Be The Change You Seek

Be The Change You Seek


My first public event of this new year was a symposium on Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream. How to bring developed nations out of the trance of runaway consumption and exploitation of the earth’s resources; how to help people commit to “bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just human presence on this planet, as the guiding principle of our times.”

The presenters were preaching to the choir, in a way – 200+ environmental activists already “reducing, re-using, recycling,” already committed to developing solar power and stopping global warming. What impressed me the most that day was the model of change I’ll describe below which we could apply to working for any socially just cause. Similar to the Great Turning of eco-activist Joanna Macy, which I’ll interweave in the Reflections below, how to start where you are, do what you can, and ripple out.

As my friend Rick Hanson says in his new book Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, (another powerful model of change), “We inhabit a world poised on the edge of a sword. Across the planet, slowly but surely, we’re seeing increasing democratization, a growing number of grassroots organizations, and more understanding of our fragile inter-connectedness. On the other hand, the world is getting hotter, military techonologies are increasingly lethal, and a billion people go to sleep hungry every night.”

At this time of year of setting intentions to become a more conscious, compassionate presence on the planet, may these reflections, teachings, and tools be useful to you and yours.


Being the Change You Seek – and Rippling Out

1. Awakening to Where We Are

The first step in awakening the dreamer, changing the dream is to honestly understand the mess we’re in, whether personal, national, or global. Waking our slumbering souls out of a mind-numbing, heart-deadening apathy, what Joanna Macy calls the “apathaeia” of our shadowed darkness. Choosing to educate ourselves: that tropical rain forests are disappearing at the rate of 100,000 acres a day – an area larger than the state of West Virginia – a day. That one in four girls and one in six boys is the victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. That one in every six people in the world lack access to safe drinking water.

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.
– H.G. Wells

At the same time being careful to anchor our growing awareness in a pro-active compassion for ourselves, for anyone facing the angst and anguish of our current realities. We need deep compassion and a deep faith in the courage and resilience of the human spirit to face what’s facing us – an accelerating depletion of resources, seemingly relentless poverty and disease – without flinching. To move through honest grief and potential paralysis to a dynamic vision and collaborative action that will get all of us out of the mess we’re all in. We may have to educate ourselves about that, too. Movies like Inconvenient Truth (global warming) or Tapped (true ecological footprint of bottled water or Manufactured Landscapes (environmental destruction from massive industrialization in China) are part of that education, part of how to move into resilient and creative action.

2. Awakening to How Did We Get Here?

Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

The second step is shifting our perceptions to face squarely the root causes and conditions of how we got here so we can begin to take responsibility for our own actions and their consequences.

When I was a child, our dentist would give me a lollipop if I behaved well in the dentist’s chair. Now that we know the role of sugar forming the plaque in our mouths that bacteria eat through, creating cavities in our teeth, conscientious dentists now pass out kiddy dental floss rather than lollipops.

We learn to unpack the thousand causes upstream that threaten to destroy our planet or the well-being of the 6.8 billion people now inhabiting it – buying plastic bottles of water that will take 450 years to degrade in a landfill or that will float 500 years in the North Pacific Gyre – 4 million tons of plastic debris floating in the north Pacific, an area as big as the state of Texas. Leaving a scared, lonely child to cry alone, not providing the physical comfort that would regulate their nervous system and promote brain development. Or, as Julia Butterfly Hill asks us in the Awakening The Dreamer presentation, “When you throw something away, where’s “away?” There’s no such thing.” Waking up to what is allows us to show up where we can and begin to act wisely.

3. Changing the Dream

The third step is embracing a radically new vision of inter-connectedness. We all know this poetically, metaphorically,

Human kind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
– Chief Seattle

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.
-John Muir

Science is now weighing in with the data of that inter-connectedness in the web all life, whether on the micro level of DNA as the genetic code of life itself or the macro level of our very bodies being composed of the chemicals created during the Big Bang. We are more alike than different.

Buddhist teacher Wes Nisker points out in his Evolution Sutra in Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again that 99.99% of our personal DNA is identical with the DNA of every human being on the planet. 98% of our DNA is the same as that of the great apes. 90% of our DNA is the same as in mice (!); 50% is the same as in yeast (!!!) 25% is the same as in bananas (!!!). (Wes calls DNA – this logo of life – Divine Natural Abundance.)

