How much can a person really change?

9 mins read + a video

I was talking about perspective in this article, and I think it’s fair to declare that neither self-grasping nor self-cherishing have any reasonable perspective at all. They are totally self-referential blinkered minds, which also happen to serve no useful purpose whatsoever. bridge the gap

What also arises in dependence upon these ego minds is attachment, where we exaggerate the power of things outside ourselves to make us happy. In a way, we have no choice but to view the world like this. Why? Because we are really over here really wanting to be happy, and everything and everyone else that might possibly make us happy is over there. How can we ever bridge such a gap?

The endless pursuit of pleasure

We have this natural wish to please this real me, “What can I do now to make myself happy?” There is nothing wrong with the wish to be happy, but we have this pressing concern that my happiness is so important, it is so incredibly important, it is more important than everybody else’s happiness, so what can I do about it? I can have a coffee, I can meet a friend, I can inject Botox, I can earn lots of money, etc; and we start projecting sources of happiness out there, thinking, “I need this promotion. I want that car. I need this partner. I want that donut.” And conversely, if I don’t get these things, it is some kind of disaster.

This pursuit is non-stop from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. And then it even continues in our dreams. Exhausting, really.

money doesn't buy happinessAnd what is happening is that some exaggeration is going on because these things don’t ultimately make us happy, they cannot, they are by nature fleeting. They don’t even temporarily make us happy half the time — because the things that we think make us happy are also the source of our problems, vis a vis donuts, jobs, relationships, cars, etc. But with the mind of attachment we exaggerate the power of things to make us happy.

All these things can make us superficially happy for a short while, but they can also cause us much worry and suffering. They can never give us the pure and everlasting happiness that all of us, in our heart of hearts, long for. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We externalize the sources of happiness, believing that they are out there, when in fact happiness is in here (point to your heart).

Selfish desires

Attachment can also be understood as “selfish desires”. With any delusion, our thoughts are more selfish, revolving around a stronger sense of a real self than when our mind is peaceful and positive. When we are angry, for example, it is, “You did this to me, ME!” Check out this video by an amusing friend in New York to see some of the dynamics of annoyance at play:

And if we have really strong attachment for someone, we think, “How can I get you to make ME happy? I need you to do this, that, and the other for ME.” See what I’m saying? Depending on their strength, all our delusions have at their core a more or less exaggerated sense of Meeee.

Cultivating the happiness that comes from wisdom

Happiness is a state of mind that comes from mental peace. We get some inner peace automatically the moment our mind is free from upset, when we are temporarily free from stress, worry, selfish desire, etc. Our mind is rather like a clear, still glass of water (which would feel very peaceful if it had feelings); but then our delusions shake that glass about and the water goes crazy. This is why even the simplest breathing meditation, letting go of the turbulence to quieten the mind, induces feelings of peace and well-being. i want happiness

And then we can deepen that inner peace by developing thoughts of love, or compassion, or patience, or wisdom. A rich blissful mind of wishing others to be happy, for example, or a mind that happily accepts everything that arises … there are many peaceful states of mind and they all make us genuinely happy, but donuts don’t. Donuts and cars and sex and money can sometimes induce momentary sense pleasure, of course they can — but real, lasting happiness is far deeper than that, and it arises from within. Geshe Kelsang says that everyone needs the true happiness that comes from wisdom.

As he also says in his stunning new book, Mirror of Dharma:

Some people may say, “I will be happy all the time if I become wealthy, enjoy a good reputation and have the opportunity of a relationship with the person I desire.” I am very sorry, but this is not true! We can see that people who have all these things also experience great unhappiness and many problems. Many wealthy people and those in high positions experience great suffering and many dangers. We see and hear news about such things all the time.

Quick detour

Geshe-la and Gen-lasGotta make a quick detour here to mention something very cool: The transmission of Mirror of Dharma will be given at the International Kadampa Retreat Center in Arizona at the Kadampa Fall Festival 2019, to accompany the opening of a massively huge World Peace Temple on Route 66 that will be visible to many of the 5 million annual visitors to the Grand Canyon. If that doesn’t put Kadampa Buddhism on the map, I don’t know what will.

Do you have a set personality or not?

And as a result of increasing our inner peace, our wisdom and compassion, our personality changes. We change.

As we keep saying in Buddhism, because Buddha said it, the potential of our mind is infinite. He once said that the amount of our mind we use compared with the amount of mind available to be used is like a pea compared with a planet.

So, we can change. Can’t we?

