“Basic Training” for Spiritual Warriors

Dec 2, 2018 by

By Michael N. Nagler   TheShiftNetwork

Activist, eco-philosopher, and author Joanna Macy talks about three tasks we need to do to bring in a world of spiritual progress: create new institutions, change the culture, and stop the worst of the damage. At the Metta Center for Nonviolence, 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 one 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.” More recently, Judy Cannato brought this truism 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?”[2]

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, 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 it.

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 if anything is 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 biweekly program, “Nonviolence Radio.” And now, the next four can be called “in with the new.”

2) Learn everything you can about nonviolence. Nonviolence, it turns out, is an extraordinarily rich subject. Its theory, history, and methodology are inspiring, and a powerful antidote to today’s demoralization. Today, while it has made 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, or low in hope for a meaningful future with this awareness, we’d be living in a very different world.

3) 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 teaching the meditation course at Berkeley I would tell the students that most other courses they’ll be taking 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.

4) 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. By doing so, we are laying the foundation of MLK’s “beloved community.”

5) Be the new story.[3] 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 what Einstein called our “task” of realizing the unity of life. With a bit of self-knowledge (another important byproduct 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 out in the world around us. Look within and ask, what’s my best contribution; then look around and ask, okay, what does the community and the world need most? How do they match up?

Let me add, however, 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 paradigms change: when “early adopters” say and do the things that call forth 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 6-point scheme; cf. his The Living Universe, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009) p. 159.

[2] Field of Compassion: How the New Cosmology Is Transforming Spiritual Life, (Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN, 2010), p. 15. Quoting Bill Harris in her chapter, “The Significance of Story.” Harris adds, “Your brain [I think he means your mind] takes whatever you focus on as an invitation to make it happen.”

[3] 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.

Michael N. Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

His book, The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World, was winner of the 2002 American Book Award.

His most recent book, The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action, advocates nonviolence as the most effective approach to bringing about social change, not simply the most ethical.


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This article appears in:
2018 Catalyst, Issue 24: Sacred Moments

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