Choosing Peace

There is a key moment, says Pema Chödrön, when we make the choice between peace and conflict.

Pema Chödrön
7 November 2017

If we want to make peace, with ourselves and with the world at large, we have to look closely at the source of all of our wars. So often, it seems, we want to “settle the score,” which means getting our revenge, our payback. We want others to feel what we have felt. It means getting even, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with evenness at all. It is, in fact, a highly charged emotional reaction.

Underlying all of these thoughts and emotions is our basic intelligence, our basic wisdom. We all have it and we can all uncover it. It can grow and expand and become more accessible to us as a tool of peacemaking and a tool of happiness for ourselves and for others. But this intelligence is obscured by emotional reactivity when our experience becomes more about us than about them, more about self than about other. That is war.

I have often spoken of shenpa, the Tibetan term for the hook in our mind that snags us and prevents us from being open and receptive. When we try to settle the score, we cover over our innate wisdom, our innate intelligence, with rapidly escalating, highly charged, shenpa-oozing emotionality. We produce one hook after another.

What are we to do about that? We could say that this emotionality is bad and we have to get rid of it. But that brings problems, because it’s really the same approach as getting even with other people. In this case we’re basically saying that we have to settle the score with ourselves, get even with ourselves, as it were, by ridding ourselves of our emotionality.

Since this approach will not work, what we need to do is to neither reject nor indulge in our own emotional energy, but instead come to know it. Then, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, we can transmute the confusion of emotions into wisdom. In simple terms, we must gain the capacity to slowly, over time, become one with our own energy instead of splitting off. We must learn to use the tools we have available to transform this moment of splitting in two. Splitting in two is the moment when peace turns into war, and it is a very common experience.

If the path of the peacemaker, of happiness, is being open and receptive and one with your experience, then settling the score is the path of making war, whereby aggression gives birth to aggression and violence gives birth to violence. Nothing is settled. Nothing is made even.

Let’s say you’re having a conversation with someone. You’re one with the whole situation. You’re open and receptive and there and interested. Then there is a little shenpa pulling-away, a kind of uneasy feeling in the stomach—which we usually don’t notice—and then comes our big thought. We are suddenly verbalizing to ourselves, “How am I looking here? Did I just say something stupid? Am I too fat? That was a stupid thing to say, wasn’t it, and I am too fat….”

Some thought or other causes us to split off, and before we know it we’re completely self-absorbed. We’re probably not even hearing the words of the person we’re conversing with, because we have retreated into a bubble of self-absorption. That’s splitting off. That’s dividing in two.

The Buddha taught about this basic split as the birth of dualism, the birth of self versus other, of me versus you. It happens moment after moment. When we start out, we are “one-with.” We have a sense of our interconnectedness, though we might not use that fancy word. We’re simply listening and there. And then, split! We pull back into our own worry or concern or even our own elation. Somehow we’re no longer together. Now it’s more about me and self, rather than them and other. By contrast, being “one-with” is neither about other nor about self. It’s just totally open, present, there.

Settling the Score

If the path of the peacemaker, of happiness, is being open and receptive and one with your experience, then settling the score is the path of making war, whereby aggression gives birth to aggression and violence gives birth to violence. Nothing is settled. Nothing is made even. But the mind of settling the score does not take that into consideration. When you are caught by that mind, because of the highly charged and ever-expanding emotionality you’re going through, you do not see what settling the score is really doing. You probably don’t even see yourself trying to settle the score.

If we started to think about and talk about and make an in-depth exploration of the various wars around the world, we would probably get very churned up. Thinking about wars can indeed get us really worked up. If we did that, we would have plenty of emotional reactivity to work with, because despite all the teachings we may have heard and all the practice we may have done, our knee-jerk reaction is to get highly activated. Before long, we start focusing on those people who caused the whole thing. We get ourselves going and then at some irrational level, we start wanting to settle the score, to get the bad guy and make him pay. But what if we could think of all of those wars and do something that would really cause peace to be the result? Where communication from the heart would be the result? Where the outcome would be more together rather than more split apart?

In a way, that would really be settling the score. That would really be getting even. But settling the score doesn’t usually mean that. It means I want my side to win and the other side to lose. They deserve to lose because of what they’ve done. The side that I want to lose can be an individual in my life or a government. It can be a type or group of people. It can be anything or anyone I point the finger at. I get quite enraged thinking about how they’re responsible for everything, so of course I want to settle the score. It’s only natural.

We all do this. But in so doing we become mired in what the Buddhist teachings refer to as samsara. We use a method to relate to our pain. We use a method to relate to the underlying groundlessness and feelings of insecurity. We feel that things are out of control, that they are definitely not going the way we want them to go. But our method to heal the anguish of things not going the way we want them to is what Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche calls pouring kerosene on the fire to put it out.

We bite the hook and escalate the emotional reactivity. We speak out and we act out. The terrorists blow up the bus and then the army comes in to settle the score. It might be better to pause and reflect on how the terrorists got to the place where they were so full of hatred that they wanted to blow up a bus of innocent people. Is the score really settled? Or is the very thing that caused the bus to be blown up in the first place now escalating? Look at this cycle in your own life and in your own experience. See if it is happening: Are you trying to settle the score?

