The Science of Being Human

By Michael Nagler

I remember right where I was standing when my friend Sarah told me, “They’re massacring the students.”  It was June 4, 1989.  For several weeks I, and the other residents of the ashram, had been feeling hope not unmixed with frustration because the students who were encamped at Tiananmen Square were dedicated to nonviolence but – like those in many nonviolent movements before and since, they did not have a clear idea how to go about it.  Now my frustration turned to agony, because I had not been able to do anything even though I believed – and still do– that things could have been done differently for a much happier result.  It was when I heard about the needless death of those students (I was still a professor at the time) that I dedicated my active life to finding ways to help anyone caught up in a struggle like that to “carry out nonviolence more safely and effectively” (the mission statement of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, where I work). What could I do?

On the one hand I felt connected to Gandhi by a kind of lineage.  My spiritual teacher, with whom I was living (and did until his passing in 1999) had met and been deeply influenced by the Mahatma. I also felt that my training as a scholar would come in handy as much of one’s contact with Gandhi now is through his voluminous writings.  Of course, the fact that I was practicing meditation itself certainly helped; Gandhi was unquestionably an illumined being who got that way and stayed that way precisely through meditation, though he preferred not to draw attention to that fact for strategic reasons (people tended to put him on a pedestal already).

I am writing in February, 2014.  Metta has relocated from Berkeley, where I was teaching then, to Petaluma, a fifteen minute drive from the ashram.  We are holding "Hope Tanks" once a month and, partly from the rich discussions that emerge, are juggling far too many projects in the pursuit of our mission.  Three of these projects stand out and serve as a kind of anchor, collectively, for the rest.  First, we are working on a major documentary on nonviolence.  There have been excellent films about one campaign or another – Bringing Down a Dictator, about the successful overthrow of then-President Slobodan Milośević in Serbia, is a good example.  But our film, so far called Nonviolence or Nonexistence, will be about nonviolence itself: how is it rooted in human nature, who can use it (hint: everyone) in what situations (virtually any), what are the guidelines for using it most safely and effectively, and where to go with it from here.  We're in early stages with this project, but it already feels like it could really make a difference.

Then there's Roadmap.  Roadmap is our response to the challenge implicit in Paul Hawken's discovery that we are in the midst of the largest social upheaval in history, but also the most diffuse: more than a million activities with no single name or shape to unite them.  If only the activists involved in any of these good things could see themselves as part of a single though abundantly diverse movement, if we could come up with a common strategy that captured nonviolent energies, I firmly believe, nothing could stop us.  This, at any rate, is what Roadmap is designed to facilitate: to help the emerging “movement of movements,” as some have called it, to find itself as a single movement and chalk out a strategy whereby we could move this country, this world, through a series of winnable victories to the victory: a viable, just world that works for all – in which we all belong, to which we can all contribute our special gifts.  Roadmap is thoroughly informed by Gandhian principles.  It grounds us in personal empowerment, largely through spiritual disciplines and four other tools we suggest, points us to positive ways of building the world we want (what Gandhi called Constructive Programme), and thereby leaves us well positioned to take on the serious challenges such evolutionary changes always meet with from a position of strength.  If all works as planned, it will add three secret ingredients to the current mix: unity, strategy, and nonviolent power.

Which brings us to the third project. Over the years, I had published two small books at the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Steps of Nonviolence and Meditation for Peacemakers.  The latter, revised, is now available as an e-short on Metta’s website.  The former, completely revised, appears in April, 2014 at Berrett-Koehler in San Francisco with the title The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide to Practical Action. It presents, in the form of a succinct overview, the principles of nonviolence that I've been enabled to learn through much study and experience.  It is especially written for people who find themselves caught up in some kind of nonviolent – or at least non-violent – campaign but have not had the opportunity to study the field in any depth (and who does, nowadays?).  Non-violence (with the dahs), was expressed by a Yemenite protestor who ringingly declared at the height of the struggle against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, "They can't defeat us, because we left our guns at home."  But the Handbook encourages readers to push beyond nonviolence (and even that was not maintained, for that matter, in the Yemen uprising) to the kind of nonviolence where you can declare, in the spirit of King and Gandhi, "We will bring them around, because we left our hate at home."

This kind of nonviolence is a universal principle that we can learn to put in play anywhere, and not just in a dramatic uprising – or any uprising.  And in fact we really have no choice.  Because if we are to turn the world from its disastrous course, as more and more of us are recognizing, we need this kind of principled nonviolence and we need to understand its full, spiritual implications – what it says about us and our destiny as human beings.

In the years since 1989 my thinking about the root causes of violence led me to the enormous violence in the mass media, embedded as it is in modern, industrial culture, and from there to the basic (largely unconscious) “myth,” or worldview that underlies our, and in turn to the self-image or idea of a human being at the center of that worldview, having us believe that we are separate, material objects living for a brief time in a universe that has come about by chance and in which we are doomed to compete for ever more scarce resources.  Unless we can overcome that image, nonviolence will never emerge; on the other hand nonviolence, the fact that it works, is a powerful tool for changing that disastrous image.

We now have a real possibility to bring about a that shift in our image, not only because of the disaster that looms if we do not but because of the convergence of new science and ancient wisdom around precisely their inspiring image of the human being and human destiny.  The story that new sciences are telling us, and wisdom has been trying to tell us for millennia, involves an understanding of human nature that is so much higher, and more real, than the image we are saddled with by mass media culture.  In this “new” story we are not bodies only but body, mind, and spirit; in fact what we primarily are is spirit.  And because of this we are deeply interconnected, as separate bodies can never be; we have inner resources, discovering which takes a tremendous burden off the environment; and nonviolence is possible.

In the Handbook there was room to point to this connection, and explore that last result in some depth.  It’s the beginning of an urgent conversation and I hope many of you will join us.

The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide to Practical Action is available through your favorite bookstore/online retailers and directly through Berrett-Koehler Publishers - click here. We will also be offering it on our own site,

Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence and served on the Interim Steering Committee of the Nonviolent Peaceforce. He is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which received a 2002 American Book Award; 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.  Michael is a long-time student of Sri Eknath Easwaran, founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, and has lived at the Center's ashram in Marin County since 1970.

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This article appears in: 2014 Catalyst, Issue 4: Season of Nonviolence