You can’t change the world

A reflection on perception, on the nature of identity, and on physics.

– A new definition of hope –

It was perhaps half a lifetime ago, somewhere in Northern Thailand. I had wandered through the partially overgrown ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery. I was touched by the simple natural serenity and intrigued by a mysterious lighthearted friendliness, lingering over the place like a beautiful fragrance. Some bald brown-robed monks were strolling through the place, moving with calm, easeful dignity, free of any somber solemnity.

I don’t know how it happened but I actually approached one of them – I’m sure I was somehow curious if these hairless creatures were really normal human beings. And I was intrigued by his completely natural response. He was still young, although maybe twice my age, and he spoke better English than me.

I probably started asking childish questions, but he listened very carefully. He laughed and made funny remarks, but he didn’t miss a word of what I said, and we slowly moved into a long and deep conversation. He didn’t ask the usual questions like where I’m from and what I do etc, my usual résumé seemed to have little effect on him. He didn’t treat me like a tourist or a foreigner. In a way he was deeply interested in that mysterious nameless “me” I myself knew so little about.

Although still young, I had already traveled the world and seen a lot. I had seen some of the brutal truth of how people suffered everywhere, how far more people than I ever imagined lived on this globe in undeserved misery, and how the easy life I knew was almost a miraculous exception. And I felt a tremendous burden of uncertainty, of indistinct responsibility and even guilt about my ignorance and impotence. How should one live, being spared such hardship but knowing all this? What is my role in this? What is the purpose? What am I supposed to do?

I don’t really remember what I said, but I remember the wonderful feeling of being genuinely and compassionately listened to. In the end he dropped one sentence that fell deep into my heart and rested there for the rest of my life:

“You can’t change the world but you can change yourself.”

He bowed to me when he left. No one had ever done that to me.

What he said didn’t impress me at first. “You can’t change the world, so changing yourself must do.” I had heard this platitude before. I’m one of those to whom this message sounded at first like a resignation, like giving in to our own insufficiency. It sounds like only the next best solution. We are too weak, too ignorant, always simply not good enough to really live up to our own expectations. We should reach out and change what we see out there, it seems so dreadfully necessary. But most of us find it eventually impossible. So we reluctantly decide to change at least what we can reach: ourselves. But it’s really not more than just “second choice”.

It took a great deal of living and relentless investigation to discover my deep misconception and to gradually understand the in fact inspiring and profoundly liberating truth of this insight. And in my dreams I’ve bowed to this young monk over and over again in my life.

Today I think the reason that we can’t change the world is not a lack of capability, a lack of skill or power, not even a lack of appropriate evolutionary disposition (as if we possibly could change the world if we were only somehow designed differently). The reason has, in a most wonderful way, nothing to do with us.

There is a fundamental misconception we seem to be born with. It’s been cultivated to blinding proportions in certain cultural epochs and deeply questioned in others, but it also seems to be an innate quality of our psychological make up. – We perceive the world as separate from us. We consider ourselves occupants, inhabitants, maybe visitors, sometimes owners of the world. We consider the world a stage, a playground, the background for our existence – admittedly incredibly complex and of astronomical dimensions, but still just the place on which we live.

It is quite amazing how profoundly inaccurate this is. Whatever we are, we are not separate. On an intuitive level we mostly knew this all along, but by now we actually have all the objective scientific evidence; now we know it on a conscious level. We are not only inseparably part of this world in the sense of an unbreakable connection, but, in fact, neither we nor the world are really entities or objects with borders that could separate. The whole idea is an illusion, a misinterpretation of reality due to insufficient observation, due to unwise trust in the reliability of our thinking mind. The whole concept of subject and object is a huge trap. The most striking aspect of the world, in the light of a new emancipated, informed scientific view today, seems to be “universal inter-dependence”. Everything is connected to and dependent upon everything else. There is really no such thing as an autonomous individual entity.

We think things are made of stuff and stuff would be an object. We found that visible stuff is actually made of smaller invisible stuff and that, in turn, consists of still much smaller stuff that is barely detectable. And we keep looking for the ultimately smallest stuff, the object matter is made of. But what we perceive as stuff is – so dramatically opposed to our perception – not an object at all. Physicists tell us that matter doesn’t really consist of parts, that the ultimately “smallest parts” of matter, the tiniest subatomic particles we manage to detect don’t look like parts at all. They are nothing like things, but events, fluctuations of energy, something that is and is not at the same time, depending on the way you look. Some of them are attributed with the bizarre property of being “non-local”, things that actually have no definitive place in space and no borders. And – what is even more counterintuitive, if we insist on the concept of “parts” – these “things” are far from being packed tightly to form an object. In fact, they are so far apart from each other that the idea of a border around them becomes ridiculous. Stuff is indescribable, certainly nothing solid of any sort. What we thought was solid matter with reliable, defining, separating borders around it is, to a mind-boggling extent, nothing but absolutely empty space.

