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Sacred and Secular Activists are Now Joining their Strategies for Peacebuilding

By Kurt Johnson and Phillip Hellmich


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Sacred and Secular Activists are Now Joining their Strategies for Peacebuilding, by Kurt Johnson and Phillip Hellmich

Philip Hellmich, Director of Peace, The Shift Network
Kurt Johnson, Co-founder, The Interspiritual Network

Reprinted with permission from Strategies for Peace (Bruce L. Cook and Maria Cristina Azcona, eds.), Elgin, IL: Cook Communication, 2016)

It is our privilege to work with companion global networks and movements that are building new pathways to peace.  What is unique about them is that today they join both sacred and secular activists in joint works toward global peacebuilding.  These partnerships include the emerging global paradigm of “Interspirituality” (which seeks to recognize and meld the shared wisdom resources of all the world’s spiritual traditions), newly emerging, more secular, global peace networks and organizations, and the fruits of new research and discovery in the field of neuroscience.  Together, these new movements seek to advance global peacebuilding by identifying peace strategies based not only on prosocial networks centered on both the sacred and secular, but also emerging science.

Conventional science itself has made strides in the last decade to join with a more holistic view of reality more prone to the foundations of peace.  After more than a century of parroting the mantra of “survival of the fittest” and “the selfish gene”, a new mainstream paradigm has emerged emphasizing altruism.  In the first of Yale University and The Templeton Foundation’s “Series in the Foundational Questions of Science”, Dr. David Sloan Wilson, summarizing work by himself and Dr. E. O. Wilson (the father of Sociobiology) in the Quarterly Review of Biology, layout proofs that “group” and “multi-level” selection in nature select not for processes and structures that serve self-interest groups but those that serve the well-being of the whole.  

This scientific revolution has spawned a surprising convergence between sacred and secular activists under a new rubric called “prosocial”.  Prosocial combines secular activism motivated by the new science with the sacred activism visioned by “interspirituality”-- or global, universal, world-centric, and “multiple belonging” spirituality-- whose visioners proclaimed the following:
“We are at the dawn of a new consciousness, a radically fresh approach to our life as the human family in a fragile world. This journey is what spirituality is really about. We are not meant to remain just where we are. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide and support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification together ourselves. This revolution will be the task of the Interspiritual Age. The necessary shifts in consciousness require a new approach to spirituality that transcends past religious cultures of fragmentation and isolation. We need to understand, to really grasp, at an elemental level, that the definitive revolution is the spiritual awakening of humankind."

This view is identified in the message of over fifty major historical spiritual figures from across the multiplicity of our world’s spiritual and faith traditions and includes these fundamental shifts in global awareness necessary for a successful global shift, many of which, as noted, are already happening.

  • Appreciation of the interdependence of all realms of human life and the surrounding cosmos
  • Growing ecological awareness, with recognition of the interdependence of humankind and the biosphere, including the rights of all biological species
  • Embracing of the shared wisdom in all the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, past and present
  • Growing friendship, and actual community, among the individual followers of the world’s religious and spiritual paths
  • Commitment to the depths of the contemplative pursuit and the mutual sharing of the fruits of this ongoing journey  
  • Creative cultivation of transnational, transcultural, trans-traditional, and world-centric understanding
  • Dedication to nonviolence, with a commitment to transcend militancy and violence tied to national or religious identities
  • Receptivity to a cosmic vision, realizing humanity is only one life form and part of a larger community, the universe.

Consequently, peace networks emerging in this new era notably combine the drives and talents of both secular and sacred activists.  These new alliances reflect the view of modern interspiritual thinkers:  “the only viable religion for the Third Millennium is spirituality itself with “spirituality” defined in the way both H. H. The Dalai Lama and the new science define it—that it is about values, ethics and behavior, about the actions which actually cause and define the direction of our cultural evolution-- for good or for ill.  

This worldwide trend, identified by developmental philosophers as “a great conveyor belt” toward a successful global civilization , is attributed to multiple and convergent causes. In the evolutionary consciousness movement, and the consciousness sciences, it is recognized as the natural next step in our cognitive evolution. Social scientists see it as a global adaptation driven by inevitable trends toward globalization and multiculturalism.  They conclude:

  • Globalization of planet earth is inevitable; the question is what kind of a globalization it will be and whether it will be devoid of any significant contribution from the Great Wisdom Traditions
  • Multiculturalism is inevitable; again, the question is what kind of process will unfold and whether it will be a bumpy ride full of competition and conflict (indeed possibly even outright economic and military warfare), or whether a more reasoned dialogue may emerge, mitigating such negative consequences to some degree
  • The world now faces an array of critical challenges that could affect its long-term stability and peace. These include resource scarcity and competition, drastic global climate and population changes, and political agendas and fundamentalisms tied to narrow and competing national, religious, ethnic, or racial identities.

