Insights from Portugal on the Path to Peace (at a Time of War)

I am reflecting on an inspiring engagement in Portugal and lessons on peacemaking. The Ubuntu Fest gathering that I participated in was a celebration of Ubuntu and the African principles of connection and compassion ( IPAV, which runs the Ubuntu Leadership Academy, works in schools to develop empathy and service ( In the midst of the conference about peace and unity, a horrific new war erupted in Israel/Gaza with the potential to turn the region and the wider world toward greater hurt, hate, and polarization.

In an active conflict, we may talk about securing peace but at best, we may secure a ceasefire. Peace is a state of being that is connected to a sense of security and freedom from fear. It is as much within ourselves as external. It has to be real. It is not achieved overnight. It has to be intentionally cultivated. 

Peace is not really the opposite of war. Peacebuilding is the opposite of war. War destroys peace. Peacebuilding is creating peace. When conflicts emerge, we have failed to do the work of building peace – the work of building relationships and trust across people. Without this, we have separation and distrust. The creation of relationships is a slow process and as much an inner journey that shifts our worldview and feelings of separateness.

The Ubuntu Leadership Academy is planting these seeds of peace in young people in Portugal and across the world. By helping kids generate a sense of wellbeing, appreciate diversity, and enact service and compassion they are shaping the future. The evidence of this approach is also present in Scandinavia which made the journey from being poor and disconnected to prosperous, unified, and thriving through Folk Schools that developed young people to see themselves as part of a greater whole with others.

The war in Israel/Gaza is an example of the reverse – the failure of not just of politics and diplomacy but peacebuilding and relationship development. In the US too we are tumbling down the path of separation and laying the foundation for conflict. As polarization rises, we see social-emotional learning and DEI programs being removed rather than infused in schools. As personal wellbeing drops, people are retreating from community engagement despite the fact that community relationships create wellbeing and mutual commitment. 

So, here we are, once again, at a pivotal time in history. The downhill road to conflict and the uphill path to peace and collective thriving diverge before us. As individuals, we can and must do what we can to nurture our own wellbeing and relationships but we need systemic action – in schools, in communities – to shift our collective states. There is awareness of this in places like Portugal that have embraced the idea of Ubuntu in schools and developing these capabilities in the next generation. Portugal, a small nation, has chosen to be open and welcoming rather than closed and fearful. The impact is evident in the level of kindness we encountered everywhere in interactions with people in the country. It is clear that these attributes are part of the DNA of society. Portugal has emerged as one of the most popular destinations not only for its sunny weather, but its sunny disposition. It reflects in so many ways what many of us are seeking.    

There is an old Sufi story of a man who was traveling in search of a better place to live. Traveling to a new city, he approached an old man in the marketplace and asked – How are people here? The man asked in return – How are the people where you come from? The traveler shook his head and said: They are rude, angry, and hateful. Ah, said the old man, it is the same here. On another day, another traveler, also in search of a new home, approached the old man and asked – How are people here? The man once again asked in return – How are the people where you come from? The traveler said: They are kind, loving, and generous. Ah, said the old man, it is just the same here. 

The story indicates we can’t escape what we carry with us, within us. We have to be the peace we seek. The world is an expression of ourselves. In South Africa, the home of Ubuntu, Mandela said that you can’t change society unless you first change yourself. Mother Teresa said, If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. 

The conflicts in the world are a reminder that our futures are bound together. And that the path to peace in the external world lies within us all. Love wins or we all lose.

Recalling Rumi in Afghanistan

I wrote this piece before the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. The tragic event puts a sharper point on the need to shift how we operate in Afghanistan. A long war has come to a close. The shape of peace remains to be determined. 

For many of us watching the situation in Afghanistan, there is a sense of shock. The impact of 20 years of war, the might of the most powerful military aided by troops from other powerful nations, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, two trillion dollars spent, four US presidents of both parties, and things seem to have returned to much the same as they were at the start of the conflict. All seemingly in the blink of an eye. It is a reminder of the limits of power and the fleeting nature of victory. Afghanistan is an old land that has seen many empires roll through. It weathers time differently. 

