“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” — Jalal al-Din Rumi
Are we ready for a conversation about the root causes of racial discord, income inequality, police brutality, war? Or are we content to tinker with political measures we believe can finally rid the world of these scourges despite centuries of failure? Political power is not the answer to what’s ailing humanity. All action based on our limited understanding of ourselves and the world around us results in partial “solutions” that create new problems which often make life worse. Consider the United State’s war on poverty. It has created a multi-generational, government dependent underclass marked by broken families, violence, crime and poor educational outcomes. Before the “war,” a higher percentage of Black families were intact, owned homes and were economically upwardly mobile.
“And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed,” Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.
Still, many put their faith in government to change the world. But this is forced change, made with the iron fist of law, regulations, courts, police and so on. Can we change others through force? The answer is no. Why not? Because force implies conflict and conflict cannot rid us of conflict. As the saying goes, you don’t fight fire with fire. Another reason forced change has failed is it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. If you throw a rock at a dog, it might bite the rock.
The cause of strife in society is spiritual poverty. Only when we finally address this condition will the world reach its full potential. What is spiritual poverty? We need to look no further than our inner world to discover our impoverished condition. However, looking inside is not something we learn in school, nor at home or from our peers. We are outwardly focused, and, as a result, neglect what’s happening inside. Like an overrun garden full of weeds, our minds are left in a state of chaos and decay. It’s time we take care of our invisible gardens, and in so doing, change the world.
Spiritual poverty is the normal human state and many religious figures have tried to address it. Jesus pointed out how people were basically dead inside and needed to be reborn to find a more abundant life. Others have tried to get people to be more attuned to their inner world through meditation or mindfulness. Most conclude humanity is in need of an inner revolution: from self-absorption to inter-connectedness, from fearfulness to kindness, from addiction to freedom.
To move from our current state to another is no easy task. The inner world is subtle and can be frustrating when someone first attempts to inquire into it. But let’s begin with the obvious: how do you feel right now? Are you joyful and at peace? Are you deeply moved by the song of a bird or the wisp of a cloud? Does the voice of a child or the gait of a dog fill you with happiness? Does the sight of a woman preparing a meal for her family make you stop in your tracks with deep admiration? Do you feel a kinship with strangers, people who are older, younger, come from different religions, cultures, races, political stances? When you come upon a field of grass covered with morning dew, do you feel this shimmering scene was created for you? Probably not. More than likely you have experienced fleeting moments of inner fullness. Sadly, some people never do. Either way, that is the problem. We are inwardly either dying or dead. We are moved by little and connected to even less. And when we act from that insensitive, disconnected state, we cause harm to everyone and everything around us.
The first step in changing ourselves and the world is to become aware of our current condition. This can only be done when we pay attention to our minds and hearts with a patient, compassionate approach. It does us no good to look at ourselves through a judgemental prism as this prejudice comes directly from the state of spiritual poverty. No change is possible with a judgemental mind. To observe ourselves engaged in jealousy, for example, we accomplish nothing if we name it jealousy and see it as something bad. No, we need to see things afresh, to observe our jealousy as if we never experienced it before. We need to get close to it, to feel it and let it speak to us. It can and will teach. And, once touched by it, we fully understand it. We see how it arises and blossoms and what it does to our relationships. Once we see this with a loving mind, the transformation takes place. We are no longer a prisoner to jealousy. This process of loving self-examination must be applied to all that exists in our minds, especially the things we wish to get away from: fear, greed, lust, hatred and so on.
Spiritual life does matter. It is the source of all that is good and wholesome in us, as well as all that is divisive and corrosive. Like a garden, our minds and hearts need attention. We need to water our flowers with loving observation and to pull out the weeds that choke them with that same compassionate attention. If each of us devotes the loving energy needed to look inside, we can change the world. After all, we are the world.