Fresh Perspective: James O’Dea – Peace and Sanity

January 2012 / Fresh Perspective


Russ Volckmann

James O'Dea

James O’Dea is one of those people who hasn’t just talked about peace. He has had a career that has been dedicated to peace and human rights. He has a fascinating career with organizations that I’ve supported through donations and membership: Amnesty International and the Institute of Noetic Sciences. He was the CEO of the Seva Foundation. He is also a member of the Evolutionary Leaders group spearheaded by Deepak Chopra. Wikipedia reports: “In August 2010 James was recognized with the honor of ‘Champion of Peace, Reconciliation and Forgiveness’ by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance. His decades of service work in Social Healing, Restorative Justice, Local and Global Conflict Resolution and Healing has affected countless individuals and communities including those in Israel/Palestine, Rwanda, N. Ireland and other highly sensitive zones.

His woactivities today very much involves working in the area of peace. He has offered training for those working on cultivating peace through The Shift Network and his own practice. He is the author of Creative Stress. He is on the Advisory boards of the World Peace Festival and The Peace Alliance. You can learn more about his work at http://www.jamesodea.com/. James lives in the United States, currently, but he was born in Ireland and was a teenager in London where he attended grammar school and college.

– Russ

Russ: James, I’m wondering if you could give us a sense of your history and how that has brought you to this work that you’re doing today.

James: Yes, thank you, Russ. In some ways it’s an integral map. I started out working in the vice principal’s role in a school in Turkey. I saw the collapse of civil society there and eventually a military takeover. That gave me a passion for and interest in human rights and social order issues. I have had experiences in Beirut during the Israeli invasion and the subsequent internecine fighting and the massacre of the Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps. That confirmed my belief that I need to work in this arena of human rights, laws and protection. That work led me to Amnesty International where I was Director of the Washington office of Amnesty for 10 years.

Here I am on a journey being compelled by these external events, these eruptions in civil society, these wars, these massacres and entering into an organization that seeks to end violations and end human rights abuses through public advocacy work, promoting international law, and promoting the prosecution of perpetrators. This is very important.

You know Amnesty’s work is about accountability. Unless there is government accountability for the violations of human rights then abuses are going to perpetuate. I was involved in meeting government leaders from around the world, testifying before Congress, meeting United States presidents – all in this effort to bring greater government compliance to and advocacy work for human rights, down to the nitty-gritty of how you get a Convention on torture through the Senate and things like that. And it was really in the later years of working at Amnesty International that I had a pivotal conversation with Jean Houston.

I didn’t know her well, but I had asked her to help me think about the death penalty. Amnesty was doing a report on the death penalty in the United States. She looked at the report and she said, “James, I’m afraid this report will not do much good, because it’s full of the imagery of violence. It is a kind of subliminal moral event for us all that our moral pathways are laid down with this history of violence. You are using that imagery of violence trying to correct that problem. What you need is to tell the story of human becoming. You need to tell the story of human possibilities, not the tragic ending that constantly occurs when humans fail and the prosecution of those who are involved in that failure.”

That was a powerful message for me, because it really went deep. I began to speak about the possibilities and think about them. But I was also still centrally a human rights activist. That is work where you’re trying to solve the world’s problems through interventions and laws and so forth, rather than the interior psycho-spiritual, emotional dimensions. Eventually, I said to people that I ran out of moral outrage after 10 years of everyday trying to rescue people from the torture slab and intervene to stop killings and so on…

Russ: Up to that time you had witnessed quite a bit of evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.

James: Indeed! When I left Amnesty there was a little bit of the pendulum swing. I became the Executive Director of the Seva Foundation, which does service and health work, blindness prevention and things that are really tangible benefits, again looking at how do we help humanity? Seva helped create the blindness prevention system in Nepal and one of the major blindness hospitals in India. In very concrete and tangible ways it had a major impact on speaking about the deeper ways to create that expertise in countries where it didn’t exist in order to do cataract surgery and then produce their own optical lenses and so forth. This was at the time when I started to ask myself the question that was not asked in Amnesty: How do we get to the root causes? This was the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I was pondering that.

