At the Peace School, teachers tell their students that each one of them has the power to help build a more peaceful world. The first step, they say, is to learn how to breathe.
At a peace conference held last spring at The Power of Oneness Spiritual Center, Rev. Celeste Frazier brought together peace organizations from around the city to look for ways in which they could join forces to bring more peace to the streets of Chicago.
One of the panelists was Jennifer Kim, the head instructor at the Peace School. Whereas the other organizations that attended the conference tended to focus on immediate – in my back yard – issues and uses political activism to initiate change, the Peace School tackles the problem of how to bring peace to our streets from individual and global perspectives.
The Peace School has worked for world peace from its headquarters on the North side of Chicago for forty years. It is a United Peace Messenger, recognized by the U.N. for its “significant and concrete contributions” to peace.
In the interview below, I asked Mrs. Kim about her work, the philosophy of the Peace School, and the technology of peace.
How did the Peace School get started?
The Peace School was started in Chicago in 1972. The founder, Grand master Myungsu Y.S. Kim, my late father-in-law, was from Korea and was into martial arts and meditation.
He came to yoga through his own health problems that he had as a young man. He was practicing all these arts for their original purpose which was to create a strong body and mind in order to do something good for the world. So, he found these practices and realized that they could be used for an inner foundation for building peace on a grander scale.
His goal was always to try to find ways to build peace in the world. That’s why he decided to leave his life in Korea behind to come here to the United States. If peace is ever to really happen throughout the world, he felt that it would begin in United States because all cultures, ethnicities, races and nationalities are here. So, that was his intention for coming to Chicago.
The school started with classes in breathing meditation, yoga and traditional tae kwon do. It’s hard for a lot of people to grasp how tae kwon do and peace work together, but the way martial art is practiced from our standpoint is its not competitive. We’re not in tournaments and we don’t use terminology like fighting or sparring or anything like that.
When we practice with a partner we think of it as an art. We say “peace” with our movements instead of some kind of yell. It’s about building peace through that practice.
Of course, now we do many other things, but founder’s background was in the martial arts.
How did Master Kim develop his techniques?
He started martial arts training when he was a boy but when he was about 19 or 20 he became very interested in meditation.
This was during the Japanese occupation of Korea where times were stressful and he developed a lot of health conditions on top of each other. The doctors he saw could do nothing for him. Then a friend gave him a book about heath techniques you can practice at home which included exercises he later learned were called yoga. He used the exercises along with breathing techniques, massage, and herbal remedies to heal himself.
He was probably the first person in modern times to bring the practice of yoga into a martial arts school. This was in Korea in the 1950’s so it was totally unheard of and even the instructors under him couldn’t really get it and understand why they were now doing slow stretching and all of this breathing.
But later they realized the wonderful benefits that were gained by incorporating yoga techniques. Master Kim had many very interesting life experiences that led him deeper and deeper and finally to the discovery and the development of this peace breathing practice that we have now.
Tell me about the breathing practice.
Master Kim really wanted to come up with something that was accessible; something that people could just do without having to quit their job or change their whole lifestyle because most people aren’t going to do that. They’re too busy with daily life trying to make ends meet.
So, after many years of developing his own practice and researching brain waves, brain function, and anatomy, this is what came to him.
It’s a very simple as a practice. Peace Breathing uses slow breathing and taking deep breaths to gain all those wonderful benefits that we get through deep breathing. Then we combine that with peaceful thinking so through doing both we create the thoughts that create the energy of peace.
So the thought that came to him was very simply was – “world peace.”
So we inhale ‘world’ and exhale ‘peace’ – inhale ‘world’ – exhale ‘peace,’ so that you’re constantly creating an energy of peace and our thoughts are recording that energy again and again so that over time peace starts to come back to us more naturally.
At first, even Master Kim thought this was too simple, but once he started practicing he realized that it really does contain the essence of meditation practice, and so it’s viewed as meditation.
Since the practice is breathing based, we can use it in our day-to-day activities as a moving meditation – when you’re just out and about. Doing whatever you’re doing, walking, driving, cooking or whatever.
It helps to keep your mind open and big, bright and full of possibility; where you can see the bigger picture, so that when things do occur, things that might have really pushed your buttons before, now you have developed to where your mind has expanded. Then it’s much easier to accept or absorb and not be thrown off by the things that we know intellectually are small things – we know it – and it really bothers us that they get to us, but we can that start to diffuse that because your mind opens and becomes bigger and bigger.
So yeah, it’s so simple but it’s really a great practice. You wouldn’t imagine that something that could create peace would be so simple. You think it would be a more complicated thing.
We do it in two ways. One is you make time for ourselves each day. To sit and do meditation practice is a difficult thing for people. We do a six-week course in breathing meditation where it’s once a week for six weeks. The hardest thing for almost everyone who comes to class is to find time to sit and do the exercise. We’re just so busy and overloaded.
But what we suggest is even if it’s only for five minutes, even if it’s just for one minute; it’s okay to start with something small that you feel you could do. Even just one breath; that’s a start to begin to carve out time in your day, a time that works for you, to just sit and do the breathing.
One person might do it 25 times a day another person might do it a couple of times a week. Our recommendation is to start small but try to practice daily that’s really the key.
How long will it take before you start to notice that you’re feeling better?
