Small incidents sometimes have enormous consequences. Many great and history-changing movements can be traced back to a single brief, almost trivial-sounding moment: a prank involving men dressed as Indians dumping tea into a harbor; a slight parliamentary change involving the distribution of votes in pre-Revolution France; a decision not to change places on a bus. From such innocuous events sprang the American and French revolutions and the Montgomery bus strike. For musician-activist Georgia Kelly of Sonoma, such a moment took place in a coffee shop more than 15 years ago, one that has had a profound effect on her life ever since and may one day prove to have been the start of a major international movement.
“I remember sitting in the Depot Cafe in Mill Valley in 1991, talking with a friend about the first Gulf War,” says Kelly, a renowned harpist and speaker who, at that time, was involved in organizing antiwar forums and public protests against American operations in Iraq. “There was a woman sitting near us,” she continues. “She was sitting with a man and could overhear us talking about the war, and she suddenly said, very loudly, ‘I am so glad war is not a part of my reality.’ War was not a part of her reality? I thought, ‘Am I going to engage this or am I going to let it go?'”
She decided the moment was too important to let pass without saying something, so she turned to the woman and said, “Isn’t it fortunate that you have the luxury of not worrying about war because you’re in Mill Valley at the Depot Cafe.” An argument ensued, and neither party left the conversation feeling better about the world. But the incident left Kelly with a smoldering realization that some people in America–many of them part of the New Age movement she had been a part of as one of the first “superstar” New Age musicians–had become too wrapped up in their own experiences of living to believe they had a responsibility to work for change in the world around them. Though it would be influenced and inspired by a number of other people over the years, that incident in Mill Valley resulted, in part, in Kelly’s formation of the Praxis Peace Institute, a nonprofit organization formed to educate on the subject of peace, to promote responsible citizenship and to work toward the goal of ending war on the planet.
“I wouldn’t have said it like that today,” Kelly says of her communication with the woman in the coffee shop, sipping a cup of coffee in yet another coffee shop, this one in downtown Sonoma, where she lives. Today, Kelly considers herself a “student of conflict resolution” and is renowned as a skilled and articulate expert on the peaceful handling of confrontation. Fifteen years after she overheard a stranger say that war is not a part of her personal reality, Kelly feels that apathy, self-involvement and a narcissistic obsession with self-improvement–some of the hallmarks of the New Age movement–are still a major part of America’s arguable lack of interest in the condition of the rest of the world.
For Kelly, this realization was supported when she read 1971’s Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, in which Lasch describes the Zeitgeist evolving in America at that time as, while undeniably self-absorbed, clearly powered by a feeling of impotence with the political system. According to Lasch, the phenomenon of people turning to increasingly commercial spiritual practices that gave the appearance of spiritual depth was an attempt to avoid political involvement.
“The result of that is that people began turning inward, bailing from the political system and involvement as citizens,” Kelly says. “So we ended up with Reagan and neoconservatives and a whole back-rolling of the things we thought we’d accomplished in the ’60s. The country has slipped so far back from the progress we’d made, it’s heartbreaking, and yet very few seem to care.”
In Kelly’s view, the lack of action on the part of so many left-leaning, spiritually inclined Americans–their disenfranchised relationship with the political world–is one of the first things that will have to change in this country if peace is ever to be truly achieved.
“Because we have the luxury of living in a country that is not all that likely to be bombed today or tomorrow–as happens every day in some countries–there is the option of opting out and saying, ‘I’ll meditate for peace, but I’m not going to write my congresswoman or write letters or go to marches, because that’s giving in to the spiritual disruption of war,'” Kelly says. “I don’t know if anyone would say that now, after 9-11, but I think it’s still an indicator of that kind of consciousness that bails from the political reality and says, ‘That’s not my reality. That’s not my world. I don’t need to know anything about it.’ That kind of thinking allows the real power-mongers to grab power and hold it, because [the meditators] are not engaged in the process that could prevent that.”
The Praxis Peace Institute now organizes conferences and forums around the world, events that bring people together to discuss strategies for avoiding violent conflict. In early June, Praxis sponsored such a conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, an international event bearing the title “Transforming Culture: From Empire to Global Community.” It featured presentations by author Riane Eisler (author of The Chalice and the Blade), politician Tom Hayden, author Hazel Henderson (Beyond Globalization) and writer Thom Hartmann (Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class).
Closer to home, Kelly will hold a major conflict resolution workshop in August at that bastion of New Age introspection, the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. According to Kelly, Praxis–while stirring in her head for many years–came into solid form during the first major peace conference she helped organize in the mid-1990s, shortly after she had left the United States for a six-month stay in Yugoslavia. She was living in Croatia when it seceded from Yugoslavia.
“I realized then that there was no escape from war,” she says. “We really have to deal with the reasons we are recycling the same wars over and over again without learning any lessons from the history of wars. If we do study the history of war, it’s to pick and choose what lesson we want to learn and ignore everything else, so that we can justify what we’ve already decided to do. We refuse to think of war in terms of the big picture, and that’s why we keep repeating the same mistakes.
“Why,” she continues, “when the 20th century had spawned so much spiritual introspection and searching and renewal and awakening, had the same century seen so many wars and conflicts, genocides and deaths? What aren’t we understanding? What’s not working? That’s what I want to find out.”
Sometimes, though, the big picture dissolves in the face of individual stories of war and violence. Kelly remembers an electrifying speaker who quietly shared his story at Praxis’ first major international conference in 2000, also in Dubrovnik. An Irish man, he was a trained killer who’d been adopted into a Catholic family in Ireland and trained to kill Protestants, because his adopted parents didn’t want their own children to have blood on their hands.
The story of his emergence from a life of war, violence and hatred, and the moment he made the decision that he’d never kill again, was one of the lightning-rod moments that convinced those in attendance that the work they’d begun there would have to continue, and that what they were dealing with was so much more than large countries attempting to dominate one another for political and economic reasons. War, it seems, would have to be uprooted from every culture and every heart in which it had taken hold.
It is an unthinkably overwhelming undertaking, but Kelly believes that ending war on earth is possible. But it will require commitment from many who currently have no place in their realities for such disturbing thoughts. The movement, she believes, begins with asking questions. Praxis’ original commitment was, as Kelly puts it, “to always be involved in inquiry, to never allow ourselves to think that we have all the answers. Our job is to set the inquiries, to bring the people together to have discussions, to see what we can learn from the experts, but also to seek out experts who do not think they have all the answers, experts who ask questions rather than letting themselves be locked into an ideology.”
Ending war, also, may require some people to get their hands dirty.
“Creating peace is not about doing magic and thinking good thoughts,” says Kelly. “Creating peace will be hard, hard work.”
To learn more about the Praxis Peace Institute, go to www.praxispeace.org.