Can We Change?

In the past few years, as Parabola has searched for ways to survive and be useful in the world, the question of how to live as if we are all interconnected has moved to the center of my life. We mutually belong to one another and to a greater whole—this ancient idea resonates with me on the deepest level.  Yet, on a less deep, more worldly level it also feels dangerous, something to be practiced by special beings like Jesus and Buddha, or at least in very special and safe conditions with like-minded individuals.

Younger contributors to Parabola disagree. Nipun Mehta, offers a profile of his friend. Pancho Ramos Stierle in the current Burning World issue, that includes images of Pancho meditating while getting hauled away by police in Occupy Oakland, picking up broken glass in the street.  The son of an economics scholar and author, Pancho came from Mexico to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley, only to leave school to become an uncompromising activist of compassionate and nonviolent social change, much influenced by Gandhi: “For Pancho, the whole world, every moment, is his field of practice.  When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness. “

Reading about Pancho, a reader can’t help but feel uplifted but also full of wondermet, that such purity of heart and action can exist in this world.  What about the rest of worldlings?   Well, it turns out that Pancho and Nipun have many like-minded (they might prefer “like-hearted”) friends.  Last winter, Nipun and his wife Guri were invited to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to speak at a conference with youth leaders from 193 countries.  Mehta used a word that isn’t yet in the dictionary:  “giftivism,” which he defined as the practice of radical acts of generosity to change the world.   Admitting that youth are best equipped to do the impossible, Nipun proceeded to describe how he and friends started a volunteer-run, internet-based charity organization called ServiceSpace that today has 350,000 members.

“Gandhi, Teresa, MLK, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela all have one remarkable trait in common: generosity,” Nipun said in his speech in Paris. “And in our era of the Internet, everything has been dis-intermediated, and our heroes are no exception.  Era of celebrity is over as we usher in the era of everyday Gandhis.”   He went on to describe a gift economy from the inside, as inner  shifts in attitude from consumption to contribution, from mistrust to trust, from isolation to community, from scarcity to abundance—in which you begin to notice and value non-material resources, like connection or “social connection.”

What does it really take to change?  Most of us have had moments when our attention shifted from figure to ground, from narrow egocentric centered way of looking at the world to feeling as if we are participating in something much larger.  Often this shift involves a shock of some kind.  In my last post, I described being young and trapped in a narrative of being small, only to have Meryl Streep walk in my little office and show me that kindness and responsiveness are actually more interesting and alive than a concept called celebrity (in that instance of simple kindness, a celebrity was actually choosing to be an “everyday Gandhi.”) Yet those moments pass and my old conditioning takes over.

Learning to spend more time in the gift economy will be a long journey for me.  But I know that times have changed, and ideas and ways that used to seem idealistic and for younger people are beginning to seem incredibly sane and sensible.  Indeed, the nonmaterial wealth that we can draw on in these hard times may be closer than we think.  What do you think?  Do you know people who are shifting the way they live and what they count as wealth?

Here, as food for thought, is an exchange I had with Jonathan F.B. Rose, also in the Burning World issue.

Parabola:  How are we to change?

JR:   The first thing we have to change is the way we see things, moving from a linear view to a holistic view.  It is hard to understand one’s effect on the whole system.  To reduce environmental impacts, many more people are paying more attention to turning off lights when they leave a room, for example.  This is a very good thing but many Americans are far more polluting in their auto use and other transportation habits.  One of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and for the world is to walk.  Yet we don’t live in a world that is organized for walking.  Many Americans live in suburban areas that are designed to require auto use and make walking very impractical for most activities so there is an inherent pattern in the land use system that deeply shapes our environmental behaviors.

If we want to shift our environmental behaviors, we will not get there by proposing changes that lead to increased suffering.  Environmental solutions will be mostly accepted if they lead to increased pleasure and increased quality of life.  What we are seeing is that when cities and communities create bike lanes and great safe sidewalks planted with trees, when the train stations have winterized parking for bikes, when the system is designed to encourage people to have healthy behaviors, they eagerly do it.  Somebody told me today that the biggest problem with the bike lanes in New York is that they are crowded, and that’s because they were made safe and convenient.

P:   Consciousness seems to change when it has to.  In northern Westchester where I live, during this power outage the Salvation Army has set up a warming center in the local middle school.  It was like the village green. People of all ages and income levels were mingling there to get warm, to charge our phones and computers, and to talk about how the weather is changing and what we can do about it. This willingness to change and to pull together just seemed to appear.   Of course it may be very temporary.

