Changing the World By Changing Myself

Meet Jan, a YA finishing up his undergraduate studies in New York City. Passage meditation has helped Jan understand, for him, what it truly means to change the world.

Jan, now a senior in college, started meditating his sophomore year.

Jan, now a senior in college, started meditating his sophomore year.

Why study music when there are children dying of war and hunger in so many parts of the world?

I am about to graduate from college with a bachelors of music in composition, confident in my decision to continue studying composition at the Master’s level.

Four years ago, however, after I got accepted into college, this kind of question confronted me again and again. If I care about the suffering going on in so many places, and if I am in a position to study medicine, work for the environment, or volunteer for peace programs, I asked, why am I spending my time figuring out how to write for organ or practicing how to write four-part harmony? Sure, music can heal and can bring people together, but can that save the child who will starve tomorrow?

As these questions continued tormenting me into second semester, I came across the story of Mahatma Gandhi. Reading his autobiography My Experiments With Truth and studying related materials, one insight stood out—the idea that violent means can never lead to peaceful ends, only to more violence. Simply put, the means determine the end.

If I started doing peace activism, my speech and actions would be my means. But speech and actions are born in the mind, and what was the condition of my mind?

Well, when I began practicing passage meditation later that year, on the first day of sophomore year, I started becoming aware of the condition of my mind. What a discovery—it couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds! And even more humbling, most of what I did and said was conditioned behavior.

Jan (left) with the YA meditation group he's organized on his college campus.

Jan (left) with the YA meditation group he's organized on his college campus.

As I continued practicing, I even started noticing thoughts of jealousy and greed—thoughts that must have been there all along but which I had never been attentive enough to notice.

In other words, all the problems that I had seen as wreaking havoc in the world—all the problems that I was going to fix by switching out of music—were also within me to varying degrees.

If I wanted to change the world, what I really meant was, I wanted to change the people of the world involved in making wars and pollution. But meditation was showing me how such crimes began in the mind, how the roots of anger and fear went deep within a person’s consciousness, that such negative tendencies cannot be changed within a day, and that the only way to change the mind was by using the mind to meditate. Now, as far as I know, the only mind I can fully use is my own.

And so, with the help of Eknath Easwaran's books, the founder of passage meditation, I came to the conclusion that the most efficient way to change the world was to change myself.

Far from depressing me, these observations and the humbling conclusion they yielded charged me with purpose and fired me with enthusiasm to practice the eight-point program of passage meditation. I was convinced—I am convinced—that I have found a way to affect lasting change in the world.

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Jan sets up his dorm room to host group meditations and has managed to squeeze in seating for 8 people. The desk in the top photo also showcases a handy meditation "tool" in the dorms – earplugs!

Jan sets up his dorm room to host group meditations and has managed to squeeze in seating for 8 people. The desk in the top photo also showcases a handy meditation "tool" in the dorms – earplugs!

Now the question of whether to study music or medicine or law is not so important to me anymore. As long as I am not hurting others with my career, it is not this choice that matters so much as the thousand and one little choices throughout the day, as Easwaran would say, between what is selfish and what is selfless. The more I practice this program, the more I see these choices.

For example, having slowed down my mind during the morning’s meditation, I am now often able to make the choice of dropping whatever I’m doing a little earlier to go to class without worrying about being late, so that, should anyone stop to talk to me, I can give them my time. It is a small example of transforming greed to generosity through meditation.

With the anxiety about job choice slowly fading, I am now giving better effort to the job at hand—composing, for example. And to my delight I am discovering all kinds of ways in which I can reduce violence in the world through composing.

One incident of violence can have many causes, and though I am by no means an expert on this, I see that alienation is often a cause. Can you remember incidents where some form of isolation by the actor preceded his or her act of violence?

Every effort to bring people together is one step towards reducing violence—not having more conversations, but approaching those conversations with ever kinder thoughts and ever kinder words.

Jan (right) collaborates with a percussionist on a piece of music.

Jan (right) collaborates with a percussionist on a piece of music.

These principles in mind, I have made my composition process more and more collaborative. My current piece, for seventeen musicians, includes two co-composers besides me. Not only does this bring people together in my own small way, but, as Easwaran says, "human relationships are the perfect tool for sanding away our rough edges and getting at the core of divinity within us. We need look no further than our own family, friends, acquaintances, or even adversaries, to begin our practice."

And how to practice being kind to others? Easwaran is very clear. Give the person you are with your full attention—give them one-pointed eyes, ears, minds, and heart in every interaction.

Mother Teresa said, "There is hunger for bread, and there is hunger for love. There is a lot of the second kind of hunger." Four years ago, I was thinking about the hunger for bread, a vital issue, but I didn't think too much about the hunger for love.

Concentration equals love—Easwaran makes it so clear. When we can give someone our full attention, we are giving them all our love, and we will be able to be loyal to them in the long run, because what receives our undivided attention never becomes uninteresting. The mantram develops the capacity to concentrate. Meditation on a passage teaches us how, during the day, to keep bringing our minds back to our chosen subject of attention.

This understanding of the dynamics of the mind and the practice of the eight-point program has completely turned around my relationship with my father, to name my most visible and immediate success with the program. We can now enjoy a vacation together where before most conversations ended in loud arguments.

Seeing such positive changes in my life has deepened my faith that this practice really is building a more peaceful world, in that lasting, sustainable way that Gandhi calls “changing yourself to change the world.” It's deepened my motivation and enthusiasm for practicing the eight points too, so how can I afford to lose a minute not either repeating the mantram or practicing one-pointed-attention, these practices towards loving more, when there is so much suffering in the world, so much hunger for love?

Jan (right) at a recent YA Retreat chatting with another YA about how to strengthen his meditation practice.

Jan (right) at a recent YA Retreat chatting with another YA about how to strengthen his meditation practice.

And struggling to practice these disciplines all the time is far from dull. More and more you can choose where your attention goes. Who wants to think about a random comment from last class when your friend is talking to you now? Why continue turning over your summer plans a thousandth time in your head as you walk past the opportunity to hold the door open for someone?

Gradually, meditation frees your attention and your energy for giving to life. I no longer feel overwhelmed by the endless ways in which to help when I hear of tragedies in our country and around the world. Instead, I turn to one of the eight points, because I know that lasting change happens one person at a time, starting with this mind. I see every day how passage meditation gives me the tools I need for slowly growing in love, creativity, determination, and patience.