Einstein once went so far to see matter as not more than a metaphor when he said: ‘what impresses our senses as matter is really only a great concentration of energy onto a comparatively small space‘. The difference between matter and empty space, between something and nothing, is essentially merely a quantitative rather than a qualitative one.

The whole concept of separation looks like a psychological trick our mind came up with in order to make “sense”. Physicists told us already a long time ago: ‘When we look at something close enough, the very act of our looking changes it‘. Heisenberg once said it in a still cautious way: ‘What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning‘. Where is the separation?

It would be totally naïve to expect that this latest view might be the ultimate word on the subject, but it already unseats the old view that there was a “stage” on which we could play independently.

The point is: We cannot change the world, we are what changes the world. The whole idea of the object of change needs to be revised. We can’t change the world without changing ourselves at the same time. When we change ourselves we automatically change the world, even when we don’t intend to. When we focus on changing ourselves, with the underlying awareness of influencing the whole world, we have a more realistic view of who we really are, and we are in tune with what is actually going on.

I think that due to this universal inter-connectedness it is intrinsically impossible to ever see the full effect of our actions. It may be difficult to imagine, but there is really nothing that is not affected by our actions. Depending on our sensory equipment and the typical self-oriented nature of our mind we tend to think that the effects of our actions diminish over distance in space or distance in time. We all know how devastatingly inaccurate this observation really is. In order to adapt to the too simplistic model of action and effect we already came up with the neat term ‘side effect‘. Who doesn’t know what an incredibly tricky and deceiving business it is to calculate an effect and plan an action? I sometimes think that it is much more efficient to observe what’s already happening by itself than trying to actually change things, to plan an action.

So we not only can change the world. We do it all the time whether we intend to or not. And we can do it consciously by changing ourselves. Our apparently so disappointing impotence was not more than a misinterpretation.

But the degree or quality of the world-change we cause seems unknowable. Not only for us but absolutely, because – again – there is really nothing like an uninvolved reference point from where it could objectively be measured.

I think there is only one way out of this tangle of impossibilities, and that is hope.

And hope is so much more than just wishful or positive thinking – which could so easily be false hope. Real hope is a willingness to be completely realistic – realistic not only in the sense of being determined to not exclude anything from the evaluation of a situation, not even the ghost of a chance for an advantageous outcome, but realistic about the whole process of evaluation itself, of judging, and about its intrinsic insufficiency.

Hope is a willingness to be fearlessly realistic about our true nature, about the actual limitations of our mind. Hope says: Maybe things are different, more different than I even can imagine. Hope is essentially no thought at all. It lies before thought, it’s the ground notion of not excluding anything of the full potential of reality, not reducing it to just the “thinkable”. Hope dwells in the heart, not in the head. The absence of hope – hopelessness –  is in its very essence a thought, a creation of the mind, an interpretation of experienced reality; it is a conclusion and a judgement. But hope – this fearless realism – is a willingness to swim freely in the sea of unknowability, to surrender to our complete connectedness and the underlying incomprehensible, somehow implausible general “ok-ness” of everything. Hope is the calm, non-violent resistance against the dominating dictate of the mind. Hope is disobedience, the attitude of not entirely believing what we think. Hope may be what remains when thought finally discovers its own “hopeless” inadequacy.

When we get lost in the ceaseless labor of personal change, in the endless struggle to strip ourselves of all the armor, masks, and images we carry around, in the frustrating business to ‘uninstall‘ programs we had never asked or intended to load. When we try to put on the brakes, not really knowing what to do, but feeling that we’re heading the wrong way. When we feel powerless and insignificant in the midst of the “catastrophe of world”, today, I think we should try to trust the world-changing “side effects” of our lonely decision to change ourselves.

 By changing ourselves we do change the world.

                                                                      © Klaus Kommoss   1995

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3 Responses to You can’t change the world

  1. GreenSea20 says:

    Fascinating posts, many thanks!

  2. hazel says:

    🙂 i just got home from a 3 day retreat and teachings on “emptiness”….heheh..love your new posts Klaus! i wish we could meet and chat face to face i have a lot i’d like to comment on but it gets a bit windy!
    “appearance to mind is merely a projection, imputed by conceptual thought” some of what i heard/read over the weekend. “change your mind, change your world” one of the quotes i frequently remind myself with when i forget that i am still aspiring(hope) to become…a self that realizes the truth of ALL existence, that phenomena/beings exist so vastly different than my innate education led me to believe! intellectually i get “it” what i hope for is the experience/wisdom…progress.

  3. You know, the term progress can be quite misleading. Our usual concept of progress relates to a forward or upward motion, like getting to a place you haven’t been before. Progress in dharma-terms is letting go, no motion at all, ending motion instead.
    Don’t forget, to see your own ignorance is the greatest accomplishment one can hope for. When you see that you don’t know, you begin to know.

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