Name a quote by Mahatma Gandhi.

Odds are the first thing that jumps into your mind is the famous, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s a good quote. It’s pithy enough to fit on a bumper sticker, and it resonates deeply with something inside us all which tells us that it points to something true and valuable.

But, like so many other pithy bumper sticker quotes we see floating around today, these words were never spoken by the person they’re attributed to. What Gandhi actually said was this:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

Oof. That’s a bit more confrontational than the popularized version, isn’t it? Change my own nature? I thought we were talking about something light and easy, like not wearing fur or buying fair trade coffee beans.

That’s how “Be the change you wish to see in the world” tends to get interpreted today. It’s a line that is so commonly regurgitated in our society that it’s now cliché and almost meaningless, something you see on cheap keychains at the mall and scan over without really reading, but assume you understand because you’ve seen it so many times before. If pressed to really think about it, most people will say it means something like make the changes in the world that you want to see. If you don’t like factory farming, become a vegan. If you don’t like poverty, volunteer at a soup kitchen.

But that isn’t what the quote says. It’s nothing like what the original one by Gandhi says. It’s not even what the stripped-down bumper sticker version says.

Even if you look at the popularized version of the quote, really look at it with fresh eyes that haven’t seen it thoughtlessly regurgitated by corporate liberals and plastered on K-Mart products, you come away with the same message as the original. It doesn’t say “Do the change you wish to see in the world.” It doesn’t say “Enact the change you wish to see in the world.” It says “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It isn’t referring to a mere change in behavior or lifestyle, it’s saying change who you are as a person. It’s saying change your own nature to change the world.

This is night-and-day different from the conventional interpretation. The conventional interpretation of the quote exists as a vapid platitude that people make fun of hippies and New Agers for over-using. A deep, visceral understanding of that same quote, however, conveys more wisdom than all religious texts in the world combined. It’s a call into a transformation that is more real than childbirth. More existentially confrontational than a terminal cancer diagnosis.

The first challenge of the quote is to get you thinking hard about what changes you do in fact want to see in the world. Most people never even get that far into it. Few have actually thought hard about what kind of world they’d like to see in a positive way that actually envisions what that world would look like. Most people only think in terms of the little partisan battles they’re seeing currently: universal healthcare, immigration policies, gun control, austerity policies, abortion, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, etc. Few people get as far as sitting down and deeply contemplating a positive vision for the kind of world they’d like to help create.

When I make an inventory of the changes I wish to see in the world, I know I want to see people consistently choosing health over the illusion of security.

I want them making choices with the highest interest of everyone concerned over their own self-interest, even if those choices make them feel exposed or vulnerable because they appear to go against their finances or tribal groupthink, or are outside their comfort zone.

I want people to be collaborative rather competitive.

I want people to start trusting that the steps will appear in front of them as we forge a path onto a new, undiscovered route rather than retreat to the well-trodden highways because they are familiar even though we already know they lead the wrong way.

I want to see people giving up their tribalism and embracing their humanism.

I want to see people loving themselves deeply enough to love others meaningfully and with clear eyes.

I want people to rise above the competing narratives and make their distinctions according to actions and reality rather than the stories of the manipulators or their own internal manipulations.

I want people to have the wisdom to acknowledge where they have power and privilege and use it courageously, and where they are powerless so they may force those in power to change our suicidal trajectory immediately.

I want people to tell the truth, even if at first it’s only to themselves.

I want people to choose life over death, every time, without hesitation, and I want them to always seek their solutions in life and healing and harmony and reject the solutions offered by death, destruction, manipulation, sabotage and chaos.

These are just my personal desires for the world. After laying those out, the next challenge posed by “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is far more serious, and, if undertaken, will remain front and center in your attention the rest of your life.

Looking at the changes I wish to see in the world, I endeavor to be someone who consistently chooses to press the “health” button even if it scares me, or others, or both.

I try to be someone who always chooses in the highest interest rather than manipulating it slightly so I get a bit more or I look a bit cooler.

I try to tell the truth even when my tribe is yelling at me to shut up, but I try to have the wisdom to only do that when it benefits everyone and not just to seek drama or attention.

I try to trapeze through life using my inner compass because I know for sure that my old paths never led anywhere good.

I try to not manipulate others, and I try to not manipulate myself in order to pretend to myself that I’m not manipulating others.

I try to love the parts of me that I see in others, especially those parts that make me cringe, but also I try to love myself enough to walk away from someone whose patterns are hurting me.

I try to make distinctions by what I see people doing rather than what I hear them saying, and I try to integrate my thoughts and my actions as much as possible.

I try to use my power and privilege for the highest interest of everyone, but I refuse to take responsibility for things outside of my control, and I pledge to hold those who do have that power to account.

I try always to tell the truth, even if it’s just to myself at times because in that instance I don’t have enough power and privilege to speak it without getting unjustly punished. But if it’s in the highest interest to take unjust punishment, then I choose that.

