You’ve probably heard of the Buddha. You’ve probably heard of Jesus. But have you heard of Peace Pilgrim?
Peace Pilgrim was an American spiritual teacher who lived in the last century. She spoke often of her relationship with God, and while she was certainly inspired by Christ and the Society of Friends, she was not “part of any particular faith.” She saw herself as “a deeply religious woman who has taken the inner way to a religious life.”
Peace lived her life on a perpetual pilgrimage for 28 years, vowing to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace; walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.” On her pilgrimage, she walked across the country six times. She died on her seventh cross-country pilgrimage, in 1981.
Every day, in every moment and every conversation, Peace shared her basic message: “This is the way of peace —overcome evil with good, and falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.” She gave her life to spreading peace at every level, which she described as “the whole peace picture: peace among nations, peace among groups, peace among individuals, and the very, very important inner peace.” She saw inner peace as the basis of a sustainable world peace.
The life and teachings of Peace Pilgrim have inspired my teacher, Soryu Forall. She has been a major influence on the training at the Monastic Academy, and therefore on my life and spiritual practice. In this post, I’ll share some of Peace’s teachings. If you are inspired by what you read here, you can get her book and writings for free in print (they will actually mail you a copy) or in ebook form, thanks to the work of Friends of Peace Pilgrim, an all-volunteer non-profit organization that spreads her teachings. If you have disposable income, consider donating enough to cover your copy, and perhaps someone else’s!
Before her pilgrimage, Peace was heavily involved in various volunteer efforts. She volunteered for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and helped publish and distribute Scott Nearing‘s World Events. She was also involved in a hiking club, hiking trails frequently. She also hitchhiked and “spent about two years…working in several health institutions and thinking about the methods.” Even then, she lived a simple life, taking “$10 a week for her living expenses,” and owned only two dresses. Long before she took the name and path of Peace Pilgrim, her life contained many elements of her later pilgrimage: simplicity, walking, and a fierce dedication to the work of peace.
However, Peace became overwhelmed by having more than she needed when others had less than they needed. Eventually she “had to find another way”:
The turning point came when, in desperation and out of a very deep seeking for a meaningful way of life, I walked all one night through the woods. I came to a moonlit glade and prayed. I felt a complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life —to dedicate my life —to service. “Please use me!” I prayed to God. And a great peace came over me. I tell you it’s a point of no return. After that, you can never go back to completely self-centered living.
As I understand it, this was what Buddhists would describe as her initial awakening experience. It arose from her deep prayer. With earnest dedication, she asked, How can I give my life completely to God? This is a different way of asking the same question that my teacher, Soryu Forall, describes in Maple Seeds: “How can I give my body, mind and life completely to Great Love for the benefit of all beings?”
On that night, she became willing to give her life completely. But that did not mean she was able to give her life fully yet. That required “fifteen years of preparation and inner seeking.” All of this was a preparation for what would become a 28-year pilgrimage, from January 1, 1953 until her death in 1981.
Here is vintage 1955 footage of a young Peace Pilgrim, 6,000 miles into her pilgrimage (she stopped counting after 25,000 miles):
In the Middle Ages the pilgrims went out as the disciples were sent out —without money, without food, without adequate clothing —and I know that tradition. I have no money. I do not accept any money on my pilgrimage. I belong to no organization. There is no organization backing me. I own only what I wear and carry. There is nothing to tie me down. I am as free as a bird soaring in the sky.
If she received money by mail, she would use it to publish her “literature which is sent free of charge to anyone who requests it” – a tradition the Friends of Peace Pilgrim are continuing to this day.
Contrary to many contemporary spiritual teachers, she insisted that spiritual truth should not be sold, “lest the seller be injured spiritually… You lose any spiritual contact the moment you commercialize it. Those who have the truth would not be packaging it and selling it, so anyone who is selling it, really does not possess it.”
Here is a picture of her freely sharing her message of peace at the Santa Fe campus of my alma mater, St. John’s College:
As I understand it, Peace was a deeply realized or Awakened being. Her life and pilgrimage demonstrated the depth and power of such a realization. She averaged twenty-five miles a day and could walk up to fifty miles per day. If you’ve never walked all day before, you might not know that this is a tremendous feat. The most I have ever walked in one day is 31 miles, and I couldn’t do that day after day.
