Changing our World, One Mind at a Time

By Teresa Cobleigh

Sometimes we cannot change the circumstances of our worlds. It may seem that forces greater than us are at play in our daily lives and the bigger world around us. If you are supporting loved ones through the struggle of addiction and recovery, you might understand this feeling of abject powerlessness. If not, believe me when I tell you, there is little comfort in it.

But are we powerless? We might consider how shifting our thinking to make an internal change might color our worlds differently. Our perceptions might then influence our reactions and mark the first step toward changing the actual reality of our worlds. Sounds magical, but wouldn’t it be nice?

Herren Project recognizes our interconnections, and we address the individual, family, and community components of addiction. Resilience starts with building individual social and emotional learning skills that we can nourish daily as part of a personal commitment to wellness. We might work a 12-step program to focus first on steps for internal change — shifting attitudes that set up a course for later change in behavior. Many 12-step traditions culminate by giving back to the group in a spirit of gratitude.

Being grateful is the first step of a shift in mindset that opens the door to a new way of being.

For those of us supporting loved ones through the perils of addiction and early recovery, changing ourselves is sometimes all we can do. I’m sure the counselor of my family group wished she could just make things okay for us, but alas, she did not carry a magic wand. So instead, she gave us the challenge of a 21-day gratitude practice, beginning each morning with a thank you and following it with a mantra and affirmation,

“Thank you for my children. Each day is a gift. Today will be wonderful, and I deserve it!”

By day 22, a new habit and way of thinking should emerge – magic.

So, despite my eye roll, been-there-done-that reaction, I began the practice by thanking my instructor for her effort and intentions, and then I went on to think of each of my friends, my pets, and so forth. Now let me express, dear reader, that I am grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts about the greater implications of a simple practice of gratitude. I hope these ideas improve your world and mine. What a wonderful world that will be (thank you, Louie Armstrong!). We deserve it!

If only we could change the world. Now let’s consider how a shift in thinking might impact the political climate in our nation. Is there something about our thinking that sows divisiveness? Perhaps our division is rooted in our ideas of personal liberty, the very thoughts that have set us apart from tyranny for over two centuries. Individual freedom is intrinsic to what it means to be American but allow me to argue that our values have become out of whack with our original intent.

Self-interest can mean a healthy dose of self-advocacy or assertion against injustice. Still, in the extreme, it can also mean selfishness and greed in their ugliest forms — “me, me, me” instead of “we,” where the love of self becomes narcissistic and usurps secular and religious values of love for neighbor as ourselves. We, the people, are set against one another in a paradigm of conflict and competition, a zero-sum game where not everyone can win. Perhaps we, the people, have set the principles of our philosophical forebears ablaze, swallowing a not-so-healthy dose of personal liberty like steroids.

The preeminence of individual liberty sets self-interest over the interests of the collective. I’d argue this puts us in a survival and scarcity mindset, where we expect — and live up to — the worst in human nature. Motivated by greed and self-interest, we vote our purse, focus on inflation and complain about our taxes. Our land of opportunity becomes a land of haves and have-nots, and economic power garners more political influence than a mere vote. The political system then serves the interests of the powerful, and we, the people, lose our common ground.

I’m not saying liberty is a bad thing. I’m not saying that autocratic governments are good. I’m saying there seems to no longer be the public good that democracy had hoped to serve. We operate as individual actors in a free-for-all, with every person out for themselves. We have lost our unity as one nation under God. Instead, it is “all for one and none for all.”

Unity and oneness are central to nearly every one of the world’s religions. Consider some examples:

  • “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (The Buddha Udana-Varga 5.18)
  • “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith)
  • “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a
  • “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” Mahabharata 5:1517

Despite differences in our respective religious and secular traditions, we have this golden rule in common. Still, we don’t seem to reflect on what it means for how we think and behave in civil society.

Imagine, if you will, a field of flowers in a splendid assortment and array of colors. Each flower is beautiful and deserving of sunshine; together, they are a vibrant statement of God’s green earth. Keep that beautiful picture in your mind. Now imagine vines taking over. I ask you, what gives anyone the right to press their self-interest over the interests of others? Might we aspire to be like flowers in the valley, not strangle vines?

There is an important leadership opportunity for philanthropy and humanitarian organizations in our society. We embrace the virtue of love of mankind. Our nonprofit missions elevate the conversation and inspire us to think of each other as an extension of ourselves. We orientate our focus toward helping our fellow human beings with compassion for the struggle. Truly I tell you, we embrace a “we” mindset that is a higher principle to live by, the antithesis of “me, me, me.” We inspire a shift in perspective and in the paradigm so we all can win.

So, my fellow Americans, over four score and seven years ago, we, the people, embarked on a remarkable democratic experiment. We took our liberty and saved ourselves from the tyranny of an autocracy. And now, the stakes seem as great as ever. We might wonder what kind of world we will leave for future generations. We might feel powerless over what we can do about it.

I don’t presume to have all the answers. And at the risk of appearing under the spell of magical thinking, I ask you to bear with me. Perhaps change starts with baby steps. Maybe it is as simple as a shift in mindset, one mind at a time. So if any of this resonates with you, please join me in a gratitude practice for the month of November. Start your morning grateful for the next 21 days, recognize each day as a gift, and set hopeful expectations. We are all capable of becoming better versions of ourselves, and yes, we, the people, deserve a wonderful world.

*Herren Project staff writer Teresa Cobleigh studied government and international affairs. Since her youth, she has always wanted to save the world.