Fully realizing this undeniable inter-connectedness – what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being” – creates the quantum transformation we need in human consciousness to create the platform for informed, creative, effective action – in any cause, at any time.

Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society – its world views, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions – rearranges itself. We are currently living through such a transformation.
– Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society

4. Where Do We Go From Here?

These are the highlights of creating effective and sustainable action from Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream. I offer suggestions for specific actions in Exercises to Practice below.

1) Start where you are – what are you already doing to be the change you seek?
2) Know your passion – what helps you come most alive that will sustain your commitment over the long haul
3) Begin – Sustain – Extend – whatever you do ripples out in widening circles
4) Anchor hope in your own heart, not in outcomes or external conditions
5) Create momentum and impact by collaborating with others in community


What we need is what the ancient Israelites called hochma – the science of the heart…the capacity to see, to feel, and then to act as if the future depended on you. Believe me, it does.
– Bill Moyers

* * * * *

The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.
– Mohandis K. Gandhi

* * * * *

I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
– Helen Keller

* * * * *

It is I Who Must Begin

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try –
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
–to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
–as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
not the most important one
to have set out upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.
– Vaclav Havel

* * * * *

Until one is committed there is always hesitancy,
The chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness,
Concerning all acts of initiative and creation,
There is one elementary truth,
The ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
Raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen accidents and meetings
And material assistance which no man could have dreamed
Would come his way.
– W.H. Murray, deputy leader of 1951 Scottish Expedition to climb Mt. Everest

* * * * *

In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Psalm 15 translated by Stephen Mitchell

Lord, who can be trusted with power,
And who may act in your place?
Those with a passion for justice,
Who speak the truth from their hearts;
Who have let go of selfish interests
And grown beyond their lives;
Who see the wretched as their family
And the poor as their flesh and blood.
They alone are impartial
And worthy of the people’s trust.
Their compassion lights up the earth,
And their kindness endures forever.


Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her Kenya-based Greenbelt Movement that organized 600 community networks in Kenya to plant over 30 million trees as the entry point for grassroots self-determination and a sweeping movement for social justice.

“Our planet is choking from greenhouse gases. Trees capture the carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Anyone, anywhere in the world can Plant for the Planet”

In 2006, Dr. Maathai helped launch the United Nations Environmental Program’s Billion Tress Campaign to plant at least one billion trees worldwide each year. In three years, over 7 billion trees, indigenous trees appropriate to their local environments, have been planted and registered with BTC online.

“Our population is 6.8 billion and expanding. Our resources are not expanding. We have planted one tree for every person on the planet and then some. It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. We must stand up for what we believe in.”

* * * * * * *

Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel grow vegetables in blizzardy Minnesota winters with their passive solar greenhouse. They deliver the yummy greens to 20 households every week with a waiting list twice that size. They’ve written “The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual” and consult with hospitals, schools, senior centers, churches and restaurant in the upper Midwest about utilizing passive solar greenhouses. (See Ode magazine for more about Carol and Chuck and other eco-activists.

* * * * * * *

There is a growing movement among conscious, compassionate educators to teach yoga and meditation in public and private schools to help students manage anxiety and stress. This Story to Learn From is excerpted from Greater Good magazine; follow this link for the full story.
Mindful Kids, Peaceful Schools — By Jill Suttie

With eyes closed and deep breaths, students are learning a new method to reduce anxiety, conflict, and attention disorders. But don’t call it meditation.

At Toluca Lake elementary school in Los Angeles, a cyclone fence encloses the asphalt blacktop, which is teeming with kids. It’s recess time and the kids, who are mostly Latino, are playing tag, yelling, throwing balls, and jumping rope. When the bell rings, they reluctantly stop and head back to their classrooms—except for Daniel Murphy’s second grade class.

Murphy’s students file into the school auditorium, each carrying a round blue pillow decorated with white stars. They enter giggling and chatting, but soon they are seated in a circle on their cushions, eyes closed, quiet and concentrating. Two teachers give the children instructions on how to pay attention to their breathing, telling them to notice the rise and fall of their bellies and chests, the passage of air in and out of their noses. Though the room is chilly—the heating system broke down earlier that day—the children appear comfortable, many with Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.

