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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




In the remaining chapters we look more closely at the process of change itself. In this chapter, we consider the intrapsychic process of change that enables us to meet violence (as well as other difficulties) with more equanimity, allowing us greater access to the kind of centered vulnerability just described. Then we consider the social and political processes of change that enable us to build a more peaceful and equitable world. Over these chapters I recommend five key strategies for change that you can begin to implement immediately; the first three are introduced in this chapter, and the last two in the final chapter (see Table 3 on p. 174).

It is one thing to imagine a better world, describe it, and chart a logical course toward it, as we have begun to do in this book; it is quite another actually to implement it. I may find it easy to preach to you about how to live more generously and harmoniously; but I may find it quite difficult to practice this for myself. Having an intellectual idea of how people should be, and particularly how I should be, does not readily translate into being that way. As described in Part One, these difficulties have their source in human evolution, psychology, culture, and politics.

In Chapter 2, we explored developmental mechanisms that have a pronounced effect on our psychological capacity for peace or violence. Specifically, we saw that maladaptive shame can have the effect of alienating a person from her caregiver, her world, and even herself. Further, we saw how this alienation plays into the logic of violence, making the actual use of violence more likely. In Chapter 4, we explored how maladaptive shame has come to permeate the global culture and the exercise of power on all levels of society. And across the previous two chapters we discussed, in one way of putting it, how nonviolence can play a role in reversing shame in the politics of the global community. Here, we confront shame within our own individual psyche. This chapter, then, is about intrapersonal nonviolence.

When the Dalai Lama speaks of peace, he points toward what he calls “internal disarmament.” We must disarm ourselves internally before we can disarm other people or nations. I argued in Part One that we come already armed to the teeth internally and externally—our tragic flaw. But healing is possible. We can disarm those internal mechanisms that dispose us toward violence. In this chapter I assume that each one of us struggles with a shamed identity to one degree or another as a result of a unique combination of factors related to the issues of attachment, maladaptive shame, and power covered in Chapter 2. As a result, we are likely to hover in a sub-optimal zone too near the existential pole of aloneness and too far from the pole of interconnectedness.

The question before us, then, is: How can I restore within myself a more optimal balance between the poles of the paradox of existence? Already subject to the forces of early development and the consequences of some amount of trauma, what can I do to heal myself at this late stage? This chapter approaches the problem from two distinct but interrelated angles, the existential and the conditional. Existential questions concern the universal facts of existence to which every being is necessarily subject. We are thrown into a world that has certain fundamental properties, such as gravity, sky and ground, other beings of all kinds, and so on. Conditional questions, on the other hand, concern the specific content of our own unique experience in the world. No two people are subject to exactly the same conditions. (Even identical twins have very different experiences—consider, for example, that one is born before the other.)

The work of healing, then, has both an existential and conditional aspect. At the existential level, healing involves coming into greater accord with the paradox of existence, not too far nor too near to either pole. This work calls us to ask, “What is the true relation between me and the world?” At the conditional level, healing involves overcoming those specific conditions that have compelled us to lean too heavily in one existential direction or the other. This work compels us to consider, “What holds me in a false relation to the world?” These twin tasks are deeply interwoven. We cannot expect to see clearly our true relation to the world if our perspective is distorted by our conditions; and we cannot guide our conditional work if we have no clarity around our true relation to the world. We must work both aspects at once.

My experience as a psychotherapist and as a person engaged in his own healing suggests that, even as we try to do both existential and conditional work simultaneously, the balance between these streams of work changes as we mature.










Figure 5: The changing balance of existential to conditional work over the course of the healing process.


As Figure 5 shows, the healing process begins with a much higher ratio of conditional work to existential. Over time, the balance gradually shifts until one is working much more on the existential aspects of healing than the conditional.

