Monday, October 28, 2013

Fighting For Calmness in a Violent World

Activist Dr. Michael Nagler, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, USA, talks about the need for peace and spirituality in these turbulent times
By Shevlin Sebastian
A Native American Indian tells his grandson, “I fear I have two wolves inside of me. One is an extremely gentle beast and the other is a vicious one.”

The child says, “Which of these wolves is going to win?”

The one that I feed,” said the grandfather.
This anecdote is recounted by Dr. Michael Nagler, Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. “It is a choice between two wolves,” says Nagler. “Do we continue to feed our materialistic and acquisitive nature, or are we going to try to discover our spiritual nature?”
Nagler got interested in spirituality when he met the Kerala-born spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran (1910-99) at Berkeley in 1966. “I was impressed by Easwaran's calm and wisdom, so I accepted him as my guru,” says Nagler, who had come to Kerala to visit Easwaran's ancestral home, near Palakkad. “Apart from meditation, Easwaran introduced me to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.”
Inspired, Nagler began a programme called Peace and Conflict Studies at the university, which is still going strong. However, the distressing news is that, today, peace remains elusive all over the world. Instead, there is widespread violence and wars.
And these wars have a high human cost. Around three years ago, America passed a point where more servicemen committed suicide than have been killed in combat. “When you listened to these men, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, before they took their lives, they said that they they had lost their souls,” says Nagler. “It is not easy to kill another human being. Their deepest selves says, 'Don't kill. But the people around them were saying, 'Kill', 'Kill', 'Kill'. And so they were torn apart. They could not live with themselves any more.”
That is why the British Navy gives rum to their sailors before a battle, so that they can kill. “They have to suppress a natural sense of connection, and unity with others,” says Nagler. “In the US, military psychologists learnt to overcome this inhibition by making the soldiers play war games on video, where they enjoyed destroying the 'other'.”
The idea that the 'other' is an enemy has been fed by materialism and the mass media. “The media has made powerful this idea that we are material beings, who are competing with each other for scarce resources,” says Nagler. “In fact, one of the main projects of the peace movement, in which I am involved, is to change that story. To get back to the old idea that we are spiritual beings encased in a body.”
But lacking spiritual resources, many people resort to violence, especially in the USA, where religion is in precipitous decline. “All my close friends say that when they leave the US, they breathe a sigh of relief,” says Nagler. “Because there is always an undercurrent of tension and violence in their daily lives.”
But there is violence in other countries, including India, as well. “The violence that happens in India is because of over-crowding and economic disparity,” says Nagler. “But, above all, what is doing the damage is Bollywood. Hindi films have a powerful access to people's consciousness. They show an image of human beings, which is trivialised, with violence being made light of. In many films, grotesque ludicrous violence is presented in a sanitised way so that you never see the pain.”
Nagler has had painful disappointments, too, especially when he embarked on a peace mission in the Middle East. “Israel is an oppressor in Palestine,” says Nagler, a Jew. “They are terrified of what happened to them during the second world war. So they are acting through a cloud of irrationality. To make your country into a fortress state and to kill every terrorist who tries to enter is not going to work.”
Israel should think of itself as a Middle Eastern country, and not an island of Europe planted in the middle of the Middle East. “That is how the Israelis think,” says Nagler. “I have relatives there, and can vouch for that. It gives them a sense of superiority, which infuriates their neighbours. The people of the Middle East wants respect for their religion and to be treated as brothers. But the Israelis will not do that.”
The way out, says Nagler, is for people on both sides, who are not living in this miasma, to contact one another and build up relationships and practise non-violence.
At heart, Nagler is a firm believer in non-violence and is the Founder-President of the Metta Center for Non-Violence. In fact, his 2002 American Book Award winner is called, 'The Search for a Non-Violent Future'. He has also conducted courses in non-violence. “I am very optimistic that there can be a non-violent future,” says Nagler. “I believe that it is the only kind of future we are going to have. If we don't turn non-violent then we are not going to have a future.”

One way to have a future is through spirituality. “Peace can be got through meditation,” he says. “We discover slowly and surely our deepest self. The more we discover this, the more we know it is in others. The deepest self is pure consciousness. You slow down the mind and the consciousness shines through.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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