Learning to do something well is a challenging and powerful journey of discovery. If we want to speak Portuguese fluently or play the cello in a way that reverberates in the deepest reaches of our soul, we have some serious learning to do.
We have to unlearn old habits and slowly acquire new ones. We have to become familiar with the interior dynamics, the inner structure and rhythm of this process. We have to slow it down long enough to understand both its complexity and unifying simplicity. We have to nurture our deep-seated passion for it—the excitement and hunger it first unleashed in us—even when our enthusiasm for it ebbs and flows. We have to safeguard the delicate dance between the mechanics of technique and the unfathomable and irreducible spirit that lies at the heart of this or any authentic process.
And we have to practice, practice, practice.
What eventually comes to seem natural and easy is often the result of a long, slow, patient, and relentlessly persistent process of transformation.
Those who want to engage in social change well often prepare to do this by learning and internalizing its complicated and challenging and thrilling process. For the past century, this has been fostered by the gradual emergence of nonviolence training as a way of preparing people to participate in nonviolent social movements.
Mahatma Gandhi led training sessions to prepare people to face the violence of British troops–and to break the internal chains that kept injustice in place. Gandhi was a shrewd strategist who experimented with “people power.” By cooperating with unjust and violent structures, we lend them power and legitimacy. Gandhi invited people to withdraw their consent from structures and policies of injustice through deliberate and active noncooperation.
Simply put, he reasoned that 175,000 British soldiers were able to manacle 300,000,000 Indians because they allowed this to happen. These chains would break, Gandhi believed, when Indians withdrew their power. Every nonviolent action and project fostered by Gandhi—both civil resistance and what he dubbed the Constructive Program, which created parallel organizations designed to wean people from British institutions and to create a new society—sought to demonstrate this power and inspire people to re-channel it to transform their world.
But Gandhi was more than a tactician. He understood that such change must itself be rooted in a deep transformation of the Indian people. “People power” must be rooted in “person power.” Self-rule as a nation would be nurtured by self-rule of the person in which love transforms fear, truth transforms arrogance, and heart-unity transforms Us vs. Them attitudes and behaviours.
Grounded in this spirit, Gandhi called on the Indian people to let go of the “construction of the colonized self” that had been imposed by the British over time. In Hind Swaraj, his 1909 landmark analysis of British imperialism, Gandhi stressed that India would never be free until its people divested themselves of the Western persona—reinforced by the alluring trap of materialism and capitalism—and reclaim their truest selves. He symbolized this divestment in his own life by slowly abandoning his British apparel for the clothing of the Indian poor.
This impulse towards letting go of the “imprisoned self” marked Gandhi’s constructive projects—including the spinning and wearing of kadhi, a traditional, homespun cloth, instead of wearing clothing produced in mills in Lancashire. But this was also an important part of his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. The 1930-31 Salt March and Campaign—defying the British decree that deemed the making of salt, a staple of life in India, illegal—was a way for millions of Indians to shake off their “colonized self” and begin the slow process of reclaiming their true humanity.
Gandhian nonviolence training, seen from this perspective, is both very specific and very broad. Gandhi conducted training for particular campaigns. At the same time, he sought to unleash a slow, ongoing spiritual formation process in which the colonized self is “retrained.” He encouraged the de-centering and re-centering of this self punctuated by specific acts of civil disobedience and constructive development situated within a long-term process of inward and outward transformation.
Even now, this great trainer calls us to deepen this process. And to practice at every turn.