This model posits, however, that we never completely finish our conditional work. This is true for two reasons. First, we are all the time subject to new conditions, some share of which are bound to present special difficulties. What’s more, in some respects the challenges we are likely to face later in life can be especially demanding, such as our own physical decline, loss of parents, peers, spouse, and even children. Second, the distortions of early life are never entirely overcome. The whole edifice of our adult mind was originally built on our earlier conditioning. Vestiges of those formative experiences, no matter how well integrated by the process of healing, are bound to appear from time to time. Indeed, part of the healing process involves an acceptance of this fact. Experience also suggests that the line in Fig. 5 is not really straight but wavy. At different times we may be so engulfed by conditional stress that little room remains for existential work; at other times we may find ourselves able to go deep into our existential work for a little while before returning to the fray of our more everyday concerns.

Allow me a final note on language before we proceed into the heart of the chapter. The terms I have adopted here, existential and conditional work, are my own. Loosely, what I call conditional work focuses on the category of problems conventionally understood as psychological, including but not limited to most forms of mental illness or mental health disorders. The work usually takes the form of psychotherapy, use of psychotropic medications (such as anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers, and anti-psychotic drugs), somatic therapies (such as massage or acupuncture), and various stress-reduction or relaxation techniques (such as yoga or meditation). In this chapter, I focus on the psychotherapeutic process of conditional healing.

Existential work, on the other hand, mostly focuses on issues related to the conventional categories of religion or spirituality. Religion, in particular, seeks to answer three basic existential questions: 1) what am I; 2) what is this world; and 3) what is the relation between the two.[i] For many, these questions lead to God, the story of Creation, and the specific teachings of one religion or another. For others, these questions inspire a general sense of reverence or awe, but without a specific theology, dogma, or moral code—what is often called spirituality.

Here, I want to be non-committal about what sort of answer one finds most helpful or satisfying. When I speak of existential work, then, I limit my interest to the sort of question that one needs to address. This book proposes various constructs, including the paradox of existence, that I hope can complement any particular religious or spiritual belief system without necessarily implying any of them. I want the principle of existential work to be inclusive of all creeds, including atheism.

Conditional Work

Just as the psyche is exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable to wounding, it also possesses a spontaneous capacity to heal. In this sense, it is just like the body itself—of which the psyche is, after all, merely an aspect. Our skin, for instance, is easily penetrated and abrased; but in most cases it organically heals itself. We are only beginning to understand theoretically the psychic processes of spontaneous healing. But we have growing reason to trust that most such wounds are best healed not by medications, or getting advice from experts, or learning tools and techniques that we might apply like levers or hammers to a recalcitrant psyche. Instead, it has become increasingly clear that we best heal when we set up the conditions under which the psyche has sufficient room to heal itself.[ii]

This idea lies at the core of humanistic psychology. Humans are basically good and resourceful. Given the right conditions, we will naturally rediscover our basic goodness. Humanistic psychology has a story about how most of us come to experience serious psychological distress. We are born innocent and pure, but also endowed with a complex set of genetically determined vulnerabilities and behavioral tendencies. In the course of life, and especially during early development (when various critical periods come fast and furious upon us), most of us will encounter difficulties for which we are not (yet) psychologically prepared. In response to these, we engage certain defensive strategies based on our own in-born tendencies combined with what we have learned from our environment. If we survive these challenges, we can say that our defenses were adequate to the task. But these defenses tend to become embedded in our personality structure, especially if we develop them early in life.

As we age, most of us eventually escape whatever conditions demanded those early defenses. Meanwhile, more sophisticated psychological capacities come online that would allow us to deal more effectively with similar conditions. In short, those earlier defenses become obsolete. Very often, however, we persist in using the old defensive strategies just because they are so familiar. Indeed, most adults struggling with psychological distress are still using archaic defenses long after they have outlived their usefulness. Ironically, the defense has become the source of our ongoing distress.

We can see how maladaptive shame follows this course. As we saw in Chapter 2, we naturally respond to social cues of rejection with a complex of emotions that entail a behavioral strategy of hiding and hostility. We hide to reduce our exposure to rejection; and we express hostility to maintain a sense of self and in protest of the rejection. These are defenses that, to some extent, succeed in protecting us. If the shame is maladaptive, however, we become entrenched in the emotions and behaviors of shame—it becomes a powerful part of who we are. We gradually assume a shamed identity.

