma when we engage our consciousness; we need to be subtle and nuanced because otherwise we can slip into thinking “We are on the right side and they are on the wrong side and let’s prosecute them.”

    The other important element is systems thinking – from inner systems to whole systems transition. This is a time when we not only have to master subtlety and complexity but also systems thinking. I have just come from a United States Institute for Peace meeting where members of the US military were discussing how systems thinking had changed their approach. They were advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff to understand that the United States is not a closed but an open system. In systems theory, once something is an open system, it’s then inter-related, inter-determined, vulnerable to all kinds of elements which cannot be planned for. So you have to plan for unpredictability and flexibility. So if the U.S. military can begin to really learn how the path to peace will be through systems thinking then I honestly think we ought to be teaching it in schools all the way through. The connection which the book makes between inner and outer systems is a powerful way of accessing the subtlety and nuance.

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