Unless bold actions are taken
The apparently insuperable gap between knowing and doing
The FAO Agrifood Economics Division, in collaboration with technical experts from other UN agencies, has recently released the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 report.
And it does not look good at all.
“Zero hunger” is the second of the 17th Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN in 2015. Despite the good intentions, the goal was already off track in 2019, but the pandemic gave it an (almost) final blow.
About ten per cent of the people in the world suffer from hunger. That is almost a billion people, most of whom are women and children. More than half of them live in Asia, and more than one-third in Africa. Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020.
The 212 pages report provides extensive and detailed data about the current situation and its causes. It also makes projections, identifies drivers and areas of intervention and propose ideas on what the world should do.
I honestly have only skimmed through the whole report. Still, I’m pretty confident in saying that there is no shortage of data, information, knowledge and ideas about this huge challenge that humanity is facing.
Yet, despite all this extensive knowledge and the vast data collected, here we are, admitting that we won’t be able to meet the goal of eradicating hunger by 2030. Unless, as the report clearly states, “bold actions are taken.”
Things do not look better if we look at the other significant issues addressed by the Sustainable Goals set by the UN, like climate change.
IPCC — the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — has just released the Sixth Assessment Report on climate change. The full report is over 1300 pages long. So, also on climate, we have no shortage of data and knowledge. I just read the summary for policymakers, and it’s scary enough. Things are getting worst compared to the fifth report from 2011: the global surface temperature is rising, glaciers keep shrinking, oceans are getting warmer, and their surface is acidifying. According to the report, the human influence on all these negative trends goes from very likely to virtually certain. Quoting the report, “the scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.”
The forecasts for the future are gloomy, and they say that we are practically doomed.
Unless, obviously, we take bold and rapid actions.
I’m pretty sure that similar reports exist for many, or all, of vital humanity’s challenges. And every time I read these reports, I can’t help but ask myself, how is it possible that we are unable to do anything?
All these research and reports prove that we have more data than ever. It has never been so easy to access all this abundance of knowledge for so many people in the world. We are even getting cleverer, and resources don’t seem an issue, even if they are unfairly distributed.
The last decades, known as the Information Age, have shown that we can do wonders with the right combination of data, knowledge, intelligence (human and artificial) and resources. So, you would think that we should be able to solve all these challenges and create a world that works for everyone.
Instead, we keep collecting data, processing information, and telling each other that nothing will change “unless bold actions are taken.”
And guess what? Those bold actions are not taken.
If knowing more is not enough; if having more data is not enough; if being cleverer is not enough, what else do we need to take those bold actions? Where should we look to innovate a way forward that will lift the whole world?
The truth is, it was never knowledge that inspired the bold and remarkable actions that changed the course of history. It was something coming from way deeper and way beyond.
Look in the mirror
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. 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. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do. — Mahatma Gandhi.
They say that we see the world as we are and not as it is. Thousands of years ago, in a body of ancient Sanskrit texts called the Upanishads, the Vedic sages unveiled that we do not possess awareness; we are awareness having a human experience. According to their wisdom, the reality that you experience and create is informed by your state of awareness.
Everything that we perceive is a construction of the brain. — Anil Seth.
In recent years, neuroscience confirms that what we perceive as reality is a story that our brain creates for us. Our brain relentlessly creates illusions and stories so we can make meaningful decisions about reality. It does that partly because it cannot handle the flood of information collected by our senses but mostly because we can’t rely on our lagged sensory systems. The process through which reality is transformed into a signal that travels to our brain, where it is converted into our perception of reality, is slow. We are talking about milliseconds, but it’s enough to make the information outdated. So, our brain — whose primary purpose is our survival — continuously makes predictions. It creates stories that we use to make sense of reality so that we can survive and thrive.
These stories are influenced by our life experiences, our conscious and unconscious beliefs and our conditioning. And because through those stories, we shape our choices and actions, they don’t just influence our experience of reality; they actively shape it.
We don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much, if not more, from the inside out as from the outside in. — from Anil Seth TED talk
Science then confirms what the Vedic sages knew thousands of years ago. Your external world is a reflection, a mirror of your inner world.
Perhaps, that’s why we are not taking the bold actions that are needed. We are looking in the wrong direction. Outward instead of inward. We keep adding data, knowledge, intelligence and resources within the same box of stories and illusions that creates the challenges we want to solve.
So now what?
You can go very far if you start very near. We generally start with the farthest, the supreme principle, the greatest ideal, and get lost in a hazy dream of imaginative thought. But when you start very near, with the nearest, which is you, then the whole world is open, for you are the world. — Krishnamurti
After reading those reports about world hunger and climate change, I’m convinced that we won’t find a solution to those issues out there.
Because they are not out there.
We create the reality that we experience, which means that whatever problem we want to solve, we must begin with a personal and radical transformation.
You and I are both the problem and the solution.
We keep asking the leaders of the world to take bold actions while we, you and I, are the ones who are called to be bold. And this “boldness” has nothing to do with the size or magnitude of our actions. It depends on our willingness to rethink ourselves and our whole life.
Simple, but not easy.
That’s why I believe we should stop trying to solve climate change or world hunger and, instead, envision and mirror the world we want to live in, the life we want to live, the person we want to be.
And then live it.
Lead the way by example. Start very near by becoming the everyday champions of the world we want to build.