Nowadays, we have instant access to news and sounds and images of all the wars and violence happening all over the world. We can see all around us vivid public demonstrations of how biting the hook and getting swept away does not yield good results. It is not adding up to happiness or peace. If you need an example of how the usual approach to settling the score doesn’t work, just look around.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that he promotes the non-violent, non-aggressive approach to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, despite the fact that things thing are getting much worse. He takes this approach because he sees that violence is bound to create long-term resentment in others. This is basic intelligence shining through. Basic intelligence recognizes that the resentment caused by a violent response, by a score-settling action, will be the source of future conflict.

We can use our intelligence to exploit other people’s capacity to get hooked. Look at advertisements. The advertisers have figured us out a bit. They know how to get us hooked so that we buy something. If you wanted to be really smart and conniving, you could exploiting your adversaries’ propensity to settle the score. You could encourage them to start retaliating all over the place, so that they will have more and more enemies. You could cause people to hate them more and more. Human beings can be this clever, learning to exploit our propensity to settle the score in order to try to settle the score. There are people doing this, but where does it get us?

We could use that same intelligence to figure out for ourselves that retaliation or aggression gives birth to aggression and that if we really want peace, happiness, and harmony to be the result, there has to be some other way of settling the score than retaliation. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. We have to find a way to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. As you know, he was passionate about this idea and charismatic enough to get a lot of people on board with it. Gandhi, of course, is an example of the same idea of settling the score at a more fundamental level. I use famous examples, but there are women and men, unsung heroes and heroines, all over the world who are working this way to help alleviate suffering. These are people I love and respect and they are my role models for the Buddhist version of settling the score.

Repaying our karmic debt

Buddhist score-settling doesn’t really have to be Buddhist per se, but since the notion of karma figures in, it sounds pretty Buddhist. I offer it to you not because I feel you need to buy it as the best and only way. I offer it to you as an alternative that some have tried with some success. The Buddha’s approach to settling the score actually settles the score, because both sides are closer to each other rather than more split apart. They are closer to their true nature, their interdependence.

When something happens to us that we find really painful—an insult, a physical ailment, the loss of someone we love dearly—the Buddhist teachings train us to understand that we have just been given an opportunity to repay a karmic debt. It’s a way of talking about settling the score. This is the perspective that the Dalai Lama comes from, and I would say that it is also the perspective that Martin Luther King Jr. came from too. Many other people who don’t call themselves Buddhist but who believe in non-violent communication and finding a solution to oppression that doesn’t itself oppress also see things this way.

A very painful turn of events gives us an opportunity to pay a karmic debt. Of course, there is a belief system involved in this understanding, and I acknowledge that belief systems usually cause lots of problems. They polarize people. The belief system of karma could indeed polarize as well, if we used it to get into battles with people who didn’t believe in it. The point of this system, though, is that it works.

The karmic understanding need not be religious nor an occasion for guilt. In fact, it can allow us to act without being guilt-ridden. Anything I cause someone else to feel, either pleasant or unpleasant, resulting from my words, actions, and activities, I myself will feel sooner or later. What goes around comes around. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it comes back in the same form, but somehow anything I’ve caused someone to feel, I will feel at some point in the future. This system applies to good feelings as well, but my focus here is on the karmic repercussions that cause us to try to settle the score.

Therefore, when something unpleasant happens to me, I know it is a debt coming back. I have no idea what I did, so it’s not something I have to feel guilty about. I don’t have to know the origin of my toothache or of someone slandering me or injuring me. I have no need to go into the history of how I got here. I just say, “I am feeling this.” At this point, I have a chance for the buck to stop here. This stimulus does not need to be the cause of evening the score in the usual pain-causing way.

Instead, at this point you could apply a meditation method that would circumvent the habitual score settling. Whatever practice you use, the point is to stay with the underlying uneasiness and lean into it. Connect with the natural openness of your mind. You can feel at that point that “this debt has just been paid.” At that point, there isn’t going to be any further debt to somebody else or to yourself, no further repercussions from this exchange except further awakening, further connecting with the natural openness and intelligence of mind, further connecting with warmth and loving-kindness toward yourself, further connecting with compassion and love for other beings. Those are the kind of results that our uncomfortable situations could give birth to. That’s a notion of settling the score that is much different from the habitual approach that gives birth to terror and war.

I offer an example from my own life of karmic debt, not because it is in any way special but because it helps to illustrate how intimate our experience of pain is, and how it becomes our teacher. After all, it is our own pain, the many gifts of shenpa that our lives offer, that give us the opportunity to settle the score in the way the Buddha understood. I left my first husband in a very unkind way. I left with the children and went off with another man. It was really sudden and shocking for him, pretty brutal. I was about twenty-five years old and really unconscious about the effect this was having on him, my family, my children, and an array of other people. Ultimately, it was the right decision, but the way I went about it was pretty childish.

