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Changing the World

It is a sad and tragic truth that we all have to journey for an entire lifetime before finding the most fundamental solutions to our pain.

What did Gandhi mean when he said to “Be the change you wish to see in the world”? From what I see, we seem to take this to mean that we should “lead by example”: We do, and others will be sure to follow. This is often the way Gandhi’s quote is presented and interpreted.

But you know what? I don’t think that’s what he meant. So I looked it up. And at least from my humble little Google search, it would seem that Gandhi was getting at something quite different. As a matter of fact, it seems likely that he didn’t even say this himself, at least not in those words. And I think that the story of “Gandhi’s quote” is a lovely microcosm of how our minds work. So I thought it might be cool to share it here:

In 1913, Gandhi wrote an article about snake bites. Yes, those long dudes with the teeth. They’re a big deal in India: Almost 60,000 Indians die of snake bites every year.

In his article, it seems that Gandhi got philosophical for a moment. He wrote:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

The next time anybody said anything official about “being the change” was in 1974, when a teacher named Arleen Lorrance realized that she could find a lot more happiness and peace of mind in her world by focusing on herself. It doesn’t seem that this had too much to do with Gandhi, but the concept continued to pop up over the years, and eventually, Gandhi got the credit.

The world at large needed a buzz phrase, and so the deeper understanding of Gandhi, Lorrance, and other truth-seekers was summed up in a few simple words: “Be the change you wish to see”. Before long, this moved away from the original meaning and became a catch phrase for “leading by example”.

But I think that the original concept goes beyond the words, and to be frank, I’m not as concerned with who made it up as I am with what it means - or at least what I think it means. I think it is more of a “golden rule”, that different people have come to realize over the course of history. And it seems to me that the authors who wrote it - from Gandhi to Lorrance, and on through the years - knew what they were talking about. They were not talking about setting an example. They were talking about shifting one’s focus from changing everyone else, to changing oneself - because that is the only person you can really save, and that is where real change happens, and that is where real happiness is to be found.

We all love to solve problems by focusing on other people: They need to change, they need to do the work, they need to get it. But inevitably, we find ourselves fighting - struggling to change others, struggling to convince, struggling to fix our surroundings… 

In the most extreme manifestation of this pattern, we are basically fighting to stay the same, and get comfortable by making everyone else conform to our beliefs. Wouldn’t that be great, as far as the mind’s ego is concerned?

But we end up frustrated, because nobody gets it, no-one is going to change in our favor, and we just keep fighting and fighting, over and over again. What we end up bringing to the world is mostly anger, and bitterness, and desperation.

Lao Tzu once said:

“Do you really think you can change the world? If you try, you will destroy it.”

Gandhi’s message, and that of Lorrance, and everyone else, took a journey. They realized that they could only really change themselves, and that that was the key to salvation.

So who are you going to save?

Photo by "Cup of Couple",


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