As we mature, we are more likely to monitor our social environment with an overly active sensitivity to possible social cues of rejection. And when such cues are perceived, we are more likely to respond with an intensity of hiding and hostility out of proportion to any actual threat. As a result, others will likely find our behavior problematic and alienating, which in turn makes them more likely to reject us. When they do, this confirms our original fears and further entrenches the defensive strategy in a deepening spiral. The defense, which once protected us from actual threat, has become the threat itself.

I am arguing that most of us suffer in some degree from the dynamic just described, though I have framed this description in a fairly dramatic way. Even if we experience great safety and comfort with family and friends, some of us are more vulnerable to shame in a professional context, or when politics are discussed, or when our spouse makes a remark that sets us off. The place to look for evidence of shamed identity is where we find ourselves especially reactive (or “triggered” as some would put it). Although there are many different mechanisms for reactivity that may or may not include a shame component, very frequently shame is involved, often critically.

As long as we remain entrained in this pattern—as long as we reflexively respond with hiding and hostility without much awareness that we are doing so—there is not much room for something different to happen. Healing occurs when we create space in the pattern for something new to enter in. A maladaptive defense of shame stops an organic process of learning and adapting that would otherwise take place. When we make room, we are creating space for this process to unfold. Experience suggests that this learning process naturally tends toward an optimal outcome, based on millions of years of evolutionarily supplied wisdom—which is to say, our body just “knows” how to heal from its psychic wounds. We need to get out of its way, to steward the process without trying to control it.

A healing position, then, is neither awash in the reactivity of our shame nor turned away from it. Rather, we attend to it even as we disidentify with it.[iii] Attending in this way implies a certain distance between that which attends and that which is attended to. I am not that. That is over there and I am over here. Yet, at the same time, I am attending to that over there with a tender regard. I am not pushing it back but lingering close by. Naturally, I am referring to different parts of the self and their relation to one another. One part of me attends to another part of me. This requires the differentiation of these parts while maintaining access, openness, and warmth between them.

When I feel shame—that is, I am experiencing that blend of fear, anger, embarrassment, and sadness that comprises shame—a part of me can recognize it as a distinct pattern of experience. I am not so caught up in it that I am lost to myself, but I have a place to stand apart from the pattern such that I can see it as a pattern, something that coheres in a certain way and has a certain familiarity to me. “Oh, there’s that shame thing!” And, at this, something very important can happen. The part of me that can recognize the pattern, standing at some distance but not too far off—that part is not ashamed. Let us pause here for a moment, for this may be the single most powerful discovery in all our personal work. My basic goodness has not been forever lost, we realize; it persists in me; it has been working all along and is simply waiting to be recognized.

Once we make this discovery, something else besides shame can come in. Shame becomes an experience I can have without losing myself in it. As a good therapist friend of mine puts it, “You can have your feelings without being had by them.”[iv] Then, a non-shamed self can encounter a shamed part of the self, bringing to bear the qualities of empathy, compassion, and care available to one unfettered by shame—and thus unfettered, too, by violence. In time, this encounter heals the wounds of shame to a great degree, allowing a person increasingly to see the world more as it actually is, free of the distortions of a shamed identity. In this way, we gradually restore our access to peacefulness.

I have here briefly summarized a complex, variable, and iterative healing process—a life’s work. In addition to everything else we are called to do in our lives, very many of us, perhaps all of us, have the possibility of healing in this way. But it is very difficult to do this work alone. Indeed, for certain structural reasons it may be impossible. At the very least, we can only go so far in this work alone; to make the biggest leaps we need companions. Some of us are fortunate enough to have people who can serve this role for us, whether lovers, other family, friends, or mentors. Some cultures understand the importance of this work and engender support in various ways, including social customs, spiritual beliefs, and rituals. The present dominant global culture, however, is not one of these. As a result, very few of us have the kind of support we might need readily at hand. Into this vacuum has entered the art and science of psychotherapy.

