(Carrying straight on from Living in the moment.) We can ask ourselves how many of the decisions etc we make are truly new and how many are just recreating the past? Let’s say someone was critical of us yesterday and we became defensive. Then we see them again today. They are a completely different person — today’s person, not yesterday’s — but we see yesterday’s person and so interact with them edgily and uncomfortably again.
Relating to yesterday’s person and not today’s gives rise to problems as the assumptions we make about them, and the ways we then interact with them, are completely false. And we can end up perpetuating the negativity for days, weeks, or longer. A grudge is a perfect example of this. We sustain anger in the present about a person who has long gone. And it doesn’t help them, or us. Resentment is, as the saying goes, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Two ways to address the problem
There are 2 ways to address the problem of being stuck in the past illustrated in this example. The first is wisdom, cultivating insight into the nature of impermanence and change. The second is determination, combining this insight practically into our daily activities by deciding strongly to stop grasping at the past.
I’m going to spend this article and the next exploring the wisdom of subtle impermanence as explained by Buddha and my teacher Geshe Kelsang (in his books and oral Mahamudra teachings), and incorporating insights from a wise friend called Gen Samten, whom I find to be an expert on this subject.
In general, wisdom is defined as a virtuous intelligent mind that understands a meaningful object. It is not the same as just being smart. We don’t need to know everything to be free and happy — we need to know what is meaningful to be happy. Buddha illustrated this by picking up a handful of leaves in a forest, saying to his disciples that the numerous leaves in the forest represent all that can be known in the world, but the leaves in his hand represent all that needs to be known to attain liberation.
For example, when a king asked his Buddhist teacher for advice that would both lift his mind in adversity and prevent over-excitement and distraction when things were going well, his teacher taught him the simple phrase: “This too shall pass.”
Two different models of change
Do you agree that things change? I think pretty much everyone agrees that everything changes — we even say things like, “Things are changing all the time! Things are changing so fast!” That much is true, but our understanding of what change actually is is wrong.
There are 2 different models of change, one coming from confusion and one coming from wisdom.
Suppose you walk past a house on way to work every day. That house undergoes changes, cracks appear, masonry falls down, and so on. Why does it change? The bigger changes are happening because moment by moment the building is changing. We can’t perceive that with our eyes, but moment by moment it is changing and we notice the more obvious results of this. We’d all agree with this and this is correct, BUT generally we feel that it is the same basic building that is changing from moment to moment. It has changed a bit but it’s the same house.
It’s the same with the relationship with our significant other. We can acknowledge that the relationship changes but we still feel it’s the same relationship – it’s the same as yesterday’s relationship but has changed slightly.
This thought is confusion because it isn’t true that it is the same building. It is not the same building. It is a completely different building. And the same is true for the relationship — no part of yesterday’s relationship carries over into today’s relationship.
What about us? We woke up, we had coffee, now some time later we’re here reading this, and we feel that I’m the same basic person who woke up this morning and had that coffee. I’ve changed a little bit, but I’m the same basic person.
But this is not true. We are a completely different person. The person drinking coffee and the person reading this now are completely different. Not even an atom of the person drinking coffee exists now. If they did exist, if the previous me had not ceased, where is it, and why are there not two me’s wandering around, one drinking coffee and one reading this?
We are a continuum of moments that are causally related but completely different. So, yes, the person who drank coffee this morning is the cause of the person who is sitting here now, but is completely different. The person sitting here is not that person who drank coffee — that person has completely finished, gone, not even an atom of them remains.
In How to Understand the Mind, page 134, my teacher says:
In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates.
This is the real meaning of change. The person who begins the sentence is not the one who ends it – every single atom has gone by the end. The person who begins a thought is not the same as the one who finishes a thought. Moment to moment to moment we are changing and not even a tiny trace of one moment is carried over into the next. The next moment is completely new, the previous me has completely gone, the person who drank coffee has completely gone.
Yesterday’s weather has completely gone, we accept this, we know not a trace of it remains today. Heck, the whole of yesterday is like that – it has all completely gone, including yesterday’s me.
So why hold onto the past, to something that has completely gone?
It can be helpful to begin relating to this truth with bigger chunks of time and then making them smaller. Where is the child we were? Completely gone. Where is the person we were ten years ago, five years ago, one week ago, one minute ago …? Completely gone. “But it is still basically me!” Only it is not. If it was, the five-year-old you would still be wandering around. But not one atom of that child remains. Not one atom of the you who started reading this sentence remains.
Today is your first day.