Image courtesy Reuters

It was 2007, at the height of the war, when one hundred youth (Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala) from every part of the country except the north gathered in Thanamalvila in the south of Sri Lanka for a leadership retreat sponsored by Sarvodaya and the British Council.   At the end of the second day the two facilitators, Mihirini de Zoysa and Robert Vanderwall divided them into 5 teams of twenty and asked “How can we bring peace to our country?”.   They were given time to discuss the issue and come up with a skit they could act out to address the question.

That evening they all gathered for the skits including Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya and Tony O’Brien and Sanjeevani Munasinghe from the British Council.

To everyone’s surprise, one team after another came up with the same answer to the problem.   “If we want to have peace in the country, we have to have peace at home”.

Each team acted out the real live drama of an intoxicated male – a father, an uncle wreaked havoc in a family with violence and abuse.  The acting was so real to life, it left the audience stunned.  In the second skit they showed how it could be if there was peace at home.  It was a powerful emotional statement from these youth.

Social Esteem and Values

Sri Lanka has a looming social epidemic with eroded Values in the heart of the country – the rural areas.  This is a mental health issue directly impacts self esteem of individuals leading to low social esteem and confidence.  Low social esteem creates disparity and discontent leaving the nation to operate on a fraction of its productive capacity.  In a country with 80% of the population (Sri Lankan government and World Bank statistics) yet being rural, this is a crucial consideration.

In the school leadership training programs I conducted in rural areas from 2005 to 2011, I ask how many come from a home where the Mother is working overseas.  About 30 – 60% of participants on average raise their hands.   As I got to know them, some share the challenges they face without a Mother’s attention and love, often a Father who is lonely, not around as he is with friends or found another lover, intoxicated and violent.  This volatile environment has to have a profound impact on these impressionable youth.

Responding with Our Physiology

Our bodies respond to this violence the same way ancient man responded when a leopard showed up as he walked through a forest.  Fight, flight or freeze response (from the Adrenalin rush to our blood) in our physiology has not changed, but our environment has.  When an abusive adult is haranguing you, you may not have the physical power to fight.   Perhaps, you could run, but as a child where will you run – to a neighbour or a relative perhaps, but it is all disruptive and scary.   Fighting or running allows the Adrenalin rush to burn off, but today, we may freeze, by shutting down, hoping the danger will go away.  Yet the threat continues so the strain of an abusive home will have a physiological effect and make this stress chronic.

When stress is chronic it can manifest disease.  We do have mental and emotional ways of surviving through our primitive and instinctive reptilian part of the brain – we become competitive, aggressive, vengeful, abusive and territorial, as that is the natural protective mechanism our biology responds to cope with the difficult environment.

In a nation which has had to endure two brutal insurgencies in the South and the war in the North and a self serving and selfish political culture, is it a wonder that we may be fraught with a collective psyche that is reptilian in nature?.  When you add the homes without Mothers, would that not compound the problem?.

Those youth in Thanamalvila identified a root cause of the problem.  We, the adults have to listen.  Instead, we are caught up in our own cycle of xenophobia, fear and violence, because we are attached to a certain identity, for better or for worse.

The very Buddha Dhamma Sri Lanka is protecting in its Second Nobel Truths teach us that it is attachment that gives rise to our suffering.  Buddha taught us that the origin of suffering is attachment to the three kinds of desire: desire for sense pleasure (kama tanha), desire to become (bhava tanha) and desire to get rid of (vibhava tanha).

Desire arises also when our bodies are under stress, when our physiology does not support us anymore, we cling to external attachments, that is illusion, a false sense of security.  Be it attachment to material wealth, a religious dogma, a racial or a national identity – our attachment causes us suffering, as it can be taken away, so we cling even harder as we perceive life only as competition and others different to us as predators and foe.   This fear mongering burdens our people to carry all this weight on their shoulders, when we should call on the nation to be happy, creative and productive for the common good.

Our World in Transformation

We live in confusing times and a period of great transition from the agricultural age (remember the 80% rural) to the information age, what a ‘leap frog’ we have made from the plow to the Iphone in the last two decades.  Growing pains can be stormy, but when we understand what is happening to our own psyche, to each other, the community and the nation, we can better deal with it.

In the late 1980s, as we sold solar energy systems to rural homes and they bought a TV, I realized that the culture will change from the ancient to the modern.  What I did not realize was that our Value system will change too, as the Military-Industrial world in between had devalued the basic human Values of respect and dignity to Value material wealth.  We have lost the Value of humanity in the transition to the Information age.

The generation X and Y are demanding something different.  At a World University Services Canada (WUSC) Youth Forum in Ottawa in 2012 where youth from Quebec, Canada (representing a student uprising there in 2012), Egypt (Arab Spring) and Burkina Faso were on a panel discussion, Joseph from Burkina Faso said, very loud and clear “We do not want old men to terrorise us anymore, we just want to be left in peace to develop a meaningful, happy and productive life”.

