Compassionate Design

Originally published as “September 11 and Satyagraha” on on September 8, 2011

by Michael N. Nagler

As the news of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination spread through India on the first day of February, 1948, an American journalist was stunned by the intensity of the grief swirling around him.  An Indian friend explained to him, “You see, the people believe there was a mirror in the Mahatma in which they could see the best they were capable of; and now they fear that the mirror has been shattered.”


Well, if so, it is time to pick up the pieces.

Many people are already doing so. Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest lists countless projects that could be pieces of a Gandhian “constructive program.”   What’s missing is the frame.


As early as 1909, when he wrote his classic Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Gandhi seems to have known that even his plan to rescue India from the greatest empire the world had ever known — without using its methods — was part of something even greater: to rescue the modern world itself from its creed (even then outworn) of materialism, the “economy of wants,” the disempowerment and acquiescence in cruelty that can only bring competition and violence in its train.   Liberating India through nonviolence would, he dared to hope, create an “ocular demonstration” of the untapped power of that method — and what it implies about human nature.  For the fact that nonviolence works — which it does — witnesses to a  whole new worldview and radically higher image of the human being. He was to write time and time again that the human being can never be fulfilled without realizing, or at least striving to realize, her or his highest potential — her or his identity with the Supreme Reality, or God.  The freedom struggle itself simply expressed that message.  It was meant to show the whole world that individuals can rise to unparalleled heights and sweep resistance before them through the power of heart unity.


There is a ‘clash of civilizations’ that is yet to be resolved, but Huntington was wrong about which ones they were.  It is not ‘Western Civilization’ against that of other lands, as Gandhi’s opponents in South Africa thought.  It is what Martin Luther King called a “thing-oriented” civilization and a “person-oriented” one that is at heart of the “great turning.” It iis a struggle to liberate all of us from the humiliating image of the human being, one that’s sustained by the endless propaganda of our powerful mass media, and replace it with something more ennobling, and far more accurate.


Nonviolence as “Counter Instance.”


Gandhi insisted that nonviolence is a science, and he seized upon such glimpses of a higher truth as could be wrung out of the science of his day, for example the experiments of N.K. Bose showing that plants have a kind of consciousness.  Imagine how much he would have made — and we can now make — of science today.  Science is dramatically breaking free from the reductionist mold that gave it intoxicating successes in the “control” of nature (she seems to be kicking back) but prevented it from realizing how dangerous that control was in the hands of painfully immature people (Martin Luther King: “we have guided missiles and misguided men”).  Quantum physics, neuroscience, evolution and the life sciences, psychology, games theory and other areas: all are saying that we are all more intimately and undeniably interconnected than we had imagined (though some of us have always intuited); that cooperation has trumped competition throughout the history of life, that we humans gain far more satisfaction from states of empathy and what is called altruism than we do from “winning” over others — that life has a deep, as yet unfulfilled meaning, even to search for which raises us to some degree from depression and despair.


This new bent in science (see Tikkun for November/December of 2010) has brought science back in line with the wisdom tradition that threads its way through nearly all human cultures down the ages. The quantum theory of matter/energy, that is, of the outside world, takes its place alongside a parallel theory of mind, that is of the inner world, that was known as channika vada or the ‘doctrine of momentariness’ when it was elaborated by Buddhist scholars from earlier hints in the Vedantic tradition — and from their own experiences in meditation.  In other words, thoughts are as discontinuous as things — the apparent multiplicity we experience in both the inner and outer worlds is at base equally unreal.  The quantum nature of the outer world was discovered at the turn of the twentieth century, of the inner world perhaps five thousand years ago in India.  The union of these two great visions is poised to happen now, and that could be an incredible breakthrough for a humanity struggling more urgently than ever before to realize the great dream that all life is one.


It would be immensely helpful if we were prepared to spell out some of the leading features of our new story: 1) There is a force that has driven evolution — this much is obvious — toward higher and higher manifestations of life; in other words to the unfolding of Consciousness.  (Ironically, fundamentalists reject the strongest evidence for the ‘intelligent design’ they argue for).  It is in this all-embracing Consciousness that we are deeply interconnected, that life is one.  That is why war doesn’t work — we have now thrown nearly $4 trillion dollars into two wars where, in the words of a military commander in Iraq, “we are making terrorists faster than we can kill them.”  We cannot injure another person — or the life-sustaining system of the planet — without injuring ourselves, as can now be shown in neuroscience and psychology; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (MLK). 2) We are not doomed to compete for rapidly shrinking resources because the resources we really need for our fulfillment — love, wisdom, respect — are not limited: in some cases they seem to increase with use.  3) We are not by any means the product of genes, hormones, neurotransmitters or any other inanimate entity any more than we are of the position of the stars: we have both responsibility and free will.  And finally: 4) We have an as-yet-undeveloped capacity for growth. “So far as we know,” wrote neuroscientist Robert Livingston, “the usefulness of cognitive processes such as consciousness, perception, judgment, and volition has not begun to meet any limits.”  We have reached severe limits of physical growth, as individuals and a species.  But we can expand our awareness of unity, our capacity to serve human well-being and change the world for the better beyond the limits we take for ‘normal’.  Which is exactly what Gandhi did.