What are the causes to interruptions of our rights, our civil and political rights and even our economic, social and cultural rights? What is the cause of this wounding and these patterns of violation? I had some conversations with then President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Wink Franklin, and people at the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer asked me to host a meeting around this topic, which I called The Spirit of Human Rights.

So here I am now with my own integral journey looking to find in the inner realm what I can’t find in the outer realm. That began a whole series – many, many years – of dialogue funded and supported by the Fetzer Institute. I invited Dr. Judith Thompson, who founded Children of War and is a deeply spiritual person herself, to co-host these dialogues with me.

We really began to explore the experiences of torture survivors with people involved in the front lines of human rights. We explored how did we get so wounded as a species that we could do those kinds of things? Where does the pattern of wounding begin? We began to talk in terms of moving out of a paradigm of right versus wrong – of finding the perpetrators and prosecuting them as an inadequate way of addressing the scale of these problems and their root causes – and moving to a wounding-healing paradigm. One then begins to look not only at the actions and the behaviors of the perpetrators, but also at the psycho-spiritual and emotional dimensions of the perpetrator’s inner a life to see where the perpetrator is wounded and where the perpetrator is morally wrong. It was in that dialogic work that I began to have a deeper appetite to explore the whole nature and realm of human consciousness and the intergenerational transmission of our values, of our worldviews and our hurts, wounds and unskillfulness.

Then I became present of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization that explores the nature of human consciousness and our capacities. I saw there the new science and the emergence of the science that says that, indeed, it is not a Darwinian version of reality when you look at the deepest contemporary signs that were designed. We have, of course, fight and flight mechanisms, but we live longer, healthier, more adaptive lives when we’re altruistic and  empathic, when we’re relational. That then led me into a kind of a deep synthesis of those other elements of activism and work in the world with the inner exploration of wounding-healing consciousness in the latest healing paradigms. So the peace work that I do is really a synthesis of those worlds.

Russ: I’ve heard you talk about your experience in Rwanda. It seems to me that it’s very easy for us to be cynical and to feel as though we are at a loss when it comes to trying to promote peace or trying to deal with the level of violence in the world. The account that I have heard you give of Rwanda opened my eyes to a really important culture-based approach to dealing with the aftermath of such violence that I thought was quite extraordinary. Would you share that with us?

James: The context in which I was doing work in Rwanda was around those years of dialogue. We called on the spirit of human rights for compassion and social healing. We really picked up from Jean Paul Lederach’s [Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame – Ed.] work on social healing as an emerging concept. All of the work we see in mind body health approaches we can use to begin to look at the social body and the social field and how do we heal the intergenerational transmission of wounds. This context is important because I’m in Rwanda looking at how societies heal from trauma. Social healing work is a multi-disciplinary approach – it’s really an integral approach – that looks at the psychological work, the inner worldview and belief systems, and the outer structural realities of power and social order and how they interface in ways that can, in fact, help societies recover.

In the case of Rwanda – thank goodness that there was a powerfully conscious leadership that came in after the genocide and took what happened in South Africa to the next level. This is why when you compare South Africa and Rwanda at the current time you see South Africa still has a lot of criminality and violence, levels of violence that are much much less in Rwanda. People are talking about Rwanda now as the Switzerland of Africa. This is not to say it doesn’t have huge problems, but there was intentionality in the government to go all the way through with the reconciliation process which of course has its cornerstone in truth.

I think your question was around the utilization by the government of an indigenous, tribal, local, rural justice approach called Gacaca.

Gacaca really means “on the grass”. It refers to that village tribal system where elders in the community or those who were respected in the community in various ways – up to five of them – would constitute the judicial panel. They would be empowered to call witnesses of either side of an issue. In the Gacaca process anyone in the village is able to attend and anyone is able to speak. I was given special permission by the government to attend the Gacaca trials relating to the genocide. It was deeply inspiring to see that every voice could be heard. What a remarkable idea! It stuns me now why we don’t have that element in the justice system that anybody who wants to may speak and anybody in the village who wants to can ask questions.

