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March 25, 2013

Women as Peacebuilders Series - Session 5

Lyn Fine, Guest Peacebuilder

There are at least two interconnected approaches to peacebuilding, according to Lyn Fine, the fifth guest in the Network's Women as Peacebuilders series. One avenue is to focus on inner transformation, another on changing institutional structures of society. Although Lyn has traveled both paths in her life, engagement with inner peacebuilding was most evident in her presentation at the Living Room Dialogue.

Lyn chose to begin her talk by inviting us to listen to the sound of a small bell, an instrument she uses daily in her mindfulness practice and as a teacher in the Order of Interbeing, a worldwide community founded by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Lyn enjoined us to use our breathing when we heard the sound of the bell, to clear our minds of agitation and to remind ourselves of our connection to the universe and all living things. The voice of the bell helps us remember, she said, that we are alive in this present moment - when hearing the sound, we can connect with our deepest yearnings for wholeness and peace, uniting body, mind and speech.

Lyn's awareness of social inequities and suffering began as a child of privilege growing up on the West Side of New York. Alongside the secure blocks of apartments where her family lived were blocks of significant poverty, areas considered so dangerous that Lyn was warned not to walk those streets alone, not even to go to the library. At age 14, traveling with her family in Istanbul, she looked out of the window of her luxury hotel onto a neighborhood of squalor and began to cry. She found that she could not explain to her family why she was sobbing, but she knew deeply that it had to do with the tremendous gap she saw between her own circumstances and those of the people living in the neighborhoods around the hotel. In her twenties, during the 1960s, Lyn's awareness of human suffering was heightened by the Civil Rights Movement, two years living in India and the turmoil of the war in Vietnam.

The year 1982 was a pivotal one for Lyn. It was a time of great despair for her. She was teaching English as a Second Language classes in which she met people from all over the world and was once more brought in touch with a lot of suffering. What could be done to alleviate it? Where could she participate and make a contribution.

In that year she met two people whose life and work transformed her understanding of true peacebuilding action. One was the Network's own Kathleen Kanet, at that time an educator working at the Intercommunity Center for Justice and Peace. They came together at a meeting that was to give birth to Educators for Social Responsibility. A movement to disarm nuclear weapons was in full swing following a spectacular march and demonstration in New York City where 2 million people converged to protest, and Lyn and Kathleen, along with other ESR founders, wondered what steps they could take to follow up on that spirit.

Lyn remembers consulting teachers on what their most urgent priorities were. It was a time when there was much talk of menacing enemies, with U.S. President Ronald Reagan calling Russia an "evil empire." Children were frightened. In one group where children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, they responded "alive."

Elementary school teachers also informed the ESR founders that they spent 80% of their day solving disputes between children. This information led to ESR's development with the teachers of a Resolving Conflict Creatively program that included classroom lessons on resolving conflict and training student mediators. Lyn became a teacher trainer. This successful program continues to this day, though ESR has broadened its scope and now calls itself the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility and includes social and emotional learning as well as conflict resolution.

The second influential person Lyn met in 1982 was Thich Nhat Hanh. After sitting quietly in meditation during a conference breakout period which Lyn attended, he offered three proposals for building peace on our planet:

  • Organize a day when no one in the world goes hungry, either for food or love.
  • People in every major religious tradition should observe the holidays of every other religion in the way they observe those holidays. This proposal encouraged Lyn to continue exploring deeply her own Jewish roots, history and culture as well as others' - including the conditions and consequences of the Holocaust years, the historical persecution of the Jewish people, and the challenges of current situations.
  • Social activists should regularly stop, breathe and remind themselves that "I am alive." Lyn thought, "This man knows that you can come to feel overwhelmed and despairing when you open your heart to the world."

In subsequent years, Lyn has continued to practice with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the world-wide community he has established from his home base in southern France. Recently, she has developed with others a nonprofit network to encourage "mindful peacebuilding," a practice which includes attending to both inner peacebuilding and socially engaged action. She has taught mindfulness meditation to prisoners at San Quentin penitentiary, where some prisoners shared their belief that if they had had access to mindfulness practice and a mindfulness community as young children, they might very well not be in prison today. Lyn continues to develop peacebuilding practices grounded in the energy of mindfulness, together with appropriate and effective ways to offer these practices to individuals and groups both in the USA and in B'er Sheva, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bethlehem, places she has visited many times.

Our challenge as peacebuilders, Lyn reminded us, is to contain in our minds and hearts experiences of joy and happiness together with experience of our suffering and the knowledge of suffering in the world. We can make mindful choices. For example, we can learn to filter the news or even undergo a "news fast" and take in only information that will contribute to well-being. In our mediations when we hear news of suffering, we can practice "breathing in, aware of suffering" and "breathing out, well-being."

As far as the future of humanity is concerned, Lyn believes that young people are coming to understand that we are one planet and that walls between peoples will fall away. Our inner work is to realize that there are no enemies. She quoted the poem "Please Call Me By My True Names" by Thich Nhat Hanh, "I am a mayfly metamorphosing/ on the surface of the river./ And I am the bird/that swoops down to swallow the mayfly."

Two books Lyn recommended were Thich Naht Hanh's Peace at Every Step and Joanna Macy's Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy .

Some reflections during the ensuing dialogue:

  • I grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, during the 80s when there was the daily stress of gunshots. The reminder to "breathe, you are alive" would have helped. My Mom died when I was seven and I was raised by my Dad. It seemed like the same old routine all the time. I always wanted to help and change.
  • I remember a Jesuit telling a story about a woman whose son was killed by a gang member. The killer went to jail, where he was regularly visited by this mother. When he was released she invited him to her home and gave him food. He half expected to be killed there. The mother said what she wanted to kill was not him but his original mindset and this she did. People are in jail because no one loved them.
  • It was important to hear Lyn talk about peacebuilding with a stress on the "ing." The small moments bringing about internal change count.
  • I can't stand it when I hear people from different political parties arguing their views. (Lyn advised taking calming breaths.)
  • Bill Moyers reads three papers featuring views opposite to his own every day so he has a better understanding of what people are thinking.
  • A friend listens to talk shows where people most have opinions that diverge from hers. She listens carefully until she can find some point she can agree with and then calls in the show to say "I agree with this. point, but I don't agree with that.."
  • The language we use is important. For example, instead of saying "I don't do a good job of.." we can say "I want to.." In the Waldorf school, teachers are instructed never to say "don't" or "no" to children, instead framing their statements in a positive way. By using positive statements, we can re-wire our brains.

Lyn concluded the evening by saying that women always are peacebuilders, that we should acknowledge the power of the women in the room and the world-wide movement of women as peacebuilders. She has every hope that the world is reaching a tipping point in the direction of well-being for all people.


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