Just as our shamed identity forms in the context of relationship, the repeal of this identity can most easily occur, and may require, a context of relationship. A psychotherapist builds relationships with clients with the express intent to create the very conditions most conducive to intrapersonal transformation.[v] The therapist offers a corrective relational experience that nurtures the re-emergence and healthy assertion of the non-shamed self. The therapist cultivates the differentiation of parts of the client’s self, and the empathy, compassion, and care of each part for the others within the self. In this way, the therapist supports the client’s growing integration of the whole self and all its parts.

Exactly how the therapist achieves this lies beyond the scope of this book, and varies widely across therapy modalities and individual practitioners. Research shows that the fit between a client and therapist is one of the most important factors in successful outcomes, which means that finding the right therapist is an important and highly individual process.[vi] The work we can then do may prove the most significant part of our effort to make a more peaceful world. From the foundation created by this collaborative work of internal disarmament, we can go more securely and peacefully out into the world, throwing the best of ourselves into the nonviolent struggle.

Over the remainder of this chapter and into the next, I will offer five key strategies that you can adopt to promote nonviolent social change in your own life and in the world. They are presented loosely in a logical sequential order from where to begin to where to go next. But these strategies are not intended to unfold only in this order. Life is messy. The need for change is urgent. In reality, we all do all the strategies at once, always doing the best we can in the moment. Here are the five strategies (indicating the page on which each one is introduced):

The first strategy to confront violence in the world is to confront it within ourselves. The concrete step we can take (life circumstances permitting) is to begin a psychotherapeutic process with a professional with whom we click, one committed to the kind of process just described. I recommend no less than one year of weekly sessions to establish this healing process, and perhaps much longer if that seems warranted. In any case, I believe psychotherapy and its attendant work is a lifelong process. Just as we may have a medical doctor with whom we maintain a relationship over many years, I suggest that it would be ideal to forge a similar bond with your therapist, alternating periods of more intensive work when needed with periods of working on your own.

The second strategy to confront violence in the world is to parent peacefully. We give our children the best chance of becoming peaceful people as they mature when we provide a secure attachment bond with them, when we use shame adaptively (which means, among other things, that we engage in a lot of repair work along the way), and when we honor and respect the child’s burgeoning need for power. These tasks carry special importance during the critical periods of the first, second, and third years, respectively. But of course, our manner of relating to our children always matters, forever demanding our warm and caring attention. If we give that kind of attention to our manner of relating we ensure that we will give that kind of attention to our children, too. In this way, parenting (like everything else) begins in our own internal orientation to ourselves.

For this reason, the key to peaceful parenting is our own internal disarmament work—the process we explore and refine with the help of our psychotherapist. Prospective parents and parents actively raising children have a special obligation to engage in psychotherapy, not so much to gather parenting tips, but to work through those deeply embedded patterns that incline us to pass along our own woundedness to our children. Wounded parents wound their children. This cannot be helped. But we can become less wounded and therefore more nurturing parents. No struggle for peace or nonviolence can be successful, ultimately, without this work; and no work could be more important in any such struggle.[vii]

Existential Work

In concert with the conditional work just described, we can always come into deeper accord with our actual existential situation. Early in our healing process, this accord may be so inhibited by the distortions of our archaic defenses that we can make little headway in our existential work. Even so, we profit from the effort. As we struggle forward on both fronts, conditional and existential, each reinforces the work of the other. The healing process typically includes moments of sudden movement. A conditional force might suddenly give way, and a new existential understanding might then come into view. As we progress in this way, a healthy feedback loop begins to develop and our lives become richer and more peaceful.

There are many modalities and pathways in existential work. We can turn to philosophy or science, which both ask existential questions and seek to answer them through conceptual analysis or experimental research, respectively. Or we can turn to theology and other religious teachings, which is essentially a kind of philosophy. But for our purposes I would suggest that we are best served by the effort to experience our existential situation directly. Most religious traditions prioritize this sort of work, calling it by many names: contemplation, reflection, introspection, meditation.[viii] Whatever we choose to call it, the intention is to cultivate the direct experience of our own existence, moment to moment.[ix] When we do this with sincerity and persistence we can sink below the stresses of our conditions and make contact with that which is always there.

