Metta’s Opinion

Meditation and the Challenge of Peace


“It is because we have at the present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any disciplines whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.” ~M.K. Gandhi

Around Berkeley one often hears, ‘If we only had a million people out there at Livermore we could stop the arms race.’ What this assessment always makes me think is, what if we had one person who was a million times more committed?

Since the activism of the sixties an important section of the peace movement has been trying to understand and incorporate an insight which in a sense that movement foundered on in the early seventies: to what extent do human psychical or spiritual conditions affect the degree of peace or justice we can achieve? Why struggle for newer, fairer social arrangements when in the final analysis greed will only resurface through them the way neocolonialism pushed its way through the world order right after the old-style trappings of colonial power were exposed and largely disestablished? Or to look at this another way, what would a peace movement look like which rose to the challenge of the UNESCO Charter’s truism that war is born “in the minds of men and it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”?

By the today, a considerable number of people concerned with peace and justice have come to feel that this interior dimension has been overlooked: it is in fact the problem – consequently, some recognize, it could be the solution. We can use the analogy of the “new physics:” As long as we thought of the physical world as separate bodies acting on one another primarily by collision we thought of the social world too as changed only by the mobilization of coercive forces. An individual could not change such a system except by votes, or money, or violence. But scientists, and their popular following, nowadays tend to think of the world as a field of forces. Some recognize that the mind too, is a field of forces, and it is much easier to see how the two might affect each other. It is not quite so fantastic that, as the Katha Upanishad says, “seated here in meditation, the Self moves all the world.”

It is, however, possible to misunderstand this powerful truth. Many groups have sat beaming peace thoughts at the Pentagon without noticeable results; veering, as it were from the apparent error of ‘politics only’ to the counter-error of ‘nice thoughts only.’ The fact is, it is not all clear how the mind and world interact or what we can do about it. Let me try simply for the moment to indicate my own view. 

Adolf Hitler once boasted that he had rescued the German nation from its economic dismemberment and humiliation at the hands of the allied powers at the end of the First World War singlehandedly in the space of fifteen years “by my fanatical will.” There is nothing occult about this. The demented power of his will communicated itself to millions of people; even many of his victims fell under its hypnotic spell. And at the same time, by the peculiar irony of the Twentieth Century, Mahatma Gandhi was moving hundreds of millions in the precisely opposite direction. When Gandhi fasted, even someone who considered him or herself unpolitical and not a volunteer in the great Satyagrahas would feel it a sin to eat. Once again, it was the Mahatma’s powerfully focused will which enabled him, in Martin Luther King’s words, to “lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”

The fact is, most of our resources lie locked up in the unconscious. Just as genetic information has been carefully protected in the cell nuclei so that – until very recently, when we found out how to tamper with it – even the biggest manmade mistakes could only injure the outer organism and perish with it, so too most of the power locked up in the mind is not accessible to us by ordinary means of manipulation. This power is closely connected with what Shaw and others called the Life Force. Our daily life – all our appetites, desires, thoughts and activities –runs off the “interest” of our packet of this immense, largely unsuspected energy. By garnering carefully the energy available to him, as to us, Gandhi was able to break through into the “principle,” bringing untold resources to do good into his hands.

In a sense the mass media are like the new tools of genetic engineering, giving us access to deeper reserves of the mind’s power than has been heretofore possible, but since no wisdom and no particular goodwill underlies the process, making if you will little Hitlers of us, by degrading the human image which each of us carries within and which so very strongly determines how we think and act. (Hitler once told William Shirer, “Everyone has his price, and you’d be surprised in most of us how low that price is.”) This effect of the mass media goes far to explain why the peace movement is making so little headway, but in its negative way, it also demonstrates that the crucial human predisposition towards peace and justice is alterable.

Simply put, meditation would enable us to reverse that mass media process: what group folly, motivated by greed, is driving asunder, individual discipline can pull back together. Where the social currents are slowly sweeping us back to barbarism we can consciously wade forward, making us each in our own way little Gandhis – and perhaps some of us fairly big ones. As Storm Jameson, a British essayist wrote gazing at the coming clouds of the “second global conflict,” all of us wish for peace, but we do not will it. Through meditation, we can will it. We can slowly recapture our will and bend its immense power to the cause we consciously approve of.

