Metta’s Opinion

Jonestown: Not Too Late to Learn

Michael Nagler asks us to learn the lessons of Jonestown by addressing our deeper needs of authentic spiritual community, and giving insight as to how to discern leadership therein.

 

A few years ago we had the pleasure of meeting the late, revered Narayan Desai, whose
father Mahadev had been Mahatma Gandhi’s personal secretary. When Narayan took
over after his father’s death, he told us, he had to tell Gandhi that while he fully
appreciated the importance of the work he didn’t feel he was growing in the process:
what to do? Gandhi’s response was, ‘you have answered your own question: if you
aren’t growing, you shouldn’t be here. Go out and find yourself.’

This came back to me when I started reading that forty years ago last week in British
Guyana some 900 Americans killed themselves – and their children – at the behest of an
egotistical, self-appointed ‘leader.’ I have long felt that as a people we missed a priceless
opportunity when that event happened, and we’re still missing it now. Forty years is too
long not to have learned the lesson of this tragedy; too long to repeat the errors that led up
to it – the errors that have in fact given us a right-wing, egocentric President today. A
wider contrast between leadership styles could not be imagined. But there’s a larger
question.

The coverage in the mainstream media focused on personal stories, which is all right as
far as it goes – it must ultimately be a personal story for every one of us. They give us
the answer to various questions we may have had about Jim Jones and his deluded
followers. But that is not the question we should be asking: how could a huge number of
Americans fail to see through the “charisma” of an egocentric, substance-and-person
abusing, self-serving individual who so devalued the life of others that he would order his
followers to death? We should be noting that there is a pattern to this event; for a really
stark example think of Adolf Hitler in his doomed bunker sending two cyanide pills and a
photo of his exalted self to all his generals. What does it mean?

We can get some insight from Mother (now saint) Teresa who plainly saw this, not writ
large in some shocking tragedy but in the quiet tragedy all around her: You in the West,
she said, have some of the “spiritually poorest of the poor.” We deny this kind of poverty
at our peril. If it’s not addressed, people will turn to all kinds of destructive behavior, and
often find themselves susceptible to the shallow appeal of a self-appointed ‘leader’ who
promises them some kind of meaning in their lives. David Brooks, writing recently on
the ubiquitous phenomenon of trauma, pointed out that Our society has tried to
medicalize trauma. We call it PTSD and regard it as an individual illness that can be
treated with medications. But it’s increasingly clear that trauma is a moral and spiritual
issue as much as a psychological or chemical one. Wherever there is trauma, there has
been betrayal, an abuse of authority, a moral injury. And he added, Medication can
rebalance chemicals in the brain, but it can’t heal the inner self.

To begin that healing we don’t need to take holy orders or go off to a cave in the
Himalayas: “You in the West,” Saint Teresa went on to clarify, “have millions of people
who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted.”
In our famed material progress we seem to have derailed our understanding of what we
are and what we need impelling us go on looking for fulfillment where it cannot be found
– in material possessions, physical experiences – and neglect it where it can – in human
relationships and our inner capacity for love and service.

Nor is it hard to see why. We in the industrialized world are exposed to thousands of
commercial messages a day (three to six thousand, according to recent studies), virtually
all of which relentlessly compromise our awareness of the value of life and community
by endless messages to ‘do it your way, seek your own satisfaction, buy this, eat that.’ In
the ‘entertainment’ media action heroes impress on us the false allure of violence. Yet all
this conditioning has not, cannot, deprive us of the capacity to choose: what we will
watch, how we will relate to those around us, which of our inner capacities to express, to
encourage in our children. It is only “When our lives touch those of different kingdoms,”
wrote brilliant scientist Lynn Margulis, that “we most feel what it means to be alive.” So
much the more when our lives really touch those of our fellow human beings.

Many of us, recognizing this disorientation and this poverty, have taken to spiritual
practice. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health,
the number of adults who meditated in the United States was 18 million back in 2012,
and climbing. For others of us, simply avoiding damaging media and forming a habit of
being more personal with everyone around us – especially even when it’s difficult! – can
go far to reduce our spiritual hunger, which, among other benefits, will inoculate
ourselves against the appeal of persons who lack compassion and judgment. It helps,
also, to rediscover the spiritual tradition that once flourished even here in the West.
Along the way we will find the other symptoms of spiritual poverty; mass shootings,
addiction, demoralization and suicides finally becoming rare. Oh, and in our social and
political life, the rise of real leadership.

