80 - Four Foundations of Mindfulness Practice and Similarities in Zen
85 – I Shouldn’t Feel Like This: A Practitioner’s Conundrum

It’s natural and healthy to aspire to things like having more equanimity, being more generous, and overcoming negative habits – and, in fact, such aspiration is part of the Buddhist path. However, when we encounter aspects of ourselves that are difficult to change, we may be tempted to wage war on ourselves. This is not only counterproductive, it’s incompatible with our own aspirations. I’ll outline five steps to working on positive changes in your thoughts and behavior without waging war on the self.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Aspirations for Positive Change as Part of the Buddhist Path
The Challenge of Changing Ourselves
Intransigent (Stubborn) Karma and Waging a War on Self
The Ineffectiveness of Waging War on the Self
Five Steps for Change Without Waging War:

Step One: Stop the violence. Period.
Step Two: Be real. That is, get intimate with exactly what’s happening.
Step Three: Notice the freedom in this moment.
Step Four: Arrange your life to support change.
Step Five: Completely let go of trying to be a different person.


Aspirations for Positive Change as Part of the Buddhist Path

If you could change anything about the way you think or behave, what would it be? If you could magically find an on-off switch in your brain, would you like to:

  • Be free from – or at least not as bothered by – anger, judgment, fear, lust, anxiety, or paranoia?
  • Stay present and mindful more of the time?
  • Approach others with more attentiveness, open-mindedness and compassion?
  • Practice generosity without so much concern for yourself?
  • Better know how to respond to the suffering of the world?
  • Awaken fully to no-self, emptiness, and interdependence so you can manifest more of the wisdom and compassion you’re capable of?

It’s not necessary to have a negative view of yourself in order to aspire to greater things. Indeed, such aspiration is built in to the Buddhist path. Theravadin Buddhists aspire to complete liberation, and Mahayana Buddhists take the bodhisattva vow:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

The Challenge of Changing Ourselves

However, we all know its not so easy to change our thinking and behavior. Zen master Dogen makes it sounds so easy in his essay “Shoaku-Makusa,” or “Not Doing Wrongs:”

“The eternal Buddha says,

Not to commit wrongs,
To practice the many kinds of right,
Naturally purifies the mind;
This is the teaching of the buddhas.”[i]

Sure, no problem. Just don’t do stuff that causes harm and suffering, and instead do all the things that bring about ease and liberation. Ha. If it was that easy, there wouldn’t be such an infinite number of “self-help” books and programs!

I believe most of us – perhaps all of us – tend to wage a war with self in order to bring about the changes we hope for. We think it’s the only way. This is how we see it: The “small” self is our conditioned self. We usually also see it as our embodied self – the self preoccupied with desire for food, sex, safety, comfort, and pleasure. The small self is deeply affected by our basic instincts, reacting to stimuli with the drive to fight, freeze, or flee. The small self is concerned with its own protection and advantage, and constantly judges, compares, and plots. The self we see as behind most of the stuff we’d like to change – addiction, self-absorption, anger, greed, fear, anxiety, laziness etc. – seems like a willful child, resistant to the greater wisdom and aspirations of our superego (or, as I like to call it, our sense of Executive “I”).

No matter how long we’ve been practicing, no matter how profound our insights, it seems the small self remains, eager to take over when we’re not looking.

Call this “small self” whatever you like – karma, conditioning, habit energy, delusion, the results of natural selection – but it can alternately feel like enemy #1 (original sin, a fatal flaw, evil, or selfishness), or, when we’re not feeling quite as confrontational, it can simply feel like weakness, inadequacy, or dullness.

Things get even trickier when, as we engage in our Buddhist practice, we discover there are different levels of karmic obstacles. Some of our habits and views (such as fears, anxieties, and beliefs) melt away easily. This is karma based on a pretty superficial level of misunderstanding… all we need to do is awaken to new way to look at things and voila – we change! This is very encouraging. When I first started practicing, I stopped biting my nails (this seemed miraculous, as I had been trying to do so forever). I also saw dysfunctional ways I interacted with my partner and – pretty much as soon as I saw the dysfunction – I was able to choose to act differently.

Sadly, most habits take much longer to change. Once you start turning the eye of practice toward them, they may seem like karmic knots you need to gradually untangle, until finally they just aren’t the problems they once were. Sometimes, after many years of practice, you’re still susceptible to falling into the same basic pattern, but the momentum and severity of the pattern decreases.

Then there are some things in our thinking and behavior that resist change even after many, many years of practice, after all kinds of effort. Despite all we aspire to, despite all of our insight, despite the fact we know better…

Intransigent (Stubborn) Karma and Waging War on the Self

I call this “intransigent” karma (intransigent meaning completely unwilling to change, very stubborn, uncompromising, inflexible, unbending, unshakable). It’s usually when we encounter our intransigent karma that we begin to wage war on ourselves. (Although depending on our personality and how perfectionist we are, we may start that right away.)

When we wage war on ourselves, we judge ourselves harshly – usually only internally, but sometimes we let people in on the struggle by bad-mouthing ourselves or expressing despair about our own thinking and behavior. We lament our continued weakness. We lecture ourselves, verbally beating ourselves up. “You’re stupid. You’re weak. Sick. Selfish. Lazy. Too proud. Too shallow. Not good enough. Ugly. Repulsive. Unworthy.” We say things to ourselves we would never say to another person, even if we thought them. Why wouldn’t we say them to someone else? Because we know it would be unnecessarily cruel and unhelpful. But somehow, when we’re talking to ourselves, we think it’s okay.