I hope I am conveying the difficulty of this task as well as the sense of hope it communicates. Thinking good thoughts is probably helpful, but certainly not the kind of force I am describing. The depth of psychological change I am referring to here cannot happen at an occasion. The battle has to be renewed every day – twice a day if one is going to be serious – and go on the rest of our life. It has little to do with pleasant thoughts or indeed any thoughts (as Sri Eknath Easwaran’s directions, here, will clarify) and many daunting ancillary disciplines have to be added to sustain this practice and realize its full effects.

In this conscious discipline, not only is immense personal power gradually added to us but the wisdom and compassion to direct it. Where would all of Gandhi’s charisma have gotten him without his uncanny shrewdness, the wonder of his friends and foes alike? By what he called conscious struggle to conserve his anger (thus converting it into compassion) he slowly brought his mind under control. This, I believe, gave him access to immensely deeper resources of psychological power; in Hitler’s case, they had access to him. Thus they propelled him onto a course that led inevitably to folly and extreme misery, while Gandhi was able to direct his ever-growing energies efficiently to good – to his own sublime happiness, of which he leaves abundant testimony, and the supreme good of society, which will become evident to us, I believe, when we gather the strength to develop the complex legacy of his many experiments. 

Meditation, then, bypasses the traditional dichotomy between contemplative and active modes; when systematically developed by dedicated individuals under the guidance of a competent teacher (indispensable, as far as my experience goes), it gives them the power and the judgment to overcome chaotic forces of the mind and of the world with equal effectiveness. I maintain that a movement leavened by lifetime meditators like this would change the balance of forces and win the peace – how soon would only depend on how many they were, and of course how good at it. 

What would such a movement look like? I predict it would: 1) devote much more attention to the devastating effects of the mass media, recognizing intuitively that unless we reverse the degradation of the human image that is taking place so universally we can never reverse the arms race or any other species of violence; 2) reverse the emphasis on confrontational style and obstruction (though it would not abandon them) to one of constructive action and education. 3) Its expressions would everywhere succeed much better at the fundamental Christian strategy of never confusing destructive policies with the people ignorantly responsible for them. In a word, its nonviolence power would be much more accurate in action and in general reconstruct the mental environment and the prevailing values fundamentally, so that all political changes would be more enduring and more positive. As Christopher Lasch recently wrote, “Empowerment would enable poor people to compete for the brokerage of political power on a more equal footing, but it would not change the definition of political power as brokerage.” A meditation-leavened movement would.

My analysis might be wrong, but in my view, only a deep change in key people who can exercise leadership – or similar small changes in all participants, or both – would direct our movement to the heart of the problem, and put in our hands the tools to correct it, permanently. Only so leavened, in other words, can we “change our way of thinking” fundamentally and create the “paradigm shift” towards a peace system before it is too late. And as far as I know at present, only meditation can give us the power for that change.

These are tall claims. I base them on my own decades’ long experience, however, and invite you to test them the only way that is finally possible – by yours.

This article is from the Metta Center’s deep archive, written by Michael Nagler on a type-writer and submitted, we believe, to a yoga journal. It still holds relevance for our current events, and so we gratefully share it here.

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Volunteer Spotlight: Astrid Montuclard

Astrid Montuclard (right) with Diken Patel, a social activist and heartivist. Here, they are cleaning up a communal area in Udaipur, India, to make room for a seating area in a cafe based on gift culture. Photo courtesy of Astrid Montuclard.

How did you find the Metta Center for Nonviolence, and what inspires you about our work?

I heard about the Metta Center through East Point Peace Academy in Spring 2018. Kazu Haga, its founder, advertised the Center’s 6-month online course to certified Kingian nonviolent conflict resolution students, and I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about nonviolence. I found the content of both Metta’s 6-month course and website striking with clarity, pragmatism, hopefulness, and vision, which are four qualities that I look for in my work.

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Happiness From Another Angle

Silhouette of happy people jumping on a beach.

