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Life coaching, counseling, and energy medicine

Peace can be learned

UM's Center for Spirituality and Healing offers course on peacemaking and spirituality

A twincitieswellness INTERVIEW

by Judy Steele

Since September 11, intense, anguished, and often heated discussions have raged among large numbers of thinking people everywhere in this country—in homes, schools, coffee shops, on the Internet—chewing over and over the same issues. "We don't really want a war, but we have to stop them. What else can we do?" "We can't roll over and play dead—we have to fight back!" "It is indeed horrible to think of those poor people being bombed in Afghanistan, but diplomacy isn't going to cut it with bin Laden or the Taliban. Realistically, are there any alternatives to war?" "Maybe it's true that violence begets more violence, but pacifism will just get us all killed."

And closer to home, confusion and questions reign. "What can I do? I'm just a person; I don't have a national role in this." "I don't know how to deal with the violence in my own neighborhood (or in my own family or school or work situation); how can I do anything about the violence in the world?" "I'm fighting with myself about this all the time—I don't know what to think or feel!"

Others, long ago, gave up thinking and talking about these kinds of issues, because they felt powerless to make a difference or do things differently or because the economic and political outcomes seem justified for waging war.

Peacemaking and spirituality class at UM

While it doesn't pretend to give all the answers, a class called "Peacemaking and Spirituality," taught by Dr. Mark Umbreit in the Center for Spirituality and Healing (CSH) at the University of Minnesota (UM), offers some new and useful ways of thinking about these and other related questions, and some ways in which we can indeed make a difference in the areas where we ourselves live.

Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of CSH, says, "When we decided to offer 'Peacemaking and Spirituality' last year, we, of course, had no sense of how relevant it would be today. [Yet], when Mark approached me about teaching this course, I was confident that it would resonate with students who want to learn about new ways of resolving conflict. Just as the old ways of delivering healthcare are no longer effective, resolving conflict through domination and violence is not effective. It only perpetuates a cycle of oppression and violence.

"While this is an issue that has political, moral, and economic implications, it also has profound human implications. Violence crushes the human spirit and erodes the health and well-being of both the victim and the perpetrator. The tragic events of September 11 will serve as a permanent reminder of the horrors of violence and the need to find new ways to resolve conflicts and differences."

Dr. Mark Umbreit—well-known in restorative justice and peacemaking fields

Umbreit, a well-known and prolific researcher in the field of Restorative Justice, a keynote speaker at international conferences, and a teacher and practitioner who has written five books and numerous journal articles, is director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking in the School of Social Work at UM. But he is not just an academic. His roots in this field go back more than 30 years: He was a civil rights activist, Vietnam protestor, and antiwar activist. In those years, after a difficult struggle —because his mainstream religious background did not "justify" it—he was granted conscientious objector status.

Restorative Justice goes far beyond the kind of mediation now used routinely in labor-management disputes and divorce cases that is focused simply on coming to some kind of agreement. Umbreit, like others using this approach, is working to create a space in which true healing can take place, "…to create a safe, if not sacred, place for dialogue."

Now, in addition to teaching seminars all over the country and the world, a major part of Umbreit's work is with parents of murdered children, facilitating carefully-prepared meetings between them and their children's murderers—a healing and accountability approach, called victim-offender mediation, now fully endorsed by the American Bar Association.

Centering of the self essential to peacemaking

Designed originally to focus on the process of resolving conflict and making peace in healthcare and social work settings, the course has also drawn graduate and undergraduate students from psychology, communications, education, recreation, music therapy, law, and other fields. Some are professionals from the community, including a judge; some are from other countries, including Taiwan, Kenya, and Vietnam.

"This course is about creating a sacred space [one of the principles of peacemaking] where we can share our experience with each other," says Umbreit. "It has more of the character of a spiritual retreat than a typical class." A recent class discussion, following a guest speaker's presentation, ranged over such topics as near-death experiences, reincarnation, energy healing, and the healing effects of both prayer and positive thoughts. Past students have appreciated "the relaxed, open environment of the class and the ability to dialogue in an informal way," as well as the principles of peacemaking, the "healing learning," "the emphasis on self-care, and the connection between everything."

Besides creating a "safe, if not sacred, space," the course also emphasizes the importance of being truly centered in oneself, which permits us "to be fully present with another person or situation, with both our heart and our head, our deeper feelings, and our thoughts." Mindfulness meditation and other paths to centering are taught and practiced in the class, because centering is seen as essential to the peacemaking process.

Umbreit explains, "To be centered means to have synchronized your deeper values within your heart with your mind, body, and speech, so that all action extends from the same place. This requires letting go of the clutter in our mind, separating our own needs and issues from those who we are serving, and accessing our higher self, our deeper governing values. To be centered is to be grounded in a spirit of compassion, defined at unconditional positive regard for the other and mutual recognition of our common suffering, and humility which says 'I don't have or need to have all the answers.' When you are centered, wisdom and compassion are available, you are in the present moment, NOW, past and future are irrelevant, a nonjudgmental attitude governs you, you are open to seeing another's point of view, conflict can be transformed into healing and growth, you can feel and hold all sides of the conflict, defensiveness and fear disappear, and creativity emerges because you are not attached to specific outcomes." Sounds like deep spiritual development, doesn't it?

