The following is a talk I gave on September 6th at The Unitarian Universalist Congregation Of Salem (UUCS).
Why Adventures in Nonviolence? Gandhi thought of his life as a series of experiments in nonviolence. I’ve worked in labs quite awhile and experiments are generally well planned and controlled. My life, on the other hand has been neither. Each year I offer a series of nine monthly meetings that explore topics in nonviolence, which I fear would bring fewer people out if I called them “Experiments in Nonviolence” rather than an “Adventure”. An Adventure suggests excitement, something that gets your heart pumping. Many Adventurers take great risk just for the thrill of the journey. I’d suggest that when Rosa Parks took her seat at the front of the bus, knowing full well the possible repercussions of her actions, her heart was beating furiously. When Gandhi reached down to clutch salt from the sea or when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr marched his people, they were indeed engaging in moments that made them feel very much alive, a peak moment of heightened human potential. Nonviolence is not a passive activity, it’s alive and thriving.
When embarking on a perilous journey we rely on tools for navigation. Today we have the handy GPS built right into our phones. But for centuries it was the North Star helped seafaring souls find their destination. For Gandhi, MLKJr, Dorothy Day and so many others, that North Star was Nonviolence with a destination of Peace. I can never achieve perfect nonviolence, and that is not my goal, anymore than it would be to walk on the North star. For each time I take an antibiotic to fight off a infection, or even more simply, when I boil water for my tea, I'm killing unseen life forms, little sentient beings that are part of this great interdependent web of all existence that we affirm in our seventh principle.
It is inevitable that we will cause harm to others just as others will cause harm to us. I've met no one who has gone through this life without feeling hurt, sorrow and pain due to the actions or in-actions of another. But once harmed how we respond is of utmost importance. Do we lash back in anger, or can we learn to react calmly and intelligently in the most nonviolent way possible.
If I were to strike my left thumb with a hammer, my right hand would immediately go to it’s aid, rubbing the injured appendage. My left thumb would not hide from the offending hand that had just struck it, nor would it try to get a hold of the hammer to retaliate against the right hand, it would just accept the loving kindness being offered. Our bodies are naturally interconnected and interdependent just as the larger world is. It is this kind of love and forgiveness that we must all try to cultivate toward those we might call our "enemy".
Speaking of the UU Principles, I'd like to point out that all of them relate to the practice of nonviolence on some level.
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
All are important to the work of peace, but I’d like to focus on our first principle, the recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It's easy to recognize the worth and dignity of those of like mind to us, or even those who are downtrodden by the unjust systems our society, or of a different race or sexual orientation or gender identification. None of us wants to suffer, that is a common desire of all living creatures. As human we also find we have little tolerance for the suffering of others.
When I was in grade school there was a special needs boy in our class named Stephen. He wore thick glasses, was physically uncoordinated, was mentally slower and he wore a protective undergarment for any “accidents” that might happen. Some of the boys in the class found him an easy target for ridicule. I found their teasing intolerable and would come to his aid, positioning my body between him and his aggressors, a technique known as “interpositioning”. They would stop. Often I would even escort him home since he lived not far from me, and he and I were never harassed by the neighborhood “bullies”. Today I know that what I was doing was “unarmed civilian accompaniement”. These are a couple of nonviolent techniques used by groups like Peace Brigades International, Nonviolent Peaceforce, the Fellowship of Reconciliation to protect human rights workers, and civilians in conflict areas of the world.
But it’s not only the victims that we must recognize self worth and dignity of, but also of the aggressors of the world. What happens to our calm inner peace when we're asked to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of, say, Dick Cheney, George Bush, Saddam Hussein, or Hitler. Often peace activists are just as filled with hatred and anger as the perpetrators of war and genocide are. I was recently looking at some footage of anti-war demonstration from the sixties, against the Vietnam War - it was itself a war. I could see war in the faces of the "peace" activists just as surely as war came home in the eyes of our soldiers. We all carry war inside of us, now it's the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the pain, suffering, anger and hatred are still the same. The guilt and shame do not belong only to the men dropping the bombs or pulling the triggers, or the men telling them to do so, but we all share in this together. It is clear from the generations of suffering that violence will never bring peace in this world. We can only achieve peace by peaceful means. To do this we must first root out the weeds of war from ourselves and plant the seeds peace, care for them, water them and cultivate them. As Gandhi said in the responsive reading, Nonviolence is a plant of slow growth, growing imperceptibly, but surely.
So how do we begin to cultivate this nonviolent way of being, acting and reacting? We train and we practice, just like the athlete with Olympic hopes. As Thict Nhat Hanh pointed out in the opening reading, if we wait for the crisis or war to happen before we train, it will be too late. He also notes that "even if you know that nonviolence is better than violence, if your understanding is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act nonviolently. The fear and anger will prevent you." To his insights I'd like to add that also your previous training will prevent you. That training came from your family of origin, your early experiences, and even from your entertainment and environment today. If we spend our leisure time watching violent movies or playing violent video games it only stands to reason that in a crisis our response will be violent.
Some of us grew up reading comic books where the hero is incorruptibly good, and violence never really hurts. When Superman swoops down to capture the fleeing bad guys they are only stunned until the police take them away and there's never any collateral damage or innocent bystanders injured or killed. And once the bad guys go to jail the story ends - no parole, no increased violentization of the person behind bars and no revenge on the community after they're released. Unfortunately these stories are deeply ingrained into our culture. The American culture is a culture of violence and it's up to all of us to begin the transformation to a culture of peace.