Of course they have to ask timely and short questions and they can’t go on. There’s a way of controlling that, but it gives everyone the voice. Everyone participates with this sense of growing drama as the truth is wrestled with. An idea may come to someone in the village and they will put their hand up: “But hasn’t this person seen that if they were at the corner at 3:00 the men with the machetes were there and they were congregating that hour already?” – some very important detail that struck them. Maybe it has struck everyone else in the room before hand and maybe I hasn’t. But there is that sense of  an organism of truth – that it takes all, it takes a community wrestling and finding out what is the truth. Amnesty International actually has complained that there aren’t enough judicial protections in the Gacaca system. But I found it deeply inspiring. I really felt over the day long process that I was involved in that there was a gathering momentum of irreversible truth. A sense of this is really the truth we’re getting at here.

90,000 people have been processed in Rwanda in these Gacaca rural courts. What happens is that if someone who is the presumed guilty party is cooperating with the truth – which in the Gacaca case I saw they were not – if the truth is fully revealed and everybody says that’s how it happened, that’s where it was, that’s who was involved, then the judicial panel can recommend community service work or work related to rebuilding structures that were burnt down or other service. In the case of somebody who is resisting the truth, but the truth comes out, they can then say that they need stiffer prison sentences. In some cases they will find the situation so intractable and potentially so much bigger in terms of the crimes that were committed that they’ll refer them back to formal courts and the judicial process.

So there are certain kinds of nuances and safeguards, but nonetheless it is about communities and societies participating in truth recovery and understanding. From one of the cases I heard a man – when he was asked why did you do this crime against your neighbor – said, “Because the government was telling me. I was listening to the radio and the government was telling me these are cockroaches. They need to be exterminated. They’re to be repelled from our society, so I was really following the orders of my government.”

Russ: How did the court respond to that? Did they treat that as a justifiable defense?

James: Yes. That happened throughout the Gacaca process. For people who were perpetrators it was part of their waking up process. It was part of their becoming conscious that in fact they were in an authoritarian structure in relationship to their government and the new paradigm was that you didn’t have to be in that subservient relationship. You could participate in society in the formation of democracy. So this was not treated as a singular justification, but as part of people understanding that people thought they were doing the right thing for their government.

Russ:  I would imagine it would be easy to romanticize an experience like that or a system like that. There would be social pressures. Especially if we’re talking about rural and small tribal based communities, family based communities, that when the truth was out that it would have some sort of social repercussions, even if there was not a prison sentence or other punishment to go with it.

James: Right! It would have potentially very divisive consequences, unless you had a form of consciousness that was not oriented to reactive punitive approaches. This gets us into a question of worldview, doesn’t it? Because, if you look at the West and you look at the United States, the United States imprisons 1/3 of the people on planet Earth who are in a prison or a jail. There is a worldview here that believes in punishment and believes less and less in rehabilitation. In the 60s there was some bold initiatives in rehabilitation approaches that were quite successful, but more and more we came to hear the view of three strikes and you were out and corporations getting the right to run prisons for profit.

And there is something from a more indigenous perspective. You see it in Native American tribal courts. They are much more oriented towards rehabilitation, to healing the social wound, to restoring the balance. The very word heal means to restore wholeness, means to make whole again. And so I love that in our global evolutionary process it isn’t a one-way street with one corner of the world going out as missionaries to say that this is how you all shall evolve and this is the truth, but rather an evolutionary process. It is a complex equation in which we have to learn how to synthesize the best wisdom of each of these ways of cultural knowing – the indigenous ways and the more reason-based approach.

