“In Wisdom literature, the principal evil to be attacked is in oneself and the secondary evil to be opposed is the power of anyone who victimizes the weak.”
– David James Duncan
The year was 1969. I was an incoming freshman at Antioch College attending an orientation week. On the first day, in the middle of a meeting, a strong-voiced older student stood up and took the floor: “The most important thing you all need to learn here is how to get involved in the Revolution! We’re here to change this evil, fascist world!” Then a long-haired soft-voiced second student stood up, “I don’t think we can change the world without changing ourselves. We’re here to learn to work on ourselves and if everyone does it, the world will change.” They argued back and forth a bit: “How can you do yoga while people are dying in Vietnam?” “But if the war stops and people haven’t dealt with the violence in themselves, nothing will change.” And then at some point, they both confessed that what appeared spontaneous was set up ahead of time. But the point was well-taken—the boundary lines of my college—and later experience—had been set. Change yourself. Change the world. But the key to the dialogue lay in the prepositions. What began as “either/or” changed to “both/and.”
Seven years later, I found myself in an old boy scout camp on top of Mt. Baldy in Southern California, immersed in a seven-day Zen retreat whose rigorous schedule was designed to awaken to a core selfless self. Awake at 3 am, bed at 10 pm and most of the hours in-between spent sitting silently face-to-face with all our mutual ignorance, attachments, ego-clinging notions, breathing ourselves with good posture, pained legs and pointed focus to a larger definition of Self. It was the most profound practice of changing our self I had ever encountered, before or since.
And I often felt, standing outside in line in the early morning dark with 25 other black-robed beings, in company with the first morning birds and mountain breeze, hearing the bell and walking in unison down the gravel-path, that we strange creatures moving together on our way to the sutra hall to chant ancient Sino-Japanese sacred texts, were somehow holding this broken world together. No one knew we were there, but our dedicated work was rippling out in unseen ways to bring light and healing. This was not something I could rationally defend, but a deep conviction that helped make my step lighter and made the pain and terror of facing oneself squarely with no distractions, excuses or intermediaries both bearable and important.
Seven years later, I found myself in meetings of the Nuclear Freeze Movement being trained to give little talks and show the video of The Last Epidemic, a doomsday warning based on the work of Helen Caldicott. Hours and hours, with my first-born daughter a tender 3 years old and ending up speaking to groups of 10 people or so in church basements. It seemed important and necessary work, but never did I feel so helpless and hopeless and ineffective.
I finally turned more of my attention to creating opportunities to give Orff workshops to teachers around the country and later, the world and here’s where the “both/and” part of change began to kick in. I had found my little corner of the world from which to speak and in addition to voting, protesting in the streets, signing petitions and such, the necessary duties of being an active citizen, I found myself using my position as workshop leader to speak out against the power of those “victimizing the weak” and speak on behalf of children, of art, of the black folks who created the wonders of jazz and more. Always in the context of the joyful work we were doing. It’s never enough to just critique what doesn’t work, we need to show and model and live what does.
So while the “change your self” part of the work meant creating instant safe communities where people take risks and discover untapped parts of themselves in company with other risk-takers, the “change the world” part meant looking at the forces in the world that seek to shut us down and gathering the courage to speak out against them. Hardly a workshop goes by where I don’t point out the harm done by educational policies and practices, from cutting out arts programs to reducing them to ways to make math scores better to insisting that machines be used or behavioral compliance enforced. If I’m teaching jazz, I never fail to tell stories about what these musicians went through and insist that if we’re going to feel the joy of dancing to or playing Count Basie, we have to know who to thank and vow to work harder to end the racism they suffered from.
It pisses some people off, some people appreciate it, some people endure it, but at this point, I don’t care. It’s my way of fusing together the twin mandates of that college orientation. And what would it be like if everyone used their position, skill, opportunity to speak out for the same dual purposes—to help people enlarge their narrow experience of self and to speak on behalf of those whose voices are not represented in the national discourse, be they children, trees, native peoples or the long list of marginalized people, processes, ideas?
Change your self. Change the world. I heartily recommend it.