Meaning of Pittsburgh

Michael Nagler offers a personal reflection on Pittsburgh, and how it is helping him to deepen his commitment to nonviolence.

Photo of Michael Nagler

Yesterday’s headline in our local paper (The Santa Rosa Press Democrat) boasts PITTSBURGH MASSACRE DETAILED. We could not ask for a more eloquent reason not to let the mass media rule our thinking, as it does that of millions. Dwelling on the details of the horror is a two-edged sword, both edges severely harmful: readers will relive the experience vicariously, thus increasing the high level of fear, insecurity, and rage they already endure (I am not referring to Halloween specifically), and be completely distracted from the cause of this and so many other acts of violence that are steadily tearing apart our society. The cause? In one ominous sentence uttered in a moment of reflection by my teacher, Sri Eknath Easwaran, many years ago, “No nation is so strong that it cannot be destroyed by hate.”

Though I am of Jewish origin, as Stephanie kindly pointed out yesterday I am not speaking of this crime as one of anti-Semitism, which it is secondarily. Of course it has a particular poignancy for me and my fellow Jews, but in the footsteps of my other great teacher, Gandhi, I must regard it as a crime against the human image, the semel elohim or ‘image of God’ that we are. Every one of us.

So what can we do about this? Shun the mass media, of course, getting whatever news and entertainment we need from other sources (see our website, listen to our podcasts if you wish) and do everything possible to eradicate the sources of hate that may lurk in the remote corners of our own mind. You will say, ‘but I’m just one person.’ I would say, “just”? One person is one microcosm of this universe.

For Courage & Unity: A Yoga Practice

Like every woman I know, I’m baffled by the Supreme Court nomination/confirmation process in the United States. I’ve run the gamut of emotions; I’ve traveled the peaks and valleys.

I am, like far too many women I know, a survivor. It took me many years to be able to acknowledge it, let alone say anything about it. The healing work, I only recently realized, is life-long. As I learned in Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, ”trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.”

How do we gently attend to the hurt and sorrow while also practicing unity in a highly divisive time? That’s a question I keep coming back to, because it empowers me—and it helps me remember that this healing work connects me to everyone else, because everyone has healing work to do.

Taking supremely good care of ourselves gives us an excellent running start toward answering this question. Our nervous systems can only handle so much before they go into overload. That’s why I see restfulness-oriented practices and mutual care as revolutionary: It often seems like the current powers that-be are purposely aiming to exhaust us all. To refuse to allow the toxic divisiveness to drain our adrenal glands, and hence our physical energy, is to literally take back our power. To care for one another is to shore up our reserves, not to mention grow love.

Eager to help put a halt to our energy drains and power leaks, I’ve created a yoga-inspired practice to strengthen the nervous system and invite calming responses into the body-mind-spirit. You can play the audio below—just scroll to the media player.

The 24-minute practice is gentle and minimal. No prior experience with yoga is necessary, though I strongly encourage you to consult your doctor if you’re not sure that yoga is right for you (note: this practice is not appropriate for anyone with a herniated disc).

You’ll find it most effective to do this practice with a yoga mat or yoga rug, but if you move slowly and mindfully, any non-slippery surface with some cushion (like a thick carpet) can work. You’ll also find it better when practicing on an empty-ish stomach (3 hours after a full meal or 1.5 hours after a light one).

May we carry on with the power to heal and the courage to practice unity.

Audio for practice linked here. 

My remarks at the UN

On October 2, 2018, I was invited by the Indian Mission to make some remarks at the United Nation’s International Day of Nonviolence meeting. It happened to be Gandhi’s 149th birthday. Here is my speech: 

I am so pleased and honored to be sharing with you this opportunity to honor and celebrate this 149th charkha jayanti, or ‘spinning wheel birthday,’ which is how Gandhi wanted his day to be remembered. My spiritual teacher once said that the 20th Century would come to be remembered not as the atomic age but the age of Gandhi; so I am proud to be with you to honor the man and his legacy.

