Soul Love had an inspiring interview with James O’Dea, you can read it below.
James O’Dea is a renowned figure in international social healing who has conducted healing and reconciliation dialogues for twenty years and was director of Amnesty International’s Washington, DC, office for over ten years. He is author of the bestselling book, Cultivating Peace – Becoming a 21st Century Peace Ambassador as well as his popular first book, Creative Stress – A Path for Evolving Souls Living Through Personal and Planetary Upheaval.
His work as co-director of the Social Healing Project led him to Rwanda, Israel/Palestine, and Northern Ireland. James leads the popular Peace Ambassador Training hosted by the Shift Network, but he is also on the extended faculty of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and is its immediate past president. He is also a member of the Advisory Board for the Peace Alliance.
Soul Love recently met with James and we had a truly beautiful conversation.
Soul Love: What is your very original inspiration that started your career with Amnesty International and led you where you are now on this journey for peace?
James O’Dea: I certainly had an impulse early in life to activism. When I was a teenager in London, I was born in Ireland but my family moved to England, I organized other teenagers to evaluate the treatment of senior citizens in southeast London and we revealed inadequacies in the system and abandonment of people and so. I got a “Teenager of the Year Award” and what was interesting at the time is that I got a lot of publicity and so the authorities had woken up a little bit. The head of the welfare authority in London wrote to me and said “It seems that you gained a lot of public attention for your criticism and I would be so grateful if you could come and meet and we could discuss things”, which for a sixteen year old boy was pretty good, the government starts to pay attention. But I was an immature activist at the time and I wrote back and said “You know what you have to do, when you do it we can meet”. And I think of that as a sort of interesting benchmark in my own journey.
I lived in Turkey and went to an American school and at some point I was knifed, I was attacked and brutalized and rather than shocking me and scaring me out of the country, it had an interesting effect on me, I sort of flipped and deepened my sense of commitment. So what was going on there in fact revealed the deeper souls code and tested me deeper and I said “I am really going to commit to working with my students”. At some point, my students were machine gunned and got killed.
I went to Beirut after I finished in Turkey and I was working with the Middle East Council of Churches on how to create ecumenical tourism, about the cultures and the mosaic of the Middle East and again I met with the war and the invasion of the Israelis into Beirut. I was there during the “Sabra and Shatila massacre” and that was a very, very low point.
This was a personal experience of being intimately connected to the local situation. We had a medical team in the camp at the time and they came back on the morning of the massacres and said “Something terrible has happened, there are bodies in the streets.” This was really a very dark place for me and I sort of spiritually cried out “Why is this so dark, so evil, so hurtful, so wounded”?
Not long after that I had another spiritual epiphany. It was in the midst of the rubble of the Palestinian camp south of Beirut and an old man beckoned me and the medical team I was with in the middle of the destruction “Come have coffee with me”. These are the refugees of ’48, so they built houses with mortar and bricks, and those were all blown apart and he’d had family members who were killed. Yet I saw something there for the first time, through the suffering, through the darkness, through evil, there was something indomitable, something unbreakable. It was the spiritual dimension of the whole. I didn’t see a man suffering of having a life, but I saw his dignity, the dignity that couldn’t been blown away and again just like the knifing in Turkey, this was a turning point for me and I said “There’s a larger story, there’s a spiritual dimension truly” and even though I was a soulful and spiritual person myself, I had not seen spirit tested this way, so that was really what led me to Amnesty International.
I was often very much driven by outrage, by how do we stop the suffering of humanity and find those responsible and bring them to justice. So it was kind of an arrow that went out – “Let’s find out who’s to blame here and how can we stop them”. But the whole thing is about learning isn’t it, discovering the true identity of our deepest being. In the midst of Amnesty someone told me “How can you decondition people with the very imagery and thought systems that have conditioned them in the first place? You’re using blame and shame and outrage but that’s what is causing the problem! So you have to find a new modality, you have to find a new story, you have to think of human possibilities and what is evolving, what is emerging” and that had a deep impact on me.
Amidst all the suffering that I saw daily in Amnesty I was keen to find a new story, a new way of looking at the world. When I left Amnesty I had a very deep spiritual experience of really looking at the root causes – now we’re going into the realm of consciousness. So the activism that began with a teenager’s desire to do good, started to emerge into what’s the consciousness itself that has to transform: Looking at cycles of wounding.
SL: Peace dialogues often seem impossible to us. From your experience, why would people refuse a dialogue about working towards peace?
JOD: Something very important happened in the 20th century – In science we said there isn’t just something called objective truth, there isn’t something just out there that’s independent of human experience and observation that exists as objective truth.
Physicists said “Oh my goodness even our own consciousness interacting with subatomic particles is influencing the behaviour of those particles. Wow!” Subjective consciousness is woven into that. So, what happens in conflict is people grab the truth and proclaim it is theirs and own it and say “Here are all the objective reasons why the truth is mine and why I am in the right and you are in the wrong”.
