A few weeks ago I got to have a conversation with a respected Buddhist teacher. I asked him if it ever got discouraging, working with people who are stuck in one place and seemingly unable to dislodge themselves. And I’ve been thinking about his answer ever since.
People change when they want to change, he told me. And if they don’t want to change, there’s nothing else to be done. Even when they do want change, the process is difficult and sometimes the desire alone is not enough. And sometimes people are so caught up in their own stories that they really don’t want to change. They’re comfortable in their suffering.
I know exactly what he meant, because I’ve been comfortable in my suffering in the past. It’s a strange way to think about things because of course, being comfortable in suffering is often vastly uncomfortable. The key is in its relativity: that however uncomfortable the suffering might be, it is less uncomfortable than the alternative. It is less uncomfortable than the prospect of what change might mean.
However, it is not only fear of change that is a driver here. It is also an inability to imagine anything different. It’s so easy for us to become caught up in our worldviews to the point that we don’t remember that other worldviews even exist, much less have the possibility of being equally valid. It’s easy to become blinded to anything outside of our experience. It can be easy to expect the worst, and by expecting it, summon it into our lives. (And we might not even realize we’re doing this, because it might not feel like expecting the worst; it might simply feel like maintaining the status quo.)
We act based on what we know. So when we wish to change, we often must change not only what we are doing but also what we believe to be true. We must question what we believe to be within the range of possibilities for ourselves.
I believe in our capacity to change with an almost desperate fierceness. I have to believe in it that way because I’m right in the middle of it, and it’s hard, and I don’t want to falter in my resolve. I often feel like I’m working five times as hard as usual. This process rinses and repeats, often from the tiniest stimulus: how do I feel? where is that feeling coming from? is there a way I can think about this differently? is this part of the new me or the old me, the new world view or the old one? if it’s the old one, can I let it go? how can I use this to open more to the world?
It is quiet work. For the most part, the outside world remains unaware that it is happening. Sometimes a friend offers me a helpful hand. Sometimes that help is a distraction, the space to laugh at it all, or just the reminder, “Take some downtime, Amy.” Because while it may be quiet work, it is also tiring, making myself new.
But I’ll let you in on a secret. My imagination is working, and I can picture it now: where I want to go. Where I am going. And who I’m going to be. There was always that part of me imagining what I secretly wanted but thought could never happen. Only now I believe in it. That belief makes it almost close enough to touch. (Maybe I’m already touching.)
Whatever it is I’m doing, it’s no longer a comfortable suffering. Instead it’s something that reminds me what it feels like to be alive.