Recognized within these challenges are four “unifying” or “Archimedean points" already identified through the world’s interfaith dialogue process.” : (1) the possibility of a common core to human mystic experience, (2) fundamental teachings held in common by all the world’s religions, (3) the shared ethical implications of the teachings of all the great traditions and hopefully emerging science, and (4) the inevitable mutuality across the religions, and hopefully emerging secular cosmologies, regarding commitment to social and economic justice.  

New “self-evident truths” seem to be emerging involving the meaning of collectives and the inevitable roles of individuals and institutions within collectives and their inherent responsibilities to a collective.  In fact, the new book on the emergence of an altruistic view of scientific and evolutionary process points precisely to holistic, egalitarian “Design Principles” for which economist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009.   However, because these principles were holistic and did not reflect the now widespread competitive, exploitive and self-interest based modalities of most of world politics and economics, they have obviously not been widely employed-- part of the challenge of which we now speak.  Worldwide, peace-based, egalitarian and sustainability movements are critical to positive manifestation of a planet wide civilization that “works for all”.   Due to our inability to meet such challenges with the creativity that has aided our species’ survival in the past, we may face the ultimate possibility of eventual extinction.

New Peacebuilding Networks and
The Hope for a Culture of Peace

Peacebuilding requires us to confront the tension between hope and despair. The future of humanity hinges on people, at the most grassroots levels, embracing hope and taking practical action guided by wisdom to create a more sustainable and peaceful world.  This is precisely what the world’s emerging new peace networks are aiming at.  Things start from at home, with individuals, families, friends, neighbors, schools and communities. While seemingly simple, this trajectory is the same one recognized by the most sophisticated integral theories on how change emerges from the grassroots and moves outwards to the cutting edges of defining cultural evolution. The ultimate effect can have a huge impact on the world when it reaches a critical mass.

The longing for peace is central to all of this.

 has 108 words for love.
Islam has 99 names for God.
Japanese has 14 words for beauty.
We’ve got one word for Peace....
We don’t have enough words to accurately describe all the different types of peace.
I think it was Socrates who once said,
‘if you don’t have a word to describe something,
then how can you think about it?’”

It’s easy to hold a despairing, complacent, cynical view of the world. Beyond the most glaring crises in today’s news, like Syria, our world is filled with stories of violence across the planet. The global economy is portrayed as teetering on the brink of collapse, the environment as full of significant signs of strain from the massive onslaught of consumerism, and the world’s inner cities appear as rife with poverty and violence. All of these problems can seem overwhelming and cause any individual to think: “What’s the use? What can I do?”  But there is a larger pattern emerging from global peace efforts, grassroots to cutting edge, which tells a different, much more promising, story.

The Shift Network has been mapping peace efforts globally, from the inner sanctum to the international community. In five years, the Shift Network and partner organizations co-created annual free telesummits such as The Summer of Peace that have featured over 375 interviews, shared by thousands, filled with inspirational stories, skills training and powerful solutions by the world’s top peacebuilders, social change leaders, scientists, indigenous elders and spiritual mentors.

What The Shift Network discovered is that numerous individual efforts are part of a much larger narrative of peace that is quietly and powerfully emerging around the world – one rooted in ancient wisdom and accelerated by modern science and technology. This new story of peace is seldom highlighted in mainstream media.
The Shift Network created the World Peace Library to celebrate, showcase and accelerate the evolution of this new narrative of peace.  Over 375 audio recordings have been placed in the World Peace category in a strategic framework mapping peace across six broad topics:  Emerging Peace Story, Inner Peace, Family and Interpersonal Peacebuilding, Community Peacebuilding, International Peacebuilding & Global Citizenship and Planetary Peace.

Within these broad topics the interviews are tagged in twenty-six categories of society, including spirituality, nonviolence, forgiveness, education, youth, communication, science, arts and culture, justice, healing cultural wounds, sports, military, business and economics, and politics.

