Awakening the Peaceful Beast Within


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by Susan McCaslin

Sometimes a writer notices themes and patterns in her work that she wasn’t consciously aware of during the initial writing.  I noticed recently that three of the twelve chapters of my book Arousing the Spirit specifically address the question of how to embody peace in the world.

When I mention to friends that I’ve considered myself a “peacenik” from way back, I have the sense that some people conjure an image of a hippie extending colourful flowers to a soldier, or making the peace sign and saying, “peace man,” just as a tank runs her down.  It’s easy to think of peace-lovers as mild-mannered and kind of naïve.

Other false images of peace include “navel gazers” who achieve some measure of inner calm and equilibrium, but are detached from the suffering of those around them.  One example might be a person who goes to yoga or meditation regularly but ignores the plight of someone being bullied nearby.

Cultural images of Jesus have adopted this “gentle, meek and mild” stereotype of peace as well.  However, my sense of Jesus as a historical figure is that he was a determined activist who led a non-violent resistance movement.  I see him as the progenitor of political-spiritual leaders like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his embrace of non-violent resistance. Some of his statements in the gospels suggest that he realized that to embody peace is to invite a counter resistance: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (New American Standard Version) Perhaps he actually considered using violence at times during his life, or perhaps he meant the word “sword” as a metaphor for division. Perhaps he knew that “true” peace” would be rejected by many in favour of false peace. Some of the Jesus historians believe his overturning of the money changers tables at the temple in Jerusalem toward the end of his life was a staged public demonstration against corruption that led directly to his crucifixion.

The problem with the common usage of the word “peace” is that it is often set up as the opposite of strength and energy and suggests both passivity and denial.  Clearly, it isn’t enough to achieve well-being in the present moment without caring about how the present ties to the future, or responding appropriately to suffering and injustice. Therefore, it is crucial to distinguish true from false peace.

False peace is what the prophet Jeremiah talked about when he proclaimed, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace. (Jeremiah 4.6) This kind of peace is no peace at all because it only conceals or denies the presence of conflict.  It puts a benign face on destructive ways of engaging reality or denies the need to oppose corruption or admit that just doing nothing isn’t working.  False peace is also the Orwellian peace used by the dictatorship in the novel 1984 to control the people by maintaining continual warfare elsewhere.  People are afraid, so they surrender their power to Big Brother, who creates a false peace, another name for oppression.

True peace is harder to define or sustain.  It’s the peace Paul refers to in Philippians 4:7 as “the peace that surpasses all understanding,” or what I would like to call “the peace that transcends all our cognitive categories.”  It’s the synthesis of the dualism peace/strife, a way of dancing in the tensions, the polarities of being and becoming, past, present, and future.  It’s a mode of riding the centre of the contraries that constitute life without losing one’s balance.  Such a peace is priceless and not easy to find, yet, I believe, accessible to all continually.

I think we need the help of the poets to find new language for this kind of synthesizing peace.  Pointing to it through language requires oxymoron, the figure of speech that best captures tensions held in balance where oppositions are gathered into something more that contains them. Lately, while walking the dog, I’ve come up with a few such oxymoronic phrases (and hopefully you can think of others):  an energized calm, dancing simultaneously on the rim and at the centre, a burning peace, a generative peace, riding the contraries, a transformative peace.

Such a bubbling peace contains chaos and form, working and resting, resisting and surrendering, doing and non-doing.  It’s not merely the absence of war but the presence of an informing power that has the capacity to make physical warfare obsolete. It’s the place where the inhalation and exhalation of breath meet.  You can’t describe it, but you can from time to time be it. This shalom, this salam or completeness, wholeness, restoration, should be a verb rather than a noun.  We peace each other into being one act of kindness at a time.

The trouble is that when we begin to search for ways to talk about this rarer kind of peace, we often fall into metaphors of war.  We speak of “peaceful warriors” and how to “wage peace.”  There’s nothing wrong with this if we assume the metaphor isn’t literal, and that we’re really talking about fierce contentions on a higher plane.  Yet I’m tired of borrowing from the language of war to talk about the peace that surpasses all understanding.

In the end, the peace beyond anything we can name or frame is inseparable from all-abiding Love.  Just as divine Love isn’t merely a sentimental feeling, true peace isn’t passive, but the most powerful force in the universe for evolutionary change.  It is incontrovertibly associated with justice.

I’ve experienced this transcendent peace a few times in my life and know it can’t be summoned at will.  Sometimes it breaks in right in the middle of conflict, enabling us to live in the midst of uncertainty.  It’s a form of creative transformation, a torqued balance. It’s a peace that wells from within but advances the presence of love in the world.  It’s not the peace the “world” or social order gives, but the unaccountable peace that rises from the individual and collective hearts.

Genuine peace is being at one with the point of emergence of the new, poised at the evolutionary edge in anticipation of the unimaginable.  But how to get there? How do we open ourselves to this kind of transforming peace?  What can we do to come home to this place of creative emergence?

Susan McCaslin is a Canadian poet and Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College in Westminster, BC where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years.  She is the author of ten volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011).  The latter was a finalist in 2012 for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award) and the first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award (Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award). Susan has recently published a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit: Provocative Writings (Wood Lake Books, 2011). She has edited two anthologies and is on the editorial board of Event: the Douglas College Review.  She lives in Fort Langley, BC with her husband and an active Australian shepherd.


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Categories: Featured, Healing and Wellness, Peace, Spiritual Growth, Susan McCaslin


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One Comment on “Awakening the Peaceful Beast Within”

  1. January 16, 2013 at 12:02 am #

    I like the idea of peace as being a threshold, an entry point to the future rather than an arrived-at place. It does seem to overcome that static sense of ‘passivity and denial’ that you identify.

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