“What did you notice about your breath this morning?” one teacher asks.

“Mine was like a dragon,” says Michael, a child to the teacher’s right. Albert, another child, adds, “Yeah, I could see mine. It was like smoke.”

The teachers lead the children through 45 minutes of exercises focused on breathing, listening, movement, and reflection. At different points, the kids are asked to gauge their feelings—calm, neutral, or restless. There are no right or wrong answers, just observation. The session ends with the children lying quietly on their backs, stuffed animals rising and falling on their stomachs, as they contemplate peace within themselves and in their community. Later, seven–year–old Emily sums up her experience. “I like the class because it makes me calm and soft inside. It makes me feel good.”

Toluca Lake is one of a growing number of schools that are using “mindfulness trainings” in an effort to combat increasing levels of anxiety, social conflict, and attention disorder among children. Once a week for 10 to 12 weeks, the students at Toluca take time out from their normal curriculum to learn techniques that draw on the Buddhist meditative practice of mindfulness, which is meant to promote greater awareness of one’s self and one’s environment. According to mindfulness educator Susan Kaiser, bringing this practice into schools is “really about teaching kids how to be in a state of attention, where they can perceive thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions without judgment and with curiosity and an open state of mind.”

See also Mindfulness in Education Network


1) Start where you are

Similar to Pema Chodron’s book of the same title, bring a compassionate awareness to what you’re already doing to be the change you seek.

If you’re already re-using your grocery bags and have switched from a plastic to a stainless steel water bottle – great. If you’re already having your kids share at dinner what they’re grateful for from the day, and having 30 minutes of cuddle time at the end of the day (oxytocin, hormone of safety, trust, bonding; parents get nourished as much as the kids) – great. If you’re already praying for three people in your life who have ongoing health or financial challenges in their lives (and maybe even sending the occasional casserole or donation to a “don’t break down – break through” fund) – great. We’re better able to initiate and sustain new actions when we can claim the momentum we already have and build from there, rather than feeling like we’re coming from should’s or ought’s or deficit.

[In the moment of writing this paragraph I learned from a friend that people wishing to donate to relief efforts in Haiti can text a message saying so and the amount. Verizon is forwarding all of the money from all texted pledges to relief efforts in Haiti immediately, AT&T 80%, trusting that subscribers will pay up. Great]

Make your list of 10 Things I Already Do to Be the Change I Seek. Pick three of them to expand in some way in the coming weeks, months, year. Check in with yourself (or a creating conscious, compassionate change buddy – buddies really help sustain our momentum) at the end of the month to celebrate what you’ve done… and continue.

2) Know your passion – what purpose helps you come most alive that will sustain your commitment over the long haul.

Neuroscience teaches us that it’s far healthier for our brains to use the release of dopamine, the hormone of reward and pleasure, as a motivator for the long haul, than cortisol, the hormone of stress and threat. Dopamine steadies our attention and opens our minds to flow and learning. Cortisol destroys cells in our brain’s memory centers and shuts down our immune system. When our work is fueled by our passion, it sustains through the darkest hours.

The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest, it’s wholeheartedness.
– David Stendl-Rast

For me, it was noticing how my heart leapt up every time I saw kids, teenagers, moms, soldiers, planting trees in the Awakening the Dreamer presentation. Of course, I have loved roaming forested wilderness all my life. Trees are the lungs of the planet, capturing greenhouse gases and releasing oxygen. Planting trees is something I can do, with deep passion, for the rest of my life.

Identify the people, activities, causes which quicken your spirit and set your soul on fire. (If that’s not easy to do right off, check out How We Choose To Be Happy by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks; it’s a terrific resource for identifying and centralizing what brings deep, genuine happiness in your life.) Prioritize one activity or cause as the platform for wise action in the coming weeks, months, year. Continue through these exercises until you find other people on fire about the same cause…and let their commitment help sustain yours.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong….

Anything or anyone
that does not bring you fully alive

Is too small for you.
– David Whyte

3) Begin – sustain – extend

Do all that you can, with all that you have, in the time that you have, in the place where you are.
– Nkosi Johnson, who died of AIDS at age 12

We begin wherever we can begin. We do what we can wherever we can. We match our passion to act with what actions are needed in the world and extend our actions in small, sustainable steps to wider and wider circles.

