Nonviolence and the new story

Today’s problems can largely be traced to an increasing lack of clarity about ourselves  —  who we are and why we are here.

The explosive growth of scientific thought that began in the West with the Renaissance and ultimately led to industrialism on a global scale, has brought humanity many benefits, but at a mounting cost. The problems that seem to be rising on every side, from personal to environmental, can largely be traced to an increasing lack of clarity about ourselves — who we are, why we are here and how we are to relate, ideally, to one another and the natural world.

The “story” that accompanies and made industrialism possible — the underlying narrative implicit in textbooks, newspapers and films — portrays us as material entities compelled to seek satisfaction in consuming increasingly scarce resources. If this were true, competition and violence, along with the destruction of our planet’s life-support system, would be inescapable. Yet it is not true.

A shift in emphasis across many fields of modern science, aided by remarkable breakthroughs in physics at the start of the last century, has brought to light a far more hopeful picture of our nature, along with the inspiring possibility of a meaning and destiny that was alien to the mechanistic, reductionist view of what is now called “classical science.”

In this appealing image, violence is not inherent in human nature, or in nature. Competition, alienation and greed can, in principle, be put behind us. This vivid vision is not a new one. Nor is the image of human nature being conveyed by these new findings ultimately startling or unfamiliar.

For those who are aware of the shift, its recent reemergence has felt like recovering something precious that had, due to some kind of strange inattention, nearly slipped from our grasp.

Body, mind and spirit

The essence of this new (or rather, recently recovered story) is that we can now confidently maintain that we are much more than disenchanted bodies, despite the unvarying clamor of the mass media on this point. We are also, and in fact primarily, spirit. “Body, mind and spirit” has been a kind of rallying cry of those welcoming the recovered vision.

For many centuries, the sages of all nations and religions have been telling us that we are not these mere bodies, marvelous as they are. Swami Ramdas, who visited the U.S. in the 1950s, gave us this inspiring picture, from the depths of his own realization, of human nature and its destiny:

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

Swami Ramdas’ image brings us closer together and eventually to the realization of oneness: while our bodies are separate, our minds can resonate harmonically. On what he calls the “spiritual plane,” we are pure consciousness.

And today we can bear witness to that vision with humanity’s wisdom traditions, and with a growing section of the scientific community behind us. This is no mere academic adventure. As one writer put it, “You don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story.”

While the prevailing industrial story is one of alienation — from one another, nature, our own deepest cry for meaning and capacity — the promise of the new story is one of belonging. Despite appearances, we are passing through a time of great possibility. Yes, problems are mounting. Yes, the institutions we might have expected to deal with them seem to be paralyzed and the people at large not yet mobilized to deal with issues of this magnitude: an overheating planet, wars and global poverty.

But the problems we face can be the occasion for a great renewal if we realize what’s ultimately wrong and how we can address it. We are passing through a spiritual crisis. We’ve forgotten who we are and what we are meant to do here on this earth.

Happily, we are not alone

People from every walk of life — scientists, artists, people of faith and so on — are already looking for a “new story” of human possibilities, beyond the narrative that has led to materialism, greed and violence. In our search, we can hear the voices of countless ancestors who saw this truth, who lived in accordance with its wisdom and left us the legacy of their perennial vision. So when we speak of the “new” story, the story of belonging, we are really speaking of a new language to express the same truths that have sustained humanity for millennia.

What is different and extremely helpful now is how science and ancient wisdom are converging. “Science” is in principle a system of understanding observable patterns not only in the physical world, which is how we have understood and practiced it now for several centuries, but also in the nonmaterial world, or inner world of our own experiences. We therefore have powerful affirmation from two inquiring systems, two dimensions of science, if you will, that have seemed to be in conflict (“Do you go with ‘faith’ or ‘reason’?). Now these two approaches can be seen as complementary. There is an appropriate role for faith and reason in both sciences, whether we apply them to the outer world or the world within. Both are necessary. Between them they tell a compelling story:

While the human body may have reached an endpoint of its evolution, our social evolution, not to mention our mind and emotions, can still go forward. As physiologist Robert Livingston has put it, “our cognitive capacities have not begun to reach any known limitation.”

We are not ultimately determined by our genes, hormones or nervous system, but have a considerable, often unexplored, power to determine our own destiny.

Quantum physics in its way, and the science of ecology in another, tell us that we’re interconnected with one another and the whole web of life. The wisdom tradition puts it more simply: “All life is one.” Many — if not all — modern problems can be seen to arise from violations of this unity.

We can never be fulfilled by consuming material goods; we can be fulfilled only by expanding relationships of trust and service. Cooperation is far more powerful than competition.

We can never become secure by punishing “criminals” and defeating “enemies;” we can become secure by rehabilitating those who offend and turning enemies into friends.

In this inspiring narrative, the infinite differences among us are no longer loci of separation but manifestations of the normal diversity of life. Society, like nature, should be organized along lines of “unity in diversity” rather than those of uniformity or separation. As the Koran puts it, God has “made you into tribes and peoples so that you could discover one another,” not fight against one another’s welfare.

In this new story, nonviolence is a law of existence waiting to be discovered and practiced in every walk of life.

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.