Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program in which he taught the immensely popular nonviolence course that was webcast in its entirety as well as PACS 90, “Meditation” and a sophomore seminar called “Why Are We Here? Great Writing on the Meaning of Life” for fifteen years. Among other awards, he received the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for “Promoting Gandhian Values Outside India” in 2007, joining other distinguished contributors to nonviolence as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and peace scholar and activist Johan Galtung in receiving this honor.
He is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which received a 2002 American Book Award and has been translated into Korean, Arabic, Italian and other languages; Our Spiritual Crisis: Recovering Human Wisdom in a Time of Violence (2005); The Upanishads (with Sri Eknath Easwaran, 1987), and other books as well as many articles on peace and spirituality.
He has spoken for campus, religious, and other groups on peace and nonviolence for many years, especially since September 11, 2001. He has consulted for the U.S. Institute of Peace and many other organizations and is the founder and President of the board of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education. Michael has worked on nonviolent intervention since the 1970’s and served on the Interim Steering Committee of the Nonviolent Peaceforce.
Of the many people I’ve had the opportunity to interview for transform., I’ve been most moved by Michael Nagler and his deep practice of nonviolence, something which he addresses as not the action of passive resistance (which he explains as an inaccurate view of nonviolence) but as some wholly subtle in how it reveals itself.
Perhaps the easiest way to show how subtle nonviolence can be is to look at how subtle violence is. Nagler explains that violence can show up as President Bush’s call for Americans to go shopping after 9/11 or as the structural violence that’s built into systems and institutions and which eventually manifests as emotional, verbal, or physical violence against others.
Reading through the many articles and essays about Michael Nagler and those written by him, I wondered how this journey toward nonviolence began. His first response was, “that as the shortest boy in my class at Midwood High School, I had a natural interest in nonviolence.” But he went on to talk about an interest in Gandhi that grew along with his spiritual practice: “I was politicized early and had an interest in, but no understanding of Gandhi before I came to California. I thought he wasn’t quite human, and thus not quite relevant to me.
“The big change came partly through meditation itself, but that was rather slow; it mostly came from my spiritual teacher [Sri Eknath Easwaran]. Gandhi had a huge influence on his life, though he did not take that influence in an activist direction. Hearing Easwaran talk about Gandhi, moved by his love for him, I came to realize that the Mahatma was, somewhat paradoxically, both much, much greater than I had thought (than I had thought possible, really) and at the same time much more accessible, i.e., through meditation and spiritual transformation. Sri Easwaran one day quietly said, ‘That man came back from South Africa having realized God and quietly set about solving every problem of the modern world.’ That got me! I slowly began making Gandhi and nonviolence my career at that point. Later on, in 1982, Easwaran also gave me (along with some others) the impetus to found the Metta Center.” (The Metta Center, located in Berkeley, California, of which Nagler is the founder, offers courses in nonviolence and resources for educators, activists, spiritual activists, and young people.)
We have practiced violence for a long time as a solution whenever we can’t get our way, as individuals we fight, we argue, as a nation we go to war, and yet, Nagler believes that the only way for us to save ourselves, to save our planet, is for us to practice and embody nonviolence, the main principle of which is “the nonhatred of people,” which as this writer sees it, asks those who project their aggression outward onto others, to take on personal responsibility for that aggression, that they explore, move through, and address their own feelings rather than inviting others to partake in them. It asks for deep honesty toward one’s self. That when nonviolence works (and according to Nagler, nonviolence on some level always works, because of its aim nonviolence cannot not work), we are forced to face ourselves, our own bitterness, shame, trauma, anger and see everything that we’ve tried to mask by acting aggressively toward others.
Nagler believes that people can always be reached, that our aim in acting nonviolently is to both be in relationship with those who are acting divisively and to, as Martin Luther King would say, “express our anger in a disciplined manner” in order to resolve problems.
I asked Nagler about the Occupy Wall Street Movement that’s happening and whether or not he thought it might be able to both create change and stay nonviolent? He responded by saying, “I think it will be able to create meaningful, lasting change ONLY if it stays nonviolent….Right now it has some awareness of nonviolence as a non-something, i.e., that demonstrators shouldn’t be openly violent. They need to both deepen their understanding of nonviolence – to see that it has spiritual roots and is at bottom a positive force – and broaden it – to see the need for long-term strategy. As Gandhi showed, a successful long-term movement needs to have Satyagraha (or what I sometimes call ‘obstructive program’), Constructive Programme (building the society you want without waiting for permission, much less action from powers that be), and the ability to choose between them as circumstances change. [The Metta Center] is in contact with activists in NY, SF, and DC helping with all this.”
