My Peace Battles the Amygdala by Tim Buckley
On the way to Byron Glacier one winter, we skied up to its vertical face across Portage Lake. Temporarily frozen into the lake’s surface was a massive iceberg. In its side an eroded tunnel beckoned, its blue mouth inviting us into a chamber deep inside, and many feet below. Everybody secretly feared that our weight might flip the berg. Alarms rang loudly in my ears and the hair on my scalp stood at attention. But we went on anyway, flirting with danger because of the rare opportunity for a unique human experience. Decades later, I still can feel the rush of joy, having paused midway to soak in the fathomless beauty of that deep blue grotto.
This past winter at an intersection outside Rep. Kurt Schrader’s office, the image of that yawning ice tunnel returned. It was raining hard as a crowd of protesters clashed over health care reform. Across the political divide came the opposing chants, the roar of bullhorns, an incessant blaring of SUVs in a sea of placards, and the pulsating lights of Salem’s police cars. The threat of hostility escalated and my ancient brain urged me to retreat.
But there in the midst of hurled half-truths and sound bites, two women bridged the chasm and found something of beauty — they began to listen to each other and see common values emerge, even while their signs continued to contradict each other. After the rally, one of them told me, “We found that we share the same basic needs — security, respect, choice, autonomy and hope. How great is that?”
The amygdala, an oddly named, almond-sized brain structure is central to our threat response, just as it was when we still ran around in animal skins. But today, researchers seem to agree that there’s more finesse to the fight, flight, freeze continuum. The electrical circuitry between this and the frontal cortex goes both ways. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder therapy suggests, for example, that in a secure and trusted environment, we can reduce the traumatic scars and overwrite the amygdala with new emotional information.
I came away from the political rally unbent in my resolve for social justice. But I also came away with new appreciation for the beauty that can evolve out of conflict. Shortly afterwards, I talked to Peter Bergel, founder of Oregon PeaceWorks, about an idea to invite Salem-area residents to explore shared values in community get-togethers.
It appears, and certainly not for the first time, that Peter was way ahead of me. “Let me tell you about the MyPeace Project this coming October,” he smiled.
Oregon PeaceWorks was born decades ago, with the nation politically conflicted on issues of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. Activists then, like battlefield warriors, had already trained their amygdalas to chill out. Unafraid of the consequences, he and thousands of others rallied, petitioned, lobbied, made a fuss and got thrown in jail. In the end, the Trojan nuclear power plant on the Columbia River was dismantled and Oregonians rejected the idea of building another on our soil. Through similar efforts, nuclear weapon testing in the Nevada desert was stopped.
In describing PeaceWorks’ new direction, Bergel said that in one respect, the organization had failed at a core mission. The group thought they had won a kind of peace — security, anyway — by closing the doors on nuclear power production in Oregon. But they had not done much to bring people closer together. One’s political opponent was still the enemy. “It’s one thing to fight against what you DON’T want,” he said. “It’s another to develop a vision that the entire Oregon community can embrace. And that’s what we’re after with MyPeace.”
The MyPeace Project, in a nutshell, is a month-long exploration of our common values, viewed through the lens of artistic expression. It will culminate this October in a series of community events — exhibits, performances, a lecture series, a conference, trade show, seminars, parties and plenty of opportunities for all ages to enjoy one another... and a simultaneous invitation to reprogram our collective amygdalas.
I was reluctant to accept Peter’s invitation to join MyPeace. “I’m busy,” I said, hearing a resistant voice in my head. “Oh, not too busy to have a good idea but too busy to run with it?” he challenged. It sounded like something my wife had said eight years ago when our relationship was failing. It was a deep fear of connection and commitment.
Peter’s comment triggered another memory, from 2005, when a rape victim confronted an admitted rapist at a day-long forum on Nonviolent Communication sponsored by Willamette University. In that trusting auditorium, with peacemakers Marshall Rosenberg and Mark Umbreit on the same panel, the two would-be enemies dropped their judgments and heard each other deeply. The convicted rapist tearfully apologized for the damage he’d done. The rape victim uttered forgiveness and the audience held its breath.
Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist who studied with Carl Rogers, is author of “Nonviolent Communication: a Language of Life.” NVC, or compassionate communication, builds awareness of how all conflict, all personal anger, is (according to Rosenberg) “a tragic expression of unmet needs.” NVC helped save my marriage, because it forced me to look at my emotional footprint...how my acting from fear...allowing unmet needs to dictate my relationships – has created needless conflict.
Peter’s awareness of NVC, and his considerable years as a trainer in nonviolence, prompted him to press me on my commitment to MyPeace. “If nothing else,” he said, “consider doing some NVC training for people wanting those skills.” I accepted.
But once committed, I found a lot of aspects about MyPeace that appeal to me. Among my favorites – it’s largely focused on diversity, inclusivity and developing a shared vision; it’s not about right and wrong, supposed to and should. Best of all, it’s about having fun. MyPeace is centered on expression of personal and collective vision through creativity.
One of the central aspects is artwork: painting, theater, music, writing, sculpture and video. A Doors for Peace exhibit will invite people downtown on First Wednesday to celebrate artists’ visions of sustainable futures.
A kite building project will culminate in a family flying celebration in Riverfront Park. Student performances of dance, music and video will be available live and on CCTV.
Hinged into the middle of the month is Willamette University’s annual Peace Lecture. This year, John Dear is the keynote speaker. A Jesuit priest, Dear is author of “A Persistent Peace,” and 20 other books. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Following that event are two days in which participants can experience and then practice new skills associated with creating various aspects of their vision. A conference and cultural fair will allow individuals and organizations to demonstrate parts of that rainbow of ideas. The experience may have the effect of the perfect Christmas morning... awakening to a room full of gifts bringing laughter, awe, joy and meaning to our personal and community life.
But the annual, month-long MyPeace celebration in Salem is just the tip of the iceberg. Oregon PeaceWorks has a plan to export the MyPeace effort statewide. They’ve formed, for example, a bond with a national non-profit called Beyond War, headquartered in Portland, which is committed to the same notion — building peace and sustainability through shared vision and celebration.
The amygdala provides an important brain function. But it need not rule our thoughts and our relationships. It can be informed by new emotional input — joy, security, acceptance and contribution. I delight at the prospect of MyPeace being a catalyst for that discovery, that journey.
The chasm that separates us from our neighbor, our children, our co-workers and our partners is sometimes a scary, dangerous place. Fear of conflict keeps us separate from what can be a meaningful life filled with joy. Bridging that crevasse takes courage and good equipment. It takes awareness, intention and practice...and conflict is a wonderful teacher. But the beauty available in a world freer from conflict is a prize indeed. After all, aren’t some of the best sunsets you’ve ever seen just after a violent storm?
Tim and his wife, Elaine Hultengren, are partners in Buckley Communications. Together they teach introductory Nonviolent Communications classes and facilitate ongoing “practice groups” that meet regularly to improve skills. They currently have practice groups with couples, with mixed individuals, and with business organizations.
Tim has also been a journalist, photographer and producer of educational radio and video programs. In Salem since 1989, Tim continues to write and edit for a variety of corporate and nonprofit clients. Contact him at [email protected] or 503.990.6781