Satyagraha & Meditation: Gandhi's Path to Nonviolence & Inner Peace

Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha illuminates the path from inner silence to global peace through meditation.

The Critical Importance of Silence as the Ground for Peaceful Dialog, Nonviolent Action and the Ability to Pursue Truth

A paper presented by Yogacharya Ellen Grace O’Brian

Satyagraha Centennial Celebration, Durban, South Africa 2006

The Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha

The gift of Satyagraha that Mahatma Gandhi gave the world—the revelation of the nonviolent force for good that is born of truth and love was, and continues to be, illuminated by his life. Through what he called his experiments in truth, his unfailing reliance on God and the highest principle of unity inherent to that divine ideal, he demonstrated the potential within every human being to live in truth and to call forth the power of nonviolence to transform our lives and our world from a culture of violence to a culture of peace.

The window we have been given through which to view the transformation of Gandhiji’s character allows us to see particular commitments which fostered his spiritual development and contributed to the success of his nonviolent interventions. Central to the commitments evident in his life is the crucible of self as instrument of change and the necessity of integrity as the cornerstone of truth in action.



The Congruence of Speech, Thought, and Action

The seeker of truth soon discovers, as did Gandhiji, that one’s ability to live with integrity is dependent upon the awareness of congruent speech and action and their more subtle counterparts—thought, will, motive and intention. Once aware of the continuum of intentions, thoughts, speech, action and external response, the next challenge is one’s ability to not only circumvent violence from coming to fruition but to consciously supplant the seeds of violence with those of nonviolence that will then bear the fruit of harmonious right action.

The manifestation of nonviolent action means resting upon inner unity, the coming into authentic expression of the highest good, the spark of divine love activated in the soul. Thomas Merton noted, “Gandhi’s spirit of nonviolence sprang from an inner realization of spiritual unity in himself. The whole Gandhian concept of nonviolent action and satyagraha is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved.”[1]

To be able to quiet the mind and experience inner silence (the peace of the soul) is the key to facilitating that unity. One is then capable of accessing the inner wisdom and discernment that is critical to nonviolent action and the pursuit of truth. This inner clarity and stability then provide the ground for peaceful dialog between individuals.

a statue of Mahatma Gandhi

"Silence is a great help to a seeker after truth.

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path

in a clearer light and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.

Our life is a long and arduous quest after Truth,

and the soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height."

—Mahatma Gandhi, 10 December 1938

Inner Silence: Beyond Mere Absence of Words

A story is told of a spiritual seeker who makes the journey to a master to inquire about truth; he yearns to know the nature of life and the reality of God. The teacher invites him in for a cup of tea. Anxious for the dialog to begin, the student becomes impatient with the teacher’s seemingly unconscious pouring of an excessive amount of tea into his already full cup so that it overflows onto the tray. He exclaims, “Can’t you see that the cup is full?” The teacher responds, “Can’t you see that your mind is full? With such a mind full of its own concepts, learning is not possible. First, become receptive. Then, learning becomes possible.” And so it is for us who would learn anything in life, but particularly so when what we seek to learn requires nothing less than the illumination of truth.

In the words of Gandhiji, “Silence is a great help to a seeker after truth. In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” Just as nonviolence is so much more than the absence of violence and rightfully claims its power not through passive neglect of duty but through the active injunction to bring truth to light, so silence is not simply the absence of words but is the engaged, conscious awareness of truth beyond words and mental activity discovered in the silent depths of one’s own being. This discovery becomes reliably possible through meditation, an art and science practiced by those great souls who follow the way of nonviolence.

Meditation: Science Meets Spirituality

Gandhiji observed, “It has often occurred to me that a seeker after truth has to be silent. I know the wonderful efficacy of silence…What a great thing it would be if we in our busy lives could retire into ourselves each day for at least a couple of hours and prepare our minds to listen in to the Voice of the Great Silence. The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to it, but it is impossible to listen without silence…It (silence) has now become both a physical and spiritual necessity for me.”[2]

Testimony to the physical and spiritual usefulness of meditative silence that Gandhiji spoke of has gone beyond the subjective experience of those who embrace the practice; it has now entered the arena of scientific study. Through such technological advances as electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of different parts of the brain, we have the benefit of being able to observe predictable physiological changes in meditators. Current brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for what many practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.[3]

His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, “…I visited the neuroscience laboratory of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. Using imaging devices that show what occurs in the brain during meditation, Dr. Davidson has been able to study the effects of Buddhist practices for cultivating compassion, equanimity or mindfulness. For centuries Buddhists have believed that pursuing such practices seems to make people calmer, happier and more loving. At the same time, they are less and less prone to destructive emotions. According to Davidson, there is now science to underscore this belief. Dr. Davidson tells me that the emergence of positive emotions may be due to this: Mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain’s violent impulses and our actions.”[4]

Though such research is still in its infancy, the initial results are encouraging both in terms of the ability to record the perceptible change in awareness that occurs during meditation itself and in what now appears to be the actual restructuring of the brain, which impacts one’s ability to choose a nonviolent response. Joel Stein, in an article published in Time magazine notes, “Tests using the most sophisticated imaging techniques suggest that it [meditation] can actually reset the brain, changing the point at which a traffic jam, for instance, sets the blood boiling.”[5]