There is plenty of blame to go around as we replay the many missteps. And yet, Afghanistan is just one place in the larger global landscape of conflict. These dynamics lie under the surface in many places, waiting to erupt when the time is right. We must learn to not repeat the story that played out here. 

Afghanistan was made to bleed but not enabled to heal. Trauma unhealed resurfaces. And when it does, it eats more than itself. Holiday Phillips offered three different options for engagement that ring true here: 

Privilege says I could help, but I don’t need to.

Courage says I will help, you need me.

Love says I must help, we need each other. 

In the conflict in Afghanistan, the US held the first and the second stance of superiority and benefactor but not the third stance of seeking mutual wellbeing. If we did, we might have felt a greater need to help Afghanistan to succeed and prosper. This is how the US engaged Europe after WWII. There was a desire for Europe to return to a place of wellbeing. Perhaps, despite the animosities of the war, there was a sense of shared identity with Europe. Afghanistan feels foreign to Americans. The people there who we are keen to protect are our citizens and the Afghan translators and colleagues who we got to know and who worked alongside us and who became friends. It is hard to abandon them. And, as so many of us watched, they ran alongside the departing US planes desperate to hold on to us as well. 

So, the key to caring is relationships. It may feel too late for that now but the Afghans play the long game and so can we. We can extend the hand of friendship to provide aid and help Afghanistan succeed rather than take the usual tact of enforcing punishment that deepens trauma and resistance. If the Taliban didn’t break after decades of punishment, they wouldn’t likely soften under sanctions. We need a new approach and if we widen our outlook it is there to be seen, right there in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan after all is the birthplace of Rumi, the renowned Islamic poet who wrote many profound expressions of love and compassion. The country was once a center for Greek and Buddhist learning that melded knowledge from East and West. It was a major hub on the silk road, where civilizations met for trade, not war. In my earlier years, when I collected National Geographic magazines, I was transfixed by the images of the people of Afghanistan and marveled at the immense diversity in a small country. These different identities are part of Afghanistan’s roots too. Roots that can regrow as well when cared for. War is not the only narrative that this ancient land holds.  

At the end of the day, Afghanistan is a lesson in the limits of war and the path to peace. Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” We need to find these fresh fields of possibility. 

Every ending is also a beginning. It is an opportunity for change, a reason for hope, and a call to lean in rather than bow out. 

Are We Wired For Conflict or Coded for Collaboration?

Are people inherently good or bad? Are we wired for kindness and collaboration or selfishness and conflict? A book I am reading, named Humankind, makes a case for our goodness. It contrasts the fictitious and popular Lord of the Flies narrative about a group of English schoolboys stranded on an island who viciously turn on each other with a real-life but a lesser-known narrative of a group of Tongan schoolboys who were shipwrecked on an isolated island but found a way to survive in harmony for a year until they were found. 

Art by Lyndon

I believe that both of these tendencies –for conflict or collaboration — are within us as part of our nature. Humans have unleashed great violence and horror on others and have also demonstrated the kind of extraordinary collaboration. What accounts for the swing between these two poles? Is it just chance? I don’t believe so.

I believe that these behaviors manifest in response to circumstance and socialization. Stress and threat tend to generate a fight or flight response. Yet, these are not the only choices we have. We can also engage constructively ( Social systems also play a role in elevating or reducing our threat response.

These two sides — our individual capability and collective social systems — are both elements that are not pre-ordained or random but can be deliberately cultivated. How we respond is dependent on awareness and self-management, which I have written about at length in earlier blog posts. The evidence is that we need to start to build this kind of social and emotional development at an early age and for all, as part of the fabric of education. This development matters every bit as much as anything else we might learn in school. 

