My Latvian friend Ralfs returned home this week after volunteering at the Hacienda for a month. He'd arrived with a broad smile, wearing an Eastern European-style sports coat and red shorts, and admitting to the dream of being an advertising agent. He endeared himself to the staff by running from horseflies and generally freaking out over iguanas. People still talk about the day he saw a tarantula. Ralfs was unusually outgoing and optimistic, and each day became better adapted to life in the Yucatan. His main strategy for surviving was to ask lots of questions.

Despite having become used to this, I was a little surprised when right before he left he walked into the laundry room where I do my Internetting and seriously asked how one finds inner peace.

First I told him that people are so different from one another that no approach works the same for everyone. Also, with today's fast-evolving, ever-more-stressful world, sometimes inner peace is hard, even impossible, to attain -- as when you're trying to escape a war zone in your homeland.

With that understood, I said that my own first step toward finding inner peace had been to realize that 99.999% of my feeling, thinking and behavior was dictated by my genes, the way my society had programmed me, and randomly occurring events I had no control over. Getting that straight, then I inventoried what I believed, classifying my beliefs into these categories:

This enabled me to slough off many beliefs and behaviors I'd inherited or been taught. It was a disorienting and painful process.

One reason this process can bring inner peace is because our genes and many features of our societies evolved under conditions very different from what we have now, and the sloughing-off process deals with that. For instance, we evolved to crave fatty, sugary, salty food because our ancestors on the African veld had to work especially hard to get those things, but now we need to control our fat, sugar and salt cravings. Our dominant religions were formulated thousands of years ago, and are appropriate for societies of that time, so our spirituality better would be based on new understandings of the Universe. Our dominant political and economic philosophies are rooted in the 19th Century notions that we live in a world with unlimited resources, and that the planetary ecosystem can absorb unlimited human abuse, so we should stop thinking like that.

When you stop behaving as if you were still on the African veld, and start reacting to realities you see around you, things go smoother. Inner peace.

And then there's that 0.001% of one's mentality that sometimes for a millisecond is zapped into an awakened state when we look into the starry sky, or a baby's eyes. Sometimes I think that during those electrifying moments we get a peep into whatever is responsible for the Universe in the first place. Who knows what it is, but if you've experienced it during those lightning-bolt moments, you've recognized it, and know what I'm talking about.

Once this thing is recognized, you can begin consciously seeking experiences during which it occurs. Some find it in formal meditation, or living very simply. Mostly I've found it in Nature. The more it's experienced, the more peace it bestows, and the likelier it becomes for the feeling to linger, and reveal new inner territories open to peace and beauty.

And, why is "inner peace" an appropriate topic for a Naturalist's Newsletter? It's because Earth's natural things everywhere, right now, are suffering and disappearing because of behaviors of humans doing what their genes and local societies inappropriately program them to do: Produce more and more babies, possess and consume more and more, wave the flag, brandish Holy Scripture, make war on "the other"...

Thing is, the people I've known who seemed most at peace with themselves, on the average, didn't do much of that.