JR:  From an evolutionary point, human beings have the patterns of a “we map” and a “me map.” These are cultural but also cognitive and neurological patterns.  The “me map” is the self-preservation model, single issue, single response, very linear. If a bear jumps out of the woods, you fight or flee.  The “me” issues, the ego issues, are all either based on fear or desire based issues.    We have a world that has increasingly has been designed around stimulating that. Advertising tries to get you to want something and since 9/11, the language of politics has been based on fear and encouraging consumption. It’s very difficult to deal with complex issues from this “me” way of thinking.  But we are also highly evolved for altruism.   We survived much more in groups than as individuals, and you need a different set of skills to live in a group.  You need to collaborate, to concede, to compromise, and to lead, and you need to balance those all the time.  Altruism is a positive evolutionary trait.  It comes with a neurological system—mirror neurons.  It comes with a cultural system—every culture has a system of collective decision making and a way of appreciating the common good.  This system is very good at dealing with complexity.

We learn that the way we frame messages can stimulate an altruistic mind or an egocentric mind.  Just by reading the word “money” right now shifts you more into the “me” part of the mind. We know that we can also trigger pro social behavior through the messages and commitments of our society.  As  individuals, we can put our fingers on the scale of the collective good—which is really not the opposite of the individual good because everything we use or rely upon comes from so many sources that the collective good is our individual good.





7 thoughts on “Can We Change?

  1. Hi Tracy

    Wonderful thoughts but there is another side. This excerpt is from Dr. Maurice Nicoll’s Commentaries. Take from it what you will:

    Ordinarily, of course we imagine that man can grow and develop in what I might call the natural normal way, simply by education, example, and so on. Yet if we look at history, we find that man has not really developed, and particularly if we look at the present day we cannot boast that man has reached any further stage of development. Look for a moment at the horrors that humanity imposes on itself nowadays. Yet people are prone to imagine that time means progress and that everything is getting better and better as time passes. And as a rule people take the obvious contradictions as exceptional. That is to say, people are always inclined to think that what are really the usual and ever-present circumstances of life in a bad sense are exceptional. You will agree with me perhaps that people that people usually regard war as exceptional. Yet you must admit that if you pick up any book of history you will find that it deals with war in the main, with war, intrigue, people seeking power, and so on. Actually, unless we have the strength of mind to see what ordinary life on this planet is like, we will remain in imagination, or illusion, if you prefer the word. As you know, in this system of work, amongst many sayings which have a great density of meaning – namely, that take a long time to understand – there is one saying that “the level of being of a man attracts his life.” This saying applies to humanity in general – that is the general level of humanity with regards to its being attracts the form of life that it experiences. It is useless to think that wars and horrors and revolutions, etc. are exceptional. What is at fault is the level of being of people. But nobody is willing to understand this and whenever war takes place, as I said, people take it as exceptional, and even speak about a future from war, as soon as the existing war is over. We can see the same process at work now. History repeats itself because man remains at the same level of being – namely, he attracts again and again the same circumstances, feels the same things, says the same things, hopes the same things, believes the same things. And yet nothing actually changes. All the articles that were written in the last war are just the same as the articles written in this war, and will be for ever and ever. But what concerns us more is that the same idea applies to ourselves, to each individual person. As long as there is no change in the level of being, the personal history of the man remains the same. Everything repeats itself in his own life: he says the same things, he does the same things, he commits the same things. And all this belongs to this immensely deep idea that the level of being attracts his life.

    1. Another very useful comment. I’m beginning to see that it is precisely at the moment when we grasp the impossibility of the situation that real change–a real opening–is possible.

      1. Hi Tracy

        As I see it change can be defined as either the result of adaptation or the quality of “being” itself. It is easy to confuse the two.

        When I first read Gurdjieff’s Law of Three – Triamazikamno, it had a strong effect on me. It clarified the distinction between adaptation and evolution.

        Society adapts and a lot of efforts towards societal change is really just efforts to adapt differently as a reaction to external influences. However as Ecclesiastes 3 suggests, there is a time for everything including war and peace in accordance with worldly cycles. No amount of well wishing can change it.

        These efforts are worldly or restricted to one level of reality. Reconciliation leading to mechanical adaptation is merely the result of the effort to make our hypocrisy tolerable through imagination.

        The Law of Three indicates another vertical direction of change that connects us to higher conscious influences. I know that secularism doesn’t like to refer to these influences yet they are essential for conscious evolution or real change for Man. From Beelzebub’s Tales:

        “And as regards the second fundamental primordial cosmic law, namely the sacred Triamazikamno, cosmic Objective Science formulates it in these terms. A new arising from the previously arisen through the “harnel-miatznel, the process of which is actualized thus the higher blends with the lower in order together to actualize the middle, and thus to become either higher for the preceding lower or lower for the succeeding higher.”

