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Spirituality, Psychology, and the Eight Pillars of Peace

Photo by PIRO4D from Pixabay

There is a large and vibrant international community dedicated to eliminating violence in all its forms. Just as the causes of violence can be cultural, material, emotional, or political, the approaches that different groups take are characterized by rich variation. It is good that so many people and groups are thinking outside the box, but the downside is fragmentation and a lack of communication. I want to get everyone who is mobilized for peace to speak to and understand each other, in order to coordinate global efforts more efficiently to have the greatest impact. There are two particular focal points for the pursuit of global peace that we want to bring together today. On the surface they appear to be targeting different parts of the peace puzzle, but there may be much more overlap than initially meets the eye.

Photo by Amelia Kirshbaum

Thanks to organizations like the Institute for Economics and Peace[1], the international community is gradually becoming more aware of the need for peacebuilding actions that are rooted in strong social science. However, it is still early days, and most large-scale efforts are still based too much on trial and error [2], neglecting to use the new and powerful indicators of progress developed by the IEP. ‘Technical peacebuilding,’ based on sound statistical knowledge, holds the key to finding the fastest ways forward in this domain.[3]

On the other side of the spectrum, organizations like the Center for Spiritual Living[4] emphasize the personal and spiritual dimension of the struggle for peace. What spiritual tools can individuals be equipped with to help them choose alternatives to violent conflict resolution? Let us imagine that everybody in the world meditated regularly and reflected on the importance of compassion. Would we be living in more peaceful world? I believe so, but we do not want such an approach to be thought of as a competitor to technical peacebuilding. Spiritual matters may seem unscientific, and proponents of spiritual approaches to peace may want to carve out a separate space, but the psychological and sociological literatures strongly suggest there is room for integration.

The first type of relevant evidence to mention is psychological. Mindfulness meditation has been shown in countless studies to strengthen the parts of the brain responsible for executive control[5]. This part of mental processing only develops fully by the age of 25[6], and it is what helps individuals override impulses in conflict situations. This suggests a push for ambitious initiatives that teach mindfulness to groups of youths in places where the outbreak of violent conflict is deemed likely.

The second type of evidence comes from even older research on human capital. Studies have convincingly shown that high levels of education and social awareness are a powerful defense against violent conflict.[7] What these two distinct literatures emphasize is the power of approaches that build up the skill set of an individual and have a positive effect on their probability to spread peaceful methods conflict resolutions as opposed to picking up arms.

A healthy emphasis on the spiritual is therefore indispensable. My claim is that such approaches can gain from incorporating themselves into wider peacebuilding frameworks such as the IEP’s Eight Pillars of Peace. The following three pillars are particularly relevant: Acceptance of the Rights of Others, Good Relations with Neighbours, and High levels of Human Capital[8]. Spiritual approaches to peacebuilding can gather more argumentative force and credibility by hammering home the power of spiritual training in improving those three society-wide measures. Likewise, the IEP’s technical peacebuilding approach has room to include guidelines for more creative spiritual approaches to peace under its eight Pillars. Science stands behind both approaches, and I hope the future sees them both exploit their complementarity to the fullest.

Brian van Oosterum

[1] [2] [3] P. Collier, 2009 Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Oxford University Press [4] [5] R. Teper, Z. V. Segal, and M. Inzlicht (2013) Inside the Mindful Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control [6] D. Eagleman (2015) The Brain: The Story of You [7] P. Justino (2011) Violent Conflict and Human Capital Accumulation [8] IEP (2016) Positive Peace Report

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