And speaking of Gandhi, there is a ‘stealth’ feature of the new story that should not be overlooked.  The prevailing story and its human image are a crucial support for policies of violence and reaction.  Indeed, these policies have no other support (except appeal to raw egoism) and cannot stand up to the scrutiny of either logic or experience.  Like khadi, the homespun cloth that seemed innocuous but undermined the economic pillars of the British regime, a sense of who we really are would undermine the present system and all its destructive features.


Love Your Enemy


As this issue of Tikkun comes out, many of us in the progressive community have been bracing ourselves for another outpouring of ‘patriotic’ rage on this tenth anniversary of 9/11; but some of us will be doing something about this grim memorial.


9/11 can also be — indeed it always was — an opportunity.   At the fifth anniversary of 9/11, which happened to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) in South Africa, we at Metta published a booklet called Hope or Terror pointing out the road not taken; and three months ago we launched a bold project to use the present anniversary to heal and repair, to draw out our latent capacity for reconciliation, and in so doing build the foundations of a long-term campaign that will confront the war system itself.  If carried out long and well enough, this campaign could play a significant role in making war a bad dream.


The project is called “Love Your Enemy: A Campaign to Reclaim Human Dignity Through Nonviolence”.  It arose from a need to give a voice to the many Americans from all walks of life who, like ourselves, were repelled and alarmed by the gloating over the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — Americans like the group that walked from Washington, D.C. to New York City carrying a banner that said, “Our Grief is not a Cry for War.” Several of the walkers were people who, like myself, had lost loved ones in the attacks on 9/11. When the walk ended, they formed “Families for Peaceful Tomorrows,” an enduring reminder that not everyone thinks security comes from threat power.


The project has three distinguishing features that qualify it, we feel, as a piece of Gandhi’s mirror, faithfully reflecting the whole picture:  1) it is based on personal transformation, 2) it is not merely symbolic (people get this wrong about Gandhi often) but engages us in constructive work — in this case, on human relationships, and similarly, 3) while getting a “market share” of the attention that 9/11/11 roused it will not be a one-off but the start of a long-term campaign.


Here’s how it works.


The core of the campaign is embedded in its arresting name: love your enemy.  Not, ‘let them get away with anything’ — that’s not love. As a friend of mine said right after the original 9/11, “terrorism cannot be condoned; but it can be understood.”  But reach out to someone with whom you’ve had a difficulty, so that you act as a personal model of the behavior we want to see eventually in our society. Acts of forgiveness and reconciliation can be tricky, however.  They are always helpful — certainly at least for the forgiver — but given the depth of human consciousness there are often deeper currents of resentment that remain unresolved.  In order to make our gestures toward reconciliation real, we have been recommending that participants experiment with a five-part program we worked up for anyone who, after getting a vision of the world we want, wants to embody that world and be an effective agent of bringing it to birth:


·      As far as possible, boycott commercial mass media, with their violence and materialism, their embarrassingly low image of the human being. Instead,

·      Learn everything we can about nonviolence.  Do not take it to be a bundle of tactics, but a way of being and acting life that directly counters, and can replace the old story.  (We’re here to help.)  Taken in this way, nonviolence is actually a culture, fully embedded in science and spiritual wisdom.  It can replace the culture we have begun to cast aside in step one.

·      If we haven’t already done so, find a spiritual practice.

·      Humanize our daily life: make personal contact instead of ‘virtual’ relating wherever possible; think of love and service as our way of being in the world.  Human contact, even if not conflict-free, can effectively replace the need for entertainment that drives us into passive media: “one good latte with a friend is worth five bad movies.”

·      Get involved in a project of peace, social justice, environmental protection, or all of the above.  Be idealistic but strategic: where can you really make a difference?  ESRA, the brain-child of Rabbi Lerner and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, is a natural.


The fourth point that unfolds into the eponymous exercise of ‘love your enemy’: patch up a soured relationship.  Start with a relatively easy relationship to address, like a neighbor with whom you’ve disagreed over where his dog answers the call of nature, and build up at your own pace to more serious disagreements. Remember, the goal is not to win over the other person, though that would be lovely: it’s primarily to win over the alienation in your own mind: as St. Augustine said, “imagine thinking your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.”


Metta is acting as a hub for sharing stories about successes with all this, especially such reconciliations, by conducting regular conference calls and a blog.  All this is preparation for:


A Nationwide Satyagraha. Now individuals, most of whom have hopefully been practicing these steps along with us, observe the following on the three days surrounding 9/11:


September 10: A ‘media fast’ and, for those inclined to do so, a day of silence in shared grief and commemoration for the dead and for the attendant violence that has caused and is causing the death of so many.


September 11: Call on public places to turn off inflammatory media and instead engage in dialogue about the causes of terrorism and the basis of real security. Have a look at the discussion points on our website.


September 12: Participate in a nationwide conversation to share further stories and plan next steps.  Be in touch with to join in that conversation.


In the end, the real freedom struggle is to free ourselves from hatred and alienation; as King said,  “I will never let anyone bring me so low as to make me hate him.”  Gandhi added his characteristic practicality by saying, “I have learned from bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as steam conserved is converted into energy, anger conserved can be turned into a force that can change the world.” LYE is a chance to carry out just such an “experiment with truth:” to turn the sting of 11 September into a step on the long road forward toward beloved community and peace.