As the CEO of TLEX Institute, a leadership institute that trains leaders from global agencies, Fortune 100 companies and governments working through transitions in fragile states, I have seen how conflict and power struggles can become deeply embedded in how people operate. Even seasoned progressive leaders can struggle to disentangle their own and others' identities, cultures and systems from cycles of retaliation and aggression. To inform my own work and leadership, I continually seek examples of leaders who move people to let go of the past, bridge perspectives and solve problems together.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, has modeled for decades innovative ways to bridge conflicting side through authentic dialogue and allow peacebuilding to begin through nonviolence. Over that time period Sri Sri has been invited into peace building processes in 10 regions across the globe, including Colombia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and India. He brings deep expertise in how the human mind, emotions and spirit function across religions, ethnicities and cultures. This expertise finds its roots not in western psychology, but in centuries-old spiritual principles and practices from the Vedic tradition of India, where Gandhian principles of ahimsa (non-violence) also find their origins.
Observing how Sri Sri enters and holds space as a peacebuilder offers lessons on how leaders across sectors can shift mindsets of people in organizations and communities towards collaboration and trust.
Expanding capacity for peace through meditation
When the minds of those involved in generating tactics and solutions for peace are clouded over by resentment about the past or anxiety about an uncertain future, authentic dialogue and trust-building cannot occur. Sri Sri regularly guides all parties involved in the peace building process - including presidents and government agents, activists and advocates, religious and cultural leaders, guerrillas and terrorists -- in meditation and breathing. Research suggests that meditation improves creativity and cognitive functioning, emotional stability and regulation, and response to stress - with enduring effects on brain functioning. Through meditation, Sri Sri seems to increase the social-emotional capacity of conflicting sides to engage in dialogue - not by talking about it, but by enabling people with mind-body tools that increase their capacity to hold and process complex emotions and see new possibilities.
Deep listening as an act of healing
When those who question injustice (whether real or perceived) are silenced, made invisible, or misrepresented, anger can amplify into violence. Violence can spark retaliation, and the original reason for the violence can become lost in a cycle of revenge. Sri Sri shares that "when unanswered questions ferment in the mind, they turn into violence." Sri Sri is able to be fully present with people, without judgment or agenda. The quality of deep listening he exhibits allows people to feel their humanity acknowledged, which is sometimes what is most desperately needed on the path to peace and reconciliation. I was able to observe Sri Sri meet with young Black activists as protests began turning violent on the streets of Baltimore. Sri Sri fully acknowledged, invited, and listened to each person in the room verbalize their anger and frustration, then guided them in a meditation. He spoke only a few words, yet by the end of the hour-long meeting, the activists were laying out a vision for a peaceful racial justice movement.
Beyond blame and victimhood
Whether bringing conflicting sides together into one room or conducting individual meetings, Sri Sri engages all sides of a conflict - leaders, victims and rebels. He moves dialogue from victim-perpetrator to a perspective that all those involved in cycles of violence are victims - including terrorists, violent gang members, and perpetrators of crime. After meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos, Sri Sri was invited to engage with FARC leaders. "When you see one is a culprit, you demand them to be punished. When you understand that the culprit is also a victim, for the sake of peace, we can walk an extra mile," Sri Sri shared during conversations lasting several days with FARC leaders. Soon after speaking with Sri Sri, Ivan Marquez, FARC commander shared in a press conference: "We agree with Master Shankar that deep down, we are all victims. And if we begin with that understanding, we can leave behind the past, a sad story of violence that must not be repeated." Even if past wrongs cannot be corrected, this orientation seems to open a window of compassion and unlock the posturing of one side vs. another, allowing for movement forward. Commander Marquez shares: "With the help of Sri Sri, we have placed our spirit [in the direction of] achieving reconciliation and coexistence of a big and benevolent country, whose destiny can't be that of war... As a result of these talks the FARC will use Gandhian principles to attain social justice. "We can have our political goals, and not give up the cause. But with a new experiment, a new vision of non-violence."
Inspiring valor in non-violence
In engaging with guerillas, terrorists, and others who use violence to achieve their ends, Sri Sri's spiritual orientation grants him a level of compassion and equanimity that makes him see the human strengths we all possess. Sri Sri shares that those willing to harm others and die for a cause possess great fearlessness, commitment, and sacrifice, which only need to be redirected. For example, Khalid was a former leader of Hazbid Mujahideen terrorist outfit who recruited and trained youth in villages throughout Kashmir. Sri Sri inspired in him confidence and valor in non-violence as a more powerful means towards justice. He shared that after meeting Sri Sri, he realized he had chosen the wrong path. Khalid is now committed to spreading a message of love and non-violence throughout those same villages.
Sri Sri demonstrates there is incredible potential in peacebuilding processes that connects the hearts and humanity of people across all sides of conflict. Through spiritual practices and frameworks, he opens up new possibilities for those locked in conflict not to give up on justice, but to envision social transformation through peace. "Social justice is the first step of spirituality," he shares. "In fact, spirituality brings social justice. The one goes with the other."
Originally published in the Official Nobel Summit Magazine by Real Leaders
Authored by Johann Berlin, CEO TLEX Institute and Uma Viswanathan, Program Officer of Racial Equity and Community Engagement at the WK Kellogg Foundation