        We are a potential middle that can serve both as a lower to higher influences and a conscious higher in relation to mechanical slavery. Real change as I see it is in the process of becoming that middle. But as we know, the World, the Great Beast, is against it. Simone suggests the results of change but it is obvious how far we are from it.

        “The combination of these two facts – the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it – constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality. Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect. This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings.” Simone Weil “Draft for A Statement of Human Obligations” SIMONE WEIL, AN ANTHOLOGY ed. Sian Miles

        Can humanity, through opening to the practice of conscious attention and detachment become capable of allowing for a minority of individuals to become this middle being nourished by the higher and giving to the lower? I don’t know.

      2. Amazing to think of human beings–every human being–as a middleground between heaven and earth, a place of transformation. Personally, I think change is possible. I know it is in the moment.

  2. Thanks Tracey for another wonderful and thoughtful blog..

    Your quote, “What does it really take to change? Most of us have had moments when our attention shifted from figure to ground, from narrow egocentric centered way of looking at the world to feeling as if we are participating in something much larger” captured me as I reflected on your article.

    I believe deeply that as within so without. That the individual internal journey is a microcosm of and a metaphor for, the journey of humanity as whole. Each individual in a sense is grappling with a lack of the sense of “oneness” of themselves, struggling with the acceptance of those disparate egoic parts, struggling with the acceptance of one’s primal drives, struggling with our identifications as just being “a head”, “a body” Struggling with our sense of “Oneness” of ourselves.. Can we change??? Can we sit in the paradox of accepting everything as it is and also our desire to change and move away from what is? As individuals? As humanity ? It would seem to me that the greatest work that anyone can do is to work with their own “world” make peace with the wars that exist within ourselves, accept and allow the disparate parts of it to be and come home to our “true nature” as we observe and accept the totally of who we are. If that involves acting in the world so be it, but as Eckhart Tolle talks of with respect to one’s purpose, the “inner purpose” is primary, as it affects everything you do in the “outer”.

    When enough people on the planet, “a tipping point “, have become more “whole” thus will humanity by virtue of the raising of consciousness. The enormous “problems” of humanity that we are grappling with now at the level of mind and emotion will drop away as they will just be no longer relevant. Somewhat like when you forgive someone totally after you have been grappling with it for years. In that total forgiveness, that integration of all the disparate aspects of oneself in relation to whatever gave rise to a sense of being wronged, in that realisation there was nothing to forgive in a sense, it feels that you can’t even relate to your past need to struggle with that at all.

    As within so without….

    1. Thank you, Marc. Acceptance of what is would be an enormous change. The integrated wholeness that appears in a moment of true forgiveness is very interesting–thanks for bringing it up. It makes me want to reflect on the action of forgiveness–it’s like a another way or seeing another, a way of holding what is in a new light. What if that way of being could be cultivated and extended to all our experience–and to ourselves? Wouldn’t that be a change?

  3. I have misgivings about this post. I do not like to detract from well wishers even if I think they are often misguided. Yet there are those who search for and can profit from an increasing objective human perspective that admits the human condition and it is good to know others have felt the same.

    As I was searching for articles on Simone Weil I discovered one by Marcus Boon called “simone weil, the bursting bubble & the yoga of decreation.” It was in a magazine no longer in existence called Ascent which seems to have been a Canadian version of Parabola. Some of the older articles are still available to read.

    Anyhow, Marcus Boon wrote a good description which I’ve always referred to as spiritual mayonnaise or the process of spreading on wonderful stuff to hide the reality of rotting meat.

    He refers to Simone Weil in the article which naturally attracted me. He wrote of “spiritual inflation which is a similar exaggeration people apply to the value of material goods. The idea is that the exaggeration of wonderful thoughts and gestures hide the reality of the human condition assuring their continuance. Wonderful thoughts without the realization of the human condition can only further imagination.

    ……………………It’s easy to point fingers at those who have inflated the value of real estate, stock prices, luxury consumer items, Picasso paintings and the like. But isn’t there a much broader sense of things being overvalued? An inflation in the value of personalities (the cult of the celebrity, from rock star to professor to yoga instructor), in the value of ideals (the inflation of complex and meaningful words such as democracy or freedom by various governments to justify their actions), in the value of information (the saturation level of media that provides us with instant access to everything, but which leaves us still somehow powerless to change things).

    This overvaluation has squeezed out any activities that cannot or will not package themselves as part of the marketplace. And it’s been accompanied by the collapse of various cultural markets—for musical recordings, magazines and books. What if, rather than the familiar cycles of fashion in which the old is replaced by the new, we are experiencing an overall collapse of the values that have held modern societies together, with nothing there to substitute for things that have been devalued?