The Tibetan compassion practice of Tonglen teaches practitioners to breathe into our heart center the misery and suffering of fellow human beings (all beings) and breathe back out wishes for compassion. There is so much suffering in the world we could try to take in and breathe out compassion for: mothers of dying children in Baghdad, children without mothers dying in Darfur, people dying in Haiti and the doctors and first responders doing what they can for them. One woman at a Tonglen workshop asked if she could begin practicing with her son’s high school football team. Of course! Begin! Sustain. Extend.

Many, many years ago when a friend asked me what I was giving up for Lent, I somewhat flippantly said, “Chocolate.” She answered back in dead seriousness, “Why don’t you give up your racism?” Yes, it is good to extend the horizon of what we think we’re capable of, matching what we can do with what’s needed. And, the process of giving up chocolate gets the system moving to give up anything at all, including racism.

Every single one of us can do something, however small, to make a difference.
– Archbishop Desmond Tutu

He who saves one life saves the world entire.
– The Talmud

4) Anchor hope in your own heart, not in outcomes or external conditions

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
– Vaclav Havel

We take great inspiration from world leaders who have kept hope alive in their own hearts when nothing, nothing, nothing external could warrant it. Vaclav Havel stayed true to the conviction of human freedom until the Prague Spring freed his country from communist totalitarianism. Nelson Mandela chose to have compassion for his guards for the 27 years he spent in prison so that love wouldn’t die in him before he saw his country freed of apartheid. Remembering now the anniversary of the inauguration of “Yes We Can!”

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

We need to take the lesson, too, and fuel our determination to stay the course, regardless of what the prognosis looks like at the moment. (See the April 2009 e-newsletter on Resilience for more reflections and tools.)

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
– Albert Camus

5) Create momentum and impact by collaborating with others in community

We learned in the recent PBS Special “This Emotional Life” that whatever each of us does, kind or angry, affects people directly, and then through them one more person beyond that, and then through them, too, another person beyond that. What we do ripples out in widening circles four people deep, at least. (You can stream the entire 6-hour series free from the PBS website; it’s excellent.)

We ripple out best in face to face, heart to heart, contact with others. Communities for change where our enthusiasm energizes others and they energize us. There’s an invisible but powerfully felt resonance in social groups; human beings evolved to communicate emotionally, unconsciously, millions of years ago to survive on the savannah. We can harness this unconscious emotional contagion for good or ill; there’s a religious fervor to a political rally, whether it’s for peace or war.

When we can pro-actively harness this energy in creative collaboration with others for good, we build on the innate capacities of our brains to work better when they’re interacting with other brains. When people share passions and ideas, their individual brains fire at a higher frequency and in better synchrony. Our brains are the most integrated, and thus the most creative and productive, in community.

And our enthusiasm is more sustained in community as well. At the 2009 Bioneers conference, Paul Hawken began to read the names of environmental organizations now working around the world for environmental sustainability – the largest social and environment movement in history that is re-imagining the world from the bottom up. As the list scrolled up the video screen, Paul said he could read for the rest of the afternoon, and the rest of the evening, and into the next day, and into the next three weeks before he would finish reading the names of the 2 million (!) organizations now working to create global environmental change.

If we work together, we will come to know exactly what we need to create a sustainable life for all life.
– Lynn Twist, co-founder of Pachamama Alliance, sponsor of the Symposium

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
– Margaret Mead.


There’s an explosion of resources for creating change and rippling out; have you noticed? Here are some gems:


Watch the 4-minute Symposium trailer to experience new energy and hope for an environmentally sustainable and socially just future for our planet. Symposiums are offered regularly all across the country and around the world, a guaranteed afternoon of inspiration to become the change we seek. Available through the Symposium is The Sustainable World Sourcebook, a wealth of facts about issues, viable solutions, and resources for action.


Joanna Macy is a world-renowned teacher, writer, workshop leader on Buddhist philosophy, systems theory and deep ecology. Her books include World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal: and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. The website offers interviews, writings, practices, and a calendar of workshops and retreats.