I saw this very vividly in my work with the Seva Foundation. Seva is a Sanskrit word for service, by the way. The Foundation was started by people like Ram Das. We came across  traditional healers in Nepal who were having a big problem with cataract blindness, because they didn’t know how to cure it. There was a lot of social pressure on them. “Oh, you’re the healers; heal our blindness.” In some cases they were using thorns to scrape out the cataract and we came along to the traditional healers and said, “Don’t use the thorns; that’s going to permanently blind a person. We have a really good approach to taking out that cataract; in fact we can do it in a few minutes with skillful Western surgery. But we want you there for the healing of the other parts of the person that we can’t get to. That’s not part of our culture. You are wise and deeply knowledgeable about that.”

And so we created this collaboration where the traditional healers would actually help locate the cataract patients and help bring them in. Then, after the surgery was done, they would do their kind of medicine work. It was a deep collaboration of the traditional and the shamanic with the Western science. I believe that in our evolutionary process we can in fact have a creative convergence of those two. And that’s also integral mapping, because it’s skillful outer surgery and that inner process wherever it occurs that needs to come together.

Russ: That’s wonderful! What strikes me about the Nepal example is that it’s an example of Western and traditional approaches being integrated. But I’m wondering if there’s an example in Western societies where traditional is influencing the Western approach to healing, to peace, to social justice and the like. Can you think of an example of that?

James: Well, I do think that in the emergence of alternative medicine and integrative medicine –  sometimes referred to as integral medicine – is an example. At the Institute of Noetic Sciences we did a volume called Consciousness & Healing: An Integral Approach to Mind-Body Medicine. You see in that story that there has been a contribution of the shamanic; there has been a contribution of those who would say there is a spiritual dimension to healing. We know that changing beliefs activates our positive genes. This was how the traditional healers dealt with belief and intentionality. They didn’t call it so, but I do think that in the path to healing there is that connection. There’s also the path that we learn from indigenous societies about the participation of the whole whether it’s in the justice system or in the healing process.

You know we don’t heal in the fast lane. We don’t heal alone. We’re definitely relational beings. The more that our communities or our family systems or local networks participate with us in our healing process, the faster we heal.

Russ: Interesting. I’m talking to you from Tucson, Arizona, the home of Andrew Weil and the integrative medicine program and actually my doctor is an integrative medicine trained physician, so that’s a wonderful example. I hear very clearly and so I’m sure will anybody reading this interview the strong spiritual orientation that you have. You’re even living in a part of the United States where there seems to be a convergence of spiritual energy. Could you tell us a bit about your spiritual journey?

James: Yes. I was born a Roman-Catholic in south of Ireland and I think it provided me with this very good fundamental training to be brought up in that tradition. I once had a conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson, who as you know is the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and she had done some study of how people transmit religion and spirituality within family structures. She was saying that it decidedly helps to have some kind of structure when you’re growing up and then you can leave that structure. Maybe it can become your training wheels or whatever, but she was saying that in family structures where there was no tradition there was very little evidence that the children picked up any kind of deeper spirituality transmissions in their own lives.

For me earlier on, the really deepest spiritual impulse was in the path of service. Certainly even as a teenager I was shedding any structures around guilt and things like that. I received an award in London as a teenager: I was Teenager of the Year, because I had organized young people to investigate the condition of senior citizens in the whole part of London. Then we reported out the failings of the social welfare system. It was that sense, that impulse to compassionate action, that was certainly there and a certain kind of activism that formed earlier that was an expression of that. I shudder now at the arrogance I had then, but maybe it was appropriate for a teenager.

I got so much attention as Teenager of the Year that the head of the Welfare Authority in London wrote me a letter saying, “It seems as if you have many issues to discuss concerning the welfare system in London on our treatment of senior citizens. I would appreciate it if you would come in and discuss these matters with me personally.” This was quite an honor for a teenager to be invited in, but my response was in a letter, “You know what you have to do and when you do it we can meet.” Now of course, I would be up for dialogue. In some sense it was the connection of spirituality to social service and karma work that led me on. I was deeply influenced by Sufism and its emphasis on opening the heart and really exploring the dimensionality of the heart. I love the fact that contemporary science in the last 20 years has discovered that the heart is so much more than a mechanical pump.

