3 Buddhist principles for improving your ability to deal with change
Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Buddhist zen monk
This quote is quite hard-hitting but 100% true and clarifies the essence of the 3 Tibetan Buddhist principles, or commitments.
Change and the groundlessness of life
As human beings, we share an inclination to search for certainty. Everything is constantly in flux and we search for certainty within this turmoil of change. However, the nature of our existence is to be forever in flux. Everything keeps changing constantly and we are trying to establish some constants and security in this changing world. Think about it, in life, there’s only one constant and that is change. In the end, we cannot assert with 100% certainty that anything will be the same tomorrow or next week. Life is not permanent. The Buddha refers to this impermanence as one of the marks of our existence. It’s the incontrovertible fact of life and we don’t have any other choice than to accept this reality.
The benefits of the 3 commitments
If you truly know how to master these three commitments, you’ll be able to live fully and embrace all the wonderful gifts of the world, despite knowing that one day, it will all be over and we will die. You’ll learn to accept that we’ll never entirely understand all the realms of life. But no worries. That is okay. We are living in an abundance of beauty and wisdom. So much to value and love. Through embracing the 3 commitments you’ll increase your tolerance for change. And that is the number ONE skill in life. Change is omnipresent in today’s world. We’d better build up a tolerance for it.
There are probably very few people who are consumed with the idea “I’m going to die,” but there is plenty of evidence that we are all haunted by this groundlessness to some extent. Under the illusion that experiencing constant security and well-being is the ideal state, we do all sorts of things to try to achieve it, like overeat, drink excessively, abuse drugs, work too hard because we want to say in control, spend hours online or watching TV to escape reality. We are always on the run to get more because we crave acceptance, joy, praise, and possessions as an escape for the groundlessness of our life.
The 3 commitments can help you balance out your life and embrace the groundlessness of our existence. So what are they?
- First commitment: Committing to not cause harm
- Second commitment: Committing to taking care of one another
- Third commitment: Committing to embrace the world as it is
The First Commitment
The first commitment of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions that I want to share with you is Committing to not cause harm. This commitment tells you to go inside yourself, to really know yourself and to be aware of how you present and express yourself in this world. The first commitment is all about living without harming yourself nor others.
The first commitment is that you commit to working with your mind, thoughts, and emotions in order to identify and acknowledge when you’re trying to escape the fundamental reality of life. Because life can be scary and sometimes we want to escape it, but this can harm ourselves or others. There are moments that you want to escape the groundlessness by filling up time and space and avoiding the present.
You might go for a Netflix series marathon or game the night away. There are just simply moments that we want to escape the present and we all have our familiar exits. What is this for you? Do you give in to overworking? Overeating? Drinking? This is not a bad thing in itself, but it becomes a bad thing when it harms ourselves or others.
The negative effects of habitual patterns
We all have our habitual ways of reacting. It could be that your spouse is moody and you automatically go to your private room and elude them. Or another habitual pattern could be that you point it out to them, regularly resulting in fierce arguments. Often, habitual reactions are unpolished and can be harmful to yourself or others. Another way you could react or better said, not react, is by repressing. You could repress any urges you have to react and simply become numb. This is the well-known freeze response to a situation. Repression never works and just makes you like a keg of dynamite that could explode at any time. Your feelings and detrimental thoughts are allowed to fester and build up. The opposite of repression is acting out, which can also be counterproductive.
What often can help is that every time you run into a challenging situation to try to notice:
- How do I feel?
- Where does the feeling reside in the body?
- What sort of thoughts do these feelings give birth to?
- How do you treat yourself and other people when you feel this way?
Reflect on this question mantra and assess whether your actions successfully refrained from causing harm.
How to practice the first commitment
As an exercise, you can decide to refrain from something that you habitually normally do to escape for one day. You can pick something concrete like overeating or excessive sleeping. You can make a commitment to yourself for that day to gently and compassionately refrain from this habit. Really try to commit to it for one day or a week. Try to do this with the intention that it will put you in touch with the underlying anxiety or uncertainty that you’ve been avoiding. After you have pushed yourself for a certain time you start to understand yourself better and love yourself more.
When you manage to refrain from habitual thoughts and detrimental fixed identity thoughts, you will notice that the uncomfortable feeling remains present for a while. It’s not like that these feelings will magically disappear. Waging this battle is comparable to giving up an addiction. Your body will refuse at first. You need a certain detox period, but once you have surmounted that, you will feel reborn and stronger than ever. What can help you is getting the others’ support.
Really, the first commitment is so powerful and completely within your own control. You decide whether to strive for the extremes in life or choose to live a balanced, fulfilling life. All these things aren’t easy but when mastered well and committed to, can result in awakening, self-control, and inner peace.
The Second Commitment
The second commitment of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions: Committing to take care of one another. Our willingness to make the first commitment is the first step toward embracing uncertainty and change entirely. The second commitment builds on this foundation. It encourages us to move consciously into the pain of the world in order to help alleviate it. The second commitment is to take care of one another not only when we’ll benefit from it but also if that means we’re not going to like how it feels, thereby going beyond the limits of conventional happiness. It goes beyond enslavement to superficialities like success and failure, praise and blame.
How would you like it if you could divert your negative energy towards helping others and feeling good about that? If you were able to transform the sorrow of others into happiness for them and you?