A few days after the Mahatma’s assassination on January 30th, 1948 (ten days after my 11th birthday) the cover of Life Magazine was a photo depicting the outpouring of grief at his cremation, which left a distinct (and possibly deliberate) impression of otherness in my young mind. I suppose I was drawn to nonviolence, but vaguely, at an early age, but there was little opportunity to learn about it or even hear the word nonviolence in those days and my image of Gandhi was limited to that somewhat off-putting photograph.

So I didn’t really become aware of him until I met my aforementioned teacher in Berkeley, CA right after the Free Speech Movement, in 1966. That was Sri Eknath Easwaran from Kerala, who had met Gandhi, been deeply influenced by him (this perhaps is an understatement) and would go on to write two books about him and his legacy, Gandhi the Man and Nonviolent Soldier of Islam, of course Badshah Khan. From Sri Easwaran I came to understand that Gandhi was far greater than I could have imagined and at the same time, paradoxically, more accessible. As Gandhi himself said in what may be his most important of so many memorable quotes, “I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can do what I have done…”

It is nothing short of amazing how many men and women have taken up that very challenge in the decades since he uttered those portentous words. We are met at a time when nonviolence:

  • is spreading over the globe – well over one-half of all countries have now experienced a major manifestation; the Global Nonviolent Action Database recently passed the 1,000 mark in its listing of notable campaigns,
  • is growing in sophistication, with learning and the sharing of “best practices” spreading across national boundaries – student leaders of the Otpor revolution in Serbia stood side by side with the protestors of Tahrir Square,
  • has drawn in new demographics, particularly women and indigenous groups – and we remember how critical it was when in 1911 two new groups were drawn into the Satyagraha struggle in South Africa: women (again) and the indentured laborers,
  • seen the rise of new institutions, I cite particularly the institution of Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping, of which the HIPPO report concluded that “Unarmed strategies must be at the forefront of UN efforts…”
  • become a science in its own right; I assume most of us are aware of the groundbreaking study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan showing that nonviolent insurrectionary campaigns are twice as effective, take one third the time, and are much more likely to lead to democratic freedoms.

And today I am very pleased to announce what I make bold to claim is another historic breakthrough: a campaign launched by the Metta Center, on the one hand, and the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester, NY on the other: a campaign to use modern advertising technology to get nonviolence at last into the mainstream of modern life and society.

This campaign may be critical because even all these great developments do not tell the whole story. Nonviolence is at the core, I believe, of a vast cultural shift which is slowly but surely moving us from a materialistic vision in which human beings are objects, separate from one another, doomed to compete for scarce resources – a “vision” that makes violence, war and conceivably the destruction of life on earth inevitable – to a spiritual vision of unity and justice. After all, Gandhiji himself said that this was his ultimate purpose: “Through the realization of freedom of India I hope to realize and carry on the mission of brotherhood of man.”  (Mahatma 2.353)

Metta is working on both fronts, nonviolent practice and the ‘new story’ in which nonviolence is embedded. Let me share with you this brief animation as an example of the many resources we have created for this purpose.

Along with this animation (and many other projects) we are making a major documentary, “The Journey Home: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Destiny,” which we hope to finish in time for the 150th charkha jayanti. This film is central to our multi-year, cross-media campaign to mainstream nonviolence. Let me now introduce our partner in this great project, Kit Miller, Director of the MKGandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester, NY.

Friends, on that fateful day, January 30, 1948, an American journalist asked an Indian colleague to help him understand the overwhelming outpouring of grief going on all around him. The colleague explained: “The people feel that there was a mirror in the Mahatma in which they saw the best of themselves. Now they fear that the mirror has been shattered.”

Let us dedicate ourselves in the coming year to making sure that mirror is not shattered!

 

A Mother’s Courage- true story

One evening in 2012, I talked for hours with Jawdat Said, a Syrian spiritual mystic and author of the first completely nonviolent interpretation of the Koran. His niece, Afra, from the University of Toronto, had recently visited Kensafra, a small town in the north of Syria. Here is a story she shared with me:

A young mother wanted me to meet one of her close friends, who insisted on serving me my last cup of coffee in Syria. She was the wife of a fallen hero, killed by regime forces, and living with her sister-in-law, who also had lost her husband, and raising their children together. Her story distracted me from the beautifully presented coffee, in true Syrian etiquette, despite the modesty and simplicity of the house.