TED is a 25 year old non-profit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. TED brings to annual conferences in Long Beach, California, Oxford, England, and Mysore, India the world’s cutting edge thinkers and doers in science, technology, entertainment, design, business and global issues. Over 4 days, 50 speakers each take an 18 minute slot to talk about topics as varied as mirror neurons, myths that shape the growth of business in Asian v. Western economies, harnessing water resources in desert climates, encouraging creativity and passion in schools. 450 conference talks, translated into 50 languages, are now easily viewable, for free, from TED’s website. Samples:

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love on nurturing creativity
Al Gore on the accelerated pace of climate change
Jill Bolte Taylor on her stroke of insight
Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence, on why it’s so difficult to be compassionate.

TED creates a global community offering a larger view of ourselves to make visible an intricately inter-connected whole. I enjoy watching a TED talk at the end of a long week when I need to be re-inspired by so many people launching super-creative, super-transformative projects.


Mentioned in the October 2009 e-newsletter on Resonance, KarmaTube is a collection of “do something” videos coupled with simple actions every viewer can take. One of my favorites: Making a Difference in Africa. Lidia Schaefer is now a manicurist in Washington, D.C. When she heard a6 year old child had been killed walking three hours to the nearest school (which was held not in a building but under a tree), Lidia raised $250,000 to build an 8-building secondary school in her home town of Feres Mai, Ethiopia that now educates 1,500 students each year.


Lots of resources, of course, including This I Believe: interviews, available as podcasts or transcripts, of folks who have found the courage and motivation to do their part to create a sustainable future for all. One example, Van Jones, founder of Oakland, CA based Green for All, a green jobs advocacy group that put urban youth in green jobs in the solar industry and green construction so that society could fight poverty and pollution at the same time. Jones wrote Green Collar Economy and became a special advisor to the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


CNN recognizes the impact of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things in its annual Heroes awards.

Brad Blauser was working as a civil contractor in Baghdad in 2004 when he noticed how many Iraqi children were disabled from the war, accidents, or birth defects. (Nearly one in every seven children in Iraq.) His Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids has distributed nearly 650 free pediatric wheelchairs to disabled children in Iraq to date. Brad plans to continue his work in Iraq until every child who needs a wheelchair has one.

After surviving breast cancer herself, Andrea Ivory organized hundreds of volunteers to visit 18,000 homes in Florida, educating women about early detection of breast cancer; Andrea’s “army” has provided 500 mammograms to uninsured women to date.

16-year old Jordan Thomas lost both legs in a boating accident. His family could afford to provide the state of the art prosthetics that allowed Jordan to resume an active life. But in the long period of recovery Jordan saw many fellow amputees whose parents didn’t have health insurance or savings to cover $24,000 prosthetic devices. Jordan and his family launched a foundation to provide prosthetics for children who might outgrow several sets of prosthesis before reaching the age of 18. His foundation has raised $400,000 to date and is now working with Congress to pass a Prosthetics Parity Act which would require insurance companies to cover the cost of prosthetics in the same proportion they do for surgeries.

Ode Magazine

I recommended Ode magazine in the August 2009 e-newsletter on Laughter. I recommend Ode again for their special issue on “the solutions we need now: how the renewable energy economy will halt global warming, clean up the planet, create millions of jobs and make us all healthier,” which you can download free online.

Inner Resources for Being the Change We Seek

We continue the inner work of “growing up and waking up” even as we extend our concern and action to the larger world and all beings. Two masterpieces:

Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius. New Harbinger Publications, 2009

This gem of a book draws on the latest research to show how to stimulate and strengthen the brain for more fulfilling relationships, a deeper spiritual life, and a greater sense of inner confidence and worth. Readers learn how to activate the brain states of calm, joy, and compassion instead of worry, sorrow, and anger. Clear and down-to-earth, the book is filled with practical tools and skills readers can use in their daily lives to tap the unused potential of the brain and re-wire it over time for greater well-being and peace of mind, a necessary platform for engaging with the social ills of our times.

Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander. Bantam Books, 2010.

Released just last week, this book is already headed to be a best seller. Based on the very popular 10-month Awakening Joy course, the authors skillfully lead the readers through inclining the mind, mindfulness, gratitude, finding joy in difficult times, blamelessness, letting go, loving ourselves, loving others, compassion and simply being, with deep heart and insight. The stories, quotes, tools and exercises make the program and very practical and productive one. Treat yourself.