Nonviolent Action as Spiritual Practice
This article originally appeared in Conscious Choice magazine.
This spring, New York City hosted a series of events to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi's movement of satyagraha, "truth-force," the use of non-violent activism as a political technique. Gandhi has become one of those saints from the distant past whose name is frequently invoked without thought to the nature of his achievements. When we consider the violence saturating the world today, it is remarkable to recall that satyagraha triumphed over the British Empire, winning independence for India. This victory required great sacrifice and acceptance of privations, violent attacks and imprisonment on the part of many thousands, Hindus and Muslims alike, who joined his movement.
Gandhi's spiritual practice of active nonviolence is very different from the passive doctrine of ahimsa, "nonharming," that has gained popularity in the yoga community of the West. Ahimsa is ideally suited for a situation where nobody is seeking to cause you harm. If you find yourself in imminent danger, or caught in a larger system of oppression, different measures need to be taken. Techniques of satyagraha can include protests, strikes, work stoppages, slowdowns, civil disobedience and so on. "No government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the government will come to a standstill," Gandhi noted.
Gandhi believed spiritual concepts had no value unless they were directly applied to our situation on the earth. "Without a direct active expression of it, non-violence, to my mind, is meaningless," he stated. The New Age movement in the West has allowed for a convenient schism between personal practices and principles. Among the privileged elite, many people who profess spiritual beliefs succeed within a system that violates their ideals. Among people I know, it still seems "cool" to be a yogini and vegan while modeling for cosmetics companies with shoddy environmental records, or practice Buddhist meditation while writing ad campaigns for corporations that use Third World sweatshop labor.
At St. John's Cathedral near Columbia University, an evening was dedicated to satyagraha and climate change, featuring music by Phillip Glass and Odetta. The suggestion of this event was that the nonviolent methods developed by Gandhi could be used to oppose governments and corporations that have failed to address this great threat to humanity. Such a movement does not seem to be arising at this present time, and instituting it presents unique challenges.
While racism or imperialism are obvious enemies, many of the issues facing us now are more intangible. As Buckminster Fuller wrote, "No human chromosomes say ‘make the world work for everybody' - only mind can tell you that." It would be reasonable for people to demand a far more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, reduction of labor time, immediate world peace, public oversight of science and technology, and a rapid transition to sustainable practices and alternative energy sources. A global "Marshal Plan" to reduce carbon emissions and stabilize the climate system is needed, along with a deployment of techniques to reverse pollution of the biosphere. The universal nature of such demands makes them seem unrealizable, although their logic is not hard to grasp.
When we consider the digital networks that spread information and ideas across the planet instantly, the chance for a global satyagraha movement to arise cannot be dismissed. The vast protests against the Iraq War in 2003 appeared suddenly, and disappeared just as quickly. Another inciting event, such as a war or tactical strike, might incite a wave of popular resistance that would not end after a march or two, but swell into a real movement of civil disobedience.
Nonviolence can only succeed when peace is converted from a passive wish to a constant activity. As Mark Kurlansky writes in Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, a well-organized nonviolent movement poses a greater threat to an oppressive power than any other form of resistance. As appears to have happened recently in Tibet, oppressive regimes will seek to provoke nonviolent resistors into violating their creed, so they can take drastic reprisals. "History teaches over and over again that a conflict between a violent and a nonviolent force is a moral argument," Kurlansky writes. "The lesson is that if the nonviolent side can be led to violence, they have lost the argument and they are destroyed."
We now know the earth's climate system does not change slowly, but goes through radical and sudden breaks. Glaciologists found that "roughly half of the entire warming between the ice ages and the postglacial world took place in only a decade," writes Fred Pearce in With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, with a temperature increase of 9 degrees during that time. In the past two centuries, humanity has increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere by about a third. Our continued tinkering runs the risk "of producing a runaway change - the climactic equivalent of a squawk on a sound system."
In the United States alone, tens of millions of people now practice spiritual disciplines such as Buddhism and yoga, shamanism and Qi Gong. If this conscious and privileged subset were to band together, we could apply our spiritual ideals in a social movement. We could use the techniques of active nonviolence practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King to confront our out-of-control military complex and corporate structure, and demand the changes necessary for the safety of our children and our own future survival.
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