Mahatma Gandhi never said these words: “you must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Many people speak this phrase with great authority. Now when I hear it, I’m hearing them say, “I don’t need to know about what is going on the world. I can change injustice and environmental destruction by simply looking into my own heart and not engaging in the world. I’m apathetic.”
Thinking good thoughts often makes people feel good, lighting up the insides of their skulls, letting a smile dance at the corners of their mouth. But can thought without action change the trajectory we are on as a civilization?
When I put out the call for essays for the anthology Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World, I received back three kinds of writings. The first ones in were doom and gloom focused: humanity was hopeless, we have already tumbled over the tipping point and our own extinction is on the way. Forest loss, habitat destruction, the state of the oceans and atmosphere, an unsustainable population: we are all doomed, so arm yourselves, get your defendable place in the mountains and grow root vegetables for food security! Even if these writers spoke some truth, the catastrophe essays were not going to motivate anyone to try and shift the trajectory we are on, personally and as a civilization.
The second kind of essays could be summed up this way ‘get to know where you live’. These pointed out that until you get to know a place, or a species, or a subject, you are not going to have the impulse to defend it. These were what I call the ‘lean in’ essays. They advocated finding something~ an endangered animal, a bicycle trail, a local stream, an ecological reserve, the place you live~ and getting to know it intimately. These writings were encouraging us to not get stuck or overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing us, but to choose something and act on its behalf. These essays were why the word ‘hope’ made it into the title of the book.
The third kind of essay poured into my mailbox. They were the ones quoting~ or misquoting~ Mahatma Ghandi’s phrase, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” (there is no evidence that Ghandi said these words) After about a dozen of these, I had the uncomfortable feeling that those who bandy about this quote weren’t doing jack-shit in the world. That by hopping on the quote bandwagon absolved them from actually looking at what was going on around them and taking action by putting their beliefs or livelihood (or body) on the line. It is a meaningful and instructive quote, except when it becomes a ‘get out of jail free’ card, for inaction.
These writings went into the pile I labeled ‘navel gazing essays’. They began to scare me. If so many people believe that looking into their own hearts, or switching to all-natural toothpaste, was going to change the world, then we don’t have a hope. I wanted to shake these people and say, “Thinking good thoughts is not enough, you have to DO something.”
While this kind of thinking is widespread, I find it especially rampant in the dance and yoga communities where my wife and I spend a great amount of time. There is a feel-good aspect to moving one’s body and stretching to one’s edge; there is a peacefulness gathered by slow attention to detail, and through sweat and pulse raising activity. There is the haven of being with like-minded folks so we can feel seen and at ease. In our yoga and dance practices, there is respite and refuge from the travails of the world. That refuge is important. In a world fraught with troubles, to have a place of sanctuary that is safe and nourishing, that gives one a doorway into peace and tranquility, acts as a recharge to the energy needed to go back out in the world.
But we can’t all live in the refuge all the time, not now. Yes, a few people need to stay and keep the hearth fed and the candles lit. But if we all try to live in the sanctuary, the march of destruction continues with no one to even witness the damage being done. It continues even as we sit down to dinner of organic greens and grass fed meat. Yes, take the needed time in the refuge. Then choose something on our small planet to defend with all your heart
When the ‘lean in’ hope essays arrived they were uncomfortable for me to read; I was personally challenged by them. One spoke of getting out there and using science to affect policy and legislation. Another spoke about getting the local school district to get the parents to turn off their car engines while waiting to pick up children at the end of the school day. Another spoke about taking on a multi-national corporation for the environmental damage it was causing in one small community. These essays challenged me because I had to ask myself, where was I leaning in? Yes, I was assembling this anthology to inspire people to lean, but where was I ‘walking the walk’?
When Hope Beneath Our Feet was done I moved with my family to San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, and an unexpected thing happened. I started walking in the desert almost every day in a 70-hectares ecological reserve, home to the second largest cacti botanical garden in the world. It is also home to a canyon with an entirely different ecosystem in its depths.
After months of walking in this place, seeing the myriad of desert plants, insects and birds, I began to notice that the canyon walls were filled with squirrels. The squirrels led me to notice that the trails were filled with foxes. As my perception opened to seeing the net of animal trails, I acquired a wildlife camera. Placing it at the wildlife crossroads, it snapped photos and videos when animals moved by. I got to know the raccoons and skunks and ring-tailed cat and bobcats that owned the place at night. As my awareness of the inhabitants of this place expanded, I was able to talk about my encounters and sightings, and help people feel their own love for El Charco del Ingenio. Out of my walks and talks came an invitation to be on the board of directors. I had learned about a place to point that I felt compelled to protect it. Suddenly I understood the ‘lean in’ essays. I had found a way to lean.
