"We need heroes! Everyday heroes! We need to have our children see us adults act as heroes every day. Even little tiny acts of heroism help."
What can I do? What should I do? What is the right behavior—right now?
How do we instill in our society heroes who respond responsibly in the here and now, not just through a Facebook or Twitter post? The science of epigenetics, which studies the environmental factors that affect our DNA, does give us some clues.
And it comes down to tiny acts of enlightened heroic behavior. We need heroes! Everyday heroes! We need to have our children see us adults act as heroes every day. Even little tiny acts of heroism help.
Soto Zen master Shunryu Suzuki taught, “There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.” Only when adults (parents, teachers, all of us) act with virtue and character in an enlightened way can those characteristics grow in the soul of our society, and most importantly, the soul of a child. Children learn by example—and so do we adults!
Master Suzuki’s teaching is borne out in science. Science tells us we can reconfigure a person’s DNA through environmental factors and by activating those bits of the brain that respond to emotional impulses. This epigenetic DNA modification happens every time we model and behave in an enlightened, courageous, right way. It happens best through example. Reading or watching a TV show about being honest, seeking justice, or enlightenment is great, but nothing changes the DNA like the real thing. After all, we don’t kiss our iPhones, hug our TVs, or bow to the screen’s enlightened hero. We need to see it in real time and we need to act with enthusiastic enlightened behaviors in real time. Also one kind act creates more positive karma than reading every dharma book in the universe. Enlightened acts is where it is at.
So let’s chat about this. Gandhi’s most famous quote tells us, “Be the change.” We must do the act. Not talk about it. Not think about it. Not wish we had acted instead of being hesitant. We must act. It is not about big things. Simple acts add up. Giving a few dollars to the candidate we feel should be supported—no matter if she is a longshot candidate. Telling the check-out clerk “thank you” (for working Sunday night) or standing up to an injustice in real time makes a difference. When we see someone bullying a fellow human being or being rude, we can, with dignity, patience, and wisdom, step in with a defusing question, like “Can I help?”
A courageous life is not about jumping in front of bullets. It is about acting to end suffering and cause happiness—and doing the action in the moment. It is not a future type of thing. It is not a gotta-be stronger-bigger-or-smarter-before-I-can-be-a-hero type of thing. It is a pick-up-the-trash-you-see-today, say-the-kind-word-that-can-be-said today, defuse-the-stupid-conflict-the moment-it-comes-in-your-sight type of thing. Soon your DNA will change. You will be an epigeneticly enlightened hero.