“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation for such method is love.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I feel it when driving — that desire to get back at the person who cuts me off, or who tailgates, or who nearly hits my car while talking on a cellphone — that surge of fear and anger that causes the heart to beat faster and the hands to tighten around the steering wheel and the thoughts to turn to revenge. If I wasn’t holding the wheel my hands would be fists, ready to defend, to injure if necessary.
Then my higher cortical functions kick in, the gray matter overriding the reptilian brain that’s telling me to lash out. Anger hurts, I recall. I remind myself to breathe into the belly, to relax my body, to keep a safe distance. I repeat my driving mantra: “Driving’s not a competition. Just get there safely.” And I remind myself that the other driver is a suffering being and wish him (sometimes her) well. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” I remind myself to acknowledge and accept the fear that I’m experiencing, compassionately allowing it to be there, seeing it not as a problem to be solved but as just part of the richness of my experience. And as I do these things I start, sometimes remarkably quickly, to feel happy, to be living from my heart again, to have a sense of balance, well-being, and compassion. Nonviolence works.
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Dr. King’s nonviolence went beyond dealing with merely personal problems and was one of the most potent political tools in transforming 20th century America, leading to the end of some of the most egregious forms of racial oppression that had degraded and humiliated millions of people solely on the basis of the color of their skin.
The nonviolent approaches that King advocated are part of a direct lineage that runs back to the Buddha himself. King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who helped avoid what could have been a bloody end to British rule in India. Gandhi is the man who shamed an empire into dissolving itself.
Gandhi’s nonviolence was in turn inspired by the example of King Ashoka of India, who lived approximately 304–232 B.C.E and who established the first nation committed to abstaining from violence. King Ashoka was a Buddhist convert, giving up a lifetime of brutal conquests that had built an empire with uncountable corpses, grieving widows, and orphaned children as its foundation. Disgusted, Ashoka disbanded his armies, sent missionaries of peace around the world, imported medicinal plants to help his people, established a public health care system for people and animals, and abolished capital punishment. As H.G. Wells put it, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history … the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone.”
Nonviolence then is a powerful tool that has been passed down the millennia and that has transformed societies and saved millions of people from death, injury, and injustice. But it’s not the only powerful idea in the world, as we can easily see by reading newspapers or catching the news on the radio or TV. In the world around us we see a profound conviction that violent retaliation (or acts of preemptive violence) is a valid and effective strategy for attaining political and social goals: from the 9/11 attackers and suicide bombers in the Middle East, to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the genocide in Darfur.
It’s true; violence is sometimes necessary and justified. The most clichéd but nonetheless valid example is the rise of Hitler. At the time his ill-equipped army made its tentative march into the Rhineland he could have been stopped by even a minimal show of force. His poorly-armed troops had orders to flee at the least sign of opposition. But the European powers, still revolted by the carnage of the first World War, decided to let the matter slide, and in doing so gave the Third Reich access to the industrial tools and raw materials it needed to build a near-unstoppable military force. The rest, as they say, is history.
But more often violence represents the triumph of the reptilian brain over the higher cortex, the primacy of the fear/anger response over reason, more broadly strategic thinking, and a rational consideration of the consequences of our actions. Ironically, the example of the Allied Powers failing to act to oppose Hitler’s rise was the self-same reptilian brain trumping higher thought, although in this case the brain-stem produced a paralyzing fear accompanied by wishful thinking that ignored the clear evidence of a looming menace.
Turning to our own time, it was obvious to me, and to millions of other ordinary people, that the results of invading Iraq would be far more catastrophic than those of continuing to contain Saddam’s Baathist regime with sanctions and the ongoing United Nations inspections. But apparently that was not obvious to those who wielded power.
Perhaps the further away we are from the actual decision-making process the easier it is to think rationally without the reptilian brain-stem screaming that we must do something.
The clarity that living at a distance from power brings is, I believe, the reason why ordinary people — and especially those who profess to live a life of reflection and of commitment to spiritual values — need to voice their concerns to those in power. We’re in many ways more in touch with the world. It’s our children, after all, whose lives will be put at risk. We have to become the conscience of our leaders when they are too overwhelmed by primitive impulses (including, unfortunately, not just fear and pride but also the profits to be made from their investments in oil and Halliburton) to think clearly.
It’s a major undertaking requiring a great deal of self-awareness and commitment when we decide to practice nonviolence in our own lives — eschewing not just the grosser forms of violence but also subtler forms of manipulation, verbal abuse, and even violent thoughts. But it’s not enough that we simply practice a kind of “personal spirituality,” a form of practice that affects only ourselves and those with whom we are in direct contact. Our silence in the political and social realm is what enables governments, corporations, and other collective bodies to make bad decisions. Nonviolence — love — is not a passive virtue but one that seeks to transform the world in which we live.
So I urge all who believe in the power of nonviolence, who reflect even dimly the shining light of the Buddha, Asoka, Gandhi, and Dr. King, to act: to write to the editor, to donate to campaign groups, to email our political representatives, to write in blogs or to comment on the blogs of others — even to march in the streets. We’ve been indoctrinated to think that we are unimportant, and that our voices do not count. And as long as we believe that it will be true. But Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to believe those lies. They spoke up, they acted, and they changed the world. Let’s see if we can too.