Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “All meaningful and lasting change begins on the inside.” Without internal change, external changes will not hold. For example, in the large-scale political and social revolutions of the Soviet Union and China of the last century, we watched the oppressed become the new oppressors. The early and hopeful shift towards ending social abuses and economic injustice produced a new, rigid system that perpetuated the power and wealth of the new elite. Healing and consciousness did not keep pace with external changes.

Here are a few observations about the current situation that point to the need of putting the development of consciousness and internal personal development side by side with social change efforts.

Love at the center

What motivates almost all social change folks is love. We may not use that term, but it’s at the base of why we do our work; it’s the deeply felt impulse to relieve suffering or to create conditions where people, animals and the earth can flourish. Yet the word “love” is rarely uttered in policy circles, or even in most social benefit organizations. Why is this? Is it a reserve? Is it out of embarrassment? Is it because it sounds too soft and “new agey” compared to the hard realities of the efforts to change concrete structures? Is it because it can’t be quantified in a business model? Perhaps we would be better served by reclaiming the word and putting it at the heart of our work. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not afraid of using the word. And if we who count ourselves social entrepreneurs honored love as a key driver of our work, might that help us better learn how to deepen love, make love operational, and focus on processes and community structures that promote love and caring as both an end in itself and a means for transformation?

What makes for true happiness?

In the economic and community development conversation, what if we took seriously the question, “What makes for true happiness?” Instead of plunging as fast as the current economic system will carry us towards ever increasing material wealth, can we ask, “How much is enough?” or, especially for those in the West, “Can we be happy with less?” Study after study shows that after a basic floor of material wellbeing is attained, having more things does not increase individual happiness. In fact, the best things in life are free—love, respect, connection, friendship, meaning, accomplishment, natural beauty, fresh air, sunshine and rain.

With population and production growing, the earth’s natural systems and resources are being drained. So the key question is how can we be happy and live sustainably within the boundaries of our planet? This may mean different things for people coming up from extreme poverty than for people who enjoy relative material comfort. But the question applies to all of us. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Happiness is not an individual matter.” 2,600 years ago, the Buddha identified what he called the Three Poisons that give rise to much of the suffering in the world: greed, hatred and delusion (of being separate). Today we have institutionalized greed in the form of our economic system, institutionalized hatred or ill-will in the form of state power used to support “U.S. interests”, and institutionalized delusion in the form of U.S. nationalism and sense of being “number one”. These poisons keep the economic growth engine going, which requires people to chase the false happiness of material things.

Personal pain can undermine social change

Throughout my decades of social change work, I have witnessed people acting with courage, giving unselfishly and working for justice and peace. I have also seen individuals and organizations destroy themselves because of conflict, irrationality, burnout and ego-battles. I’ve seen people working for peace act without peace in their hearts or words and people working against hate crimes be hateful toward their “enemies”. Something is not right in this picture.

Furthermore, as an amateur student of political revolutions in the 20th century, it was clear that in the Soviet Union and China, for example, the former oppressed people gained power and became the new oppressors, as mentioned above. Why? Among the many reasons is at least this common one: that people who have been abused, disrespected and marginalized have accumulated a multitude of bad habits and hurts that leave scars on their thinking, leadership and effectiveness. They carry these distortions into new roles. Hurt people hurt people. Though power can change hands, no social movement has yet learned how to deal with the internalized legacy of oppression. Therefore, the new people in power act out versions of what was done to them. This human irrationality takes a devastating toll on private and public affairs. So social change, by itself, is not enough. For the human community to develop in a sustainable way, social change has to go hand in hand with the healing of emotional pain. How do we do this as part of our work?

Feelings of despair, powerlessness or hopelessness that arise about climate change, racism and poverty were there long before we ever knew about these issues

This is a key point. When we were children, we experienced so much that was wrong, hurtful, confusing or scary, even in the best of childhoods. And these things were beyond our power to change. We were small and powerless. So we internalized those feelings of being too small and too powerless to make a difference. So now, we carry these feelings with us and they get attached to the big “wrongs” like climate change, racism, poverty. We think, “I’m just not big enough.” But what if climate catastrophe is not inevitable? What if we are big enough to tackle this? What if this is just the right level of challenge to slingshot us through to the next level of collective consciousness? What would we do if we adopted this view?

