How Powerful Is Meditation? Powerful Enough to Change the World

So, I’m planning the meditation class that I will be teaching tonight at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. And I find myself thinking that the theme of this class is utterly applicable not just to people who are sitting in jail (pun intended — sitting — get it?), but also to the rest of us who are simply sitting in the prison we have created for ourselves, in our own minds.

Let’s talk about Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Then let’s talk about Ghandi. And let’s talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if you are familiar enough with all three that you already know exactly what I’m going to say, then good. You can skip the rest of this blog. 🙂

But for the rest of us, let me note that Thoreau spent exactly one day in jail. That’s certainly not enough to qualify him as an expert on how to survive the experience of being behind bars. And yet. Thoreau’s one day and one night in jail changed the world — because it changed him, and because he wrote about it. So already, right there, we have the power of intention, and the power of words — even before we get to the power of meditation.

Let’s turn to what Thoreau had to say.

First I’d like to note that Thoreau struggled with many of the same financial issues the rest of us are facing today. He got a good college degree, from Harvard, graduating in the top half of his class. But the country was going through a depression. According to the Thoreau Society, “Thoreau found himself temperamentally unsuited for three of the four usual professions open to Harvard graduates: the ministry, the law, and medicine.” So he turned to the fourth, teaching, but resigned as a teacher in the Concord public school system after two weeks of teaching because he disagreed with the school superintendent about how to discipline children (and I’d love to know the details of that dispute!).

So Thoreau turned to the family business, pencil making. At one point he started a school, but had to close it because he was taking care of a sick brother. Then he began working as a handyman in the home of his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eventually he asked Emerson’s permission to build himself a small home on Walden Pond, and moved in there to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, but the experience led him, as well, to write his second book, Walden (which apparently was begun when people in town began to ask him what the heck he was doing out there). Thoreau lived in this house for two years. During these two years, in the summer of 1846, there was an incident.

The incident was this: Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax. He was opposed to certain actions of the U.S. government at the time. In particular, Thoreau was deeply opposed to slavery (later in life he served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad).

How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also. — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Thoreau was also very deeply opposed to the war with Mexico (which began when the United States came up with a pretext to invade Mexico and start a war in order to take the Southwest — look it up, this is true).

Upon refusing to pay his tax, Thoreau was put in jail. For an account of what this meant to him, and how it changed his life, we must turn to his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” First, Thoreau’s views on the situation overall:

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; — see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. –Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Next, we have Thoreau’s account of what happened when he himself refused to pay his poll tax:

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (emphasis added, by me)

Do you see what I am getting at here, about the power of meditation? There is a Buddhist expression, “wherever you go, there you are.” And that’s really the fundamental thing that Thoreau is getting at here. You can be in jail. You can be at home. You can be walking the streets of your community. But no matter what, you will be there. As Emerson said, “My giant goes with me wherever I go.” Your mind, your thoughts, your human dignity, your breath…all of this is yours, impossible for anyone to take from you, no matter where you go, whether you go somewhere of your own accord or because you were locked up. Do you see how important this is? And do you see how easy it is for us to lock ourselves up, in a prison of our own minds? 

If we do not notice that we have the ability to be ourselves no matter where we are or what our current circumstances may be, then we do, actually, lock ourselves up. We lock ourselves into some role that we feel we have to play. There is no need for this. We can be ourselves. We can breathe. We can think. We can act as we see fit. What others do — whether those others abuse us, whether they lock us up, whether they act in all sorts of unconscionable ways –that’s on them. That’s not on us. We can be present, stand (or sit, or even lie down) in our own human dignity, according to the dictates of our own consciences. We. Can. Be. Who. We. Are. No matter where we are or how those around us are treating us.

Now, you might say to yourself, big whoop. Thoreau was in jail for one night? Ooooh, what a long night that must have been! But let’s turn to how that night, and its effects on Thoreau, changed history. What did Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have to say about Thoreau? Both spent time in jail themselves because they were inspired by him. Let’s let their voices speak from beyond the grave too (after all, it is almost Halloween!).

An American journalist asked Gandhi if he had ever read Thoreau. His response?

“Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influence me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” written about seventy, eighty years ago. Until I read that essay I never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word, Satyagraha. You remember that Thoreau invented and practiced the idea of civil disobedience in Concord, Massachusetts, by refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the United States government. He went to jail, too. There is no doubt that Thoreau’s ideas greatly influenced my movement in India.” –Gandhi, quoted in Webb Miller, “Homage to Gandhi”

Gandhi began his approach to civil disobedience in India much as Thoreau did — by challenging a tax, with the Dandi Salt March in 1930. He thus began the work that eventually led to independence and autonomy for 350 million Indians in 1947 — 85 years after the death of Thoreau.

What did Martin Luther King Jr. say about Thoreau?

“During my early college days, I read Thoreau’s essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ for the first time…I became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” –King, quoted in Brent Powell’s “Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and the American Tradition of Protest”

King, of course, was not only influenced by Thoreau, but also was tremendously influenced directly by Gandhi. On hearing a lecture about Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha, King said later that “His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought half a dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works.” King later visited India to learn more about Gandhi’s work. I don’t think you need me to tell you how King’s work changed our world, here in the United States. And it all started with the willingness to note, what happens if we go to jail? Then we are in jail. That’s all. But our meditation goes right back out again — it doesn’t stay locked up with our flesh and bones. It DOES make a difference, inside the jail (whether it’s a self-imposed prison or an actual brick and mortar jail), and outside it.  

It may seem as though I’m rambling, and I am a bit. But my message here is this: Meditation is not just a practice that makes us peaceful, calm, and present. Meditation is nothing less than a nonviolent method for changing our world. Because, when we change ourselves, guess what happens? We change everybody else too.  

Let’s conclude with King’s remarks in one of his Letters from the Birmingham Jail:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides–and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

Yes, yes, and yes. That is what the world needs: creative extremists. And meditation is one way, one powerful and brilliant way, to open that door up for us.

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