“One time, I saw a huge crowd in front of our house,” she said, “and when I peeked from the window, I saw my 14-year-old son surrounded by the Mukhabarat,’ the infamous Syrian security secret agents.”

She rushed outside and broke through and grabbed her son’s hand tightly and stood facing the agents. “‘Move away, woman!’ 0ne of them screamed into my face, but I was determined to stand still and kept staring into his eyes.”

Juhaida explained how she and her son were trembling, but only from within. “I could feel the strong beating pulse of his little wrist in my hand,” she said. “He felt like a frightened little bird in my hand, but externally we both looked calm.”

One of the agents then moved in closer and brought his rifle up right in her face, “and placed the opening here, right on my neck,” she said, putting her finger on the spot. He then said to her, “if you don’t move away, you know what will happen.”

She was silent, then looked at me and said, “I was willing to die. There was no way I could have let them take my son after they killed my husband.”

Her stillness and defiance made the other agents uneasy and they started pressuring their colleague to back off. “You’re a strong woman,” he told her as he kept the rifle pointed on her neck. “I’m not strong,” Juhaida answered him. Then she added softly, “…It’s from God.” They finally backed off.

I sat speechless and held my head in my hands, overcome with the details of her story, being the mother of a 14-year-old boy myself. Finally I stood up, kissed her head, and told her, “I only read about your kind in books; I never met one in person.”

 

~Lorin Peters

“Basic Training” for Spiritual Warriors

Image of art from Kabul graffiti artist, Kabul Knights

Joanna Macy talks about three tasks needed to bring in a world of spiritual progress: create new institutions, change the culture, and stop the worst of the damage. At Metta we feel that the worst of the damage has been to the human image – who are we and what can we become. Stop that damage, and we’ve laid the groundwork for all the other changes.

There are five things each of us can do to recover a saner image of who we are, whether we think of ourselves as peace activists or not. We can all do them, every day, and thus they answer somewhat to Gandhi’s famous charkha, or spinning campaign at the heart of his work to reform and liberate India. Organizations and campaigns will grow out of this kind of personal change.[1] The first might be called “out with the old:”

  1. Shun the violence and vulgarity of the mass media. Long before television, the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “the only thing we can control, and the only thing we need to control, is the imagery in our own mind.”[2] More recently Judy Cannato brought this up to date:

“the images that engage our imagination …shape who we become. It happens all the time. We simply do not notice. But what if we were to notice? What if we were to be intentional about engaging our energy in a story that we know has the power to change our lives?[3]

What indeed! When we take charge of our mind we will find we are actually mastering a power that puts us in charge of our own destiny ¾ and to that extent the future of the world. Martin Luther King lamented, “We have guided missiles and misguided men (and women).” And we know what has misguided them: we have put the enormous compelling power of the media in the hands of people who have no idea how to use the power they are wielding.

Gandhi warned, in 1925, that while “The political domination of England is bad enough, the cultural is infinitely worse. When the cultural domination is complete the political will defy resistance.” The beginning of shaking off that domination is when we take charge of our inner culture. Think of it as a cleanse for the mind, which is if anything more important than one for the body.

You may be thinking, ‘But if I don’t watch the violence and vulgarity, there’ll be nothing left to watch.’ Well you know, there are worse fates! And besides, alternative media are growing on all sides, some of which we try to keep up with on our bi-weekly program, “Nonviolence Radio.” And now, it’s “in with the new.”

  1. Learn everything you can about nonviolence. Nonviolence, it turns out, is an extraordinarily rich subject. Its theory, history, and methodology are inspiring: a powerful antidote to today’s demoralization. Today, while it has made so far only tentative inroads into formal education (not to mention the mass media!), scholarly and popular books, websites, courses, and all manner of resources are rushing into the vacuum left by the old story of separateness, competition, and violence. Having taught nonviolence at a university and through Metta now for many years, I can attest that the very process of learning about it, even if you have no intention of using it in the political arena (though people almost always do), can be uplifting and reorienting. The most practical thing it offers, both for our own wellbeing and the reform of society is how to transform our anger into nonviolent power. If we could reach every young person in America who is low-income, low in self-esteem, low in hope for a meaningful future, with this awareness, we’d be living in a very different world.