It’s a fact that almost 8 billion people live in this world. And then I’m talking only about human beings and not about all sentient beings. There are more than a trillion sentient beings we share this earth with. We are all just a small part of this bigger picture. That’s utterly brilliant and we should feel blessed that we live in such a diverse and rich world. How beautiful would it be if we could all trust in one another’s basic goodness? If we’d all open up to each other, bringing out the best in us all?
Open yourself up to others completely
The second commitment is amazing but hugely challenging, it is to step further into groundlessness and embrace the beauty of every being. It doesn’t revolve around you anymore but all those others in the world. With the second commitment, you dedicate your life to making yourself available to every person, in every situation.
Although, you would have to be crazy to open yourself up that much, right? In the beginning, no one is very eager to commit to all of this. If we have a longing to alleviate personal and world suffering, it is the way forward. But it is not easy. It is something you really need to practice bit by bit. We can start by opening the door to others only for as long as we’re currently able to and give ourselves permission to close it when we feel too uncomfortable about it. Our aspiration should then be to always open the door for a few seconds longer. This will eventually alleviate suffering and give meaning to our existence on this earth.
Challenge your preconceptions about others
I do understand that it is difficult to open yourself up to everybody and that in reality there can be people we have trouble liking. And the funny thing is that these people are often close to us. It could be your boss, coworker, roommate, family member or even your spouse. Counterintuitively, try to be grateful for these people in your life. These people challenge you so much that you really learn how to cultivate patience. If you didn’t envy them, if you weren’t jealous of them, you would never think to stretch beyond your mean-spiritedness and try to rejoice in their good fortune. If these people weren’t part of your life you might even think you were better than everybody else and exhibit arrogant behavior rather than exuding warmth and kindness.
Regardless of what happens in our lives in relation to others, we should always try to wish them well. This aspiration is based on growing trust in the basic goodness of every human being. Wishing them well is based on our willingness to shed our own protective layers and trying to see the other person free of our labels and fixed ideas. We try to forgive instead of holding a grudge, try to see the positive instead of the negative. The more love and kindness you give, the more you’ll get from the universe. Believe me, this feels a whole lot better than poisoning ourselves with bitterness.
The Third Commitment
The third commitment of Tibetan Buddhist traditions: Embracing the world as it is. With the third commitment, we step fully into groundlessness. Yes, even further than with the first or the second commitment. We really have to relax into the continually changing nature of our situation. How little control we have of the world around us. We have to experience the constant changes in the world as vehicles to happiness, leverage lessons learned and be fully present with everything that happens around us. The third commitment goes beyond ourselves or helping others, it helps you to find your spiritual meaning in this world. With the third commitment, we give in and settle into all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts, and people we encounter. We let all the experiences we have, shape the meaning of our lives.
Learn to dance in the rain
The first and second commitment helped us minimize our tendency to pin our labels and preconceptions on everything we perceive. With the third commitment, we take this a little further. It’s not that we can’t have opinions about the weather, food or anything else. It’s just a matter of not clinging to those opinions. Instead, we should try to embrace these things and just have fun with them. The third commitment is to dance with life even when it’s a turbulent wild rage. To dance with life when it’s tender and when it’s hard. Dance with life when it goes high and when it goes low. The third commitment teaches you to learn to dance in the rain instead of waiting for the rain to pass.
Let go of your fixed identity and habitual patterns
Letting go of the fixed self isn’t something we can just make happen right now. It’s something we work towards with every gesture, every word, every deed, every thought. Only by consciously acknowledging and understanding your fixed identity can you start disassociating from it. You can be an observer of your fixed thoughts and not let them be the catalyst of your actions but a contributing element. We have to be willing to listen to our wisdom instead of following our robotic habitual patterns.
This can be hard! It’s difficult to go deep within and really understand ourselves. To be really true to yourself and identify elements of your fixed identity that impede you from living life to your fullest potential. But once you have managed to go beyond your reactivity and step into proactivity, Tibetan Buddhism says you will be enlightened by all things. You’ll see the fertile beauty of the world and experience life fully.
What does the mandala of your life look like?
Tibetan Buddhism says that each person’s life is like a mandala — a vast, limitless circle of life. We are in the middle of our circle and everything we see, hear, feel, think forms that mandala of our life. We walk down the street and we hear playing children, that is our mandala. Our brother wins the lottery, that is our mandala. We go for a hike and we experience the might of nature, that is our mandala. The mandala is never arranged but is always complete. Everything that shows up in your mandala is a vehicle for awakening, for enjoying life fully. However, it’s up to you whether your life is a mandala of neurosis or a mandala of sanity. You determine if it looks like a nervous spiral or a beautifully well-shaped circle.
Yeah, it’s true… We all make mistakes but everybody remains basically good. When the conditions come together, even people whose lives have not been exemplary can stand up and help others. A good example is how Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who created munitions and weapons to support the Nazis, saved hundreds of Jews in World War II. Schindler’s List is a great book and movie that I highly recommend to everybody.
It shows you how you determine the outcome of your mandala. Our mandala can be very dark sometimes but we ourselves decide if we want to brighten it up or if we let the clouds stay. Like Schindler, most of us are a rich mixture of rough and smooth, bitter and sweet. Whatever happens in your life, it is your mandala and you decide how you let the events in your life determine your future course of action.
With the commitment to embrace the world just as it is, we begin to see that sanity and goodness are always present and can be uncovered right here, right now. Every challenging life event is part of the mandala of your life. My Tibetan Buddhist teacher said:
When you can see even the worst of hells as a place where you can awaken, your world will change dramatically.