The difference between an ordinary life and a spiritual life is really quite simple. We can begin by asking ourselves: When confronted with difficulty, what do I try change? Our normal, ordinary reaction is to mistakenly believe that our problem is our external environment, thinking “I am unhappy because my external situation is like this…” Since we think the problem is in our external situation, we naturally dedicate all of our effort to changing our external situation. But even if we change our external situation, if we do not also change our mind what we will find is our mind will simply re-project the same problem onto our new external situation. The faces and context may be different, but the fundamental problem will be the same. No matter where we go, no matter how we change our external environment, we bring our mind with us. Since our mind is the creator of our problems, this means we will also bring our problems with us.
To transform our life into a spiritual life we simply need to change our diagnosis of the problem. The problem is not my external situation, the problem is exclusively how my mind is relating to that external situation. While I am not prone to quoting Shakespeare, Hamlet said “things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes them so.” From its own side, our external situation is neutral (really, it is nothing, but go with me here…). Even scientists agree that it is just a bunch of floating electrons, protons and neutrons. It is what we think about the environment that makes it good or bad. If we have a problem with how the atomic particles (or more accurately karmic appearances) are organized, where does the problem come from? It comes from our mind. Our own mind is the creator of all of our own problems. All of our problems are self-inflicted.
But this is actually a very liberating thought. If my mind creates all of my own problems, then it means if I change my mind I can eliminate all of my ‘problems.’ So how can we change our mind? Instead of asking ourself how we need to change our external environment, we should ask ourselves “How can I use this situation to change myself (to become a better person)?” We all know we need to become more generous, more helpful towards others, more virtuous, more patient, etc. Each situation we confront is an opportunity to do exactly that. The practical essence of the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is to use every situation as an opportunity to become a better person.
If we can do so, of course, we should also seek to fix our external environment and to solve our external problems. But in all difficult situations we find ourselves in, we can always find the right path by simply reminding ourselves to “change yourself, not your environment.”
Your turn: What externally are you trying to change now? How can you change yourself instead to solve your “inner problem?”