Of course, we can’t think our way to this point of view. We need courage to feel the old feelings in order to transform them. Through our various practices of meditation, church communities, support groups, therapy sessions, friendships and so on, can we make the commitment to find ways of accepting, embracing and feeling those old feelings, and releasing them so that they lose their constraining hold on our unlimited capacity to love and act? For example, over the past 29 years, I have maintained a weekly co-listening session with a friend. Each week, we get together and split 90 minutes. I listen to him for 45 minutes and he listens to me for 45 minutes. No advice, no agenda other than allowing ourselves to feel the feelings that arise. This deep listening process over the years has helped me explore and release the early childhood hurts and uncover an innate capacity to care, to think clearly and to act more fearlessly, which has allowed me to be more effective in social change work.

The path of personal transformation is not separate from the path of social transformation
It is a delusion to think that I can be truly happy when the world is messed up. Put another way, the source of most of our personal suffering is that each of us is embedded in a worldwide web of suffering from which we cannot escape even if we deny it, look away, distract ourselves or muffle ourselves in safe personal cocoons. Happiness is not possible when the world is drowning in a sea of suffering. In other words, because of our inter-connectedness, what hurts you hurts me. During the long struggle to end apartheid, the South Africans recognized the social nature of hurt when they would chant, “An injury to one is an injury to all. An injury to one is an injury to all.”

We may be lucky enough to carve out a modicum of individual well-being, protected from the harshest of conditions. This is wonderful. Freedom from want, fear and persecution is what every human deserves and desires. But if this practice serves to isolate us from the suffering of the world or reinforces our feeling of powerlessness – the world’s problems are just too big for me and there’s not much I can do – then we need to deepen our approach to understand that we are transforming our personal suffering to better assist others to transform their suffering, in order to transform collective suffering.

Relational development and community building

Our global monopoly market system puts accumulation of money as the most important goal of economic activity. Around the world, but especially in the West, this has resulted in a gradual erosion of safe communities, stable families, places of long term work, close connection with the land and natural cycles, lifelong friendship groups, a sense of home and more. As social theorist Robert Putnam put it, we are “bowling alone.” The pace and insecurity of modern life add to the feeling of isolation and unhappiness: most people are working harder than ever but falling farther behind; divorce, depression, suicide are rising; each day 10,000 people cross international borders seeking refuge; international terrorism and global diseases are powerful new sources of anxiety; and the recent economic meltdown has raised levels of fear, anger and powerlessness even more. It is estimated that nearly 1 billion people – one sixth of the human population – have been victims of mass or structural violence and can no longer function well because of the trauma. This certainly highlights the need for deep individual and collective healing.

How do we create safe spaces for healing the social wounds of the past? How do we cultivate compassionate dialogue across lines of conflict? How can we promote empathy? How do we transform greed? How do we put the social back into social change work? How do we nurture ourselves and our relationships as we work to change the world? What practices, rituals and processes could be used for creating group cohesion and shared responsibility? How might we promote human-sized communities? And so on. I am suggesting that these questions should be as important for the social change community as questions about the methods for reducing poverty, preserving the environment, staunching human rights abuses and fighting disease.

Summary Comment

A great unfolding of new methods and directions for well-being and social healing would emerge if practitioners of various kinds of inner development were supported to offer training; if philanthropy funded the application of inner development technologies in the non-profit arena; if journalists and filmmakers put a media spotlight on promising and successful sources of conflict resolution, empathy and compassion development, social-emotional learning and restorative justice circles; if universities legitimized these topics through research and academic journals and so on.

Obviously, these efforts would be linked with the ongoing efforts to restore democracy, create alternatives to the current market economy, mitigate climate change, eliminate racism and poverty, and promote social justice worldwide.

It is my hope that the network of inspired social entrepreneurs will raise to a higher level of public discourse and practice ways of promoting emotional healing, consciousness, and inner development—the other side of the transformation coin. Inner healing, social transformation—you can’t have one without the other.

John Bell, former Vice President for Leadership Development at YouthBuild USA (, has over 40 years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, leadership trainer, director, author, and father. His most recent book is YouthBuild’s North Star. He is also an ordained Buddhist teacher of mindfulness in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. He lives in the Boston area.

Comments and perspectives are welcomed at [email protected].