Allow me to describe this process a little more fully using language that may seem unfamiliar but may help clarify what I mean by existential work. At birth we are thrown into a world, which to us must have seemed strange and new. In every moment of our lives we continue to inhabit this world, eventually taking its presence for granted. But if we remember our thrown-ness, the strangeness of this remarkable world, we can look around with fresh eyes. We can tune in to what exactly is there before us in this unique moment. Whatever we find there, it is just this. There is this smell, this quality of light, this sound of a passing truck, this tickle in my throat. Let’s put all of that into a single word and say that when we stop and look around, we directly experience this. (For the remainder of this discussion I will italicize the word this when I mean ‘the whole of that which is experienced directly in a given moment.’)

Whether we attend to it or not, there is always a this. In other words, we can always stop, tune in, and freshly encounter what is there, namely this. Just as ‘you can never dip your toe into the same river twice,’ this is never twice the same. It is always immediately present, always unique, and always dynamic. The first step in existential work, then, is to put down our conditions for a moment and attend to this. Of course, we remain within our conditions as we do this. Our conditions are in fact a part of the this to which we attend. But now our attention can take in everything, not just what is conditionally salient. We can observe whatever else is also there, like the blueness of the sky, the warmth of the sun, the pressure of earth on the soles of our feet.

As it turns out, attending to just this is much more difficult than it sounds. We discover with experience that we must balance an array of polarities all at once and over and over again. In this precise sense, existential work rehearses our relation to the polarity of existence itself. We gradually learn that, in any moment, we can find the exact center between any two poles. For example, when attending to this we can balance our body’s groundedness in the earth with our spine’s rising up toward the heavens; this rising-up of our spine can have extension without exertion; we can be upright without being rigidly erect. Our spine can find just such an orientation so that it tilts neither forward nor back, neither to the left nor the right. We can hear but not listen; we can see but not look. That is, our senses can be open without our trying to anticipate what will come next or follow what came before. We can attend without favoring one sensory channel, such as hearing, over the others, maintaining an openness in all of them to sense whatever arises as it arises. We can attend without separating what happens inside from what happens outside, allowing the demarcation between them to blur. We can attend without following thoughts as they come, nor pushing them away—we can simply observe the coming and going. The same is true of feelings, sensations, or images. We can be equally open to all of these flows of experience at once. We can be alert without being vigilant, or loose without being lax. We can strive to do all of this and also, at the same time, enjoy it.[x]

Each of these many facets has a dualistic structure, such as too loose on one side and too tight on the other. Existential work involves leaning to neither side, as if balancing precariously on a razor’s edge. We strive to maintain this razor’s edge in all of the many facets of this at once, which are too many to count. Of course, we cannot succeed. This fact brings us to one of the most important of these facets, that we try to succeed in this endeavor but we allow ourselves to fail. In this case, keeping to the razor’s edge involves returning to the impossible endeavor again and again. We neither give up nor force our way forward, but gently return one hundred times, then one thousand, then one million times. We see that falling off the razor’s edge and simply getting back on it is the razor’s edge itself.

If we attend to this in this way, sooner or later we will have a certain kind of experience, which I call thisness—a peculiar sense of the whole quality of our relation to this. It is a what-it’s-like to be really present to this. Here we are not only experiencing what is present (this), we are also experiencing our experiencing. Thisness has a distinct and identifiable quality, perhaps best described as poetic, that we come to recognize and enjoy over many instances of its arising. We have reason to believe that the poetic quality of thisness arises from the right brain.[xi] Because the right brain is not where language, logic, or analysis occur, thisness is experienced as preverbal and preconceptual.

We do not consciously make or command a sense of thisness. It comes of its own accord. On the other hand, we can (to some degree, at least) choose to attend to this at will. Our attention to this, however, does not necessarily result in an experience of thisness. Existential work, then, involves a conscious decision to attend to this, allowing a sense of thisness to come, but without a strong goal orientation. Just to sit with this is enough. Indeed, a strong goal orientation tends to inhibit the spontaneous arising of thisness. When it does arise, thisness comes in a wide range of intensities, much like our emotions. Just as we can feel just a hint of joy or we can feel a kind of overpowering joy that seems to reconfigure our whole sense of life, the same is true of thisness. We might only get the slightest whiff of thisness on one occasion; on another, something very deep occurs. I suspect that states known as religious rapture or enlightenment are simply very powerful experiences of thisness. Just as we cannot make thisness come at all, we certainly cannot make it come in some particular way. Whether it be deep or shallow, we can only just receive it as it comes.

