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The Discipline of Presence in Peacebuilding

I’ve mentioned before how discipline is what takes over when motivation runs dry. How does that impact the discipline of presence in peacebuilding? As with most things, we must build up our skills gradually. There is motivation at the start, and then discipline for the long haul. And we have to do the same thing over and over again, slowly building strength and skill and confidence.

When my martial arts school has demonstrations or shows, mostly that means we simply show up ready for anything. In the moments before it starts, our master will confirm what is appropriate and will call on us as needed. You could be called upon to do anything at any time. There is often little serious preparation for parts of it as the interactive demonstration follows the flow of what the hosts and audience are interested in and and we are called to join in along the way as needed. When we train, we don’t train for show. We train to be able to actually use the skills whenever we may need to. Therefore at any time we should be able to do those skills, regardless of situation or lack of additional preparation.

Showing up for an interactive demonstration with a loose, flexible plan and people who are in training is both risky and potentially brilliant. When it goes right, we can put on a rather impressive show that is entertaining, engaging, real (we rarely choreograph), and effectively shares and explains our art. At the same time, the success of the show is based on people. And people are fallible. What if we mess up? What if we aren’t ready? What if we haven’t trained enough? What if we get up there and everything goes blank? The risk is real.

So we train for that too. We have a belt testing structure that marks advancement in the art. The tests, however, prove more than a student’s physical skill. Tests are done individually with the entire school watching and it quickly becomes more a test of one’s self than one’s physical skill. I am continually struck by the transformation as people I have practiced with morph into stiff, nervous figures who can’t seem to process what is being said, much less translate it into any sort of movement. I know these people. I know they can do this. And yet, when they stand there for their test, all that preparation instantly falls away. Often they are left with only what has been burned into the memory of their bodies through constant repetition. It has happened to me as well, and the more I test, the more I continue to sit with the experiences and mull over mental practices to overcome the panic. Ultimately, you must quiet yourself so you can do what you can do. As you progress through the levels, more mental elements are added to the physical elements of the test, making it absolutely essential to quiet yourself so that everything you have learned can surface and be used.

In these moments, be they tests or live demonstrations, you cannot think about anything else. The only thing that matters is what you are doing now. A singular focus. The moment that disciplined focus waivers is the moment disaster finds entry. You must stand in that space armed with confidence born from struggle and discipline. And when you feel it all slipping away, you glance to the side and connect with your friends. These are the people you have trained with. You have challenged and pushed each other, celebrated achievements, and laughed together at mishaps. You have pulled each other along the entire journey, and they continue to ground you in those crucial moments.

And even with the training and practice and discipline behind us and our friends beside us, sometimes in that one moment when we are called upon we still fail to truly deliver on what we know we can do. And it is not a physical failure, it is a mental one.

I find this entire process parallels peacebuilding work. We must also train, we must also practice quieting ourselves so we can use our skills, and we must also be ready to step up whenever it is required, regardless of the situation or whether or not we have been able to prepare specially. We must bring focus and discipline and presence.

When I am in the midst of attempting to facilitate a peaceful resolution to a situation of conflict, the only way it will work is if I am fully present there. The holistic, singular focus. I must hold the space, calling on discipline and on practice and on all I have experienced and struggled through. It is intense and can take time. As it goes on and I feel my presence wavering or my thoughts straying, I throw my glance briefly to a colleague, or to the memory of a colleague if none are with me, and summon the totality of who I am to maintain the focus, sustain my presence, and do my work. I must be wholly and unwaveringly engaged. Sometimes I can do it and it is brilliant. And sometimes it falls apart and I fail - not a physical failure, a mental one.

And you? How do you train yourself to do be wholly and unwaveringly engaged? How do you practice maintaining focus and sustaining presence? How do you prepare for intensity and time? And who picks you up when you fail?

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