Wisdom and Navigating Change


  Wisdom and Navigating Change

It can seem like the world is going through a lot of change right now. Never before have we seen such high levels of natural disasters as in the year 2010, and never before has one man, Donald Trump, been able to lead an entire country as President of The United States.

But there is good news: not every change is bad. In this post, we will explore how some changes can be for the better, and how wisdom can help us navigate what does happen to feel like a world falling apart in front of our eyes. We'll also talk about the importance of finding what you love and pursuing it - because that's something that won't ever change.

When Change Is Bad

Some change is bad. The Buddha taught about "Hindrances." Over two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha enumerated the five hindrances that can prevent us from being our best selves and achieving our best possible lives. Two of these hindrances, sloth and torpor, deal with lethargy; two others, agitation and worry, deal with fear. The fifth is ill-will or hostility towards others. In the Buddha's teachings on these hindrances, he tells us that we can only truly become our best selves when we are free from those hindrances.

In the modern world of science, we know much more about what hindrances do than did the Buddha. We've learned that not everyone is affected by sloth. Some people are lazy and complacent, but then feel no need to change. Some people are afraid but then don't act in any way that causes them to be anxious. However, there are many people whose bad behavior is due to agitation or worry- they see something always changing and think it is going to get worse, so they just brace for it and try to stay calm through it all. In other words, people cause themselves to worry because they think that change is an inherently bad thing.

Worse (or better, depending upon your perspective) is the fact that the state of worry can be contagious. Researchers have found that if I am standing near a worried person, I can actually start to feel worried myself. If they are panicking about some change due to happen in six months, I can become anxious even though the change might never occur and even though it might not affect me at all (Larkin & Sherman 2000).

Of course, the state of worry can also be infectious in positive ways. Our minds are very open channels for one another's thoughts and emotions. This means that we can pick up the anticipation of something good about to happen, and we can also pick up the anticipated fear and anxiety associated with it. When you're in a situation where there is nothing you can do but wait (like waiting for a delayed flight or trying to get on a delayed bus), this can be hard to cope with even if you know that whatever happens is going to be OK.

Worry has its own series of hindrances which the Buddha identifies as "fear, doubt, concern, worry, and dread." These hindrances do not just cause us emotional agitation; they also cause us physical harm. Our minds are an integral part of our bodies, and worry causes us not only to be unpleasantly agitated but also to give up different physical functions (Roberts 2006).

The Buddha's teachings have been incorporated into the science of meditation. Indeed, one of the main purposes of meditation is to learn how to turn our minds off and have them stay turned off. However, most people will experience a short bout of calm when they meditate, only for the anxiety they were expecting to be there to come creeping back at them when they aren't in meditation. The same is true of worry. If you worry when you're not meditating, it's as if your worries go into a time-lock that only comes out when you start to meditate or when something reminds you of the stressor that worries you. Furthermore, as the meditation studies show us, it doesn't take very long for our minds to learn pretty quickly how to slip back into worry mode and how to get us back in touch with our fears.

While a person can learn how to turn their mind off or at least ignore the emotional impact of worrying, they can't turn it off completely and stop it from affecting their physical functioning. The fact of the matter is that our bodies are constantly, always telling us what they need. When we get worried about something, our body gives us a stress reaction that produces physical symptoms. In fact, because of how our bodies work, this reaction actually benefits us in ways that we don't usually think about: when our minds are busy with worry, our bodies think that we need sleep and it helps us wind down and rest. In addition to slowing us down physically, worrying also causes the release of chemicals that make it harder for lymph and blood cells to fight off infection.

So, how do we learn to move past worry? The answer is that we can't - and this is where some of the wisdom of the Buddha comes into play. It is our constant ignorance about what our bodies need that makes us think our lives need to be changed or altered. If we could get past this ignorance, then we would be in a better position to recognize which changes are good and which changes are bad.

Let's talk about one of the eight aspects of emotional experience, called "feeling." We know that feelings can be bad or good - for instance they can cause joy or sorrow. But we also know that our feelings, no matter how good or bad, can't control our lives. If I am upset over something in my life, it doesn't make me go change it. If I'm happy with my life, it doesn't mean that I'm content. Just as a thought can control us or not control us regardless of whether the world is "right" or "wrong," so too can a feeling control us or not control us regardless of whether the feeling is "good" or "bad."

But even though feelings can't be changed, they do change us. Our feelings cause us to become happy or sad, to be hopeful or despairing. But feelings do not make us do anything. If I am feeling hopeful about something that is going to occur in the future, it doesn't mean that I'm going to hold my breath until the situation is resolved. If I'm feeling desperate because of something that has happened in my past, it doesn't mean that I'm going to try and fix it. And just as we can feel hope for our future without doing anything about our future, so too can we feel despair without doing anything about our past (Kornfield 1993).

So here's where the Buddha comes into play again.


We are all attached to our experiences. We are all attached to our thoughts about those experiences. We are attached to our feelings and our emotions. And, most importantly, we can be attached to our fears in the form of worry and concern about what might happen if things don't turn out as they should. All of these attachments are conditioned events that take place over time; the only thing we can do is have faith that the good things we experience will continue, but also have faith that the bad things will be resolved without sacrificing who we are.

As for change - well, it might not be such a bad thing after all!


Buddha (1999).

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