Metta’s Opinion

Planet Earth: Too Big To Fail

After centuries of neglect, we are now seeing a lot of useful writing about “the most powerful force at the disposal of humanity” as Gandhi called nonviolence. Its long neglect deprived us of a badly needed set of tools and way of being. Why, then, was it so long neglected? Not because of a mere perversity of human nature but something we can, with difficulty, change: the underlying paradigm or “story” that has dominated the consciousness of the West at least since the industrial revolution. Now, thanks in large part to Chenoweth and Stephan’s pioneering study, Why Civil Resistance Works, an outpouring of studies by nonviolence scholars and activists, from their respective vantage points, is adding to our tools to address that neglect —and even that outdated paradigm.

I would like to draw here on just two insights from this recent work. The first is from Rabbi Michael Lerner’s new book, Revolutionary Love. Lerner points to a critical fact of human nature (again, much neglected in the prevailing paradigm): we have deep spiritual as well as material and emotional needs, that are not only neglected, they are not even acknowledged by our present culture. Lerner then points out that these needs are “manipulated by the right and ignored by the left.” I cannot think of a better summary of our present dilemma. Whatever else we’re doing, it seems to me, whatever atrocity we’re trying to rectify, we would do well to ask ourselves, can I do this in a way that also addresses our deepest human needs? That addresses them so that they are no longer vulnerable to malicious manipulation.

Daniel Hunter sheds some light on this question with a vivid image in his timely and practical Climate Resistance Handbook, a superb resource he’s made available as a free download for anyone who has recently shaken off denial about climate change (the subtitle: Or, I was part of a climate action. Now what?). Hunter talks about a frustration many of us have experienced: how hard it is to get politicians to take needed action. A politician, he says, is like a balloon tied to a rock. You can blow them a little right or a little left (usually even less!), but this is rarely enough to make a difference. So what do we do? “Move the rock!” The rock is moved when you get people to act on their values, to “change what politicians think the political risks and possibilities are for them: what their base and the general climate of opinion will or will not stand for.” We can add to that image. The rock itself has, if you will, an underlying “bedrock.” This is the general paradigm or story I’ve just mentioned. As Donald Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communication famously said, “Control the stories of a culture and you don’t need to worry who makes the laws.” And the late Mary Midgley, a brilliant British philosopher, referred to the time we’re passing through and the reason for inaction on climate as “a conceptual emergency.”

If you believe, often unconsciously, that other people are really “other,” that we are separate material beings who depend on competition and ultimately violence, it becomes possible to exploit people individually, systematically, and in time even structurally. And this belief is a fundamental tenet of the old story, which advertisers seize upon — ‘you have no inner resources, you need to buy X,’ and politicians manipulate — ‘you have no agency, and you’re surrounded by enemies who can only be kept away by force.’

The ‘new’ story that’s been trying to emerge for some time holds just the opposite view: we are evolving spiritual beings; all life is an interconnected whole — in reality, life is one. We and the planet are an interlocked system; we cannot injure others without injuring ourselves. I say ‘new’ advisedly because humanity’s wisest teachers have maintained this for as long as we have any records of what they taught, but today science is confirming it dramatically. To mention only one example, it is now known (since 1988) that our brain is endowed with “mirror neurons” that reflect precisely what we see others do or what we feel they are experiencing. As neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni writes, “We have evolved to connect deeply with other human beings. Among other things this means that although we commonly think of pain as a fundamentally private experience, our brain actually treats it as an experience shared with others.” If we could make this and other insights of the new story the ‘bedrock’ of our self-image it would inevitably render most of the harmful attitudes and policies causing such psychological, economic, political, and ecological damage obsolete. Let’s take a contemporary example.

The president is at the moment facing the prospect of his long-overdue impeachment. If/when it goes through we may begin to recover our national self-respect and badly tarnished standing in the world community. However, if people just make him the scapegoat for the catastrophic failures of a by-now deeply engrained system, it will neither be sufficient nor lasting. As Mike Lofgren has recently written in Truthout (Oct. 25, 2019), “Since about 1980, we could observe the culture industry patiently assembling him, piece by piece. The media barons grasped that his fabricated persona embodied the forbidden wish projections of millions of psychologically repressed and resentful individuals.” If he is driven out by impeachment it will at best move the balloon somewhat — until the opposite gust is delivered by the same reactionary elements, via the same media barons. But if enough Americans, not swept up in the current of scapegoating, go on to force more permanent changes that can reverse the attacks on democracy caused by Citizens United, vote suppression, voter fraud by foreign and domestic interference, etc. and can at least return us to the Paris Accords if not bring on the Green New Deal we will ‘move the rock.’

But let’s not stop there. I am a firm believer that even in emergencies, when we have to “stop the worst of the damage,” as Joanna Macy says, we should not forget to address the root causes of that damage. As I write this, I am sitting in smoke-poisoned air and out of power here in West Marin County: I am well aware of the need to stop the worst of the damage! But I still think we should also take the time to work on the really big picture, the prevailing paradigm.

The notion that we are made of inert matter in a random universe is hardly inspiring. But one thing we’ve learned about ‘paradigm shifts,’ an otherwise mysterious process, is that obsolete stories can only be challenged and replaced by a better one. As Buckminster Fuller says, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing obsolete.”

