The tyranny of harmony

I’m currently reading Martin Shaw’s Snowy Tower (and very much enjoying it) in which he talks about the tyranny of harmony. It’s an idea that stands serious consideration. Achieving inner peace is a goal in many religions – all well and good. I imagine inner peace is an excellent thing to possess that probably makes you a much easier sort of human to be around. I’m a long, long way from achieving it. I pray and meditate and try to cultivate the right kind of thinking, and try to avoid psychological violence as well as being physically non-aggressive. Inner peace? Miles away.

However, being a publicly spiritual person, I do feel a degree of pressure to come across as being really spiritual, especially when some of my peers seem to be so much more together and enlightened than I am. So, fake it until you make it, right? Do everything a person who has achieved inner peace would do, and you’ll look the part and get closer to your goal as well. Win. Right?


The surface appearance of peace is not the same as holding it within you, and there are some shortcuts to creating that impression. Cultivate apathy or run with your innate laziness and the ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’ outlook and you can be very peaceful about every challenge and problem you encounter. Be nice, fit in, go along with what everyone else is saying, avoid conflict, suppress any problematic emotions, smile beatifically and pretend that it’s all groovy.

What you get to be at this point is not spiritually enlightened, but complicit in every wrong thing that, in your silence and conflict-avoidance, you let continue unchallenged. I have at times dabbled in this kind of peacemaking, and I’ve seen plenty of it. This kind of ‘nice’ very precisely lets bigots into power, turns a blind eye to abuse and smiles serenely in the face of injustice. This, I think, is part of what ‘the tyranny of harmony’ means.

We are full of conflicts. Our biology and life cycles pretty much make that inevitable, and there is more thinking I want to do around how we relate to this conflictedness, but that’s for another day.

I am seriously wondering whether inner harmony is all it’s cracked up to be, whether it is the right thing to strive for (for me) and what the implications of striving are. I know, that I have deliberately sought to suppress emotions that do not fit this intent. I have put more work into seeming calm than into being calm, and as I continue to struggle with anxiety issues, I’m clearly not winning this one.

Perhaps I just don’t have what it takes to be filled with light and inner peace. If that is so, I need a different way of working that allows me to function a bit better and that gives me a way forward rather than a nagging sense of inadequacy. I know that I am no longer interested in cultivating a surface appearance at the expense of what lies beneath. What does that give me? It gives me back my conflicts, my fears, passions, desires and obsessions as something I might be able to work with as part of my path, rather than things to try and get rid of.

Time to take a deep breath, and start dismantling everything I have experimented with thinking, and trying something different.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

12 responses to “The tyranny of harmony

  • Hilde

    I love this. And I think you are so right. After many years of being ‘spiritual’, I have come to the conclusion that radical self-acceptance gets me a whole lot further (and brings me a lot more peace) than striving to be different – in whatever way.
    My guiding spirits have told me repeatedly to turn towards any emotion. To step towards it and into it. To offer up my resistance. And that way, emotions begin to flow and soon dissipate. It’s not easy, and it takes courage, but when I can manage it, it is a lot less stressful than trying to hold it all down.

  • Little Green Footsteps

    This is so so true. I can’t tell you how much this has hit the nail on the head for me. At this very moment I’m resigning myself to the fact that conflict is inevitable, but it’s how we choose to go about dealing with it that shows who we really are.
    And I’m there with the innate laziness… 😒 huge social avoidance mechanism in this house! xx

  • treegod

    I think the “inner peace” you talk of can actually hide a lot of violence. I think of harmony not as the absense of conflict but as its transformation. I think of anger as “available energy”, which means it just needs grounding into something constructive, which takes an inner focus, balance and discipline, not just amiability and passivity. Part of my practice of that is with aikido, a martial art of peace and harmony that requres d

  • Éilis Niamh

    Hey Nimue, I’ve found that sitting with the difficult emotion and anxiety, confronting the conflicts, and showing up in the world brings inner peace. Not the surface nonsense you’ve so eloquently written against, but a state of being which lies at the center of what you do. I don’t have inner peace all the time, but find it more often than any other time in my life. It’s a knowing that I am the light and never have to search for it. It is a growing belief which I feel viscerally that I, and everyone else in this world, is worth love and belonging. It’s *not* passive. I can act, possibly even more effectively, from this inner stillness than I could if I completely identified with the pinball emotions and frenetic circumstances around me which I am responsible for dealing with. Laziness and apathy lead to separateness, and that makes such centeredness impossible. It’s more like breaking open than shutting up tight. Seriously, I’d just recommend never fighting what is, ever. You can change it after you first accept it is happening. If you’re angry and hurt, don’t fight what is and feel like you should be happy and cheerful. If you’re anxious, don’t fight what is and deny it or force yourself into false calm. If someone’s treating you like crap, don’t fight what is, do what you need to do and stand up for yourself and walk away if necessary– if you sit there and peacefully take it, you’re pretending there’s some other situation in front of you. Not fighting what is doesn’t mean don’t ever fight or have conflicts, it just means let go, accept, act. And if you do this several times a day, you’ll start having that stillness at the center, regardless of what others think or how spiritual you are. 🙂 At least, this has worked wonders for me.

  • druidcat

    I’m reading ‘Cave in the Snow’ by Tenzin Palmo at the moment – and heartily recommend it. Not only because it makes me think of such topics as this (gotta love synchronicity!) but because while it reminds me why I’m not a Buddhist, it inspires through the actions of a quite amazing individual. Do seek if you can, very thought-provoking and so worth reading 🙂 x

  • Erin Lund Johnson

    Perhaps a more useful inner peace or harmony is the kind which lets us re-center ourselves when strong emotion, trauma, anxiety, depression, or shock knock us off-balance, off of our centers, so that we can respond authentically and effectively to the situations we find ourselves facing, from a position of balanced inner strength, rather than a place of off-centered knee-jerk reaction. Balanced harmony can then help us keep that strength while also being a sensitive barometer of what is happening both inside and around us, so our senses are not dulled by being over-stretched by our own involvement in our personal traumas, again, so that we can truly see and hear and understand, and authentically respond. Whatever peace and harmony we cultivate must let us respond fully, and not dampen our ability to participate in actively creating and maintaining the peace and harmony in the world around us. We cannot forgo the latter in search of the former, or it will have served no real or meaningful purpose.

    • Nimue Brown

      I really like that line of thought. I can see the vast usefulness of rebalancing as a skill, and the necessity of calm spaces to draw breath – trying to live there doesn’t work so well.

  • Nimue Brown

    Thank you everyone for sharing, and really opening this issue out for me. Lot’s to explore.

  • julieapritchard

    A very potent post for me at the moment thank you! I have just let go someone I thought cared about me, because I spoke out for something I believe in, which they didn’t like. ‘Know Thyself’ may be important, ‘Be true to yourself’ even more so.

  • inanna

    “Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all the others behind. In the process of discovering our true nature, the journey goes down, not up. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move towards turbulence and doubt. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain and we try not to push it away. At our own pace without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of compassion. Right down there in the thick of things we discover the love that will not die.” -Pema Chodron

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