How we change
2nd August 2016
by Jon Allen
There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found in travelling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place. Washington Irving
It’s common to see meditation and spiritual practice as a way of changing ourselves, and this is understandable. If we feel unworthy about ourselves, we will want to feel worthy. If we’re unhappy, we’ll want to be happy, and if we feel stuck we’ll want to be free.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that if we’re to attain happiness, attain freedom, then we need to change into a different person, a better person. This is not helpful. If we think this we are just kidding ourselves, we’re just putting off being happy, being free.
When we adopt this attitude we can so easily get caught up in the future… ‘I’ll be happy when I get this, I’ll be happy when I’ve changed all these things about myself and am content with my life.’ But we can be content now, be happy now, with how life is now; in fact we can only be happy now.
I tried …
I was a neurotic for years. I was nervous, anxious and scared. Everyone kept telling me to change, to love myself. As a result I felt self-conscious, resentful and trapped. I wanted to change. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t.
A battle you can’t win
Some years ago, I had a client who was anxious to change but was approaching it all wrong. Then I encouraged him to stop trying to change and to let himself be what he is. Gradually he saw that battling with himself wasn’t working and so he relaxed, and that was the change he needed.
It seems to me that people can easily get into trying to change through pushing themselves. Often I notice that the constant urge to change simply exhausts us and leaves us feeling despondent. It doesn’t have to be like that. We can rest in who we are right now with all our neurotic little ways – they’re OK, we’re OK, we don’t need fixing. This is not a licence for nasty or hurtful behaviour. Accepting oneself doesn’t mean expressing oneself when inappropriate. It actually works to the contrary; if we accept and experience things like anger and fear then we are far less likely to express it or be overwhelmed by it.
Under the spotlight
What do we do? It is so simple, though I find a lot of people just don’t believe it can be… we simply watch ourselves. We watch all our little ways, all our self-centred thinking and actions, and let the light of awareness change us. We don’t change ourselves, but change happens effortlessly by watching ourselves; change happens through awareness and understanding. This is not intellectual analysis. We just watch ourselves without judgement.
If we do judge ourselves, that is watched too. Everything comes under the spotlight of awareness.
Winning the tug of war
For example, if I’m in a queue and feeling impatient to reach the counter, the natural thing to do is to try to be patient, to impose patience on impatience. This, however, can end up in a sort of tug of war – impatience-patience, impatience-patience – over and over again. But instead of trying to change the impatience or fight with it, what I can do is become intimate with it. This means feeling it and watching the thoughts around it. The lovely thing that can be discovered here is that patience is waiting ‘just behind’ the impatience – waiting to shine forth. I don’t need to impose it.
This happens with other aspects of ourselves too. If we’re nervous around a certain person it’s very easy to try to fight it, or try to change it, or to pretend it’s not there. Instead of doing this, turn towards it and become intimate with it. Doing this eases the inner conflict and allows us to see its impermanent nature and that it is not who we really are.
An unexpected transformation
We don’t need to concern ourselves with how we are going to become, with what we are going to change into. We can leave that to our natural intelligence, our innate wisdom, which is the awareness itself that is doing the watching. We can let go into the mystery.
When we let go in this way and stop trying to change ourselves, we discover something wonderful. We discover that not trying to change ourselves actually brings about a great transformation. We start to see our ‘difficult areas’ not as enemies to be repressed, feared or eliminated (which actually empowers them), but as aspects of ourselves that simply need awareness, that need understanding. This simple act of experiencing and watching instead of interfering brings us to peace; brings the struggle to an end. We can let awareness bring us to rest, we can let awareness bring us to reality, then we won’t be there, and this is freedom.
The ego’s investment
I’m often asked, ‘But If I don’t try to change myself isn’t there a danger that I end up doing nothing, maybe being a couch potato, maybe even ending up homeless?’
It’s not a danger but a fear. The attitude of trying to change is really a way of keeping up the illusion that we are in control of life. Trying to change into a future ideal is the ego investing in the future. The ego creates time and loves to invest in it, and in this way it secures its survival.
Trying may result in change but it’s still in the realm of the ego, in the realm of the self, of little me. What we can end up doing is just rewriting the story of me; a so-called better and nobler story, but it’s still about me, it’s not freedom. What is needed is to watch the ego, what is needed is to watch the me, and let it dissolve in the light of awareness. As the ego (the story of me) is watched, what we find is more and more openness, more and more sensitivity to life, more and more freedom.
Give up the struggle
What we can do is let go and relax. It’s like being on a roller-coaster ride and holding on for dear life to the steering wheel up front. As the car turns we turn the steering wheel, thinking we are in control of it. But the steering wheel is only a pretend one and the car is turning where it likes anyway. If we let go we can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Give our life over to awareness; give up the struggle and be happy.
Stop beating yourself up!
Self-criticism is a very common tendency. The usual way of approaching this is to give ourselves a hard time for giving ourselves a hard time. We perversely believe that digging further down into the hole will get us out of the hole. We like to pile on the agony.
Instead, simply notice the voice and the tone of the voice in your head. When you are talking to yourself in that condemnatory way, acknowledge that. Just say to yourself, ‘I’m talking harshly to myself.’ Another approach is to smile at the critical voice. Don’t get into a war with it. You don’t end a war by going to war. If there’s a fire and you want it to go out, you need to let it burn itself out of fuel. Getting mad at yourself is throwing fuel on the fire. Ask yourself how it feels when you’re being critical of yourself. Once you really start to see that the purpose it serves is to make you feel depressed, then slowly it will fall away. But until then a part of you thinks that it’s a necessary thing and is there to protect you.
Don’t fight it. Sit down a few times a week and say hello to the critical part of yourself. Ask it how it feels. Listen to its concerns.
Changing our actions
When I say that the aim of meditation is not to change ourselves, I am primarily referring to our inner world. I encourage people to accept themselves unconditionally. However, in the world of our actions it is slightly different. For example, if we find ourselves stealing we’d best stop otherwise we end up in prison, simple as that. With things like smoking and drinking, there may come a time when the desire to stop is strong enough and it happens. However, if we use so-called willpower, the craving often just finds an outlet somewhere else – for example, a lot of ex-smokers overeat instead and gain weight. The way I suggest is that of awareness. For example, when we want to smoke there is craving to do so. There is also the craving not to smoke, so immediately we have a conflict. A part of ‘me’ wants to smoke and a part of ‘me’ doesn’t want to smoke. Try to observe the whole process without judgement or opinion – when you have the urge to smoke, feel and observe that urge; when you have the urge to stop, feel and observe that too.
Tagged as: Jon Allen
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