The other day I was reading a 56-year-old study on a bunch of women who were interviewed every year between the ages of 14 and 70 to see how much they changed as people. And, as it turned out, it was a lot. (I cannot now find the article but I did find this.

happiness (1)Normally I think we have this idea that we have a pretty set personality, “This is just the way I am. Maybe I can get a little bit happier with a whole lot of effort, maybe I can get a little bit more chilled out, maybe I can even get a little bit nicer. But basically this is me.”

However, we sell ourselves enormously short given how much happier we can become, how much kinder, and how much wiser. How we can, in fact, become completely different people — people who live for others, for example a Bodhisattva who wants to free all living being from their suffering and is getting rid of all her faults and limitations to do just that.

Everyone reading this can become a Bodhisattva if you want to. You can become an enlightened being if you learn the methods and put them into practice. Literally, the sky’s not even the limit when it comes to how much we can change.

Nonetheless, due to our stuck ideas of a limited self, and before we get a sense of how extraordinary our minds are through meditation and introspection, there’s a prevalent sense in individuals and society that we all have pretty fixed personalities. That’s where this study is interesting because it discovered that these women were changing all the time and that by the time they reached 70 every single area of their personality had changed beyond recognition — socializing, confidence, wishes, habits, values, everything. Not necessarily for the better, sometimes for the worse, but everything had been replaced. The study concluded you wouldn’t recognize the person of 14 at 70, not just physically but mentally (and that is even long before we slip into senectitude).

Route 66This study is an indicator of how much we change anyway in the natural course of our lives without even particularly trying. What we call our personality is really a bunch of tendencies, wouldn’t you say? We have a certain tendency to react or behave or talk in certain ways around certain people or in certain situations. We have the sense that there is this true essence, true me, or whatever, but is there? Who is this real self who has a real fixed personality? Where is this self? It’s quite an interesting question, isn’t it?

We can use our wisdom to see if we can find it anywhere and — if we can’t – surely we are free to let it go?!

I think who we are depends upon our thoughts. Who we are is very largely, perhaps completely, who we think we are. And who we become is who we want to become, which also depends on who we think we can become.

Who we think we are determines what we do

There is a relationship between who we think we are and what we think we want. And as we always tend to put our energy and time into what we want, who we think we are determines what we do each day.

meditator in the Grand CanyonFor example, even in the course of an ordinary week we can change dramatically. We can wake up on Tuesday feeling like a complete loser – “Today is going to be horrible. I know it. I’m useless at this job, it really worries me, I’ve messed everything up in my life, and no wonder no one likes me.” We can think of ourselves like that all day long, thereby depriving ourselves of all agency and rendering ourselves pretty much powerless, not to mention miserable. And what are we going to be doing all day long? Anything fun or inspiring?!

Wednesday we can wake up feeling on top of the world – “I can’t wait for work today, I can’t wait to shine at this job, I am just great, really sorted, strong enough to face any challenge, and I have lovely friends, everything is good.” And do we not act completely differently as a result?

What has actually changed about us from Tuesday to Wednesday? Did someone switch out the grumpy me for the happy me overnight?! No, only our thoughts about who we are have changed, and therefore we have changed. We’re always having these different ideas of ourselves, it’s going on all the time. There is nothing fixed about us. Who we are, what we are, and therefore what we do depends entirely on our thoughts. And our personalities are our persistent thoughts, if you like, our tendencies, our habits of behaving and reacting in certain ways. As it defines personality in dictionary.com:

  1. the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual.
  2. the organized pattern of behavioral characteristics of the individual.
  3. a person as an embodiment of a collection of qualities.

There is no person to be found in that sum total or that organized pattern (not sure who is organizing it?!). A person or self is merely imputed upon it. By changing the parts — our behavioral, physical, mental, emotional, social, (and spiritual) characteristics — of course we change completely the pattern, the whole, and the imputed person, our self.

eagle in grand canyonSo, to answer this article’s title, our personalities can and do change completely, even in this life, let alone from life to life. In which case, let’s finally take advantage of this fact to deliberately transform our personality into the best possible personality — why not a Bodhisattva? — with the use of wisdom and compassion, the two wings that will fly us fast to enlightenment. Then everything we want and everything we do will be about making others happy, and as a side-effect we too will achieve the happiness we’ve always longed for.

Over to you. How much do you think you can really change?

Time to read a bit more?

Feel free to change your mind 

What about me? 

What we do depends on who we think we are

No real self