Last week, in Los Angeles, I attended a two-evening event called "NonViolence: No Higher Calling." Part of a national initiative started by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, its brochure read: "Ten million acts of violence are perpetrated in the United States every year. Legislation and rhetoric are not enough. We propose creating social change with the most powerful force on the planet: the love and conscience of awakened citizens."
I know what you're thinking. Indian guru. Non-violence. Los Angeles. Probably a lot of New Age platitudes about love and compassion, naïve fantasies of outlawing war and global disarmament, hand-holding singalongs and flashbacks to "Make Love Not War" posters. Or, you might be thinking, "Non-violence? Is that still around?"
I have to admit to having such thoughts myself. I hadn't paid much attention to organized non-violence campaigns after the civil rights movement. The last meeting I attended on the subject was filled with dreamers who believed they could pacify psychopaths and brutal dictators with good vibes. I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned last week.
It seems that the philosophy of non-violence is very much with us, and its application extends beyond its historic use as a tactic for social movements, a la Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Rigorous research is being done on non-violent responses to social problems, and on effective ways to implement such solutions to address local and global issues. Also, many of today's advocates see non-violence as a way of life, not just a temporary strategy for achieving specific goals. Based at least in part on the Hindu principle of ahimsa, which basically universalizes the Hippocratic Oath of "First, do no harm," they are concerned not only with large-scale acts of violence, but also with bullying, domestic abuse, verbal attacks, assaults on the environment, unnecessary harm to animals, and economic oppression (one speaker in L.A. quoted Gandhi, who called poverty "the worst form of violence").
The contemporary proponents of non-violence do not appear to be air-headed idealists who are out of touch with the real world. At the event I attended, the speakers were grounded, gritty, and grown-up. They included a veteran of California politics with roots in the civil rights movement; a long-time activist working on violence prevention as a public health issue; an expert on sexual assault and domestic violence; and a brave teenager who recalled, through a torrent of tears before a thousand people, the horrendous violence she'd endured. These are warriors who recognize the harsh realities of a violent world, and whose efforts are not confined to think tanks, publications and classrooms. Even the host, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, is unusually hands-on for a monk, having traveled to hot spots like Iraq, Kashmir, and Kosovo to coax warring factions to the negotiating table.
There is also a growing awareness that non-violence is an inside job: inner turmoil, frustration, and anger give rise to violent thoughts and feelings, which beget violent words and actions; and, in reverse, inner peace produces peaceful families, which result in peaceful communities, and so on in widening circles.
Yes, this sounds like a bumper sticker, but promoting inner peace does not negate the importance of simultaneously acting on the institutional, social and political levels. To believe otherwise would be to deny reality, and I have not heard any advocates of non-violence suggest such a thing.
The Art of Living campaign has a particularly interesting feature: it asks individuals to go to its website, nonvio.org, and commit to performing one specific act of non-violence. A random sampling of the 132,886 commitments registered as of this writing (the goal is one billion) finds everything from "I commit to not gossiping" to "I will drive safely" to "I pledge to stop bullying my family" to "I will be of service to humanity."
Can even a billion individual behavior changes prevent the next war or terrorist attack? I wouldn't disband the military or call off Homeland Security just yet. But, the energy of small waves can sometimes build to tsunami-like force (think of Gandhi's marches and Rosa Parks' defiance). Besides, to quote my grandmother's version of ahimsa, it couldn't hurt.