All About Change
February 02, 2024

One of the sound bites you often hear about Buddhism is that it’s all about change. In some cases, they say that we’re taught to accept change and be okay with it. But then there’s the Buddha’s series of questions: If something is changeable, is it going to be easeful or stressful? And the answer is it’s stressful, so you don’t claim it as you, as yours. That sounds more like a negative take on change.

It’s so often the case the Buddhist teachings are a lot more complex than the sound bites. There is change and it’s up to us to decide which change is good and which change is bad, which changes should be prevented, which changes can’t be prevented, which changes should be encouraged.

As the Buddha once said, he taught analytically. He would take things apart. Like right now, you’re trying to change your mind. That’s a good thing. You’re trying to develop the path. You’ve got the potentials inside you. But this is where we run into a problem. The mind is so changeable, so quick to change. You think back about how many times you’ve probably been practicing the Dhamma in previous lifetimes and then you threw it away. Up and down, up and down, up and down we go. Some people find that thought depressing; others find it a challenge. What can we do to make sure we don’t go down again? That kind of change, the change down, is to be discouraged. The change up is to be encouraged.

So as you’re focusing here, notice how the mind wanders off and try to be quick in catching it. The Buddha’s instructions on mindfulness talk about two activities. One is to put aside greed and distress with reference to the world and the other is to stay focused, keeping track of, say, the body in and of itself, or the breath. So you’re doing two things at once. You’re trying to create a sense of steadiness, consistency in your gaze here—consistency in your keeping track of the breath all the way in, all the way on, then again and again and again. Watch out for any tendency to slip off.

It’s like those squirrel colonies we have. The squirrels are eating around on the ground, but there’ll be one squirrel standing sentry, keeping watch in case hawks or coyotes come. In the same way, part of the mind has to be keeping watch as the other part begins to settle in. This is part of what directed thought and evaluation are all about. There will come a point where the mind settles in so thoroughly that the act of having to keep watch gets milder, falls more and more into the background. But it always has to be there. You’ve got to protect what you’ve got. You’ve got to resist the kind of change that would pull you away.

This, the Buddha said, is one of the duties of mindfulness when it becomes a governing principle. If something good hasn’t arisen yet in the mind, you try to give rise to it. Once it’s there, you don’t let it go. You hold on to it. You maintain it. So mindfulness watches both for the kind of change you encourage and for the change you resist.

The change that the Buddha said is really problematic is when we latch on to something for the hopes that it’s going to be good for us but it’s actually going to let us down. That’s where you want to see, “Okay, where does this thing change? Where is it unreliable?” It’s not just change that the Buddha is talking about in the series of the three perceptions. He’s talking about inconstancy and unreliability. You’ve got this unreliability in your mind, but also unreliability in the things that you tend to latch on to. If you see that your attachments are unskillful, try to see their drawbacks so that you really feel that the attachment is not worth it. At the same time, you provide yourself with something good to hold on to. Otherwise, no matter how much you may let go, you just grab hold again.

It’s like climbing a ladder. If you have only one rung in the ladder, you’re not going to let it go. You have to hold on, because otherwise you’re going to fall. But when you have a series of rungs, then you can see, “Okay, this rung is higher than that rung. It gets me to where I want to go.” Then you hold on to the higher rung so that you can let go of the lower one.

So as you contemplate inconstancy, stress, and not-self, you want to make sure that you have something good to hold to. This is why we try to make the mind as constant as possible, with a sense of ease, so that you can stay with the constancy. You can stay with the ease. Take that as your new foundation. Provide yourself with many rungs going up the ladder, and you get to your safe place. Then you let go of the ladder. In the meantime, though, don’t let go.

We hear so much about how the teaching is not only about change, but also about letting go. But here again, the Buddha was selective and strategic in telling you when to let go of what. There are things you’re going to have to hold on to in the meantime until you can finally let go. So he teaches you how to develop them: strengths like conviction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, discernment. They may be weak now, but as you exercise them, they do get stronger.

We were talking the other day about comparing exercising the mind to exercising a muscle. There are some parallels. For one, there’s a lot of repetition. But if it’s nothing but repetition, the muscle gets worn out, and the same with the mind. This is why we don’t just look at it in, out, in, out, in, out for the breath. We’re trying to figure out which kinds of breathing nourish the body, and which parts of the body need to be nourished right now. When you run up against different pains or blockages in the body, how do you deal with them? Sometimes you focus right at the blockage, and sometimes you have to focus someplace else.