Creating social systems that engender fairness, equality, and collaboration is also possible and essential. That said, all societies haven’t opted for choosing the common good in equal measure. The stark contrast between Scandinavian countries that are high on social cohesion and wellbeing stands in contrast with other technologically advanced and affluent but unequal societies like the US. There is a choice made based on our values and consciousness that in turn hinge on our own personal development and socialization. If we are grounded and happy, we will want it for others as well. If we believe that conflict is unavoidable, we focus on building our capacity for war. It is good to remember that the peaceful Scandinavians and Mongolians of today were once the vicious Vikings and Mongols who violently decimated other societies. These people are biologically the same. What changed is the social construct they operated with. Changing the social construct is a choice. 

In the midst of the Vietnam War, John Lennon pleaded that “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Yet, the societies that are peaceful don’t leave peace to chance. They make it a strategic priority that is supported by public policy and social practice. Goodness then is not a gift of birth or the result of random chance. Rather it is a choice that we can make, a choice for good.

Art from Deep Roots Sangha notice board

Wars of the Worlds — the Internal and External

Art by Lyndon

Our world is caught up in perpetual waves of conflict. And this seems to be the case from the very start. Ancient founding stories of the world in Greek and Indian mythology tell of battles between gods that preceded the arrival of humans. These struggles for territory and power are often framed as battles of good and evil, of the assertion of rights and righteousness.  

As humans, we continue this pattern. We are locked in arguments over who are legitimate peoples and who are intruders. Who is oppressed and who are victims. Who has wronged whom. We all have sides and a strong sense of what are our side’s rights, and much righteousness for our side of the story. 

When we zoom out things appear more muddy. The Greek gods were often egotistical and ruthless. Human heroes of liberation are also often tainted. Lincoln led the battle to end slavery but also was responsible for expanding the wars against Native Americans, conducting mass executions of Native peoples (the largest executions in US history), and appropriation of their lands. Churchill may have been a war hero but was responsible for a great deal of oppression of people in India and Africa as an agent of the British Empire. 

The absolute and clear claims to lands or righteousness are readily disputed. In looking at the span of history, it is clear that humans have migrated across the globe, fought wars of conquest, and committed genocide to exterminate and evict other people. Many parts of the world today are no longer inhabited or dominated by people who were there earlier. A litany of aggression, suppression, exploitation experienced can be readily recited by all sides. The score is often settled by virtue of power. And for those who have been defeated, the score remains to be settled. When we crush others, we can only expect that they will also seek to respond by the means they have available. The cycle of retribution follows. Are we doomed to endless power struggles — winning by bullet or ballot, fighting with pen or sword, attacking with words and weapons? Is there a way out?

Street mural in Greensboro created in the wake of the George Floyd murder

It is notable that Jesus and the Buddha who lived in times of tumult chose not to fight political battles. Jesus lived under the occupation of Romans and advised people to give to Caesar what was his. The Buddha, who lived in the midst of warring kingdoms that tried to recruit him as a representative of their righteousness, said that those battles were not his fight. Jesus and the Buddha saw liberation as an internal struggle. 

The Bhagavad Gita (the Song of God) is a core Hindu text that is centered at the scene of a battle. In the book, two sets of cousins face-off ready for a bloody war. This book set at the scene of a war was curiously Gandhi’s favorite book. This is because the battle playing out in the book is an allegory for the battle raging within us. It delves into various forms of yoga — the yoga of service, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of mind and body control (the type of yoga popular in the West), and the yoga of knowledge. The word yoga means yoke or what’s joined together and the book is about self-realization and union. 

Art by Lyndon

The insight is that we can’t create peace in the world without creating peace within ourselves. The inner and outer are indelibly connected. 

A teacher asked her students, what do you get when you squeeze an orange. The answer they offered was orange juice. The teacher then asked, “So, what comes from you when you are squeezed.” The answer is: if you are angry, it is likely to be hate and violence. If you are peaceful, it is likely a calm response. If you are filled with love, it is likely love. We express externally what exists within us. 

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is within us. If the kingdom of God is peace and justice, we have to find peace within ourselves so as to create it in the world. Cultivating this peace within us is the real battle we must wage. In Islam, there is the concept of the lesser jihad and the greater jihad. The lesser one is fought in the external world, the greater one is within ourselves.  