Every day we struggle with civilization encroaching on the borders of El Charco. We educate surrounding communities about ecosystems, we collaborate with other environmental groups to leverage our small powers, we do the bookkeeping and the maintenance. Every day we are charged with loving this place to keep it alive. After a recent major die-off of our foxes we had to educate our neighbors about not putting out poison laced hot dogs. They didn’t know that killing the foxes, the primary rat hunters, would mean that the next year they would have even more rats.
This die off was personal for me. I could tell many of the foxes apart before they died.
I knew that the use of poisons had already caused the near extinction of the vultures. Without the carnivorous birds, the dead wildlife now don’t even have the dignity of having their bodies eaten. Here the problems are not abstract. And what needs to be done is tangible. When the challenges are local and tangible, the way to lean is clear and inevitable.
What I am doing is not enough; what each of us does can never be enough. But if we all lean, this horrendous trajectory we are on can change, and it only will change if you and I and every one of us participates actively. We cannot wait for others to do it. The politicians and corporate heads will not change unless they see you and I are serious and willing to give our weight in ways both big and small.
Thinking good thoughts is not enough. You have to love something the way you love a child you are willing to defend in the face of insurmountable odds. Navel gazing is not enough. What are you doing?
I cherish what you said here, Martin, as I cherish good advice, and deep caring and concern.
I might see “be the change you want to see” differently than how you’re casting it. I sometimes use it to mean being a catalyst, and taking action, rather than just in an isolated “unto myself” way. I wonder whether some of your essayists used it that way? But I gather that your characterization it according to how you saw it used in many of the essays, and take your caution about how it can be insular. I do agree that the state of the world requires active, personal engagement.
Most importantly, I feel your framing of “leaning in” is illuminating – and love the way that you fleshed it out. Thank you for that, and for this piece. “Leaning in” will become part of my vocabulary, and will help further focus my understanding of ways to be constructive.
I do not disagree intrinsically with what you have to say. There are a lot of people going through the motions. But inner change can have profound changes on those around you, and then with those around them. It can appear to be very inward, like nothing is happening, but recovery and/or inner growth often is necessarily like that. I like what you said, “You have to love something the way you love a child you are willing to defend in the face of insurmountable odds.” This is what is the basis of living with an open heart and healing the dark places is. There are many people who will demonstrate for peace, create very public forums, and build orphanages. That will probably never be me, because the many overwhelm me.
But for the glorious one or two who are with me, or the canvas in my studio, I can create a garden of love around, from time to time, that is a different matter. The divine joy I was retaught by my teacher, who received it from her teacher and his teacher before him, is passed on from one being to another are like ripples in a pond. Stopping our busy minds to hear the silence, the song of our hearts and feel its melody as we work, is what will change the world. It is already happening, though perhaps not fast enough for some. If you feel called to create a refuge, you must follow your heart. As my most recent art teacher, Timothy Hawkesworth said recently, “People ask me why I don’t teach people how to paint like I paint. I want to teach them how to paint like -they- paint.” If we can get quiet enough to hear the small gentle inner voice, we can know exactly what we were meant to do.
your essay came at a painful and challenging moment for me. i am about to attempt yet another action to deal the handful of men i have witnessed or personally experienced as engaging in perpetrating behaviors in the dance community i once considered myself a part of. the personal cost of silence is too much for me, i can’t turn a blind eye, never could. especially now that i believe the safety of children may be involved.the fact that i reach out for others to support me who then confirm they have had similar experiences was encouraging until i asked them to speak with me and they can’t. i feel like “Cassandra.”
Martin, I read your essay–it speaks to me–as a clarion call to ‘lean in’ somewhere and try to help. You’ve seemed to contrast activism favorably with ‘thinking good thoughts’. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘thinking good thoughts’–perhaps another name for inaction?–but I dare say that beyond any kind of thinking is where we meet the world as one. If you are the world, it will be quite natural to take care of it, to love it. I see ‘self-work’–cultivating wisdom and compassion, looking into this mind that makes division–as not different than, and necessary to, effective activism in ‘the world’ (and beyond though not fully separate from ‘thinking good thoughts’). Your ‘clarion call’ to action leaves me little room for complacency–probably a good thing!–but if ‘self-work’, ‘spiritual practice’, is absent from activist-practice, well, something is missing. Bring ‘em together (and they ARE ogether), I say!
Thanks much Martin, well said. There are plenty of people who when confronted with their direct impacts on the earth’s inhabitants, or passive inaction say “but I always recycle – and I just bought a Prius!”
But I suspect that some of those who mis-quote Ghandi may really mean that they seek to embody the change they are trying to achieve, to get it into their bones (like I am a sailor in my bones). I was once given the advice to find my purpose in this life and then use it as a touchstone, to make every decision with that purpose in mind. And in my less-stressed moments I do my best to follow that advice.
Great description of how you grew to love a place enough to defend it passionately, including doing the bookkeeping… My favorite spiritual book title remains Jack Kornfield’s “After the ecstasy, the laundry.”