The World Peace Library highlights the fact that there is much to celebrate in the exponential growth of worldwide peace-related initiatives. For instance, the number of colleges and universities with peace and conflict resolution programs grew from a handful in 1984 to hundreds today. Community mediation and alternative dispute resolution programs are common in many parts of the United States and other countries. Nonviolent Communication has spread around the world. Meanwhile, yoga, meditation, and other forms of personal peace practices have become mainstream. In fact, the United Nations has declared June 21st as the annual International Day of Yoga—augmenting the already declared International Day of Peace (September 21) and Week of Interfaith Harmony (annually, the first week of February).  A very interesting arising in the last few years is the understanding and embracing of “subtle activism” wherein practitioners bring to bear the collective energy of meditation and spiritual intention on world problems.  Reflecting the ancient understanding of the “shamanic arts” of indigenous traditions, and supported by a growing body of scientific studies, the collective power of meditation and intention is now embraced and practiced by persons ranging from the grassroots of cultures to their academic intelligentsia. This diversity reflects what is naturally occurring from the grassroots level upward.  Dena Merriam, the founder of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and winner of the 2015 Nowano Peace Prize, reported after a gathering in Egypt that many of the young people involved in birthing the Arab Spring were meditation practitioners.

Thus, the peace movement today is quite different from the anti-war protests of the late 20th Century. It is more about what people are for and not simply what people are against. This reflect the tremendous strides that have been made in developing new methodologies to transform conflict and embrace peace. Today, many peacebuilding organizations approach conflict as neither positive nor negative, but rather as a natural part of life. It is how we deal with conflict that determines whether it becomes destructive or a source of growth and transformation. Worldwide, many organizations and individuals are focused on creating something new to transform or replace what’s not working.  We see this across today’s restorative justice movements-- more people are looking at how to bridge the inner and the outer manifestations of peace—to embody peace while working for peace, building upon the work of peacebuilders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and processes of reconciliation like those in South Africa.

Modern peace studies have recognized an interesting pattern in many destructive conflicts-- the tendency for people to become polarized and for extreme positions to drive cultural and political agendas much like “the blind leading the blind”. The people with the loudest voices often use fear as a tactic to unify their group against “the others.” As fear increases, people narrow their multiple identities (such as father, mother, musician, artist, sports fan, farmer, teacher) down to just one — whether an ethnic group (“I’m a Hutu and you’re a Tutsi”), a religious sect (“I’m a Muslim and you’re a Jew”), or a political party (“I’m a Republican and you’re a Democrat”). Instead of seeing what they had in common, or what connects them, they saw only how they were different and what separates them. In this sense, it is not so much religion that drives conflict as the human tendency toward dualistic and polarizing patterns of thinking.

When experiencing intense fear, human consciousness contracts around the small self, the ego, and goes into a survival mode. Dualism is part of the operating software package of humanity and fear and love, and contraction and expansion are some of its chief functionalities. Meanwhile, a foundation of many peacebuilding initiatives is to help people in conflict to re-humanize “the other,” thereby awakening people’s inherent capacity for compassion and even love.

Here is where whatever we can now glean from modern science steps in. There has been extensive scientific research on what happens to people in these constricted states of consciousness -- what parts of the brain get activated, what happens between the heart and brain, what hormones get released, and so on. How do we form “ingroups and outgroups” -- those we trust and show compassion, and those people we perceive as a threat?

There is extensive scientific research on the positive benefits of spiritual practices, such as meditation and yoga, in helping people become calm and expand their consciousness. For instance, Richard Miller, PhD, the founder of iRest, is working to help U.S. military veterans heal from PTSD by using ancient yogic meditation techniques. Dr. Miller says we are all hard-wired to experience dual and nondual states of consciousness. The iRest practices help people to learn to tap into nondual states and set in motion a series of neurological, hormonal and psychological responses that aid in healing.

The Stanford University Center for Compassion, Altruism and Research is also showing humans are hard-wired for compassion, a human quality highly valued by all spiritual traditions. CCARE, which has worked closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is proving people can be taught to be more compassionate, in part by being present to and mindful of their experience and by seeing the humanity in others.

There is clearly an exciting convergence taking place between spiritual practices (meditation, yoga, etc.), neuroscience and peacebuilding.  The Alliance for Peacebuilding (“AfP”), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit with over 100 member organizations, has been awarded a grant for the United States Institute of Peace to support a project called Re-Wiring the Brain for Peace - Bridging Neuroscience, Spirituality and Peacebuilding.   Their hypothesis is:  there are antidotes to the brain changes that occur in times of war, violence, and crisis – antidotes that harness the power of spirituality – that we can use to design better peacebuilding interventions. This work will also be critically important for understanding resilience in the face of trauma – at both the personal and societal levels.  The AfP project seeks to contribute to the expansion of existing research on certain forms of contemplative practices (such as mindfulness meditation) and beyond the boundaries of any particular religion or cultural context.