The essential ingredients of this new reality have now emerged in the new convergence of ancient traditions of both indigenous and “advanced” civilizations with the cutting edge of modern science. (For more on this fascinating development see, The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature (Berrett Koehler, March, 2020). They are:

1. The universe has a purpose — of which we are of course an expression.
2. That purpose becomes pretty obvious the moment one looks at evolution as more than a physical process: my teacher, Sri Eknath Easwaran, once expressed it beautifully as “the eons-long rise of consciousness from pure energy until the simplest of life-forms emerges and the struggle for increasing self-awareness begins.”
3. Our contemporary culture is violating that purpose, by degrading the human image. It has by now reached the point where, as religion scholar Huston Smith recently said, “we haven’t a clue as to who we are.”
4. “Suffering has a cause,” the Buddha would say: this degradation is the cause for the otherwise unthinkable fact that we are approaching self-annihilation. However . . .
5. Precisely because we ourselves are causing this, we can also reverse it. There is no reason to think that evolution is over or that we are incapable of influencing its direction.

All this brings us back to nonviolence, and especially, in my view, to Gandhi.

Everything he said and did, whether he was talking to a child at the ashram, a vast crowd, or the Viceroy of India, whether he was examining new technologies for village industry, getting arrested for “sedition,” or taking tea with His Majesty the King Emperor, his ulterior motive was to uplift the human image. When he said that all his activities derived from his “insatiable love of mankind,” this is one way that love was expressed. This was the motivation that drove him to activity in every sector of life, from spirituality to healthcare to political freedom. His “psychologically repressed and resentful individuals” were cowed into the illusion of helplessness under the British bayonets; ours are made to not believe in themselves by a degrading cultural narrative and the power-holders who deceitfully use it to what they think is their own advantage.

What can we do to carry on his project in our own setting?

This question has occupied me for some time. Decades back I came up with a list of five steps every individual can take. I received much encouragement from none other than the late Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication (which of course overlaps with nonviolence proper), and these steps were then fine-tuned in many conversations with friends and colleagues:

1. Exercise extreme caution with the commercial mass media. Today you can shun them entirely, as there are many alternative sources of news and entertainment that are much healthier.
2. The healthiest way to overcome their demoralizing message is to learn everything you can about nonviolence. This is why I mentioned at the outset of this article that there are vastly more resources now with which to do this.
3. Consider taking up a spiritual practice (if you don’t have one already). In my experience, and that of many others, meditation can give us a sense of purpose and a growing sense of our connectedness with the rest of existence. It gives us a tool, moreover, to convert negative drives like fear and anger to creative use — a sine qua non of successful nonviolent action.
4. Build community: be personal with everyone in all your interactions; resist the allure of social media that has driven us so far apart — a condition that oppressors love to exploit. (Steps 1-3 position you do this very successfully; then all four position you for what follows).
5. Find where your particular capacities answer to one or more of society’s pressing needs, and get active. Learning about nonviolence will help you do this successfully as well. And wherever you get a chance, explain why: tell your own version of the new story.

Paradigms don’t change by themselves, no matter how suffocating and dangerous they’ve become. They change when there’s an attractive alternative available and people here there and everywhere are quietly espousing it.

Educators For Nonviolence

Here at the Metta Center, we have a special fondness for teachers. Michael was a professor at UC Berkeley for over 40 years, and experienced firsthand how formal education was not fulfilling the potential of its transformative power. 

As the school year begins anew, we are pleased to announce the re-launch of Educators for Nonviolence (EFNV), our resource portal for educators that Metta first inaugurated back in 2004.

We have redesigned and updated our EFNV website, adding a host of new resources for creating harmony in the classroom and furnishing students with an age-appropriate introduction to that all-important, inspiring field of nonviolence. You’ll find tools and support across a wide range of topics including Restorative Justice and collaborative learning.  You’ll also find support for your own ongoing education in nonviolence.

As part of EFNV’s re-launch, we have also created a new online course specifically for teachers: Nonviolence 101: Crash Course for Educators. Completion of the course will qualify you for 1 CEU, and includes a 30 minute consultation with the Metta Center.

In developing the course, we surveyed teachers and discovered some essential information: most educators have no time for self-development, and many teachers are actively looking for ways to bring the principles of nonviolence into their classrooms.  We created our course with these things in mind. 

Nonviolence 101: Crash Course for Educators is teacher-focused.  The journey of nonviolence begins from within, and we frame the course around a teacher’s personal learning of nonviolence. We also provide practices focused on resilience and self-care, as we are aware of how much of themselves educators consistently give to others.  The course is also designed in bite-sized sections that can be completed quickly, with plenty of resources to come back to and explore further.

Finally, the course includes multiple lesson plans that correlate with each section of the course, so that teachers can bring the fruits of their own experiences with nonviolence to their students and classrooms.

If you are a teacher of any kind, know a teacher, or have a teacher, make sure to share these resources.  At the heart of this re-launch of Educators for Nonviolence is our commitment to creating community and being in shared dialogue together.

Please let us know how these resources are serving you! We’d love to hear how you and/or you friends and family are putting them to use. You can reach us at: info@mettacenter.org

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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-Gandhi (Young India, September 24, 1921) 

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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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