In an article written by Nagler and Stephanie Van Hook (Van Hook is executive director at the Metta Center), which discusses Occupy and the rise and greed of corporations acting no different than colonialists, they mention what functioning nonviolently means. “The benefits of what we receive in the process will certainly outweigh any short term sacrifices we may be required to make, even if that means our very bodies. In order to do it we may have to be prepared to sacrifice everything, but never our humanity—or that of anyone. Resorting to violence would inevitably break the spirit of the movement, and our spirit is what we have in our favor—indeed, it is the whole issue. Violence is inhumanity itself. The admirable nonviolence that has characterized the actions of the protestors so far will have to be maintained as the movement morphs and grows and we find ourselves in situations where how to maintain it is not as obvious. But maintain it we must, since to use violence in the cause of humanity—and nothing less is really at issue here—would destroy the very thing we are fighting for.” (from Corporations Are not People)
“A human being—any human being—must be held worthy of redemption from even our most grievous misdeeds, not because we have faith in a celestial father figure who rewards the just and punishes the unjust, but because we have faith in people.
“Perhaps the best thing about the Occupy Movement, besides the fact that it has manifested and continues to grow, is that we have the opportunity to learn from so many of the people and leaders that have come before us. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can use what we’ve read about, heard, witnessed, as well as experienced.
In an article submitted to YES! magazine, Nagler stated that this conglomeration of ideas and experiences, “is making a qualitative difference in the growth of nonviolent consciousness around the world.”
Another question that came up related to Occupy was about the core place that activists sometimes come from, that in spite of their good work and their eagerness to do good, what they do can often be out of a place of long-held personal anger and frustration. This can manifest violently when folks become impassioned about their cause.
I asked Nagler, “How do you respond to folks who have well-intentioned heads, but wounded hearts? What can we offer ourselves?” Nagler believes that meditation is the only answer, adding that “some systems like Nonviolent Communication, Alternative to Violence Project, etc. make very useful behavioral changes that do seep into our attitudes (“hearts”) to some degree. At Metta we are offering a course on spiritual activism Nov. 4-6 that will focus specifically on Occupation people.”
Stephanie Van Hook also offered that self-compassion is a way to begin meeting the aggression we carry inside of us and let out in nonproductive ways such as via protests, etc. She says, “Besides a meditation practice, these activists need to show themselves compassion and to learn from their mistakes. If they express anger in an aggressive way once, to apologize and atone for it through a deepening commitment to nonviolence as they push forward. They also need to do their homework and be ready to present cogent facts and stories to those who disagree with them in order to present the information that moves them in a succinct way. Often, bursts of unmediated anger have partial root in one’s own frustration of not knowing how to clearly communicate their beliefs.”
How does a deep commitment to nonviolence look? Perhaps as a deep commitment to the value of life and balanced relationship to others at all costs, remembering that not just our actions, but our words as well are powerful: “We are unaware that words are like knives, that we need to be skilled in the use of words. Unlike a surgeon who is careful where he cuts, we use words randomly. We make many incisions until we hit the right spot, heedless of the open wounds we leave behind. We perform daily emotional operations but we do it without training.” (Dr. Alice Ginott, a psychologist and psychotherapist)
It is not just how we act that can be violent, it’s how we are, how we be that can litter violence on those around us, often without us having any awareness of it at all.
The subtlety of violence, it’s ability to be undermining and insidious, is perhaps best addressed in what Gandhi called the Seven Social Sins, also addressed by Michael Nagler in his article, The Cassandra Syndrome. Each of them can be traced back to our current outlook on the world today. Even reading them is disheartening. They seem to be what much of what the US has come to embody or as Floyd Red Crow Westerman might say, they might show just how much we’ve lost our way.
The way back? Nonviolently, of course. “Nonviolence is a powerful technique for harmonizing relations between all people to establish justice and benefit all parties. It draws its power from awareness of the profound truth to which all wisdom traditions, science, and common experience bear witness that all life is one, that there is a unity of aspiration underlying all surface difference in the world.” (source: video interview done with Professor Charles Henry of UC Berkeley, Michael Nagler)
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