I choose life, every time, without hesitation, and I want to heal any blocks either in me or outside of me that is resistant to turning every atom of my being towards life and healing.

Of course I fail a lot, but I hope to continue to noticing when I fail and course-correcting as often as needed, because getting this right is much more important to me than feeling like I’m right. I want this more than I want the story of having this already. I want to change the world more than I want the story of changing the world.

Crucially, I want this more than I want “me”, more than I want the personality that I think of as “me”. Whole parts of my identity have had to die in order to change into something healthier and more agile, and there will be many more parts of me that have to die in the future, and I welcome that. I welcome that with a deep breath of trepidation because it’s not easy, and in the moment before letting go it feels like I really am dying, but I know that it has to happen, and the more I do it, the more positive reinforcement I get as my reluctance gets overridden with curiosity as to what will manifest in the space I’ve created. And I know that in any case it’s better than the alternative, which is a slow, actual death through stagnation.

Beyond the bumper sticker, I’m pretty sure ol’ Mahatma was on to something pretty huge. I’m pretty sure this is how we fix it. It calls to mind that other hackneyed chestnut, The Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” another saying that has eroded into superficiality but contains some deep wisdom if you take it on as your calling. If we all individually took sincere responsibility for the only thing we can actually change — ourselves — then the knock-on effects are unquantifiable.

And, inevitably, world-changing.


The best way to get around the internet censors and make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for my website, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, liking me on Facebook, following my antics on Twitterthrowing some money into my hat on Patreon or Paypalpurchasing some of my sweet merchandisebuying my new book Rogue Nation: Psychonautical Adventures With Caitlin Johnstone, or my previous book Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish or use any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge.

Bitcoin donations:1Ac7PCQXoQoLA9Sh8fhAgiU3PHA2EX5Zm2

Liked it? Take a second to support Caitlin Johnstone on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

19 responses to ““Be The Change You Wish To See In The World” - Misattributed, Misused, And Obscenely Underappreciated”

  1. Margarida Mª Madruga Avatar
    Margarida Mª Madruga

    An enlightened teaching.

  2. The shallow level of social media and Hollywood leaves most people’s minds stunted. To get it, as in actually Get It, requires much more than watching the Matrix and getting a bumpersticker for your Prius with a fake Gandhi or Einstein quote. You have to do some work. Practice. Meditate. Praxis. Not just rant. Not just Twitter. The real deal is simple but it is incredibly difficult. Not insurmountable, but it takes perseverance, discipline and work. There are millions of bookstore Buddhists who mostly get in their own way rather than growing and getting it. Been there. Done that.

  3. A propos of this marvellous post, I have to recommend two books I’ve been reading:
    ‘Becoming fully human’ by Michael Langford (Quaker) and
    Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being
    by Paul Mason (Marxist and well known economics journalist).

  4. I think ‘Be the change you want to see’ is a good starting point. I am surprised to hear it has become a popular cliché and bumper sticker, drained of meaning. If taken seriously, it’s quite a challenge. It’s also the site of considerable controversy among radicals, the lifestyle people versus the class war activists, etc. So people in general don’t take it seriously?

    I used it recently in a discussion about getting away from motor vehicle transport in our activist work. I was inspired by Extinction Rebellion, but it has long worried me as well that motor vehicle use opens one to considerable government interference. I have to admit that while my proposals elicited agreement from everyone, no one actually agreed to make any changes,, so maybe it is just a little piece of sententious sanctimony after all.

  5. The Thought Police are Coming!!–a great article by Chris Hedges on Truthdig: First they came for Julian Assange, then they came for us! This theme goes along with Caitlin’s message: be the change you wish to see in the world today. I have been posting articles for others to read all day, especially on behalf of Assange, our “Robin Hood of Government Transparency,” paying for truth with his life! I am heartbroken for him, and for all of us with this monstrous corruption that keeps widening exponentially. Truthful journalism is out, totalitarianism is in. Caitlin, thank you for your daily bravery in the face of this lurking monster!!

  6. Beautiful insights Caitlin! Thank you

  7. The way we perceive the world controls our behavior. This is a fundamental reality if our perceptions are blurred or affected by conditioning, belief, etc. then we respond in inappropriate ways that cause stress and disease in our self and others. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a human being changes his/her own erroneous beliefs, so does the attitude of the world change towards him/her.

  8. Caitlin, one thing that becomes quickly evident from your writing is that you are on the right path. A small minority of humanity also walks the right path, that of enriching the common good, of collaboration rather than competition, and of being the change humanity needs most. But the bulk of humanity has been deliberately led astray and is steered down the wrong path, a path of imposed delusion that leads to increasing damage and destruction. Who is responsible for leading us astray? Our leaders, of course, a concentration of some of the most capable sociopaths born to each generation.

