Change is a slippery thing. It’s inevitable, it’s ongoing and there’s no stopping it. There’s plenty not to like about change. For instance, the changes that come with aging, illness and dying are painful to see in others and painful when we experience our own. There’s loss associated with change and therefore a lot of fear—a job loss, a breakup with a significant other, a falling-out between friends, loss of youth, or loss of health just to name a few. These changes alter the terrain of our lives in big ways. Of course plenty of changes have their happier flipside like a new job, recovery from an illness or injury, or a new relationship. Not to be a downer, but even those happier things are impermanent too. However, a healthy understanding of impermanence doesn’t need to stand in the way of enjoying the good things in your life. It merely spares you the pain that comes from expecting the impossible—like the expectation that whatever it is you’re enjoying now will never change, or that you’ll never tire of something or someone you once enjoyed.
My favorite aspect of impermanence is its potential for positive change, and therefore the freedom that is always present. You see; along with impermanence there’s a fascinating thing Buddhism teaches called Dependent Origination. In a very abbreviated nutshell, Dependent Origination means that in order for anything to exist or occur, there is an ongoing play of ingredients that come together amidst the constant flow of change. We are not passive spectators in this ongoing play, but active participants because through our actions we play a role in creating the conditions we meet. When we understand this really well, we also begin to see that without a doubt there is nothing that isn’t made better through kindness and compassion, or worse by hatred.
According to Buddhist teaching, there are two main causes of suffering: karma (action) and kleshas (mental afflictions.) Mental afflictions are things like attachment, hostility, pride, greed, jealousy, and ignorance, or an incorrect understanding of the way things in life exist and function. There are about 84,000 mental afflictions —yes, they’ve counted them!— that can all be grouped into three main categories known as the Three Poisons of Desire, Hatred and Ignorance. When we talk about karma’s role in suffering, we also need to talk about the actions of body, speech and mind. These actions can either be skillful (compassionate) or unskillful (cause harm.) Since every action has a corresponding effect, it’s worth noting that it is the unskillful actions that produce suffering as their karmic result.
In the years since I’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism I have been amazed by the precise methods it offers to provide a remedy for just about everything under the sun. Instead of medicine that you pour from a bottle, the treatment is an application of thought that uses logic and analytical thinking to alleviate suffering by training the mind toward a more clear view.
Mental afflictions run rip-shod through your mind creating all kinds of havoc in your inner and your outer life
The mind is our go-to place for getting the ball rolling in either direction of creating more suffering or relief from suffering. You see, every action of body or speech is preceded by the mind’s actions of thought, thoughts that move so quickly you might not realize they’re even happening. These are thoughts that lack awareness or mindfulness and are the troublemakers in life because their traveling companions are little gremlins of motivation based on the mental afflictions of greed, pride, jealousy, malice, and so on. Without nurturing a quality of mindfulness through reflection and meditation these mental afflictions run rip-shod through your mind creating all kinds of havoc in your inner and your outer life.
In summary, karma comes as a result of the mental afflictions, and suffering comes from both karma and mental afflictions working together. If we learn how to reduce our mental afflictions we will stop creating negative karma, and if we stop creating negative karma we will reduce suffering. Both are accomplished by cultivating what Buddhism describes as the two wings of merit and wisdom. Accumulating merit is like building a force of positive energy that comes from positive actions, things like generosity, kindness and patience that are free of mental afflictions. Wisdom comes when one finally reaches a state of mental clarity after diligently studying to acquire knowledge and then carrying that knowledge into a consistent practice of analytical meditation.
If we begin to develop a practice of mindfulness, merit and wisdom by working with whatever capacity we presently have, even if that capacity seems really sparse, we’ll have a better shot at being able to apply them as remedies when one of those painful changes strikes. Even with only the beginnings of a practice we can apply the antidote of wisdom to dispel the mental afflictions, including the very tenacious one of attachment.
Keep in mind, releasing attachment isn’t about not loving or being devoted, it’s about not clinging. We can actually learn to extend that same feeling of love and devotion we feel toward someone special in our lives to include a broader field of beings in the world without diminishing our love for that special someone one bit. Imagine that now for just a moment and you’ll feel your heart expand.
When we meditate on impermanence and recognize the constant flow of change that’s taking place even as we gaze at something like a tree that appears to be unmoving, we can use our mind like a high-powered microscope that allows us to see the subtle and interdependent mechanisms of change at work. Since change is constant we can engage with these mechanisms in a deliberate way to create more beneficial experiences than harmful experiences and use these opportunities to offer kindness and compassion instead of anger or hatred. Mindfulness allows us to turn that microscope onto our own minds to help us see what’s there, checking carefully for those mental afflictions that are devouring our joy. If you find any pride, greed, jealousy, hatred, ignorance or any of the other 84,000 mental afflictions that are having a field day at the expense of your peace you have the option to do everything in your power to apply the antidotes wisdom and mindfulness offer.
I am especially grateful to my teachers at Do Ngak Kunphen Ling in Redding, CT for their patience and guidance.
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Janet Kathleen Ettele is a mindfulness based life coach and the author of How Generosity Works, How the Root of Kindness Works, and How Patience Works. Also a musician, Janet brings her background as a student of Buddhist dharma into contemporary practice through her writing, coaching, and her music.