So parallel to that science we have the emergence of the truth and reconciliation processes in various countries. There are actually 43 different commissions around the world. In Argentina they did a report of the commission called Nunca Más (Never Again) and that became a best selling book in Argentina. It was the retelling of what happened.
There is something so primal in us human beings that says “I need to be heard and I need to be understood”, and if you can do that you’re at the beginning of getting people to the table.
If we begin to see the truth and people’s experience, we’re deeply connected. We saw in the South African truth and reconciliation forgiveness process that it was enormously healing to the social order that people could say “This was my experience”. Even those brought up in apartheid as protectors of the apartheid system were able to talk about their own indoctrination of how they were laid into the system. That I think is the knob of the issue – “If you want peace we’re willing to listen completely to your experience of what happened, your experience of occupation, your experience of terrorist threads, whatever it is, we want to hear the full story, not just the superficial facts but the total experience”.
There is something so primal in us human beings that says “I need to be heard and I need to be understood”, and if you can do that you’re at the beginning of getting people to the table.
If people really feel that the process is going to allow them to be heard, that it isn’t a set-up, then something starts to move. It’s all about wholeness and that’s why the map of consciousness, the map of spirituality, the map of the inner life meeting the external reality, is the new map for us, because once we bring those two together, we honour the wounding and the hurt and we honour the other person’s identification with the truth.
Even if you talk about Assad, you can immediately go to the words ‘butcher of Syria’, 100,000 people have been killed, up to 2 million refugees, you can use all these senses of that, but look into his own story – He was a little boy, his father massacred, gassed to death 10,000 people in homes and said to his son “This is what you do” so he was traumatized by his own father’s example, but he actually, in his own incredibly unskillful way, he is trying to protect the freedom of religion because the Alawites are a minority in his country.
Recently when President Morsi was deposed in Egypt by a military coupe, Assad said “No leader who tries to impose religion on his own people will ever succeed”. So if you listen in deeply enough there is that truth. That truth has been washed away by all the other events of the story, so a peacemaker must have that impeccable commitment to really deep listening, that’s why in my book Cultivating Peace, I have a whole chapter on listening, because I think we know how to listen, oh yes I know…., that’s what I call ‘listening in debate mode’. Sometimes it’s good to debate but you will miss the emotion in their message, you’ll miss what’s really happening in their heart, what they really want to say. Especially men, we see that also in relationships, have the tendency to listen in the problem solving mode – “What’s the problem? Let’s fix it”. Nothing needs to be fixed, it needs to be accepted, it needs to be witnessed. In fact there is a deeper process in which we can listen as the peacemakers – Witness the reality, and that is quite different.
JOD: This goes from the personal, from the familial to the social order itself. Let’s say that as a young person, somebody is exposed to sexual abuse or molestation and it creates a kind of circuitry in their being, that if it is not transformed it will often reappear as the abuser. This is the pattern we see drive the social order in peacemaking that the perpetrator is in fact the victim, these are cycles of perpetration and victimization. So, not only can you be wounded but somehow the wound is then lifted up, “They did this to us, we will remember it” so there’s the unconscious transmission and there’s the conscious transmission of this wound. It says “We were the victim and we will never allow that to happen”, but you perpetuate the cycle of the transmission.
This emerging field that we call social healing really says “Look, we’ve learned a lot, in mind, body and health. In the last thirty years, there has been a whole revolution. Before that, you went to the doctor and said “Doctor I’ve got a problem, give me the injection, give me the pill, do your stuff”. Now the doctor says “Let’s work on your attitude shall we, let’s work on the mind part of the problem, what are you doing for your own health?”
The insights that come from mind, body, health integrate healing are huge. We’re trying to see how they can apply to this issue of the transmission of wounds from generation to generation. How do we heal the social body and where we attend to people’s experiences? We listen deeply and we create context for dialogue. This is the culture of peace and this has to be in the educational system because we want to educate the whole person. We’re making it okay to speak about our fears and worries, since that’s part of the story to end the transmission of wounds.
I see great hope at this time. I call people like you and I and many like us as ‘pattern interruptors’.
We did a workshop with about 50 people a couple of years ago and we were talking about this issue of sexual abuse and well over half, about 60% of the people, have been exposed to this but the majority was pattern interruptors – In other words, they had come in their own conscious development and awareness to a place where they are not going to transmit that wound into the next generation. Even though, when we take a broader lens and look at the surface of the world and see all of this trauma and polarization going on, beneath the surface there is also a spiritual revolution, there’s the healing revolution, there are tremendous examples of people interrupting the old patterns that create not the culture of peace but the culture of violence, greed and so on.
SL: On what level in our society do you currently see change happening?