    Being the change we wish to see in the world means resisting their leadership, but we would have an easier time of resisting if we could prevent sociopaths from becoming our leaders in the first place. I believe addressing this problem is of higher priority than the problem of changing ourselves. When we are not deceived and manipulated into following the path prepared for us by sociopaths, we will naturally orient ourselves towards being the change we wish to see in the world.

  9. Michel Bélisle Avatar
    Michel Bélisle

    The problem is that most of the time, we are not really ourselves. The “change” would be to really be ourselves in this world.

    For example, the ruling elites who told us that they clearly saw wreckages of airplanes in the Pentagone and in a field in Pennsylvania on 9-11 are saying this because they are not really and fully themselves.

    If they were really themselves, they would say like a lot of people that there were no wreckages of airplanes to be seen in theses locations on 9-11.

    Yes, if people were true and really themselves, this would bring change in the world.

    But do not count on it. We are living the return of the days of Noah just before the Second Coming of Jesus. And He is the One who will bring not only change but Final Judgement on mankind.

    I pray the Rosary for that day to be very soon.

  10. The changes needed within ourselves are momentous and difficult to achieve. How many are up to this challenge, which requires long and arduous work? Too few. And thus we plunge on towards the abyss…….

  11. I’ve always wondered about the context and over-use of the Margaret Mead quote about how real change has only occurred because of a small group of dedicated people… Do you know the history and context of that quote?

  12. How to unsubscribe?

    1. Is it because in this article the “I’s” totally have it? Let’s be patient and see what comes up the rest of this week. 😉 Diana meaning “heavenly, divine”, while Licht is German for “light”. Divine Light, what a lucky name!

      But if it is indeed up to us to change ourselves, does this mean all the psychologists will have to find another line of work? 166,600! +

      “Mad Matter: “Have I gone mad?”
      Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” (Favorite line)

      How does one deal with reality? By ignoring most of it of course, else you will be regarded one of those “best people”.

      I’m not paranoid, I just know things (and drink).

  13. Cait, thanks for daring to tread on spiritual paths, and link them to politics and the manifest world. I came to that conclusion in 2004, when I packed up my kids, moved to the desert, and began serious studies in Asian classics. You outline well the bodhisattva path.
    It seems that the military invasions of my country during my lifetime have had the effect of bringing ancient wisdom to the west. Buddhism, from Vietnam. The poetry of Rumi from Afghanistan. The indigenous wisdoms of myriad tribes of the Americas. We have access to that wisdom, and if we will, the keys to transformation. It may be likened to a process of maturity. The adolescent west needs the guidance of the ancient world, just as they need the racing energy of youth.
    Sure, it can be tough, letting go of small familiar turfs of the mind. But once firmly on the path, one has an experience of bliss and unity with all beings. Letting go of the small self, one may experience a stillness and ease through which wisdom may speak.
    Let us praise this marvelous creation every day, and seek to use what time and breath we have for the good of all. These prayers, or well wishing are the foundations of health. Let us seek wisdom and goodness all the days of our lives.
    We live in a cause and effect universe, but western reductive view has it backwards. The cause is mind, the effect is `the world´ so lets create the cause of a perfect world.
    Love you!

    1. “Cait”? Are you two friends? Where in the article does Caitlin refer to herself as CAIT?

  14. Ah, the Buddha Ms Caitlin speaks the truth! If you ever dare to honestly venture into that internal universe within you will find there your greatest enemy. An eternal foe that is able to trick, fool, and manipulate you extremely easily because it has been doing so for your entire life. It knows you much better than you know yourself. It has you mastered backward and forward and sideways. It has been deceiving you your entire life. And now the Buddha Ms Caitlin is calling upon you to do battle with that great deceiver within yourself. It is not a fight, nor a battle, it is a war that will last as long as you do. It will never stop fighting your changes, it will always try to force you back to the way it wants you to be with every deception that it knows. You have never known a war like this one, please believe me!

  15. Internal change is usually motivated via external forces; unless we act within the means of our imperfect selves, we will never gain the strength from our enemies hatred of us to defeat them.

    Luke 6:17-18 And HE came down with them, and stood in the plain, and the company of HIS disciples, and a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem, and from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases; 18 And they that were vexed with unclean spirits: and they were healed.

  17. Neville Goddard, Dandapani, Abraham Hicks, Tony Robbins, Sadhguru, Wayne Dyer, Alan Watts, Joe Dispenza, Bruce Lipton, Gregg Braden, Jack Canfield, Deepak Chopra, Martin Luther, Tesla, Einstein, Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and countless others all know about harmonizing invisible thoughts with tangible actions, which the Bible calls Faith.
    Most people are completely unaware, bewildered creators that see the world backwards regarding cause and effect, seeing themselves as victims merely navigating the world around them.
    We are not committed to the image in the mirror.

Leave a Reply