At a certain level of depth, the experience of thisness changes qualitatively. While it always has a kind of poetic quality, at sufficient depth thisness confers a powerful clarity about our existential situation. It is as if, all of the sudden, my relation to the world comes into sharp focus. There is an experience of knowing something new. Existential doubts disappear, and all at once the relationship of things seems clear. This experience carries with it a strong emotional signature: relief, joy, gratitude, and exhilaration. I want to say that at this moment we experience a deep peace: peace with the world, and peace within ourselves. It is as a result of this experience that the wave of emotion follows.

What becomes known in such experiences is typically something along the lines of: This is enough. Nothing more or different is needed. I am enough. I am already complete; I don’t need to become something else or to reject any part of myself. When I say that this becomes known, I mean that we experience it directly as a pure fact, in the same way that I can see that a rose is red or feel that the sun is warm against my face. These deep experiences of thisness afford us a glimpse into our existential situation, even if our conditions are actually quite dire. I may be dying of cancer, or living under the boot of severe oppression, but existentially this is alright and so am I. Somehow this distinction between the existential and the conditional is clear in these moments. To be clear: we don’t suddenly give up our cancer treatments or acquiesce to our oppression, nor should we. Rather, we engage in these struggles with fresh energy and a sharpened sense of clarity. Knowing that we are existentially enough allows us to meet our conditions more fully, and probably more successfully.

When we come to know that this is enough, we directly affirm the interconnected pole of the paradox of existence. We directly perceive our embeddedness in the world, and sense that the universe, whatever our particular conditions, profoundly supports us. We experience our interconnectedness almost as a physical property of our moment-to-moment experience. We taste directly the nectar that moistens the universe.[xii] In doing so, we do not lose our contact with our existential aloneness, that other pole of the paradox of existence. Rather, we right the balance of our perception to include a much stronger sense of contact with the pole of interconnectedness. We come to strike a much healthier, and existentially more-accurate, balance. As a result, violence becomes unthinkable. Our minds and muscles become incapable of lashing out, disturbing what is beautiful about the whole of this, shattering the existential peace that underlies everything. When confronted with the violence of others, we spontaneously engage in some kind of nonviolence. Rooted in our own sense of existential enoughness, we want to calm and reassure the other through compassion, understanding, and peacefulness.

A whole industry has sprung up in recent decades to explain the phenomenon of thisness scientifically (although it is rarely called by that name). Many theories have been proposed to provide a neurobiological basis for the kind of peak experiences I have been describing.[xiii] While there have been some encouraging results from this research, the exact mechanism of these experiences remains unclear. For our purposes here, however, perhaps it is enough to note that these experiences do not suggest some magical plane of reality that contradicts what is true the rest of the time. Rather, these experiences accentuate what is perhaps so obvious as to go unnoticed most of the time. Our interconnectedness, no less than our aloneness, is a constant feature of our experience at all times. The very fact that you and I came into existence at all, not to mention that we arrived equipped with the capacity to experience our existence directly—that is, to be conscious—is abundant proof, if proof were needed, that the universe is an incomprehensibly, mind-bendingly, stupendously generous place.

As miraculous as peak existential experiences may seem when they occur, what is perhaps more difficult to understand is why we experience our interconnectedness so seldom. I suspect that these experiences are far less rare than we usually imagine. Perhaps all of us have had some taste of this experience many times, but for various reasons we fail to recognize it. These events are usually quite brief, on the order of seconds, or fractions of a second, in duration. Further, our culture lacks clear language around them, so we have no ready way to tag these experiences when they do occur. I remember a couple of moments in my youth when I had such an experience and could only wonder, “What in the world was that?” I had no words for it. What’s more, most of us do not consciously go looking for these experiences, so when they happen they seem to come out of the blue and catch us unaware. For all these reasons, few people think they have had experiences like the ones I have been describing even though, in all likelihood, they have.