JOD: I think it’s that broader part of the conversation around culture that you and I are part of, a culture that says “We don’t need the authority of the central media system, we can communicate our own values”. There is a tremendous value sharing collaboration happening on the planet where people are changing the story and are changing their relationship to authority. Even in medicine, where people say “I could take those pills but I could also do my own program and experiment with that”. In education, in so many parts of the culture that we live in, people are changing the authority’s story all the way to Edward Snowden. The government says “On who’s authority are you releasing these secrets?” and he says “On the authority of conscience itself and that I must speak out”. Also in office places people practice non-violent communication.
I teach in my own course “The Peace Ambassador Training” all of the inner life aspects of peacemaking, all the communicative aspects of peacemaking and all of the systemic parts of peacemaking – How do we transform systems? One of the ways to do that is through that communication process. We learn to speak to people not from above or below, but where they are, what is their value system and how do we dialogue with that value system. Dialogos is Greek for ‘through the logos, through the higher mind, through the highest intelligence’. This form of dialogue is significantly lacking in political life and the day will come, hopefully soon, where we will say “In order for you to become a political leader, you must learn how to dialogue and mediate and discuss things reasonably with other people”.
SL: How do you personally cope with the stress, injustice and violence in the world?
JOD: I wrote another book called “Creative Stress” and I like that in the process we can change our relationship to this energy coming at us. Usually our filters tell us “This is dangerous energy” and then we can shut down and lock in the problem but we can also try this slow process of “What are you trying to teach me, what is your message?” This energy is really your humble and obedient servant come to speak to you, it has got news for you and you shut the door in its face and say “I don’t want that news”.
The process of working with stress is to ask that question that Einstein asked: “Is this a friendly or a hostile Universe?” So my relationship to stress is to say “It’s a friendly Universe, it’s a teaching Universe, it’s a loving Universe”.
Sometimes the teaching is that opening through which we feel pain and learn from what those painful moments are. We then begin what I call “the handshake with stress” and then ultimately we embrace it, because you are really hugging your teacher and say “Thank you”.
I have learned this, not from a theory but seeing people in Rwanda forgive their neighbours who massacred their children. How can you do this? How can you forgive and love someone who has killed your children and yet the truth is, we are so great, we are so divine, we are so powerful in what we can do and we can embrace any level of stress.
So my teachers have been those who were shot and tortured and wounded and those whose spirituality is not theoretical but embodied. There are two aspects of the spiritual dimensions – the transcendent and the imminent. The transcendent is beyond those. A good metaphor is the candle – the light of the candle goes way beyond it, it illuminates the room. The imminent is right where the wick is burning. If we think of earth and human life as a hellhole, as a trap, as a base of suffering and wounding where we need to escape from, we’ll always be running away from this burning heart of existence. I think that that is an insult to the Creator to say “You created an escape route, that’s all there is, we have to get out of here”. When we say to the Creator “Why did you create me”, you will hear an answer because of beauty, of truth, because of creativity, because it is enormous fun and that there is purpose to living existence, to expressing that energy. I don’t think that you can get out of stress if you think that it always has to be avoided. Eventually you will say “I eat stress for breakfast! I eat it up because it’s the energy of the Universe”. You’ll be in the dance and you will say: “Thank you Creator for this honour of this dance with you”.
SL: What do you think of the positive impact of Social Media like Facebook and Twitter in living more peacefully?
JOD: I think it’s exciting, fun and I think it’s hugely important in the evolution revolution like in the Middle East and it’s an example of this creativity unleashed. Once you can apply the story of “I don’t have to wait to be told by the authority, no I have this creative source within me, this inner generativety”, anybody can now contribute to the transformation of the planet. What an incredibly exciting moment!
The only thing interesting to realize is that ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’ are two dimensions and we want to make sure we’re synchronized in both. Mubarak realized this in Egypt and they cut off social media since they saw the evolution revolution happening, and that drove people into the streets to meet each other. When you see that non-violent energy, embodied, that’s huge and you have both elements at play. We live with tremendous creative opportunities right now.
SL: What does Love mean to you?
JOD: Well, I have been very influenced by Meher Baba, and he says “Love is the force which there is no force in, there’s absolutely no pushing with Love”. Love spontaneously arises from within, it’s that element that cannot be forced. But though it cannot be forced (I can’t make you love me), it can spring up in this spontaneous way and it can communicate from one being to another. It moves in freedom.
The new humanity will emerge from the free expression of Love between one being and another. It’s that unstoppable force and it’s always supportive. I have a profoundly loving family and when I would fall down, it’s not blaming, it’s not shaming, it’s always there to support and saying “let’s try again, lets rise up”.
And if you can imagine the force of the size of Universal Love, it says to the Earth: “Oh dear you’re going through such difficult growing pain but I am here to support you”.
For information, please visit the website: jamesodea.com
INTERVIEW BY: DIRK TERPSTRA – SOUL LOVE FOUNDER
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