I’m invited to a meeting next year in Rome about second axial spirituality that holds the theory of the axial ages, that there was an axial age of spiritual significance in the 500 to 700 years before the birth of Christ. There we had the Buddha and Lao Tzu. We had a whole explosion of spirituality across different aspects of the planet about self-realization, the path to illumination, the work of loving thy neighbor and the path of service and so on. And now theologians and theorists in this domain are saying that it seems that conditions are ripe for a second axial age. And what does that constitute? It constitutes the end of dogmatic superiority, the end of any kind of notion that we have the truth, because global conditions, the knowledge explosion and the reality of how we live cannot support exclusivist truth claims by various religious parties.

And so the second axial age is about inter-spirituality, the communion of spiritual beings with each other, the co-teaching, co-mentoring, co-feeding each other. That does require that at certain times we take our own paths of rigorous practice and follow those not in an exclusivist way. The other dimension of spirituality, the second axial thinking around spirituality, seems somehow bereft of relevance if it’s not also addressing new forms of social justice and ecological awareness. And so as you mentioned I have come to live in a place that is hopefully a better mirror of the values I seek in Crestone, Colorado, where ecology, community and spirituality are central.

Some 30 years ago land was donated here to the spiritual traditions of the world. The basis on which the land was donated was that each tradition had to show a lineage of transmission. So you have the Carmelites, the Hindu Ashrams, Zen Buddhist monastery, Tibetan Buddhist Center, Sri Aurobindo Centre. It is less New Age, yesterday’s pop up angels kind of spirituality, which I should not in any way cast aspersions on, but there is a sense of spiritual depth here and in that depth they tend to explore the connection between these spiritual practices and revelations.

Russ: What really impresses me is that as all of these aspects of the spiritual journey are integrated. This seems to resonate very strongly with the notion of the path that is not just about the inner journey but also about making it real and making a difference.

James: Yes! I would say, Russ, that’s an excellent example that somehow spirituality is not about finding the escape route from a planet of suffering, but embodying the antidote, the medicine, so that we can experience the beauty revealed in existence. It’s a pernicious apparition that we  have looked upon a deity that said. “You know you shall be sent to this place full of suffering, but don’t worry. There’s an excellent escape route and I  hope you find it.” It dismisses the purpose of suffering in itself. In this spirituality that we talk about there’s a transcendent reality and there is an imminent reality. We can see both.

Russ: You are a part of the Evolutionary Leadership group that Deepak Chopra was instrumental in forming. Is the Evolutionary Leadership activity that you’re involved with there at all in that bodhisattva tradition or is it different from that?

James: I think the Evolutionary Leaders group at this point has been really more focused on mutual exploration and support and the attempts at mapping together what is emerging. It has not taken on major new tasks. It is more of a sharing and support group at this point

Russ: Have there been any significant takeaways for you from that experience?

James: It’s very, very rich, but at the same time my work is essentially about busting the myth of the average person: that there is no average person and so we’re all part of a unique creation and unique perspective and unique design and that we’re interrelated and interdependent. I see it is the so-called average people who cause me to fall to my knees in awe of them when others violated or tortured them or murdered their children. I like the intellectual and social dimension of the Evolutionary Leaders group, but I look to my real spiritual path in the heart of humanity.

Russ:  James thank you so much. We owe gratitude for the work you are doing. I hope that one of the things your message brings is that there is hope and that we don’t have to be stuck in pessimism and feelings of loss and despair, that there is a potential for peace, for caring, for love, for a generational future for humanity.

James: Yes, Russ, thank you. I would say that my work really leads me to believe that the healing capacities of humanity are part of evolutionary emergence that I’ve been privileged to witness in the darkest and most difficult places – the emergence of this capacity and hopefully its emergence as a species wide phenomenon. Yes, I am deeply hopeful about our future.