What did the Youth in the JVP want in the Southern insurgencies? – political and economic power at the time under the illusion that Marxism will be the equalizer.

What did the LTTE want? – it was power too, to control a territory, a nation, to gain political and economic power.  The global system measures that power through material wealth with economic indicators like GDP.

We now realize that this is not sustainable.  Our changing environment is warning us that nature has its own plan.   Everything is a part of a living system, our universe, the planet and our biological bodies.

History and Grand Illusions

This is not new news.  The ancient Vedic, Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Aboriginal traditions already have taught us that we are part of an interconnected living system.  We have decided to ignore this in our arrogance, our greed for power and dominance.  Just like Narcissus, enamoured by its own reflection in the water, thinking it real to realize it disappears as the water moves.   It is all maya – an illusion.

We have to also learn from history.  We know for a millennia, majorities have tried to rid of minorities, whether it was the Jews by the Christian Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella and again Hitler in Germany, the Palestine people from Israel, the First peoples – the Aboriginals of the Americas and Australia by the colonizers, it ends up in tragedy for everyone over time.  There is a Karma to it all – the cause and effect that continues the viscous cycle.

Last seven decades of independence has been a roller coaster ride for Sri Lanka.  Having the front row seat to witness the suffering from the ravages of violence, should be lesson enough for a transformation.  Through it all, we have seen the worst, but we have also seen the best in the human spirit, that has shown an amazing resilience.

Time for a Time Out

It is time for a ‘Time Out’.   Most discussions and articles about Sri Lanka are fraught with emotions – with judgements, accusations, posturing based on fear and aggression.  Enough is enough.

When and who will rise to stop this reptilian circle of fear ?

Step back and take a collective deep breath, and as Non-Violent Communications teaches, ask ourselves;

What are we observing – not a judgement, but what are we really observing around us and within us?

What are we feeling – as right now we are fraught with emotions?

What are we needing – perhaps, some peace, a peace of mind, harmony, connection with ourselves first and connection with our loved ones and connection with the community, as a nation?

What can we request of ourselves – perhaps a time out, step back, take that collective deep breath, ask ourselves what kind of a Sri Lanka do we want to envision in the next 10 years, 50 years, a 100 years, a 1000 years.?  – get the courage to step out, speak out.

When I asked Mahesh Amalean, Chairperson of MAS Holdings, at the opening ceremony of the MAS Institute of Management and Technology (MIMT) in Thulhiriya, at the height of the war in 2007, why he would invest so much money on this venture at such a dire time in Sri Lanka.  He responded, “We are looking not at the next ten years for Sri Lanka, but for the next 100 years”.   What vision and what power Sri Lankans have, when we think expansively from our minds and our hearts.

Start with Education

A vision has to be accompanied by Values of respect and dignity to each and every person in Sri Lanka.

Transforming the education system is one way to transform a nation.  Everyone knows the challenges to this, as traditional western culture dominates through its military industrial complex and the media.  This power and wealth is difficult to match.  There will be resistance from the material world, as this new focus will mean major change for many people, their wealth and their economies. 

Yet, there is a growing body of people who are becoming more and more aware of the perils of this course.  Nature is speaking out with climate change and other societal ravages.  As such, there is a real focus, especially in the West on ancient eastern philosophies such as Buddhist teachings with a focus on self knowledge, first through practices such as yoga, meditation, martial arts and alternative health and well being (Ayurveda), to gain back our humanity.

How do we integrate these to the logical, rational, analytical narrative in our education system?

What better place to begin than in Sri Lanka, a nation that has protected a Dhamma that teaches us about the four sublime states of mind:

  • Love or Loving-kindness (metta)
  • Compassion (karuna)
  • Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
  • Equanimity (upekkha)

These four attitudes teach us the ideal way of conduct towards living beings (sattesu samma patipatti).  They provide the answer to all situations arising from social contact.  They are the great removers of tension, the great peace-makers in social conflict, and the great healers of wounds suffered in the struggle of existence.  They level social barriers, build harmonious communities, awaken slumbering magnanimity long forgotten, revive joy and hope long abandoned, and promote human brotherhood against the forces of egotism. (Nyanaponika Thera – BPS).

We have guidance and we have a request from those youth.  It is our move now – We adults have the power to break the cycle of fear and violence.  It first begins with the self, as when we take personal responsibility first to manage ourselves, gain self knowledge through reflection and meditation, we may find the inner-peace and self esteem to gain the courage to make peace with each other, to make peace with the world.

“For one who clings, motion exists; but for one who clings not, there is no motion. Where no motion is, there is stillness. Where stillness is, there is no craving. Where no craving is, there is neither coming nor going. Where no coming nor going is, there is neither arising nor passing away. Where neither arising nor passing away is, there is neither this world nor a world beyond, nor a state between. This, verily, is the end of suffering.”  — Buddha – Udana 8:3