She claimed that after she became willing to give her life completely, without reservations, she “attained the great blessing of good health” and never again had “an ache or pain, a cold or headache… Most illness, you know, is psychologically induced.”
She also reported that she could sleep comfortably on a concrete floor simply by telling her body to rest:
I can say to my body, “Lie down there on that cement floor and go to sleep,” and it obeys. I can say to my mind, “Shut out everything else and concentrate on the job before you,” and it is obedient. I can say to my emotions, “Be still, even in the face of this terrible situation,” and they are still. A great philosopher has said, he who seems to be out of step may be following a different drummer. And now you are following a different drummer: the higher nature instead of the lower nature.
Peace was the real deal.
Here are some of the teachings I’ve received from Peace that have inspired me the most.
Take The Easiest Next Step: Peace shared many steps that one could take along the spiritual path, but said that there wasn’t a particular order that they needed to be taken. Instead, she recommended that we take whatever steps seem easiest “and as you take a few steps, it will become easier for you to take a few more.”
Live Your Highest Light: It is important that we walk our talk, that our actions match our beliefs. When we live what she called our “highest light,” we grow, and receive “higher and higher light.”
Live Life Fully: Many of us waste time, or work jobs we don’t believe in, or find other ways of living life in a half-hearted way. Peace kindly criticized this tendency: “Stop being an escapist! Stop being a surface liver who stays right in the froth of the surface… Be willing to face life squarely and get down beneath the surface of life where the verities and realities are to be found.” For myself, when I truly live up to this teaching, each day becomes an adventure and a joy.
Simplicity: Peace manifested a life of true simplicity, vowing not to “accept more than I need while others in the world have less than they need.” She did not have money, and, as the Buddhists say, she “went forth into the homeless life.” All she had with her were clothes (including the tunic with her name printed on it), and some items in her pockets: “a comb, a folding toothbrush, a ballpoint pen, copies of her message and her current correspondence.” She taught that the process of simplifying our lives leads directly to inner peace, which she described as “a wonderful harmony in my life between inner and outer well-being, between spiritual and material well-being.”
The Purpose of Problems: For most of us, problems are… problems. They are difficulties, headaches, “nuisances,” and we complain about them. As Peace taught it, problems are not problems. They are opportunities to grow. When we face problems as opportunities, we come into harmony with “God’s laws, which are exact and cannot be changed.” If we resist – which we can do, because we have free will – you will have more problems. The same is true, she claimed, for society as a whole, collectively. Here, too, the purpose of problems is “to push the whole society toward harmony.” As individuals, we grow by solving problems, either our own individual problems or the problems of our society.
I often say I’ve run out of personal problems, then every once in a while a little one presents itself somewhere. But I hardly recognize it as a problem because it seems so insignificant. Actually, I want to do all my learning and growing now by helping to solve collective problems.
Some people wish for a life of no problems, but I would never wish such a life for any of you. What I wish for you is the great inner strength to solve your problems meaningfully and grow. Problems are learning and growing experiences. A life without problems would be a barren existence, without the opportunity for spiritual growth.
Serving others is the basis of a happy and full life:
I began to really live life when I began to look at every situation and think about how I could be of service in that situation. I learned that I shouldn’t be pushy about helping, but just willing. Often I could give a helping hand—or perhaps a loving smile or a word of cheer. I learned it is through giving that we receive the worthwhile things of life.
Because problems are opportunities to grow, we shouldn’t seek to solve others’ problems:
Were I to solve problems for others they would remain stagnant; they would never grow. It would be a great injustice to them. My approach is to help with cause rather than effect. When I help others, it is by instilling within them the inspiration to work out problems by themselves.
“But what about my big problem,” you say? For Peace, a big problem also wasn’t a problem:
We are never given a burden unless we have the capacity to overcome it. If a great problem is set before you, this merely indicates that you have the great inner strength to solve a great problem. There is never really anything to be discouraged about, because difficulties are opportunities for inner growth, and the greater the difficulty the greater the opportunity for growth.
This is such a different perspective than most of us are in most of the time (certainly including myself), but Peace offered a totally different way of seeing the challenges we face in our life.
She taught that our prayers should be guided by the same principle, that we should pray for the removal of the cause, not the symptom. For example, Peace saw sickness as usually psychological in nature. So if our friend or family member is sick, we should pray for the removal of the psychological cause, rather than the physical symptoms, which signal the presence of a deeper problem.
