Mahatma Gandhi never actually said this quote, which is commonly attributed to them. Instead he said something similar: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”
So that’s a little teaching in itself. Do we want to see more truth in the world, or more falsehood? I know which I prefer.
When we look at the world around us, with its many serious problems, including poverty, injustice, war, overpopulation, and environmental degradation, we can become angry and frustrated, or passive and despondent. Not only are these responses ineffective at bringing about change, they are also part of the problem to begin with.
In order to bring about positive change in the world we need not only engagement with the outer world, but also engagement with our inner world. If we want to see greater awareness in the world, we have to cultivate awareness. If we want to see more love, we need to cultivate love. If we want to be genuinely helpful we have to learn to be less hateful and frustrated, and more compassionate.
Meditation can of course help here — a notion that Mahatma Gandhi would have agreed with. Meditation helps us to recognize unhelpful emotional patterns and to develop the mental freedom to choose more helpful responses.
The cultivation of mindfulness helps us see what’s going on within us. It lets us see our own reactivity, and also our potential for change.
The cultivation of lovingkindness helps us to find alternative and more compassionate responses to life. If we want to see greater harmony and less strife in the world, we need to learn to respond to frustrations with more patience and kindness than we do at present.
Trying to change the world without changing ourselves is largely pointless. We simply inflict our impatience and ignorance on others, and there are enough of those qualities in the world already. So we need to work on developing the qualities that the world most needs — awareness and compassion.
Of course changing ourselves without attempting to make the world a better place is just a form of selfishness — trying to curate personal experiences of happiness with no regard to others — and there’s enough of that in the world as well.
The world needs our help, so we need to do what we can to help ourselves to be better, so that we can make the world better as well.