The other day I was suffering from a pain in my hip. A doctor who’s an acupuncturist happened to come to the monastery, so he gave me a treatment, and the main part of the treatment was a needle in my right hand. The left hip was where the pain way, but the needle went into my right hand and it relieved a lot of the pain in the hip. So things in the body are connected in strange ways. Sometimes if you see a blockage and you try to push your way through, you just create more problems. So step back and see: What could this be connected to? In the same way that, when you exercise a muscle, you do have to change the exercises every now and then, you change the breath, too. Or sometimes you even have to put the breath aside for a time being and work on other topics.

So in that way, exercising the mind and exercising the muscle are the same.

The difference, of course, is you’re exercising the mind to get quiet. When you exercise the body, you have to move it around. But exercising the mind means getting it quiet, more and more quiet, more and more quiet. As you peel away the different layers—first the distractions to the concentration, and then as you get into concentration, you begin to see the activities that you’re doing to get the mind to settle down, and after a while, you see that they’re no longer necessary. You can stay there with less and less and less activity. That provides you with a kind of change that it’s good to study. When you move from one level of concentration to another, what do you drop? What continues on? You want to be able to peel away the events in the mind so that you can see them simply as events.

Then you can ask yourself, “What I could possibly build out of these events?” In the case of concentration, you can provide yourself with a temporary home, which is much better than what you can create with other states of becoming. But it does have its drawbacks. It is put together. So use the temporary home as your protection, as your place of rest, place of nourishment, so that you can peel away your interest in things outside that would otherwise cause you to do or say or think unskillful things.

Then when the area around you is cleared, you can look at the drawbacks of this house you got. You can see that it’s built out of impermanent things, things that can’t last. Not just impermanent, but also inconstant. They waver. You have to be constantly adjusting them. They’re minor, minor adjustments, they’re very subtle, but they’re there. And it’s the subtle things in the mind that you need to see.

So in this case, you’re going to be studying change. Try to get sensitive to when the level of stress in the mind goes up, when it goes down. And ask yourself, “What did I just do?” That gives you a clue that something’s going on in the mind. And it’s in the mind that you want to look. When the Buddha talks about the origination of suffering, he doesn’t mean things outside causing you to suffer. Society may be in a mess right now, people can be abusive, threatening, totally crazy, but that’s not the source of the suffering. The source of the suffering, the Buddha says, is inside the mind itself. That’s what he means by origination. It’s a cause and it’s inside your mind.

So you keep asking yourself: “What did I do? What did I do?” You’re studying these subtle changes so that you can let them go. Try to figure out what you did, let that go. That’s what clinging is: It’s an activity that you do again and again and again. You’re addicted to it. You do it regardless of whether the result is good or bad. You think you simply have to do it. But in the meditation, we can begin to call that into question. And we can stop doing the things that are causing suffering.

So in this case, the subtle variations in the mind are a clue as to what’s going on. They alert us to activities we might have missed otherwise. So you do want to become sensitive to change, and realize that there are lots of different kinds of change. Learn to sort them out. Which changes should be avoided? Which changes have to be accepted? Which changes should be encouraged? When you see that there are these three kinds, then you can take advantage of the Buddha’s teachings on inconstancy and his teachings on the unreliability of the mind, but also his teachings on our good potentials, to put them to good use.

As he said, if we couldn’t develop skillful qualities and abandon unskillful qualities—i.e., if we couldn’t make changes in our mind—there’d be no use in his teaching. And if we didn’t benefit from developing skillful qualities and abandoning unskillful ones, he wouldn’t have taught that, either. But we can make these good changes. So focus on the good changes you can make. And be on the alert for the changes in the mind that would pull you away, because they’ve pulled you away many, many, many times before.

There’s that phrase in the Ajaan Mun’s last Dhamma talk where he said that he didn’t want to come back and be the laughingstock of the defilements ever again. Wherever your defilements pull you away from the practice, if you think about them laughing at you, that should give you good encouragement, good motivation to say, “Well, this time around, we’re not going to let it happen.”