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Renewal From the Ground of Our Being

p74 Nagler headshotThe spectacularly successful freedom struggle Gandhi conducted in India had three phases: 1) personal empowerment (shedding fear, for starters), 2) Constructive Programme, where you break your dependence on the oppressive regime, and then 3) direct nonviolent resistance (satyagraha) where still needed.

It was a program for the complete renewal of Indian society, and so it could be for ours. While most contemporary movements begin and end with satyagraha (think of Occupy), satyagraha must be built on the other two phases if it is to result in lasting beneficial change. If you think you will renew Indian society after gaining independence, Gandhi said, “you are dreaming.”

The core of his constructive program was charkha, the campaign to revitalize India’s decentralized fabric industry that was the pride of Asia before the British took it down in favor of their own manufactured cloth. Charkha was a brilliant success because it could be done by anyone, was non-confrontational, and nonetheless struck at the heart of the regime. Given that spinning your own cotton would not have the same meaning in our world, what is the equivalent for us? What is the ‘charkha’ of the modern movement?

After years of thoughtful discussion and research, my friends and I at Metta Center have come to believe it would be to revitalize the human image. An image is not concrete and tangible like homespun cotton, but promoting it would be non-confrontational, could be done by all of us, and would strike at the heart of the modern industrial system, which tells us that we are empty, material beings doomed to compete for material satisfactions in a meaningless universe. It takes thousands of advertisements a day (between three and five thousand, to be exact) to keep us convinced of this travesty on which consumerism, militarism, and all the abuses of democracy, alarmingly increasing today depend.

What is a human being, then?

On the physical plane, man is but an animal. On the intellectual plane, he is a rational being. On the moral plane, he is a power for good. On the spiritual plane, he is a radiant being full of divine light, love, and bliss. Humanity’s ascent from one plane to another is its natural movement, according to Swami Ramdas.

What an inspiring vision! And modern science which, as Willis Harman said, is the “knowledge-validating system of our civilization,” supports it. Indeed, from quantum physics to positive psychology, the scientists are filling in, from their perspective, the picture of a spiritual being in a meaningful universe.

If we want to bring about a profound renewal that can alone save us from the ‘perfect storm’ of social, economic, and ecological collapse facing us, then according to Arnold Toynbee (see my article in Kosmos Journal, Fall/Winter 2014) we need two things: “first, an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite, intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.” Ramdas’ vision would certainly be that ideal. An intelligible plan to get it enshrined in the minds and hearts of people, to make it the cultural norm instead of the story of advertising and the mass media—that’s the challenge.

We do know something about paradigm shifts, their tipping points, and the techniques of advertising, some of which—why not?—could be used for good ends as well as bad.

Millions of people today know they are not happy, that buying more is helping less, that their wars and violence are not working. Moreover, they don’t like to be told they are material beings doomed to compete for scarce resources. Perhaps they will be intrigued and finally convinced if we gently and persuasively tell them no, in reality, we are body, mind, and spirit; we can be ‘a power for good’ on the moral plane by learning and practicing nonviolence, which Gandhi insisted is our nature and our destiny; so, caring for one another and the planet we live on is immensely more satisfying than buying things. Advertisers appeal to these primordial desires all the time, and make skillful use of repetition — to mislead and exploit. How much the more powerful to do these things for well-being and truth!

So here’s our charkha: we learn what the wisdom traditions and new science are telling us, especially about the power of nonviolence as our natural inheritance. Then we find our own ways to work this vision out in practice, be it on the constructive phase or satyagraha (or both). We take every opportunity to explain why we’re doing it and how it can succeed. Make it concrete: because of human nature we can have restorative justice instead of mass incarceration, peace teams instead of war machines, democracy and compassion instead of demagoguery.

I can almost hear Gandhi saying, “victory is within our grasp.”