It really is an individual process. We all carry around with us whatever it is we already have stored in our minds because of our thoughts. It’s all recorded. So, we all have our different, special makeup.
Unfortunately, for most of us, we have not so positive stuff recorded in our heads with a lot of negative reinforcement. We find it in conversations in the workplace, in school and in families. Unless there is a real effort toward the positive it’s so easy to follow negative habits of thought.
For most people, it’s a new habit to start thinking more towards peace than a lot of non-positive stuff that we can get caught up in. For some of us, the darker non-positive stuff is bigger and seems like all that we have in there.
But, I can say that in the beginning class, for the first week, we just focus on the breathing and trying to notice our breath. Even in the first week of just focusing on breathing and giving awareness to our breathing almost everyone finds it helps.
Meditation is really a life practice and it’s a process, so the more we practice the more we open and the more we expand. When you start practicing there’s really not much difference between you and someone who doesn’t practice.
There’s not much you can really tell that’s different until you get to a point where you suddenly see a big change in yourself, or other people see it. They’ll say ‘gosh’ you used to get so upset all of the time, but you are so calm these days what’s going on? And you might think, my gosh, I didn’t even realize it and you say, “you’re right, that stuff really isn’t bugging me like it used to.”
So that’s a long way of saying that recognizing our progress is really different for each of us, but it is achievable for everyone – everyone – with practice
I say a couple of things. The basic practice we feel can make a difference. But we’re not saying Peace Breathing is the only way. But, a practice of breathing, or any practice that brings the mind to this expanded place, is the real foundation for finding solutions to the really critical place we’re at in the world right now.
So that’s the first thing.
The next thing is that in 1978, we asked the mayor at that time, Mayor Bilandic, to proclaim a day of peace in Chicago, to create a day focused on the positive side of building peace as opposed to the anti-war, anti-violence movement.
Because there’s a lot of people who tend to think of the peace movement as a protest against violence or war whereas we see the peace movement as a movement towards peace and harmony that has to start from the individual.
So the peace day event, even though it’s a once a year event, we feel that it’s another way of outreach than just having classes. We’ve established Peace Day for people to come together toward Peace.
That’s the second thing I’d say.
That’s what some people think but that’s really wrong. If I’m always fearful, that kind of energy is constricting; it’s like closing my mind and anticipating something’s going to go wrong,
Whereas Grand Master Kim always told us the best self-defense is always Peace Breathing because you are opening your energy – and your perspective.
When someone’s going attack somebody they want an easy target. They’re going to go for someone who looks a little bit afraid, a little bit nervous, someone who is not truly aware of their surroundings.
But someone who is calm and balanced can see a bigger picture and can get that basic inspiration or intuition when something isn’t going right.
So in most cases, in a self-defense situation, the best thing to do is what comes to us intuitively. Whether we’ve learned some kind of self-defense or not, but getting to that point and recognizing the intuitive signals we get is the result of a more open and expanded mind.
When you say peace and harmony is weak and passive – it’s quiet peace that is actually very strong.
When you think of someone like Gandhi, or when you think of someone like Dr. King, they practiced peace but no one called them weak. They had a deep strength that initiated long-term change.
Most people are still unaware of their own personal ability to participate in building peace in this world just through their own day-to-day thoughts and actions and moving towards kindness instead of confrontation. You know, making little changes in their day-to-day life.
But, I think more and more people practicing meditation. I feel that there is still plenty of possibility and opportunity for this small base of people to grow and expand to the point where it becomes like a tipping point.
The difficulty is that we’re at such a critical point and have such a capacity for destruction and real devastation. I think those of us who work here at the Peace School hope that as many people as possible just jump on it and make a little small adjustment in their day-to-day life right now.
Just start. Do what you can and don’t to wait for the government or someone else to do it. The government can pass a law but if I hate you, and you hate me, where’s the peace?
So, it’s like when people watch the news on TV and they say ‘oh, it’s a shame what’s going on, what’s the president going to do? What’s the mayor going to do?’ They don’t think that they have an individual responsibility.
Exactly, and that’s part of the message we’re trying to put out that everyone can contribute to peace no matter what your situation.
Personally, I think that would be wonderful for the Department of Peace to come into being. I’ve always thought for example, that if the U.N. could just start every meeting with everyone coming together with Peace Breathing or some kind of practice like that to get them in touch with the deeper sense of peace – to really grasp what it is they’re trying to work for.
Because as we see in governments, when it gets so big and tries to tackle so much it tends to take them down into so many different agendas and it’s hard to break that.
Even in the Department of Peace people would need to get to that place of peace to really work together.
Do you think we will we establish a peaceful world one day and what will that world look like?
I do have high hopes that we will eventually create a society where peace is the foundation rather than violence. I don’t know that all conflict would go away, but the ability to resolve issues will be very different that what it is now.
I really think that positive relationships and communication can be learned through the expansion of energy. Then positive communication will start to become more natural than how we relate to each other in today’s world that communicates competition, trying to win over somebody, trying to always be right.
The more we expand our energy the more we will start to understand each other because it will be based on your father’s experience, and my brother’s experience. We will be inclined to trust ourselves and each other, to share. We’ll see the bigger viewpoint and those little bothersome things that turn into big things will diminish until they’re not there anymore.
Because of what we do, we know people all over the world who share similar practices and have the same belief that peace is really possible.