If we can create peace within us, we can liberate ourselves from the desire to dominate others or seek revenge for the harm we have suffered. Jesus called us to turn the other cheek. This was not an expression of weakness but of great strength to not respond in kind. It takes much inner work. The exercise of yoga — in its broader manifestation — is the discipline of building this capability.
To reframe Gandhi’s famous axiom, We have to be the peace we wish to see in the world. If we create peace within us, it is the kind of change we bring into the world. This is the only path to peace.

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Humanity over Enmity — From Narrow Identity to Broader Affinity

Mural by @artistraman

Last week I wrote about moving from DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) to IDEAL (inclusion, diversity, equity + affinity & love) (link). The idea is that cultivating affinity is key to changing the dynamic from apathy or aversion to authentic connection or love. Here is a story that illustrates how. 

I was in Hyderabad, India, to do a train-the-trainer program with youth organizations in the country. As part of the program, the trainers had to deliver a session to a live group of participants. The organizers brought in participants from a local slum. 

When the participants filed into the room, they sat automatically with those they identified with. The men sat with men. Women with women. Girls with girls. Boys with boys. Hindus picked a seat next to other Hindus. And Muslims with Muslims. Everyone self-segregated themselves into visible identity groups – gender, age, religion. The trainers wanted to shake this up and did so in a clever way. They asked everyone to walk around the rooms while the facilitators clapped their hands. When they stopped clapping, everyone was instructed to stop where they were. 

When they got the group to stop, the identity groups were completely scrambled. They asked people to sit down with the four people who were now around them. They then moved into an activity using a tool called Visual Explorer to get the participants to each share a story about their aspirations. I snapped a picture of a young Muslim woman sharing her story surrounded by a mix of adults all listening intently. These were people who would have never otherwise have stopped to listen to her. While I don’t know what may have changed as a result but mutual respect was visible. I believe that in sharing these stories something shifted in how these individuals now saw and related to one another. 

Street mural in Mauritius

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen pointed out that polarization comes when we focus on a single aspect of our identity, such as race, religion, or class. When we unpack our identities more fully with others, we find many commonalities that we share that can be the basis for forming a relationship. A Muslim and a Jewish man may both find they have daughters, love soccer, and like to play music. What is needed are ways to bring all of who we are into view, into the light, so as to be seen, so as to discover what connects us.

 This insight has been at the heart of my work in leadership development over two decades in more than two dozen countries. In conflict zones, the impact of this is dramatic. Social scientist Ashutosh Varshney studied places around the world to discover why some places that had a similar ethnic make-up saw communal riots while others didn’t. What he found was the places that didn’t have riots had community networks that spanned across the different groups. When trigger events occurred, these networks were able to diffuse the tension and resolve the issues peacefully ( 

We might notice that the places where we see violence occur in the world are often accented by separation. When we are able to create boundary-spanning networks and ways to see into the lives of others, we find that we often have more in common than the facets of difference that may divide us. What we need then are ways to bring us together and help us see each other more fully. My work with CoMetta ( is focused on doing this by hosting open community conversations that build empathy and understanding. We can all do this work of bridging in ways that are closer to home. 

My wonderful neighbor Anna Wilkins is a model of how to do so. She organized a series of gatherings throughout the year where neighbors host potlucks that are open to everyone in the neighborhood ( Rather than pass each other on the street as strangers, we now have a sense of belonging. 

This belonging can sometimes be a matter of life or death. My wife worked as a social worker for a nonprofit organization based in a slum in Mumbai. Back in the 1990s, Hindu-Muslim riots convulsed the city. Mobs roamed the streets looking for people of the other religion to target but the people who worked at the nonprofit sheltered each other. While nearly a thousand people died in the violence in the city, nobody from the nonprofit organization was hurt.

Creating harmony needs networks and orchestration. It doesn’t happen automatically. If we want peace, we need to build bridges to help us connect rather than walls to keep each other out. When we invite people into our homes and networks, we get to see each other’s eyes and read one another’s hearts. What we invariably find — in expressing our struggles and aspirations — is a common humanity that draws us together rather than an enmity that drives us apart.

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