On Worry: Worry is a habit, which we can relinquish. She recommended two strategies for working on our tendency to worry. First, she recommended that we stay in the present moment, “the only moment God gives any of us to live.” She observed that “the present is usually alright…and if you do live in the present moment, you tend not to worry. For me, every moment is a new and wonderful opportunity to be of service.”
Second, you can use prayer to stop worrying. Simply do “everything you can in a situation,” then “take what you’re worried about to God in prayer, and leave it in God’s hands—the best possible hands.”
On Anger: The main thing to notice with anger is that it comes with an enormous amount of energy, “the anger energy.” Most of us deal with this energy by either suppressing it, which hurts us, or by expressing it, which also hurts others. Instead, she counseled, we should “transform it… somehow use that tremendous energy constructively on a task that needs to be done, or in a beneficial form of exercise.” She mentions mowing the lawn or running around the block as examples.
On Fear: Peace says that “Almost all fear is fear of the unknown,” so if we familiarize ourselves with the object of our fears, we will fear it less. As an example, I recently realized I was afraid of the drowsiness that comes with sleepiness, so I’ve been experimenting with mild sleep deprivation as a way to familiarize myself with this discomfort. Many people go through similar experiences in meditation with leg or back pain – at first, it seems terrible, but as they acclimatize themselves to the pain, they realize it’s not that bad.
Specific Practices for Inner Peace:
For those of you who are seeking the spiritual life, I recommend these four daily practices: Spend time alone each day in receptive silence. When angry, or afflicted with any negative emotion, take time to be alone with God. (Do not talk with people who are angry; they are irrational and cannot be reasoned with. If you or they are angry, it is best to leave and pray.) Visualize God’s light each day and send it to someone who needs help. Exercise the body, it is the temple of the soul.
Recommendations for World Peace: In addition to simple, actionable spiritual advice for finding inner peace, Peace offered practical suggestions for bringing about world peace:
- establishing a world language that is taught in schools around the world
- remedy unemployment by funding programs to give meaningful, paid community work to the “employable unemployed”
- create a “Peace Department” to research conflict resolution, war prevention, economic shifts, and other means to spread peace; encourage other nations to do the same, and collaborate between all Peace Departments
- set an example for peace and disarmament by signing nuclear disarmament treaties and other similar measures; propose new, similar legislation and treaties
- improve the United Nations; prioritize the “the welfare of the whole human family above the welfare of any group.”
- create “community peace committees in every town,” with groups praying for peace, studying peace, taking direct action for peace, etc.
These may seem naive, but she argues persuasively for each of her suggestions; furthermore, in the context of her teachings, and the example of her life, they seem far saner than the alternative. She reminds us that we have far “more power when working for the right thing than when you are working against the wrong thing.”
In this section, it’s almost as if her words anticipated any possible objections we might have. Many of us live life with deeply ingrained beliefs that we are small, that we don’t matter – but we do, and she reminds us of it:
Little people of the world, let us never feel helpless again. Let us remember that if enough of us ask together even very big things like world disarmament and world peace will be granted. Let’s ask together!
Peace Pilgrim lived her life in service of peace at every level, from the inner peace each of us can find within, to the global peace our planet so desperately needs. This post has emphasized her teachings of inner peace, because that is where each of us must begin, but she was very much concerned with peace between groups, nations, and peace on Earth as a whole.
Most efforts to solve our complex, global problems start from the largest, top-down view. This is, of course, necessary: we need to reduce our carbon output, remove the number of nuclear weapons, create international policies on important issues like artificial intelligence and bio-risk. But true, lasting, sustainable peace must begin within – within the human mind, in our own lives. Peace’s own inner transformation guided her for decades and impacted thousands of people during her life, if not more. As this blog post demonstrates, her life and teachings continue to spread and benefit others, even past her death. If this depth and breadth of benefit can reverberate throughout the universe as a result of the dedication of just one person, what might come if many of us take up the path of inner peace? May our lives answer this prayer.
More From Peace
If you were inspired by any of the teachings I’ve summarized here, I can’t recommend her book highly enough (also available in audiobook form here). You can also find more videos of her teaching here. Finally, at the Monastic Academy, we did a series of talks about her teachings several years ago, over the course of a year.
Thank you to my teacher, Soryu Forall, for introducing me to Peace Pilgrim. Thank you to Noah Seltzer for editing this post.