 

  1. Take up a spiritual practice (if you haven’t already). ‘We may believe in nonviolence,’ said the great Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘but when the police are dragging us away, or the holdup man is ordering us to hand over our money, our ‘nonviolence’ will evaporate if we haven’t grounded it in us by regular meditation’. In meditation – following the classical definition of ‘stilling the thought-waves in the mind’ – we are actually rehearsing what we will have to do in a tense confrontation: rerouting the onrush of anger and fear to an equal but opposite energy of firmness and compassion. Meditation is the ultimate role-play.

Whenever I began the meditation course at Berkeley I would tell the students, most other courses you’ll take here address the content of the mind, and that’s important (the first two steps of this very list address that). But in meditation we start to address the state of the mind itself, the very energy that determines our moods, visions – even, according to recent studies, our longevity. Any genuine meditation does this by slowing down the speed of the thinking process and making it more one-pointed. As the mind slows down and gets more focused – particularly on something positive we ourselves have chosen – it becomes less ‘opaque:’ spirit begins to appear.

There are many kinds of meditation available today; the one I’ve been using for many years, for example, is Passage Meditation, readily available on that website.

  1. Cultivate personal relationships. The trend of our modern civilization has been to isolate us from one another, and that trend gets only worse with today’s flashy technological substitutes for face-to-face connections. Tyrants thrive on this because it disempowers us; we begin to recover our power when we intentionally go against it. To quote King again: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ civilization to a ‘person-oriented civilization. Steps 1-3, above, should position us to get ourselves out of the “techno-cocoon,” as teenagers call it, and enjoy interacting personally with people wherever possible. We are laying the foundation of MLK’s “beloved community.”

 

  1. Be the new story.[4] According to the Bhagavad Gita, each of us is born with a particular way to carry out what Jewish sages called tikkun olam, the repair of the world and Einstein called our “task” of realizing the unity of life. With a bit of self-knowledge (another important by-product of meditation), we can find the special match between our capacities and what the world around us needs. Within the overriding dharma for all that lives (nonviolence, of course), we each have our own svadharma or personal path to carry it out in the world around us. Look within and ask, what’s my best contribution; then look around and ask, OK, what do the community and the world need most?

Let me however add an important corollary: whatever you’ve chosen to work on, don’t hesitate to explain to anyone who’ll listen why you’re doing it, in terms of the new vision of humanity we’re seeking to embody.

You’re asked: “Why should I care about immigrants (or the environment, or animals)?”

You calmly explain: “You know, brother, we’re all deeply interconnected. Science knows that, now. It gives me joy to serve that ‘inter-being’ of ours.”

This is how paradigm’s change: when “early adopters” say and do the higher image of humanity.


 

[1] I was delighted to see that our friend and colleague Duane Elgin had independently come up with a very similar six point scheme; cf. his The Living Universe, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009) p. 159.

[2] find Epictetus

[3] Field of Compassion, In the chapter, “The Significance of Story, p. 15. …takes whatever you focus on as an invitation to make it happen.”

[4] All right, I admit, I’m the one who’s always pointing out that Gandhi did not actually say “Be the change…” in so many words. But it fits here.

So You Say You Want to Start a (R)evolution?

Five Basic Steps for Nonviolent Action


 

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

 

“We will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witness to the truth as we see it.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

1. Never dehumanize anyone. Try to understand the real needs of your opponents. Always remember that they are human beings too; in fact the more you respect your opponent as a human being, the more effectively you will be able to change their unjust ways — and defend your own ideals. Harm no one: your struggle is with the problem, not the person. Violence begets violence: “Hate can never overcome hate, only love can do that” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Never harm another’s dignity — or accept harm to your own. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (MLK, Jr.) Indeed, the power of nonviolence is that it offers everyone a way back to dignity. A Tagalog word for their ‘people power’ in the Philippine uprising of 1986 was alay dangal, ‘to offer dignity.’

(more…)

Yoga Day 2018: For Peace

Today is the fourth International Day of Yoga—June 21 was proclaimed as such by the United Nations in 2014. As noted on the UN site about this day, the purpose is to “raise awareness about the benefits of practicing yoga.” The 2018 theme is “Yoga for Peace.” Who would argue for less peace in the world (that’d be nuts!)? I sure wouldn’t. Yet I think this phrase deserves some critical discussion. (more…)