I would speculate that most people experience thisness more in infancy and less often as they age. Those of us who seek peak experiences in adulthood are likely motivated, at least in part, by an inchoate sense of already knowing that such a state is possible, and even perhaps a sense of nostalgia for those experiences of early childhood. As infants, in those spacious times when we are alert, well fed, at the right temperature, and so on—in those long moments of well-being—we have little to distract us from attending simply to this. We spend long hours at this without the complexities that will come later as we develop our capacities to think, project into the past or future, and to worry and hope. In these tranquil moments a sense of thisness will sometimes come, perhaps more persistently and lastingly than at any later stage of life. And, in all likelihood, some of these experiences of thisness will drop to the depth at which profound bliss floods in, where our well-being goes existential. Lacking the neural hardware to encode these experiences in language, the child simply encodes these states somatically, in what is known as implicit memory. It becomes a bodily feeling that we can access later in life when we happen upon similar conditions. When we attend to this, and a thisness comes of sufficient depth, and when our nervous system is situated in just the right way to tap into old and ‘forgotten’ pathways of existential bliss, we have a peak experience that feels both profoundly novel and yet also deeply familiar.

When we have such an experience as an adult, three responses typically arise. First, we want more. We want to experience it again, and we want to go deeper. It calls us back. Second, we want to represent the experience and its significance symbolically, usually in words. We feel a strong desire to articulate its feel and meaning. Third, we want to organize our life around our newfound insight. We create practices that we think will engender this kind of experience, and pursue lifestyles intended to support such practices and the wisdom they afford. If the experience of deep thisness happens predominantly in the right brain, then these responses arise predominantly in the left brain. In general, any right brain intuitive process calls for a left brain narrative process: that’s just part of being human.[xiv]

I submit that our left brain tends to get the story at least somewhat wrong (as I have undoubtedly done in this description), and sometimes—perhaps often—catastrophically wrong. The stories we invent in the left brain are, after all, profoundly self-interested. We bend our perceptions and the sense we make of them to our own advantage if we can. A mountain of psychological studies have confirmed this phenomenon, often in the form of one bias or another.[xv] Naturally, these biases are especially strong in the context of the logic of violence, where guarding our advantage is seen as having necessary survival value. This explains, I believe, why religion so often involves cruelty and oppression. When we distort the experience of deep thisness in our articulation of it, we come to believe our words at the expense of the actual feel of it. Then, our conceptual understanding might actually degrade into the diametric opposite of the self-evident (though preverbal and preconceptual) import of the experience itself. When we add to this an urge to impose our understanding on the world by creating social forms and institutional hierarchies that demand obedience and loyalty, we have the whole sordid history of wars, purges, corruption, and abuse done in the name of religious deliverance.

Existential work, then, carries an inherent risk. When done in the context of the logic of violence it, too, bends toward violence. Even in the context of peace, the risk remains that a little too much of our conditional woundedness will enter into the aftermath of a deep experience of thisness. We can become too attached to having more of it; we can become too enamored of our conceptual understanding such that it becomes fixed and increasingly remote from the experience itself; and we can become too focused on creating forms for ourselves and others. Our left brain, given the chance, will run away with the show.

Thus, the healing of existential work depends crucially on staying close to the experience itself, holding story and theory very lightly indeed, and remaining humble above all. It also requires that we go as far as we can with our conditional work, because the distortions of, say, maladaptive shame are so easily and unconsciously incorporated into our ideas and attitudes. I propose a very simple rule to help us stay on the optimal course of our existential work. Whenever we notice in ourselves even the slightest stirring of violence, in feeling, word, or deed, we can assume that we have gone existentially astray. This is a call back to our work, both existential and conditional. There is nothing wrong with these stirrings—it is part of being human. They are a natural warning system that indicates that we need to step back, take a deep breath, and get in touch with this anew. These stirrings are a problem only when we take them as a spur to violence rather than reflection.