Kreitzer reports that Rebecca, a student from last year's class whom she had never met, stopped by her office to say, "This course on peacemaking and spirituality was the best course I've taken in my whole life!" Kreitzer said, "Rebecca said she had learned a whole new way of being. She truly felt that this course had forever altered her life and jolted her to re-think her life mission and goals.

"At the Center for Spirituality and Healing, our work is about helping students like Rebecca expand their world view and cultivate new skills of healing and self-care. While we offer courses in complementary and alternative medicine for students and practitioners who want to acquire new knowledge or skills, an increasing number of students are drawn to our courses in the area of spirituality. This seems to reflect a deep yearning for purpose, meaning, and connectedness in life."

A recent student, Kathleen Wesa, MD, whose specialty is addiction medicine, said, "This class has been a gift! The breathwork and centering are really important because it re-energizes me and I can be more in tune with what's required of me with colleagues, family, and patients. I know it will help soon when I go to New York City to work with methadone patients."

Ann Hauck, a music therapist who works with hospice, said the class has helped her to "create an all-around safe environment in which families can deal with their conflicts, some spiritual, some emotional, related to the dying process. I want to honor that sacred space where a patient is dying, to be present, to be inclusive, and to make sure it remains as sacred space."

About that word "spirituality," Umbreit comments, "I'm very careful to distinguish between spirituality and religion here. For many, religion is a bridge to a deeper sense of spirituality—a spirituality that is profoundly inclusive and nonjudgmental, and that speaks to the deeper meaning of life; some people, however, get stuck on the bridge. For many others, institutionalized religion is a major barrier to spirituality and is not required."

Peacemaking—not the same as pacifism

A number of traditional native cultures, including the Native American, Hawaiian, and Maori (New Zealand) have formalized peacemaking processes, which involve both accountability for the offender and healing for the community. Buddhism and Judaism also offer helpful principles, and, says Umbreit, "In the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount, I hear very radical witness for justice, peace, and acceptance."

"Spirituality and peacemaking are inseparable," says Umbreit. "There's a lot of political 'peacemaking,' with false peaces resulting from looking for a quick fix. But real peacemaking goes way beyond present issues and problems; it goes to the core of human relationships; it relates to the humanity of your adversary. Peacemaking is grounded in the soul, not the head."

Then is peacemaking the same as pacifism? "No," continues Umbreit, "There are pacifists who are peacemakers, but not all peacemakers are pacifists."

Clearly, offenders need to be brought to justice. And sadly, in some cases, that process can be bloody. Yet much healing is still possible. In South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have created a national post-liberation public tribunal in which 22,000 victims and 7,000 offenders from the apartheid era have so far told their stories and explained their actions to each other in a safe space, in the context of the offenders' seeking amnesty and the nation's seeking healing from its terrible past. There have also been efforts to promote restorative dialogue in Northern Ireland, work with rape survivors, and even the teaching of Vipassana meditation in large prisons, with "a tremendous effect on their behavior in prison," according to Umbreit.

Citing the examples of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Umbreit says, "Good, effective peacemaking is a balance of the head and heart, or, as Jesus put it, 'The gentleness of the dove, and the wisdom of the serpent.' Authentic, effective peacemaking requires one to get their hands dirty, engaging the head and the heart" with real people in real, often heartrendingly difficult, situations. "It's not about forcing your adversaries to accept your position. It includes accepting differences while finding points of agreement."

So how are efforts like this course relevant to the larger cause of peacemaking in the world? Umbreit answers, "Building peace over the long haul is a very intense process that requires a lot of patience, humility and stamina—and it's also a very rewarding process. I feel that every effort of this kind creates a certain amount of synergy, and an energy in the world that is conducive to peace, to engage with people who come from different backgrounds. There are growing amounts of evidence that these approaches have helped people bring peace and increased health in their own lives, and that spirituality, prayer, and alternative healing can be very effective. I think that has a synergistic effect in the larger world. Can there be a quick fix from this? Certainly not. What I'm promoting is the antithesis of the quick-fix mentality. This is a deeper pathway to peace. I'm talking about engaged spirituality; it's messy, yet very rewarding."

The Center for Spirituality and Healing will be offering three new courses this spring: "Significant Spiritual Texts of the 20th Century," "Spirituality and Resilience," and "Therapeutic Landscapes: Creating Healing Spaces." A new course, "Healing and Forgiveness," will be taught by Umbreit in the summer session, and the "Peacemaking and Spirituality" course is expected to be offered again next fall. Mark and Alexa Umbreit have a book coming out called Pathways to Spirituality and Healing: Embracing Life and Each Other in the Face of Severe Illness. He describes it as "inspirational, yet very practical, grounded in my wife's experience as a breast cancer survivor and mine as her support person."

Judy Steele is a living-skills teacher, counselor, and organizational development consultant with a master's degree in transpersonal psychology and over 30 years of experience in assisting organizations and individuals with the mental, emotional, and spiritual roots of life and work effectiveness. She can be reached at 612-929-0489 or jwspr@earthlink.net. Website: www.schoolforliving.org.  (Minneapolis MN)