Strengthening your inner peaceforce to do this important work can be a simple thing. As simple as just sitting quietly, aware of your breath, your body, the world around you just as it is. Meditation is one of the oldest and cheapest ways of cultivating inner peace. You don't need to invest in an altar, cushions, or other equipment, simply sit quietly and mindfully. If you can't hold still, walk mindfully, wash dishes mindfully, vacuum mindfully, ride your bike mindfully, etc, etc. Maybe in the beginning you can only be mindful of five breaths or five steps, but with practice that number will grow. This will plant the seed and begin to weed out some of the negative emotions. The goal is not to repress negative feelings, but to sit in awareness with and touch these emotions. To cry or even break down in meditation is common. Sitting with the war inside ourselves is not easy, but until we do our inner peace will be weak and fragile.
Maybe meditation is not your way. Some people really struggle with this, but do not despair. There are workshops including mine, that give you a full 8 hours of nonviolence skill building. Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication workshops are offered all over the globe and are a great way to begin introducing nonviolence into your language and relationships. Starting a nonviolence study or practice group is another option. Playing a nonviolent video game is even an option today - A Force More Powerful is a new video game (based on the movie) that allows you to try different nonviolent strategies and organizing in the gaming environment. And we always have a choice in the entertainment we choose, the foods we eat, the drinks we consume, and the company we keep. Everything that touches us is a training opportunity for nonviolence. And if the war inside of you is strong I'd suggest counseling or therapy to help in dealing with such strong emotion.
Thict Naht Hanh has worked with Vietnam Vets and suggests to them that rather than return to Vietnam to apologize as a way to end their guilt for those they have killed, to help the people and children here, today, that are living in despair. We all carry the war to greater and lesser extent and as our men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan it is our duty to share their burden, hear their stories and share in their anguish. We must all become keenly aware of the truth of war and violence. From there great healing is possible and a new nonviolent way of living can emerge.
So you may wonder, other than inner peace and ultimtely world peace, are there any other benefits of this training, discipline, and inner struggle demanded by nonviolence?
The Mother of the boy Stephen, in my grade school class stopped me one day and asked if I would come to his birthday party. I told her I couldn’t buy him anything, but she insisted that it didn’t matter, that it would mean a lot if I would just come. So I did. Even tho it was his birthday, Stephen gave me a gift. I opened it to find a stuffed toy lamb, a soft white lamb. I didn’t need or expect the gift, I already had a sense that what I was doing meant something greater. It gave my young life meaning.
In case after case that I've read from field team members of Nonviolent Peaceforce, Peace Brigades International, Michigan Peaceteam, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and on and on, is that the work of nonviolence brings meaning and a sense of purpose that is so often lacking in our modern lives. The latest statistics from 2005 show that 10% of Americans are taking anti-depressants, that's 27 million people. This is a clear indication of a lack of meaning or a sense of helplessness in the turbulent sea called life. But I'd suggest that engaging in a practice of nonviolence might be a better cure. Just think if we had a peace army 27 million strong - peace would be possible on the global scale. Sue Severin a health educator in California was so angered by the terror imposed on Nicaraguan villagers during the Reagan era that she volunteered with a faith-based citizens' group to document terrorist activity along the Honduran border. While there they discovered that just their presence stopped the Contra attacks, a technique now referred to as protective accompaniment. She was so inspired by this realization that she came back and recruited more people and then returned again to protect more of the villages. In her words:
While I was there I never felt fear. I think the main reason was, I was there out of choice...I found- much to my surprise- that I became very calm in danger. I'm a Quaker and don't go very much with "God" language, but the only way I can explain it is, I felt I was in the hands of God: not safe- that I wouldn't be hurt- but that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. And this can be addictive. Maybe that's why we kept going back.
Mrs. Ege (egga), a Dane that helped organize the rescue of Danish Jews had these words to share:
We helped the Jews because it meant that for once in your life you were doing something worth-while...I think that the Danes should be equally grateful to the Jews for giving them an opportunity to do something decent and meaningful.
I can attest to this in my own life. As I continue the adventure, deepening my own practice I feel more alive, motivated and driven than I ever have. With each talk and workshop I learn more. It is an addiction worth feeding and encouraging. My practice is also encouraged and nurtured by my daughter's smiles and laughter.
We may not be called upon to rescue people hiding and running for their lives. Most of us won't have the life circumstances to join an unarmed civilian peacekeeping effort. Hopefully none of us will be attacked by some random act of violence. But if you practice nonviolence as a way of life, what we call principled nonviolence, you will find just as much reward as the women quoted above, you might even get a stuffed animal. In 2002 a technique for using MRI to study the brain activity while people interacted became available. Using this technique it was demonstrated that humans get pleasure from working in cooperation with one another as opposed to the me-only competitive interaction. In other words it makes us happy to be nice, no need for anti depressants in this way of life. As American's we have a long road ahead of us to reach a truly peaceful society. There is much work to be done and if it's done by individuals at peace, our culture will change to one of peace and this will be true peace.
We've all heard the phrase "you are what you eat", but it's more true to say "we are what we think". In the opening verse of the Dhammapada Buddha tells us that "Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves."
May you truly have peace of mind. May you all enjoy the adventures while you go on your quest for peace - mindful to keep your eye always on the guiding light of nonviolence which will followed closely by its shadow, Joy.
May it be so for all beings everywhere.