In order to be happy, we need to feel safe. When it comes to practicing and advocating for nonviolence, an important question to ask is: How do we find peace and happiness?

Every day, we’re flooded by messages—in advertising, in the corporate mass media—telling us who we supposedly are and what supposedly makes us feel safe and happy. We all know that we can’t buy happiness, yet these messages constantly try to get us to believe that consumer “lifestyles” are one and the same as happiness. They also push the idea that security comes only through punishing crime. These negative messages of humankind are pretty uninspiring, so let’s bust through these phony stories with a couple of facts:

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The Purpose of Education

Ever older I grow, learning along the way. ~ Solon (Greek lawgiver)

As one who left the teaching profession after nearly half a century, suffering from a slow shock at what it had become, I appreciated these words of another departing teacher: “I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. … For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, ‘Words Matter and ‘Ideas Matter.’ While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.”

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New Story Media Savvy: 5 Practical Steps

“Windstorm, 2015!” 

The deep voice boomed from my mother’s T.V. accompanied by a musical score that could have been part of a Star Wars film.  I felt my heart rate increase just a bit even as I rolled my eyes and laughed. 

Yes, there was a storm headed towards Seattle during my visit, and yes, there were precautions to take.  But as I listened to the news anchor talk about all of the possible calamities that could befall us, I remembered all too clearly why I had long ago stopped watching mainstream TV news.  The report on the storm, and stories following did not offer me helpful solutions to these frightening possibilities or provide an even-handed outlook in the face of the unknown. Instead, it increased my anxiety and fear, even though I was already listening with a critical ear.   

This persistent elevation of anxiety, anger, and fear is at the heart of the Old Story paradigm, which accompanied industrialization, and which paints the human family as material entities, searching for fulfillment by consuming increasingly scarce resources, and doomed by our very nature to competition and violence.  

Mainstream media keeps this story deeply entrenched in our psyches by continuously forwarding stories that emphasize violence, greed, danger, and separation while ignoring the countless stories that forward a far more encouraging view of the human being that is encompassed in the New Story.

This New Story is underscored by ongoing breakthroughs in physics and neuroscience, and it a story of belonging and interconnectedness. As the New Story continues to emerge, we see that we are wired as a species to cooperate with one another, and that our deepest longings are not for material goods, but for authentic and trusting connection with one another. In fact, we often take great risks and face danger to help each other.  Yet these realities are not often reflected in the stories we see and hear day to day.  

If you find yourself yearning to read, see, and hear more stories that bring the New Story forward while also staying current with world events, Metta can help!

We are continually at work on this issue, both creating the media we want to see in the world through our radio programs, blog posts, and our published books, and through providing resources for news print, radio, and social media, that forward nonviolence and uplift the image of the human being. 

We are happy to report that these resources are increasing! You can find our current list of resources on our site. We continue to update it regularly. 

We can also offer 5 Practical Steps for New Story Media Savvy :

      1. Explore our Recommended News Media/Analysis page in depth, and check out the organizations recommended.  Some organizations will allow you to subscribe to an email list so that the news comes to you.

      2.Train yourself to become literate regarding Old Story/New Story Media nuances.  We have some great tips at the bottom of the  Recommended News Media/Analysis page.  

     3. Upgrade your social media feed!  You can choose to “follow” Metta Center, and other nonviolence organizations on Facebook, ensuring that our posts will show up in your feed.  You can also join Facebook groups we have created: Nonviolence Report Facebook Group, Science of Nonviolence Facebook Group, Peacemaker Family Facebook Group.

      4. Tune in to the Nonviolence Radio every other Friday at 9am, and the Nonviolence Report every other Monday at 10am.  We post the episodes on our Facebook page so you can listen at your convenience.  You can also subscribe to Nonviolent Radio through iTunes.

      5. Be discerning about any mainstream media that you do interact with, with an eye towards more balanced reporting.  A few examples: Guardian UK,  Al Jazeera,  Christian Science Monitor/Monitor Daily (online), but always pay attention to the image of the human being assumed in the articles. (More about this in Michael Nagler’s Search for a Nonviolent Future.)

This blog is part of a series on Frequently Asked Questions about principled nonviolence and the work of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.