There’s no one punishing you. There is no master planner making sure you get it. There is no vengeance. It is just a principle that you sooner or later start to feel in your bones.

Then, guess what? Eight years later my second husband left me suddenly, in a scenario that was eerily, awesomely similar. At that point, I knew I was experiencing what I put my first husband through. The first thing I did was to get together with him and say, “I’ve said I’m sorry before, but now I really am sorry, because I am now feeling what you felt.”

Many people have stories like this. They put someone through something and then they experience it themselves, and somehow they know that they are paying back a debt. It has nothing whatsoever to do with punishment. It’s more like a law of physics. There’s no one punishing you. There is no master planner making sure you get it. There is no vengeance. It is just a principle that you sooner or later start to feel in your bones.

Always at a crossroads

This approach to settling the score is that whenever something bad comes your way, it is always an opportunity for further healing. When things happen to you that you don’t like, you can either open the wound further or you can heal the wound. Instead of getting strongly hooked into thoughts like “I don’t like,” “I don’t want,” “It isn’t fair,” “How could they do this to me?,” “I don’t deserve this,” or “They should know better,” it’s possible that you could train yourself so that the natural intelligence becomes stronger than your reactivity.

For most of us most of the time, our emotional reactivity obscures our natural intelligence. But if we become motivated to start contemplating the approach of seeing pain and discomfort as opportunities for healing—for becoming “one-with” and bringing people closer rather than splitting—our intelligence actually will get stronger than our emotional reactivity. If we take those opportunities for healing, the momentum of the intelligence will gradually start to outweigh the momentum of the reactivity.

In my experience, the emotional reactivity does not stop. We’re not talking about getting rid of the experience of getting hooked. We’re talking about when you get hooked, what do you do next? There’s a choice. The Buddha teaches us that we are always at a crossroads, moment by moment. We have the intelligence to make a choice, so let’s educate ourselves about what the implications of our choices are. Let’s break it down. We could choose to open the wound further, creating more suffering for ourselves and others, or we could choose to heal the wound.

The question we usually ask ourselves at this crossroads is, What will soothe me in this moment? The habitual response is that what will soothe me is to get what I want, to have my needs met, to get even, to straighten this all out so I come out with what I need. But we have seen what this choice leads to. We need to cultivate that other choice.

The choice I have been talking about doesn’t preclude resolving conflicts where parties have been in the wrong. If someone breaks a contract with you, for example, that all have entered into consciously and in good faith, I’m not saying you wouldn’t address that breach. Leaving it unaddressed would not be soothing the waters. The precedent would be set, and the irritation would just grow and grow. So there are things that definitely have to be addressed, which is where non-violent communication comes in. You don’t just bite the hook. You don’t just fly off the handle. You somehow interrupt the momentum.

There is something you can do before you speak and act. Sometimes that before might have to take a long time. I’ve given the advice many times to students, advice I use myself, that if you’re really outraged, type out the e-mail or write the letter, then don’t send it. Fold it up, put it in a certain place, then look at it a day or two later. Chances are you won’t send that letter. Nobody ever sends that letter. You could rewrite it, but even then you might not send the second letter either, and if you wait long enough the natural intelligence will come in. The knee-jerk reaction is not based on intelligence. It’s based on obscured intelligence. The results of this reaction are all too obvious.

As you’re acting, you could ask, “Have I ever responded in this way before?” If the answer is, “Yes, I always respond this way. This movie is a rerun,” then you’re acting unconsciously. You aren’t even acknowledging that you’re doing it again and getting the same result. It’s so strange, really, when you think about it. I don’t think we needed the Buddha to come along and point this out to us, but somehow 2,500 years later, here we are. It’s crazy.

Nowadays, we have instant access to news and sounds and images of all the wars and violence happening all over the world. We can see all around us vivid public demonstrations of how biting the hook and getting swept away does not yield good results. It is not adding up to happiness or peace. If you need an example of how the usual approach to settling the score doesn’t work, just look around.

Unfortunately, when we see all this suffering, we want fast results. Once again we might act on impulse and out of emotional reactivity, but if we look at the many examples of people trying to heal and settle the score in the intelligent way, we see that it takes time. The results are slow in coming, but from the larger perspective of natural intelligence and openness and warmth, the process is as important as the result. You are creating the future of the planet by how you work with injustice. You may not see it before your eyes immediately, but you are repaying a debt.

Settling the score in the Buddhist sense is letting the buck stop here, because the pain you are feeling allows you to pay back some karmic debt. For what? You don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that the future is wide open and you are about to create it by what you do. You are either going to create more debt or get out of debt. You could start to pay off the cosmic credit card.

Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön

With her powerful teachings, bestselling books, and retreats attended by thousands, Pema Chödrön is today’s most popular American-born teacher of Buddhism. In The Wisdom of No Escape, The Places that Scare You, and other important books, she has helped us discover how difficulty and uncertainty can be opportunities for awakening. She serves as resident teacher at Gampo Abbey Monastery in Nova Scotia and is a student of Dzigar Kongtrul, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and the late Chögyam Trungpa. For more, visit