One of the benefits of conducting so many interviews with the Summer of Peace has been to see common perspectives and themes expressed by diverse people.  Although the entire breadth of this research cannot be summarized in just a few sentences, the cumulative effect has been to clearly link (i) the relationship of spiritual practices and mystical techniques that characterize the breadth of our world’s wisdom traditions with (ii) the personal stories that emerge from real life transformational stories and processes, the latter often in the context of nearly incomprehensible challenges and traumas. This research has clearly shown that the enlightening principles that guide matters to real transformation include a gambit of human wisdom resources:  insights and stories from all the world spiritual traditions; lessons and learnings that the world’s indigenous and native peoples, and vision from across the breadth of our schools of modern psychology.  Large numbers of these Summer of Peace interviews feature people who responded to atrocities and crisis by going through a dark night of the soul, seeking meaning and then striving to help other people to avoid similar situations. We can see from these accounts that people were actually applying universal spiritual principles to address horrible situations. When viewed collectively, it’s clear that the emergence of a new narrative of peace is arising from the hearts, minds, and souls of people in the face of tremendous challenges.

The Summer of Peace and its partner organizations have just begun to highlight and share the new narrative of peace. There’s much more to be done to map peace from the inner spiritual level to the evolving international mechanisms needed to respond to crises such as Syria and many others across the world. There also is a rich opportunity to explore the common themes, values and spiritual principles that are manifesting across different sectors. Another step will be to share the insights in concise and innovative ways that reach wider audiences. One anonymous advisor to the Pentagon said it this way: “I love what you are doing with the Summer of Peace. We must look at what is working to inspire people to take action to deal with conflicts peacefully. However, we need to reach more people. The problems are too large and we are running out of time.”


When we step back and look at the big picture, the creativity and range of peacebuilding efforts is impressive. And it’s easy to imagine how Spirit/God/ Consciousness (whatever word works for you) is manifesting a larger story by weaving together our individual unique callings and gifts. From this perspective, it’s easier to find hope and thus surrender to the “guiding intelligence.” The key is to have the courage to do the inner work that enables us to act from a placed guided by wisdom.

The common ground approaches of the new peace networks is based on an implicit trust in the human spirit, be that defined sacredly or secularly. When there is recognition of common humanity, innate spiritual qualities of tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, and love can be awakened. With these positive human qualities present, it is easier for people to shift their mindset. A new consciousness arises, one where they can start to discern that the “others” are not the problem, but rather that they may share similar problems, such as poverty, corruption, or political manipulation. From there, it is possible to face problems together instead of attacking each other. In essence, the approach was similar to a meditation practice: help a person move beyond fear, expand their identity or consciousness, and experience a sense of oneness or connection with other people and nature. This process opens people to their innate spiritual potential and allows them to tap into collective creativity and possibly higher states of consciousness to identify win-win solutions.

Win-win solutions are, really, what is involved in our concepts of both peace and covenant.  The roots of the words “peace” and “covenant” both involve “agreement”, since where there is agreement there is no hurtful discord, no matter how extreme the diversity.  Ecosystems find their balance in this way.  As the world’s “sacred” traditions note, coercion is not involved in covenant.  There is, rather, the mutual buy-in to a win-win.  This same win-win is the secular, and modern scientific, definition of “altruism” as well—that behavior which serves the whole.  What the sacred lens sees as “covenant”, the secular-scientific world simply calls with its new word “equivalence”.  Today’s emergent networks of peace-building combine both sacred and secular elements.  Further, they reflect a dynamic interrelationship of interspirituality, secular prosocial networks, and the understandings of modern neuroscience.  In this global context of rapid change, interconnectedness, and interdependence, a new narrative of peace is being born.

Yale/ Templeton Series in the Foundational Questions of Science:  Does Altruism Exist—Genes, Culture and the Welfare of Others, David Sloan Wilson (2015); Quarterly Review of Biology:  D. S. Wilson and E. O. Wilson “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” (2007. 82: 327-348).  See:

p. 4.  Teasdale, Wayne.  1999.  The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions.  Novato CA:  New World Library. “Interspiritual Pioneers”

Teasdale, Wayne in The Mystic Heart as restated and updated by Johnson, K. and David R. Ord, The Coming Interspiritual Age.  Vancouver CN:  Namaste Publishing, p. 22.

Teasdale, Wayne op. cit. p. 26.

Wilson, D S. (2015) “ultimate causation” op. cit., pp. 61-63.

Johnson and Ord, op. cit. p. 407.

Johnson and Ord (2013) summarized in Johnson, Kurt and David Robert Ord. 2012.  “A Spirituality for the 21st Century:  Inevitablities andPossibilities. Kosmos Journal, Fall/ Winter 2012

Johnson and Ord, op. cit. p. 269.

Steve Killelea (Co-Founder of the Global Peace Index),




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