Ukraine and Peace

(this was published on Medium, where I publish most of my thoughts – and until I work out how to link the two, this is how I’m going to do it!)

There are three ‘topics’ on Medium that relate to Ukraine and peace. There are six that relate to Ukraine and war. Far more of the articles on Medium and elsewhere that focus on the invasion of Ukraine zone in on the tragic, bloody and horrific human costs than make an attempt to answer the question: how, realistically, can this situation transition to peace?

War: what is it good for?

The fact is that we focus on war, just as our ancestors focused on the rustle in the undergrowth and thought “tiger!” because we are hard wired to attend to potential threats. The problem with this is that we also create the expectation of catastrophe, and are thus much more attuned to its possibility, and even to extending it, if that’s what we focus on. I know this from having done a PhD which focuses on the ecological emergency, a larger, looming, existential crisis that includes climate change and biodiversity loss, but also the systems collapse of extreme political polarisation, and the personal collapse of anxiety, terror, or rage.

Feed the right wolf

The temptation to feed the fear is enormous, but it is worth pausing and noticing that we find it relatively easy to identify what it is that we do not want (what most of us do not want): violence, aggression, destruction, and abuse. However we find it much less easy to identify in a clear, detailed picture what it is that we do want. With the former, most of us will immediately ‘see’ in our mind’s eye a picture, perhaps of rubble, or smoke, sounds of bombs or screaming, blood and broken bodies, or the desperate acts undertaken in the throes of starvation. If, by contrast, we attempt to envisage the end of the war, we might have difficulty seeing how the refugees could return, and start afresh, how Putin could survive and then face trial, how the tanks and guns could return to military establishments, the soldiers to training grounds.

What you really, really want

It is always worth asking ourselves what we really want, individually, because although our desires are at least partially the result of our culture, family, and experience, there are values that we all share as a consequence of being human. The desire to love and be loved. Security and to have our physical needs for decent food and clean water met. A sense of belonging to a community or group or tribe or other form of identification. A sense of being valued, listened to, and an opportunity to create, and learn, and have an attitude, or spirit, that matters, and is worthy of exploration.

New world order

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has galvanised the West in a way that Afghanistan, Syria, or any number of conflicts in the global South utterly failed to do. They did not grab our attention. They did not threaten our understanding of the world order. This one does.

My contention is that we are feeding the conflict with our focus on catastrophising, anticipating worst possible outcomes, rather than acknowledging that, while clearly war crimes have taken place, none of us, not even any Ukrainian, is other than human, and all humans are fallible. All humans have the capacity and the desire to love and be loved. Even Putin.

Polarities and dualities

What is happening on social media, and even in the mainstream, is that we are being presented with the Ukrainian invasion as a black and white issue. An issue that allows for no nuance. And yet we all understand, if we take a few breaths, that every issue involves a spectrum of perspectives.

These two issues, the focus on catastrophising, and the tendency to polarise our responses, are, I suggest, feeding the crisis. They did not create it, and nor will the crisis magically disappear if you do what I am about to describe, but we might just manage to shift our own understanding and response, not just to this critical and urgent situation, but to the ecological emergency which is still unfolding, and is itself being fed by this war.

What do we really want? Jonathan Haidt who wrote The Righteous Mind offered the idea that we all want the same things, but we don’t necessarily prioritise them in the same order. The desire for loyalty, that is, friendship or allegiance that is unquestionable, might top the list for some, while the desire for fairness, that is, a concentrated effort to level the playing field, might be the highest priority for others. Yet all of us would agree that both virtues have at least some merit. This is nuance. Learning to understand and agree that we have a perspective which is never neutral, but always partisan, and always liable to influence, and indeed probably largely shaped, by our colour, creed, culture, family, time and place of birth, education, and so on. Learning to listen, really listen, to one another, and to what is not being said between the curses and the condemnation, is a vital skill, if we are to turn our attention from polarities to understanding that there are different ways of seeing the same thing.

We are the system

The system that created the mesmerising terror we are witnessing unfold in Ukraine depended on mutually accepting profitable enterprises that undermined fairness, made us more dependent on fossil fuels, allowed corruption to thrive. The opportunity to change how we function as societies and transition to economies that are more accountable in the face of values we aspire to, values like sustainability, integrity, and responsibility, is huge. What if we focused on how we might pivot towards a future that is more efficient in energy use, that rolls out affordable retrofitting schemes, supports regenerative agriculture that restores the soils and facilitates local food production, and rewilding and rewetting to allow water and air quality to improve?

I don’t want to change the world

We can’t change the world. We can’t change the course of human history, not as individuals, and not even in protest groups. But we can change ourselves. We can shift where we put our focus. The world changes when we change ourselves. When we decide what we do and think and say really matters, we will find ourselves aligned with great thinkers from the past, people like Dogen Zenji, who advocated practice realisation, realising that each act that you do, each word, each breath, is an opportunity to become aware, to realise, what kind of world you belong to, a world that is entirely interconnected, where each act matters. And recent masters like Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught that to practice peace means focusing on each moment, and seeing what it means to allow ourselves to feel a sense of acceptance, whatever else is going on.

Where your attention goes

There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that where you focus your attention is where you will create expectations, and that those expectations prime you to react in particular ways to subsequent events. For instance, if you focus on the death and destruction of the war without also, perhaps, deciding that you are going to act to alleviate some of that suffering, by participating in fund-raising, and even perhaps realising that all wars create suffering, and finding out how to alleviate suffering in some of the other wars, then you will simply feed your own fear and despair. You will make yourself ill, or numb. This illness and numbness can weaken you, making you more fragile and less resilient in the face of personal crises. You can damage your own relationships.

Alternatively, you can use the war as an opportunity to practice peace as an act of personal revolution, an act to turn your own experience into wisdom. What is a wise way to respond to war? Dealing with a difficult individual is quite a good analogy, and Gabor Mate gave a neat and effective metaphor for this when he talked of dealing with an addict and the chaos they create. You can either say, I can deal with you in my life, I have the resources. I will listen to your suffering while not allowing your aggression, bullying or exploitation to affect me because I have plenty of space, and time, and energy. Or you can say, I have limited space and time and energy and your chaos, the violence and bile, don’t allow me to maintain my own welfare, and therefore I cannot have you in my life. And you draw a line. What you cannot say is, be in my life, and I am going to change you. You never change anyone but yourself.

Listening for a change

So if you can cooperate for a change, and listen, while resetting a balance to favour intelligence and wisdom, to learn how you might see things differently, and what is actually needed to create a win-win situation, then that is the most beneficial course of action. There are many wise individuals alive now, and they are worth listening to. They may be writers, or spiritual leaders, or researchers. They may be people you know are wise in your own family or community. Really listen to them. Knowledge is fantastic, but if it is acquired without an awareness of why it is being acquired, it will have be empty of value. Move from knowledge acquisition to wisdom motivated action. If you cannot cooperate, then draw a line, defend yourself, but keep monitoring your own internal situation, keep attending to your own attempts to pay attention with an attitude that is most beneficial. Kristen Neff and many others have shown the value of an attitude of self-compassion.

What are you channelling?

None of us has a complete picture of what is going on. But our individual attitudes matter, both for our own health and wellbeing, and because, collectively, we create the outcome, and the extent of suffering depends on where we put our attention. If we attend only to the titillation of horror, that is what we will generate. If, on the other hand, we attend to our own values, and what we are realising, making real and becoming aware of, in how we do what we do, then we have a powerful opportunity to shift our own experience, and to transform ourselves into conduits— for peace.

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