Q: Sometimes, when I think about it, I have a great fear of change. I want the people I love to continue to be in my life. I love the house I live in. I want to stay there always. Yet I realize at some level it is just the story about change, about having to let go of things, that bothers me. Nevertheless, the fear of change still comes up…

A: The Buddha taught three fundamental laws, or tenets of life. The first was the law of anicca, or impermanence, which says everything is always changing. The seasons come and go, day turns into night, the climate changes, our body grows and matures and then, like all living things, begins eventually to wither and die. We can’t stop change, and to resist it causes dissatisfaction, or suffering. This is dukkha, the Buddha’s second law. So, when you see the truth of this, you don’t hold onto things. You don’t cling to nama and rupa, which are the Sanskrit terms for the world of name and form. You don’t keep insisting things be a certain way. You learn to flow with the ups and downs of life, to take action when you need to, and to wait patiently when patience is what is required.

The well-known serenity prayer evokes this way of being: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


Q: Coming to wisdom, learning discernment, flowing with the ups and downs, seems to me the very essence of acceptance, if not enlightenment.

A: Right. A story the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, tells about his teacher, Achaan Cha, illustrates the same point in a different way. It revolves around a beautiful glass goblet he was given as a gift. He held and admired the goblet, while telling the gathered students that the glass was already broken. When they asked what he meant, he said one day, a year from now, or ten years, or a hundred years, something would happen—an accident, a fire, or someone would just drop the goblet—and it would break.

Because of this knowing, he could fully appreciate the goblet and enjoy using it without any attachment. He had already said goodbye to it, so every day it was in his possession was a blessing.


Q: I guess this is what is meant by the term “shit happens.” If we understand that, then we don’t get overly upset when something we value does break, or we experience loss or disappointment of some kind.

A: Exactly. Wisdom is seeing the big picture, seeing the inevitable unfolding of events. It’s looking ahead, and—to use a very practical expression—visualizing the worst-case scenarios. Then you are prepared. If the worst-case scenario does happen, you can take action to deal with it. You don’t obsess about what might happen in the future, but you remain aware of and open to the possibilities.

You honor the past without clinging to it, you keep an eye on the future without obsessing over it, but all the time your awareness is grounded right here in the present.


Q: What was the Buddha’s third law?

A:The third law is the law of anatta, or no-self. The Buddha said the “self” we take ourselves to be doesn’t exist, except as an idea or concept in the mind. This is what all the great enlightenment traditions speak about and what Jean Klein taught as well.

It is the attachment to notions of “self,” to the idea of “I am this” or “I am that,” to the whole inside-our-head drama called “me, myself, and my story,” which creates the resistance to change. You know what I mean; the fixed positions people take and cling to for security, whether it’s a religious belief, a political belief, a national identity, or something else.

Buddha’s first law, anicca or impermanence, accurately describes everything as constantly changing. Yet we desperately try to cling to some part of it and keep it from changing. It is this clinging, this resistance (or its opposite, aversion, a pushing away of one thing while holding on to something else) which in turn results in dukkha, suffering. But the real cause of suffering is the primary clinging to any idea of “self,” to being “somebody,” or identifying with “my” personal history. Let go of that, see it isn’t even real, and you are free. Then you live without needing to cling to any concept of “self,” because you have turned your attention back in on yourself and have discovered “you” don’t exist, except as a concept inside your head.

Then there is no struggle with “self” esteem. You’re not holding onto any image of a “self” needing validation or approval, or feeling pleased with itself on some days, and hating itself on others. Then there is no more suffering. You always feel good inside, because you’re in touch with the underlying goodness of life. You use the words “I,” “me,” and “mine” purely in a utilitarian way, just as you use thinking for the practical, creative tool it is, but you are no longer identified with thoughts or the thinker.