True leaders are not the ones who plan, design or show the way forward. They are the ones who walk that way. They are activists in the sense that they actively model the world they envision.
As Gandhi said, “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”
And I can hear your doubts and questions because they are mine too. I am just one person out of seven billion; what difference can I truly make? Plus, I am not Gandhi; I can’t change the world.
The truth is, Gandhi was just a human being. He wasn’t cut from a different cloth. One day, he felt the call to create a different world, and he started from himself. When he began his journey, he could not have dreamt of becoming the Mahātmā, meaning a great soul, and of the impact that he would make upon the world. He just started. And like him, many have started near them by becoming champions of a new world. Most of them never became known as Gandhi, yet their contributions have been vital.
Second, the idea that you can’t make the difference is one of the many inner stories and conditioning why bold actions are not taken.
That is why the first step to create an impact is one of subtraction.
As long as you are attempting to be creative within the field of your conditioning, you cannot be creative. — Krishnamurti
As we saw, if we want to change anything in our reality, first, we need to change within our minds. To innovate our world, we need to innovate our thinking first. Only once we disrupt our thinking we can see new ways of moving forward.
However, disrupting our thinking may not be enough. There are many examples of smart think tanks, forums and brainstorming groups. They create brilliant reports, plans and strategies — like the ones we analyzed at the beginning of this piece — that too often don’t yield results.
The science of consciousness, laid down for us by the Vedic sages, informs us that to disrupt reality, we need to go way beyond “thinking”.
In a body of science called the Pancha Koshas — or the five sheaths in Sanskrit — the Vedic sages recognize us as multi-layered beings, varying from the Gross Body — which includes your flesh and bones — to the Subtle Body within — which consists of the mind and vital energies — to the Causal Body further within — which includes the timeless and spaceless aspect of our being. Contained within these three bodies are five layers that together constitute the self. Associated with each of these five layers of awareness is a different intelligence with a unique creative potential. These layers can be easily considered layers of clothing, which divide the causal awareness from the materialistic reality of the world we experience through our mind and body, our configuration or form.
Awareness manifests into form and thus shapes our reality, flowing through all five layers. However, this flow of awareness is hindered by the layers of conditioning — our belief systems, habits or reflexes — built through lifetimes of experiences.
As a result, our ability to create a radically new reality is thwarted. What we truly need, then, is an expansion in awareness that allows us to engage the intelligences of all layers, of which the ability to think is just one.
The more we subtract the layers of our conditioning, the more we expand our awareness and access the field of pure potentiality from which radical innovations can emerge.
If you feel called to make an impact and do something about any of humanity’s challenges, you must begin by turning inward and embracing a journey of subtraction.
This is the invitation in Gandhi’s words; if you want to innovate the world, you must begin by innovating yourself. And because the world we experience comes as much, if not more, from the inside out as from the outside in, you are genuinely changing the world by innovating yourself.
To innovate yourself through subtraction is then the bold action that can make a difference. And the good news is that not only you will be the creator of a new world, you will also find bliss in the process.
In the meanwhile, we can get out of the way
Let’s be honest; many don’t and won’t hear the calling to subtract and innovate themselves. And for many others, it may be too late to subtract all their conditioning and limiting beliefs and fully realize the world they envision in their own life.
I may well be one of them. I’m walking my own subtraction journey, but I’m not perfect, and I still struggle to fully manifest my vision in my own life. What I can do, however, is to ensure that I am not getting in the way of the ones who have the potential to create a new world.
As human beings, we all begin life with a blank canvas. Newborns are not bound by all the conditioning and limiting beliefs that created the present world. They learn and absorb them growing up in the world that we, adults, have made and continue to create. Our education system instils onto them the limiting beliefs and conditioning that created the world we live in.
So, the smartest thing we can do is to get out of the way. Being humble enough to admit that we are too conditioned to see and create the future new generations will live in. And armed with that humility and awareness, we must be careful not to impose our conditioning and beliefs on them.
So they will create the new.
And I have no idea how that new world will look like because it is beyond the boundaries of my conditioning. We keep saying that we want to create a better world for the new generations. How about we let them shape it by giving them a space free from our limiting beliefs.
From this perspective, leadership is not about solving problems or shaping the future. It is about creating the space for the new to emerge. It’s an active action of stepping back, making space for the new and then taking care of that space.
I know, asking someone who has power in their hands to step back is probably naive. Power is so intoxicating for the ego that people are willing to trade money, love, health, time, friends, family, everything they are for it. For these people to step back, it requires some form of awakening, an expansion of awareness that is only possible through a process of subtraction. A process that requires courage.
So, I’m back to the “bold actions not taken” with which I started.
What can I do then?
I can’t ask you or anyone else to take bold actions. As we saw, it doesn’t work.
But I can start from me, building my bridge between knowing and doing and boldly walking it.
In the end, everything and everyone begins with me.
Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.
Stop acting so small.
You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
Set your life on fire.
Seek those who fan your flames.
If you feel called to embrace a journey of subtraction and innovate yourself, you’ll find a helpful map in the book Subtraction, The Subtle Art of Unleashing Boundless Innovation that I wrote with Sujith Ravindran and Elliot Leavy. In it, we lay down the nine steps of the Innovator’s Journey that will help you release all the conditioning that hold you back from expressing your immense creative potential.