    Can we also speak of something like spiritual inflation? I struggle with this. If I vow to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, and am currently unable to achieve this goal, is my vow itself a kind of inflation? To the degree with which I walk around with a sense of moral superiority based on the fact that I have taken this vow, it may be so. And although I am delighted by Obama’s success in the US elections, his reliance on endlessly repeated words such as “hope” and “change” also strike me as a shrewd use of the language of inflation, a last and desperate attempt to flatter his American audience and their need to have something, anything to hold onto. And if all of this is so, could we talk about something called “spiritual deflation”? What would that mean? A return to skepticism, cynicism, to the bare bones materialism which most of us who explore a spiritual path have rejected?

    The finest moment of spiritual deflation I can think of happens in Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa’s book Crazy Wisdom. A student asks what you can gain from having a spiritual practice, and Trungpa’s reply is “nothing.” Someone in the audience asks if we need to hope for some kind of benefit, and Trungpa again responds that the situation is hopeless. The audience is clearly shocked and again and again they try to get Trungpa to offer something that they can hold onto but he refuses. They list the various potential benefits of spiritual practice but again he says sorry, it’s hopeless……………….


    This is deflating to the ego but what if it is true? All this exaggerated social spirituality is really meaningless? You can say he was mean to appear so depressing but what if the Tibetan master was actually being meaningful by inviting us to admit the human condition?

    Shortly Mr. Boon brings Simone into the picture:


    ……………………..I have been reading the great French philosopher, mystic and political activist Simone Weil recently. In the years before World War II, in a Europe torn apart by the rise of fascism, workers’ struggles for rights and the surrealist revolt against all authority, Weil wrote of something she called “decreation.” Although Weil was mostly ignored in her lifetime, her writing has the power today to help us think outside of all the predictable words and categories that seem to define our situation—including “deflation.” She defines decreation as follows: “Decreation: To make something created pass into the uncreated.” And she contrasts decreation with destruction, which she defines as: “To make something created pass into nothingness. A blameworthy substitute for decreation.”

    What is the difference between the “uncreated” and “nothingness”? The uncreated is that which exists whether we want it to or not, beyond our ideas, plans and egos; it is not created by us, yet the fact that we can create anything at all is entirely reliant on it. Nothingness, on the other hand, is an idea, a forced absence or closure, a word we use to try to control the way things, including ourselves, come and go in the realm of the created and uncreated. It is the illusion of an end, and an end that we think we can control through naming. For Weil, decreation is not just an idea; it is a spiritual practice. At the end of the essay she says:

    To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively.
    To exile oneself from every earthly country.
    To do all that to others, from the outside is a substitute
    for decreation. It results in unreality.
    But by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.

    Uproot the illusion, live in the “poverty,” to use one of Weil’s favourite words, of the absence of a grasping self. Yet, evidently there also exists a risk of confusing decreation and destruction, and of succumbing to the fascination of nothingness. It is even possible that Weil herself, who is said to have starved to death during the Second World War, in solidarity with the sufferings of the occupied French people, may have mistaken nothingness for that which exists free of all concepts, uncreated.

    But then Weil makes the remarkable statement: “We have to die in order to liberate a tied up energy, in order to possess an energy which is free and capable of understanding the true relationship of things.” That is the statement of a yogi, and calls up many of the great yogic traditions, from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which begin with the line, “yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations,” to the Tibetan Buddhist practices of Chöd or tonglen—where the giving up of the self is practiced to deflate the ego and open up compassion, to the mystical Christianity of Teresa of Avila………………………………


    Fffor those willing, , ponder the distinction between the uncreated, decreation, and nothingness which reminds me of Gurdjieff’s “pouring from the empty into the void.”

    I know this is not politically correct to say but I’ve come to believe that the great majority of what is called New Age and secular Interfaith is built on the “created”. A person really benefits when they can let it pass into the uncreated rather than defending striving to build on it through the impotense of wishful thinking.

    Those like Simone are not popular for being so precise. The article includes a quote by Anne Carson who says in her essay on Weil and decreation, “Saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history and we resent that.”

    It’s true. Resentment is obvious. Chogyam Trungpa asserts the annoying idea that as we are we can do nothing.

    I have a great deal of respect for those like Simone who have the need and courage to sacrifice imagination for a harsh reality. They are rare but I believe their influence is far more essential than the exchange of wonderful thoughts that hide essential realities which must be seen and admitted. Thomas Merton said of Simone Weil that “Her non-conformism and mysticism are essential elements in our time and without her contribution we remain not human.” It is curious how humanity as a whole scorns what offers awakening to freedom and the potential “to be.”

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