“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

What does this mean? Let’s deconstruct.

Be. One of the most complicated action words in the English language. “To be” is the most protean English verb, with the most irregular and constantly changing forms. I am, you are, they were, we’ve been, and so on. And that’s just for starters. In any tense, it connotes a state of being. To simply be. It sounds easy until you try it. Be in the moment; be the moment. Be fully present and accounted for. Be accountable; be responsible for your actions. Come into your beingness. Be somebody, not just anybody. Certainly don’t fall into actress/comedienne extraordinaire Lily Tomlin’s mistake: “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realise I should have been more specific,” she advised in her award-winning 1985 one-woman Broadway show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Be yourself; after all, that’s the only choice. Further, be with yourself and be happy with who you are.

“To be or not to be?” That is the question, isn’t it? Hamlet’s famous line, in the eponymously titled Shakespeare play of 1601, opens a soliloquy in which he struggles between living and dying. If that’s too ominous and finite a choice, it could be interpreted more metaphorically as do you want to “be” in this life, in your life, in charge of your life, or throw in the towel and let fate rule it? Do you want to just cash out? This is the essential inquiry of the human condition. Do I exist? If I do, then it’s my choice as to how I exist, where I take action, where I passively accept the dictates of some other entity. This, at least, is my assessment.

One more important notion about “be” in this context: As the first word in the phrase, “Be the change,” which is actually a full sentence, be is in the imperative form of the verb. We use imperative clauses when we want to tell someone to do something. It’s a command, literally. Thou shalt be. It has power, and it’s empowering. Nike coined “Just do it” – Gandhi would say, “Just be it.”

That was a lot to take in for only the first word.

Onward to change. First, I wonder what the fine-line differentiation is between “Be the change” and “Be change.” One could speculate. I contemplated it but have no interpretation that satisfies me. I want to take it this way: Be awake, aware, present, and ready. For what? Change. Don’t just be change. Be the change. In other words, work toward changing. Be the process of change. Then, ipso facto, you will have changed.

To change is part of the human condition, the inevitable march of time, taking its toll on body and mind but also hopefully enhancing and enriching our understanding of life and ourselves. From birth onward, even from the point of conception, we develop, thanks to the growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland. You don’t have to lift a finger to grow and change. This could not be what Gandhi meant by change.

To interpret what Gandhi meant by change, what anyone means when they talk about change, is much more complicated. What do I want to change? What do I need to change? What will I never change even at the risk of health and sanity? This is summed up in the so-called Serenity Prayer, most famously repeated at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other 12-step programs: “God (or Universe), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Change requires, first, an attitudinal shift. Yes, I can and will change...if I really want to. One needs to make a strategic plan and stick to it. Pick a simple target, the low-hanging fruit of change. I’m going to floss for 60 seconds at least twice a week; the reward (Pavlov’s dog thrives, and salivates, on a reward, known in psychology circles as classical conditioning or Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) will be cleaner brighter teeth, less halitosis, more confidence when smiling, less insecurity about speaking closer to others, more friends and lovers, greater wealth, millions of followers on my Instagram account, appearances on major media networks, eternal life...OK, maybe I’ve gone too far.

Gandhi put it this way: “Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.”

Aha, to change my habits. Not so easy. The American Journal of Psychology defined habit as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.” A 2002 daily experience study by habit researcher Professor Wendy Wood and colleagues found that 43 per cent of daily behaviours are performed out of habit. New behaviours can become automatic through the process of habit formation. Old habits are hard to break; new habits are hard to form because the behavioural patterns that humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways, but it is possible to form new habits through repetition.

In his bestselling and so very instructive book, The Power of Habit, New York Times and Pulitzer-winning reporter Charles Duhigg gets into the science of habit. The most interesting part to me was his look at research published in the February 2018 issue of Current Biology. Albeit with rats, not humans, neuroscientists at MIT found that the more the rodents repeated moving through a maze, the more it became automatic – less thinking, more doing (more “being”). This automaticity depended on something in the brain called the basal ganglia, central to recalling patterns, storing them, and acting on them. It’s the same, they concluded, with the human brain. They named this process “chunking,” wherein the brain converts a sequence of actions – like flossing! – into habit. They found that certain neurons in the brain mark the beginning and end of these chunked units of behaviour and that habits emerge because our brains are always on the lookout for efficient ways to save effort.

Neuroscience has also opened the mind to the mind’s ability to change itself. Scientists in the field of neuroplasticity, known also as neural plasticity or brain plasticity, have demonstrated that neural networks of the brain can be rewired to function differently from how they did in the past. Research in the latter half of the twentieth century showed this phenomenon also applies through adulthood.

The worlds of psychology and science collided with meditation and reinforced each other, when Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry and founder/director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led studies that showed long-term practitioners of several kinds of meditation had altered the structure and function of their brains.

In short, being the change could be a literal breath away – such as in the very simple breath meditation I do called anapanasati (meaning “mindfulness of breath”), the same one the Buddha practised and spread to followers, entailing simply paying attention to one’s inhalation and exhalation as they go in and out of the nostrils.

I think of the brain as a circuit board of some sort, with wires attaching one part to another. The wires have split ends; in my imagination, one side goes to the happy place, the other goes to not-so-happy place. One side, which an angel controls, goes to doing something positive for yourself; the other, ruled by the devil, goes to doing self-destructive things. In the end, and ultimately, we control both (or you can call it our ego mediating between our id and our superego). Through meditation and other methods, we can facilitate change for the good and not encourage self-sabotaging agents that block positive change. Aside from meditation, this may also be achieved through a quality I have not yet invoked since it’s one I have much trouble with embodying myself and that may affect my own ability to change: discipline.

Now comes the rest of Gandhi’s much-repeated line: “. . . you want to see in the world.”

Thinking optimistically that you have the discipline and desire to change and have even achieved some degree of success in doing so, you may still ask, So how does this change the world?

I come from the era that introduced and then popularised the phrase “The personal is political.” It first was used by the feminist movement in the late 1960s but was soon adapted by groups that believed personal agendas had political implications and vice versa. In my interpretation, that means when we do the inner work, it’s reflected in the outer world. What we bring to each other, to every sociopolitical situation, therefore depends on who we are ourselves. One event (our change) causes another event (changes in the world around us). In science, metaphysics, and engineering, this is called causality; in Hinduism and Buddhism, karma. In Newtonian physics, it’s the third law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

All refer to the notion that one event, process, state, or object contributes to the production of another event, process, state, or object, wherein the cause is partly responsible for the effect, and the effect is partly dependent on the cause.

The great Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh put it much more simply: “When we change our daily lives – the way we think, speak and act – we change the world.”

Gandhi would have agreed, as do I after dissecting “Be the change.”

Excerpted with permission from Becoming Gandhi: Living the Mahatma’s Six Moral Truths in Immoral Times, Perry Garfinkel, Simon and Schuster India.