Research indicates that meditation helps to evolve the brain from its ancient fight or flight reaction to stress to the ability to maintain equanimity, thus facilitating a greater conscious choice-making capacity. The efficacy of this particular skill for practitioners of Satyagraha is considerable. As the Dalai Lama notes, “The implications of all this are clear: the world today needs citizens and leaders who can work toward enduring stability and engage in dialogue with the ‘enemy’—no matter what kind of aggression or assault they may have endured…To respond wisely and effectively, we need to be guided by more healthy states of mind, not just to avoid feeding the flames of hatred, but to respond skillfully.” [6]

Skillful response requires skillful practice. Through a simple technique of daily meditation, such skillful means are freely available to the average person today, regardless of social standing or religious belief and offer to all a beacon of hope for building a culture of peace and nonviolence. What is required is the commitment to cultivating inner silence and receptivity to truth, a simple technique and the willingness to submit oneself to the discipline of attentive awareness. Meditation is the focusing of attention on the pure, unchanging aspect of consciousness. During meditation awareness is systematically withdrawn from external stimulation and comes to rest inwardly in a state of consciousness that differs from the fragmented, distracted states of ordinary perception. It is a heightened state of awareness that transcends restless thought activity and is rather the normal domain of the soul.

Through practice, discipline, and grace, one can learn to achieve at will a state of focused mental alertness, a state where body and mind unite as one laser beam of power and awareness. When attention is focused in meditation, the mental field becomes calm and the light of the soul shines forth. This spiritual light removes our fears, makes known our deepest intentions, illumines the path of right action, and shows us the way to live with the integrity that is essential to Satyagraha.

The Practice of Meditation for Inner Peace

There are four steps to practicing meditation: establish a conducive environment both within and without; practice a technique such as watching the breath or repeating a mantra in order to focus the attention on a single point; surrender, by letting go into the peak experience of meditative awareness; and finally, consciously bring the attention back to mind and body with a sense of appreciation and renewal.

It is helpful to set aside a regular time and place for meditation. If you are able to devote an area of your home for daily practice, the energy of your devotion will permeate the space and positively influence your sessions. Because meditation provides such a wonderful sense of clarity and perspective, it is helpful to begin your morning, first thing, with meditation before becoming involved with the concerns of the day.

When the sage Ramana Maharshi was asked about the best posture for meditation, he replied that it is the posture in which the mind is still. Meditation can be practiced seated on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. The posture should be relaxed but firm, with the spinal column straight. This posture reflects the quality of mind that is most conducive to meditative awareness—a firm intention to experience God or Truth, balanced with peaceful surrender to divine grace and timing.

Begin meditation by closing your eyes and drawing your attention within. Offer a prayer of attunement, acknowledging the presence of God, the saints, and sages, the divine nature of all beings, and the spiritual nature of your own soul. Most importantly, feel your connection to God and to all of life. Inwardly walk through the temple door of God’s omnipresence and experience yourself praying “in” God rather than “to” God. Know that God is nearer than your heartbeat, the essence of your being.

Inwardly direct your gaze toward the spiritual eye, the point between the eyebrows. Focus awareness on your breath, noticing the experience of inhalation and exhalation. Whenever you become involved in thoughts, gently return your attention to the breath. After a while, breathing slows down and becomes shallow, thought activity decreases and moments of calm, pure, awareness are revealed.

As the experience of peace deepens, let go of watching the breath and rest in meditative awareness. When the attention wanders to thoughts again, you can return to the breath, or begin to conclude your meditation by bringing awareness back to body and mind. Before concluding, make a conscious effort to deeply feel the peace you have gathered within. You are that. Feel that you are refreshed, renewed, and ready to start your day with peace as your companion. Pray for others and the world. Consciously affirm the graceful unfolding of divine purpose and the highest good for all. As you perform your activities, carry the effects of meditation with you and return to the awareness of the divine presence throughout the day.[7]

Gandhi & Yogananda: The Silence That Speaks

When Paramahansa Yoganandaji visited Gandhiji at his Wardha ashram, he arrived on one of the Mahatma’s scheduled days of silence. Gandhiji told Yogananda, “Years ago, I started my weekly observance of a day of silence as a means for gaining time to look after my correspondence. But now those twenty-four hours have become a vital spiritual need. A periodical decree of silence is not a torture but a blessing.”[8] Let those who aspire to practice nonviolence take up the discipline of meditation that its blessing of revealing the inner light of truth may be known and the dialog that promotes harmony among people so desperately needed in our world today becomes a reality.

©Ellen Grace O'Brian, 2006. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be used without expressed written consent.

[1] Thomas Merton quoted by John Dear in Mahatma Gandhi, Apostle of Nonviolence, Introduction

[2] Mahatma Gandhi, Truth is God, compiled by R.K. Prabhu, Navajivan Publishing House, 1955, p. 55-57

[3] Marc Kaufman, Washington Post article, January 3, 2005, pA05

[4] Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, The New York Times, April 26, 2003

[5] Joel Stein, Time Magazine, August 4, 2003

[6] Tenzin Gyatso, ibid.

[7] Ellen Grace O'Brian, A Single Blade of Grass, CSE Press.

[8] Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Self-Realization Fellowship, p. 494.

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