3 of Buddhism’s Most Powerful Principles Explained

And how to leverage them in your life.

Photo by Nicolas Häns on Unsplash

Buddhism is like the weird cousin of many of the world’s religions and philosophies of life. Few people do what the Buddhists do.

They often sit for extended periods of time, focussing on nothing but their breath. They talk ceaselessly about “suffering” and the illusion of the “self”. And, to top it off, they recommend we free ourselves from our attachment to desires and aversions.

For many of us, this is simply too different from life as we know it to comprehend. So, we ignore it.

But, Buddhism hasn’t existed for 2,500 years for nothing. Found within this esoteric philosophy is a practical way of living that makes sense. Its teachings can help us see the world a little more clearly, and this can help illuminate how to live better.

Below are three highly useful pieces of wisdom from Buddhism. However, it’s worth noting that Buddhism, like any religion or philosophy of life, is meant to be taken as a whole, not in parts. So, although I’ve presented these ideas as three distinct pieces, they are highly interconnected. It’s worth remembering this as you read through them.

1. Our lives are ceaselessly changing

There’s a story about a student of the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi who, try as he might, just didn’t get it. He had been listening to Roshi’s lectures for years but did not understand.

Finally, the student asked, “Could you please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Suzuki Roshi’s answer was simple: everything changes.

At first glance, this answer seems anything but profound. Of course, everything changes. No one would deny that things change.

But, on what level do you notice the change? Do you understand this as a concept or do you understand it experientially?

We all know there’s a big difference between understanding something conceptually and having experienced it for yourself. You can imagine what it would be like to give a speech in front of hundreds of people, but experiencing the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of that situation is something else entirely.

The same is true of noticing change. There’s no doubt you understand the concept of change— if someone asked you if the weather changes, of course you would answer “yes”. But, do you also understand this experientially? Do you notice how the weather is in constant flux, even from moment to moment? And when the clouds cover the sun or when it becomes colder than you’d like, how do you react to that change?

When you see for yourself that life is constantly changing, it alters your relationship to what’s happening. You begin to see that holding on to what you want — the sun shining — is futile because change is inevitable. And, you begin to see that pushing away that which you don’t want — a cold morning — is also futile because change is inevitable.

Our natural inclination is to hold on to that which we want and push away that which we don’t want. To counteract this approach, Buddhism encourages you to notice that all of life is change, and the only choice we have is to make the best of what’s given to us.

So, stop holding on so tightly to what you want. Stop pushing away so forcefully what you don’t want. Instead, find peace in knowing that everything changes. If you can, you might find yourself taking advantage of the moments that are given to you. You might find yourself enjoying the sunshine, the company of a loved one, or the quiet of an early morning — and when they go away, as they always do, you might be able to let them go.

You might also find yourself more at peace when things go wrong. Armed with the knowledge that things change, you might be less upset if you get a flat tire, your friend cancels on you last minute, or the milk in your coffee has gone bad. Knowing that things will be different in the next moment will help to alleviate some of your dissatisfaction now.

This is a step toward finding peace in the present.

2. Your sense of self is not what it seems

A student once asked a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, is the self real?

In typical Buddhist fashion, the teacher responded confusingly:

It’s not that you’re not real. We all think we’re real and that’s not wrong. But, you think you’re really real. You exaggerated.

You might be tempted to dismiss this as pure silliness — a twist of words that are meant to confuse rather than illuminate. But, to dismiss the teacher’s response is to dismiss a nuance of our existence that we don’t typically notice or question.

Once you begin to notice that everything changes, that everything is in flux, you also begin to notice that *you* are no different.

Since the moment you were born, you have been changing. Your thoughts have changed. Your emotions have changed. How you perceive events has changed. Every single cell in your body has been replaced by another.

In other words, there’s nothing you can point to in your experience that is the *you* you think you are.

For example, you’re not your body — if you lost a finger *you* wouldn’t disappear. You’re not your thoughts or feelings — those are constantly changing and often contradict each other. You’re not your sensations, either — you could lose your eyesight and you’d still be *you*.

So, what does this mean for us?

The Buddhists would say we create much of the dissatisfaction we feel by planting a flag in our experience. We label what’s happening as “I”, “me”, or “mine” and in doing so we associate what’s happening to a sense of self that is merely a creation — a concept. Thus, when we experience fear or joy or pain, we label them as “I”, “me”, or “mine” and we create our dissatisfaction.

Imagine, for example, how you feel when you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of your colleagues or friends. This has the potential to cause you to feel terrible for days, even weeks, depending on what you did.

There’s a sleight of hand occurring whenever we associate these events with our “selves” that most of us never notice. The only reason we feel bad is we think we’ve done something to indelibly mark our “selves”. But, what if there’s no self to mark? What if this underlying assumption — that there is some fixed and unchanging “self” — is wrong?

If you relieve yourself of this assumption, there is nothing for your embarrassment to stick to. Your “self” is constantly in flux, and the embarrassment of the moment is just a blip in your ever-changing existence. Holding onto it is unnecessary.

By questioning whether your concept of “self” is true, accurate, or useful, this opens up the possibility of releasing yourself from a huge amount of dissatisfaction.

3. Mindfulness can help you see this for yourself

What I love about Buddhism is that it doesn’t ask you to take anything on faith. It asks you to see it for yourself.

But, how?

The reason that dedicated Buddhists spend so much time meditating is to develop the skill of mindfulness, which is a tool they use to examine their minds. As this tool is refined through meditation, it more easily notices how our minds work. In particular, meditation can help you notice that everything changes — it gives you the ability to see this for yourself.

When you begin to see this change, you can’t help but notice it about yourself, too. This is when you begin to realize that your sense of self is not what it seems and that much of our suffering is caused because we conceptualize our “selfs” in an unhelpful way.

The great power of meditation (and the mindfulness it produces) is not the peace and tranquility it might offer you in the moment — it is the direct experiential knowledge of change. With this knowledge, your relationship to what’s happening changes. You stop labeling everything that happens to you as “I”, “me”, or “mine”. And you begin to just notice change, which frees you from much of the suffering and dissatisfaction you regularly feel.

What’s next?

Understanding Buddhism is not an easy task. You’re going to have questions, which you’re going to think Buddhism can’t answer. It can. You just need to go looking for them.

Where do you find these answers?

The first place to go looking is in meditation. Of course, you won’t get the answers immediately. What you will get immediately, though, is frustrated and angry. But, if you stick it out, you will see the truth of what Buddhism is talking about for yourself.

Check out this article if you’d like to get started.

The second place you’ll find answers is in the words of people who have spent their lives trying to understand these concepts. As with meditation, it’s tough to get started. How these teachers speak can be confusing and mind-boggling. But, in time, the concepts will become familiar and you will understand more and more of what is being said.

One of the best teachers I’ve found is Joseph Goldstein. He has a podcast called Insight Hour, which you can find on Spotify.

Thanks for reading!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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