The third strategy to engender nonviolence and peace in the world, then, is to engage deeply and with great humility in the existential work just described. I recommend that we set aside at least 20 minutes per day in a quiet place where we feel safe to sit still and attend to this. Moreover, I recommend that we form small groups (ideally, less than 20 people) that sit together for more concentrated periods of time, like a retreat. This might begin with a day-long affair that mingles periods of sitting quietly with other wholesome activities in a relaxed way. Gradually, I recommend that the group work up to three-day and then seven-day retreats at least once a year—ideally, once a season.

Of course, there already exist many traditions that offer this sort of retreat opportunity, and many teachers that come out of these traditions. I recommend joining up with these established traditions or teachers if one appeals to you. But I also encourage caution. Many of these traditions, and their teachers, are compromised to one degree or another by the trap of rigid adherence to an idea. It can be difficult to profit from the wisdom these traditions afford without also getting drawn into a certain kind of craziness borne of a faulty narrative. At the same time, proceeding without the benefit of an experienced guide who has managed to avoid the worst of these pitfalls is also risky. Having a teacher—or, better, a mentor at least somewhat more experienced than you—is very helpful, perhaps even necessary, but also at the same time represents the greatest single risk in the whole enterprise. Be careful. Here, too, the rule proposed above can be helpful. To the extent that a teacher or tradition engenders violence in us or anyone else, we can assume that someone has gone existentially astray.

Moving along the continuum of our healing work, in both its conditional and existential modes, we become increasingly aligned with our actual existential situation. We find ourselves comfortably moving about between the poles of existence, just as mindful of our interconnectedness as we are of our aloneness. Our sense of the world and ourselves and the relation between the two naturally synchs with our direct experience and the immutable facts of existence. In this optimal state, the logic of violence loses its appeal and the logic of peace becomes increasingly self-evident. Then, making peace occurs spontaneously; and nonviolence emerges organically and forthrightly in the presence of violence. Increasingly, centered vulnerability becomes not only thinkable and possible but even natural.

As we optimize our internal relation to the world we come into increasing harmony with the world as it actually is in its myriad human and non-human forms; but we also come into disharmony with the legacy of violence and inequity that pervades our social forms. In short, we become revolutionaries in the world, though of a specific kind. Let us turn now to a consideration of this particular sort of revolution, which we discover to be the one revolution that has ever been—indeed, the very revolution begun at the moment homo sapiens first emerged from the mists of the deep past.


[i] The works of Kierkegaard offer one historically and philosophically important glimpse into the relationship between existentialism and religion—in his case, Christianity.

[ii] Rogers, 1957.

[iii] Gendlin, 1996.

[iv] Richard Meyer, personal communication.

[v] Rogers, 1957.

[vi] Wampold, 2015.

[vii] Of course, it does not follow that all psychotherapeutic processes directly support nonviolence work. Many clients in therapy are not oriented toward the problem of violence, do not regard themselves as prone to violence, and have no explicit intention to make the world a better place through their therapeutic work. The same is likely true for many therapists. While psychotherapy is probably helpful to promoting nonviolence to some degree anyway, I am recommending psychotherapy in which both the client and the therapist share an active intention to develop the capacity for making peace internally and in the world.

[viii] Even prayer. I hesitate to include this word because it often suggests something more active, like a dialogue with God, or a recitation of needs or gratitudes. But very often I think prayer is closer to contemplation, etc., and belongs on this list.

[ix] Elsewhere, I call this the art of experiencing. See my podcast, The Art of Experiencing: Mindfulness and the Zen Koan at

[x] If this description of existential work bears an uncanny resemblance to Zen, especially in its Soto form, the fault lies entirely with me. Although this is where the bulk of my own experience lies, I am trying to describe a universal type of endeavor that I believe is encoded in various ways in most religious and spiritual traditions.

[xi] See McGilchrist, 2009.

[xii] “The whole universe is moistened with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest,” attributed to ancient Soto Zen Master Dogen. See Aitken, 1984, p. 50.

[xiii] See, for instance, Austin, 1999 or Siegel, 2018.

[xiv] See McGilchrist, 2009.

[xv] See Kahneman, 2011.