Perspectives from Middlebury student Toby Israel

“Real change must come from within.” “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I worry sometimes that these classic words, so oft parroted by idealists and meditation groups, are beginning to lose their meaning.  Introspection is for the weak, why waste our time on first-world problems when the world has real issues? The cynics quarrel.  Self-improvement is too hard; I’d rather take on world peace, gripe others.  Real change, they seem to agree, is something tangible.  The subtle internal shifting that results from regular meditation or yoga practice, for example, cannot be (easily) measured by surveys or studies.  It does not improve education, cure AIDs or combat poverty. Not directly, anyways.

I spent the month of January in Goa, India completing an intensive 200-hour yoga teacher training.  For four weeks, I literally lived yoga; I breathed consciously, ate consciously, and moved consciously.  I studied philosophy, asana and teaching methods from six in the morning to six at night, and for one month I focused, quite exclusively, on my own mind and body.  My teachers, serious yoga practitioners of various schools and backgrounds, all lived by the philosophy that one must achieve such objectives as peace, contentment, love and well-being in one’s own heart if one hopes to see them manifest in the outer world.  “As within, so without.”  These simple words with far-reaching implications were to be repeated often during those four weeks.

That month, I—and I suspect most of my peers—suffered moments of doubt and guilt at spending my time in such a “selfish” manner.  My friends were busy volunteering at shelters and health clinics, or otherwise doing their part to help their communities and environments, and there I was, what, learning how to stand on my head?  Do I have a right to devote so much energy and attention to myself, I wondered.  For me, the Dalai Lama’s words truly meant something.  I came to the conclusion that studying myself through yoga and striving for contentment and peace in my meditation practice were not ultimately selfish endeavors.  I avidly believe that when we live with intention and compassion our presence positively affects the spaces and people immediately around us; this already is an invaluable force of change.  If we then choose to devote some or all of our time to service, all the better, but that positive force is a service in of itself.

I find that often those involved in social work and other social action initiatives commit their energy to the service of others in lieu of themselves, perhaps feeling the latter is a more worthy pursuit.  I believe, however, that the one informs the other.  Social change cannot come about without individual change, so why not start with oneself.  This is not to discount the necessity and worth of service projects of all kinds—many a self-centered soul-searcher would undoubtedly benefit from the experience of actively making change happen in the world beneath the clouds.  Rather, it is my intention to emphasize the value of self-study and the incredible difference that the cultivation of contentment and compassion can make beyond one’s own life.

If we wish to see social innovation thrive, we cannot forget that innovation, like change, begins within.  There are many ways to make change and do good.  Some people are born businessmen, others artists, still others lawyers or economists.  Some, yes, are meant for a life of social action, but not all.  Everyone, however, can be a positive force in their homes, communities and workplaces.  If nothing else, everyone can make change in their own world.

I would like to close with a parable of uncertain origins and unusual popularity, which I believe is pertinent to this topic:

One day a man went to the beach and he saw a little boy walking along the shore, picking up starfish and tossing them back into the ocean.  The man watched for several minutes, curious; the boy did not pause in his work.  Finally he walked over to the boy and asked, “What are you doing? Don’t you see that the starfish cover the beach for miles? How can you possibly hope to make a difference?”  The boy looked at the man for a moment, picked up another starfish, tossed it into the water, then replied, “Sure made a difference for that one.”