We can’t change the world. We have to change ourselves


“It seems to me that the real problem is the mind itself, and not the problem which the mind has created and tries to solve. If the mind is petty, small, narrow, limited, however great and complex the problem may be, the mind approaches that problem in terms of its own pettiness.”
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 — Jiddu Krishnamurti?

Did humans make these lines? We see faces everywhere. We see our influences. What influences us?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece on Ukraine and Peace. I wanted to explore the idea of what it is that we focus on — war rather than peace, in this case, as in so many others, where our attention is much more easily drawn to what could go wrong than what could go right. The point of writing about this was, to me, to show that it’s also possible to really pay attention to where our attention goes. This allows us to to explore the possibility that we can make it our business — our work, even — to train ourselves to practice noticing what kind of attitude, or spirit, we elicit while we’re paying attention. And thus, we shift the kinds of possibilities, or options, that emerge for us, in the frame of action.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds: first, note where you are, the time of day, the position you’re in, literally, physically. Then note what brought you to this point, the things immediate and more distant. Of course you won’t be able to bring up every single event that created this event, but you will have a general sense of the broad causes that developed into now. Thirdly, note your emotional, feeling sense, or attitude, that arises as a result of this current-state awareness. Can you get in touch with the tone, or colour, of how you view what is going on? Is this sense neutral? Sometimes that’s true. But even neutral self-observation can be benign or critical, kind or undercutting. It may take you a while to attune to what it is you’re observing your experience with: is it kind, or critical, fearful or accepting? This is what I mean when I ask you to note your attitude, or spirit. You can change your attitude, with practice, and that, in turn, changes how you interact. By changing yourself, the world, that is, the relationships you have, and how those influence other relationships, begin to shift. But you’re not really changing the world. You’re changing yourself. The world is changed by how you see it.

This bridleway was created 7500 years ago

I’ve written a lot about the importance of this practice as a way of understanding where our agency, or freedom, lies. We are agents in so far as we are able to conduct the events of our lives in a manner that involves our being in control. But, from my understanding, and after much research and deliberation, this capacity to control is not what we normally take it to be.

What I mean, then, by saying that we can’t change the world is this: we did not choose who we are, and therefore we don’t choose what we do. This is almost always the case. Although this may feel very uncomfortable, and even counter-intuitive, a little reflection will confirm that this is in fact the case. Think of your childhood. You didn’t choose it. And you cannot change it. The past is beyond our control. This includes our genetic material, our genetic history. We can’t change this. We can only look back. Of course, how we look back really matters. And letting go of the trauma and resentment, blame and guilt for past actions is vital if we are to realise what we are, and what we really desire to be. Letting go of anger, blame, hatred, resentment, or other obstacles to our own peace of mind, associated with our own past, changes us, and the relationship we have with the past thereby changes. The events don’t change. But our attitude can.

Waterways can recover if we change our attitude to them

The future is full of unpredictability. We catastrophise all the time, creating futures for ourselves that are full of trauma, fear, and loss. How we see the future, as a potential in which our own realisation flowers is key to practice. Letting go of a sense of dread at what may come, and being able to accept that we cannot control the end, but we can control our attitude, with practice, and that this will make some outcomes more available as possibilities than others, is the key to our agency, our freedom.

What is happening now is chock full of activities that influence and even control the direction of our action. Paying attention to what is happening is not the same as controlling what is happening. See if you can realise without effort, letting go of what is happening each time you are aware of now.
We tend to think that we are rational beings, solving problems through a critical appraisal of elements that require resolution. Yet if we are really honest, we know that there is far more nuance to the problems that emerge into our awareness. The rational rests on and justifies itself in relation to the deeply irrational, myths and emotions, stories and prejudgments. Letting go of the illusion of rational control is deeply therapeutic. We are in the throes of complexity too vast to figure out. Allow yourself to simply admit of the interplay and let go of the effort to solve.

This may seem to be an admission of fatalism. That we are simply at the mercy of forces beyond our control, from the quantum to the cosmic. And in a sense, of course, that is exactly what this kind of effortless awareness brings to light. But this is not fatalism. This is a recognition that the direction of our awareness itself relies on paying attention, and on the manner of paying attention. Let go of where the attention goes, but pay attention to the manner, the attitude, the spirit of your attention.

Above all, the manner of your attention will dictate how your interactions take place. The more relaxed, the more compassionate, the more open and curious and kind you can be, the more chance there is that you will be a conduit for the practice realisation that is enlightened action. And learning to be relaxed, and to rest, just rest, is a vital antidote to the rush, anxiety, anger and fear that pursue us like hungry wolves into actions that perpetuate suffering.

This is not a complete answer, of course, to the question, how can you say that we cannot change the world? The point is, directing our attention to the things we cannot change, like the state that the world is in right now, is a futile waste of energy. This does not mean that we are passive in the face of gun crime or the homelessness crisis, or, of course, the existential threat of the ecological emergency. It means that we need to focus all our attention on what attitude we are approaching our awareness with, and our interactions with. If we can create communities, groups and conversations, based on compassionate communication, which requires that we listen to one another, and give full attention to what is being said, and if we can let the attitude of compassion guide our actions, allowing options that are more beneficial to emerge and become available as ways for the world to unfold, then the world, which is always changing anyhow, will change in more beneficial ways. But our focus remains on our own practice-realisation, our own alignment with an attitude that allows us to conduct ourselves beneficially. We can’t change the world. We can change ourselves. And when we realise that the distinction between world and self eventually dissolves, then that changes everything.

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