Can the New Science help to resolve the seemingly intractable situation in the Middle East? Can it provide an alternative to ever escalating warfare?
I have a bit of experience with this because in at least three instances hated enemies have participated together in one of my Peace Intention Experiments.
In the Peace Intention Experiment in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I had Arabs and Americans intending together for peace in provinces of Afghanistan, and in 2017, Jews and Arabs from eight different Arab nations came together to intend for peace in the Old City of Jerusalem.
After each Intention Experiment, hated enemies. initially so wary of each other, began sending love and good wishes to the other side. We love you, said one side to the other. Your God is my God, was the immediate reply.
The heart readily leapt across the fence.
Why do these simple 10-minute experiments have this kind of extraordinary effect?
In a way, both experiments were a giant exercise in multicultural prayer. Mohandas Gandhi, who believed that all religions ‘were as dear as one’s close relatives,’ advocated the power of different faiths praying together:
‘Religion does not mean sectarianism,’ he wrote. ‘It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe. . . . This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc.’
A two-year national study published by researchers at the American Sociological Association discovered that community groups across the US that embrace multi-faith members, such as Christians, Jews and Muslims, find praying together a ‘bridging cultural practice.’
‘We aren’t talking about superficial team-building exercises,’ said University of Connecticut professor of sociology Ruth Braunstein, who studied the phenomenon. ‘These are practices that are central to groups’ cultures and emerge over time as participants reflect on the qualities that unite everyone in the group and develop shared rituals that are meaningful to everyone.’
In 2015, NewGround, an interfaith organization that focuses on strengthening the bonds between Muslims and Jews, organized an event they called Two Faiths One Prayer, to gather Muslims and Jews in common prayer.
They started with some 20 people of the two faiths praying together on a Los Angeles beach, gathering up more and more of the faithful from both religions throughout the day as they traveled together on public transport and moved to five other locations.
The group was a hundred strong by the time they’d reached a rooftop in downtown LA for their evening dinner, with Muslims reciting their night-time Isha, and Jews reciting liturgical poetry, or piyyutim, at Los Angeles City Hall.
‘It was kind of like an aha moment,’ said participant Maryam Saleemi. ‘We’re praying to the same God, why aren’t we doing this all the time together?’
But there’s something more, which has to do with connecting with higher feelings, such as altruism. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California at Berkeley, carried out studies showing that when people focus on something eliciting compassion and altruism, it activates an aspect of the vagus nerve, one of the longest of the body, which in turn initiates the release of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a role in love, trust, intimacy and devotion. Oxytocin release has been shown to increase trust, for instance, by 50 percent or more.
This, in turn, helps to nurture universal love in a person, a greater acceptance of differences between the self and the other, and a greater willingness to reach out to them.
Research at Stanford University discovered similar effects in a group of volunteers being trained in a simple Buddhist loving-kindness meditation.
After that simple exercise, as a battery of tests revealed, the meditators experienced a greater willingness to connect with strangers.
Just a simple statement about expressing love for all living things prompts a person to put those statements into action in the world.
This might explain why so many of the participants in the 9/11 Peace Intention Experiment and the Jerusalem Peace Intention Experiment began forgiving each other. The compassion elicited in my participants may have activated a nervous system complex that created a greater willingness to connect with the ‘enemy’ – indeed, all of humanity.
I remain hopeful, as always, about our capacity to affect the numbers of the dead and the injured in these Peace Intention Experiments, but the target of our intention is no longer the point. The point is not the action but its reaction – a ripple effect of peace in the hearts of the participants that could eventually extend out to the entire world.
Perhaps these experiments carry one simple truism. To solve a seemingly intractable political situation, the fastest and most effective way forward in a war zone may not be through the military, politics, diplomacy or even economic initiatives.
All you may need are people coming together as a group and praying as one.
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