Some of us make repeated fervent vows, promises, or statements of intention. I will… (stay mindful… be kind and compassionate to so-and-so… remain patient… be grateful for what I have… awaken to the emptiness of self… let go of my attachments). Or I will never again… (overeat… lash out at someone in anger… succumb to addiction… zone out…)

Some of us are quiet about it, but are sure that if only we could be a little more diligent, a little more virtuous, we would be able to make the changes we want. We carry around a vague (or acute) sense of guilt and inadequacy, essentially blaming ourselves (that is, our small self) for our weakness. Even if we’re not openly waging war on the self, we harbor very nasty thoughts about it. Let’s just say we’d probably hire someone to assassinate the small self if we knew we could get away with it and it would work!

The Ineffectiveness of Waging War on the Self

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), waging war on the self is simply not effective. If it was, we’d all be enlightened buddhas by now, shining the bright light of infinite compassion and awareness on all beings without any concern for ourselves at all.

Do you know that saying about how insanity is the repetition of the same behavior over and over while hoping for different results? (The definition tends to be attributed to different famous people, apparently erroneously… but it gets repeated because we recognize the truth in it.)

Repeating the same behavior over and over while hoping for different results is exactly what most of us keep doing. Trying harder, forming a new intention, thinking this time. This meditation period I’ll really concentrate. I’ll bear down and keep my mind on my breath the WHOLE time. Here we go. Was that the bell ringing? OK, next meditation period I’ll concentrate the WHOLE time.

We can achieve a certain amount through sheer force of will, it’s true. There’s a place for effort. There’s a time to just do your damnedest to keep the precepts. To force yourself to avoid the going to a bar. To force yourself to eat a salad instead of fries. To say something kind to someone you dislike. If you can make positive changes in your life “directly” – by forming an intention and then following through – by all means, do it!

If you find the direct method ineffective, at least when it comes to your intransigent karma, there is another way – a way that in some ways may seem counter-intuitive, but which is every bit as Buddhist as what we typically think of as straightforward “self-discipline.” I’ve broken that way down into five steps.

Five Steps for Change Without Waging War

Step One: Stop the violence. Period.

Violence – killing, cutting off, rejecting – breaks the precepts. It’s based on self vs. other, even though in this case it’s one part of our “self” (our illusory sense of Executive “I”) versus another part (the small, base, selfish, weak, habit-bound self). Violence relies on blame, and on the inherently reality and truth of our judgments about good and bad. Violence encourages more violence and invites retaliation and backlash. It’s cruel and poisons our hearts.

After my honeymoon period with Zen, when I managed to make a bunch of meaningful changes in my life, I ran into my intransigent karma. This included not being able to concentrate very well in meditation, or even to be able to stay awake much of the time. I would sit there on the meditation seat and berate myself about how pathetic and inept I was. During one silent retreat I even had a visual of backing myself into a corner; one part of me screamed insults at another part, which cowered. Suddenly, apparently out of nowhere, a large matronly woman of generous proportions stepped between my selves with her hands on her hips. Then she shook her finger at me (that is, at my judgmental Executive “I”) and said, “You leave her alone!” Her fierce maternal tone and posture told me she meant it, and that she would physically intervene if necessary. My Executive “I” backed off in shame, and has never since engaged in inner abuse. That’s not to say I don’t have self-critical thoughts, but I don’t engage in inner violence.

You have to stop the inner violence no matter what, even if it seems like it means you’re giving up the only way to make a change or achieve what you want. I suppose the only excuse for inner abuse would be if it stops you from performing outer violence, but even then, it should only be a temporary, stop-gap measure. And most of our problems and shortcomings are much less serious than committing acts of violence or overt harm against others!

In order to make lasting change, and in order to truly be a Buddhist, we should treat ourselves with the basic kindness and benefit of the doubt we would extend to a stranger. At the very least, we have to recognize that the inner violence is not right. It isn’t coming from the moral high ground. It’s desperate.

Step Two: Be real. That is, get intimate with exactly what’s happening.

We can’t do this if we’re pushing something away, judging it, repulsed by it, or arguing with it. Whatever is going on, however stupid or lame we’re being, we have to stop, look, see, feel, and be intimate with our actual experience.

Experience the lust, envy, judgement, insecurity, revulsion, whatever… What are you feeling in your body? What are you thinking? How is your breathing? Are you flushed, tense, agitated, resistant?

In my own practice, I’ve struggled with irrational irritability about the various obstacles that slow me down as I go about my day (traffic, computer tech issues, etc.). I tried to stop being this way. I knew it was bad and stupid, and very un-Buddhist. But this habit was very resistant to change. I started being able to shift it, just a little, when I stopped in the midst of the irritability and explored it without judgment. I didn’t try to stop feeling angry, I just took my time and felt it – intimately, honestly, and deeply. Amazingly, I noticed part of me was wasn’t feeling angry so much as put-upon, stressed, and overwhelmed. Part of me was thinking, “Oh no, not another thing! I can’t keep up!” So, what was causing my irritability was a level of stress I hadn’t even been aware I was feeling. The anger arose out of a sense of overwhelm and vulnerability… which meant a wise response to it involves a measure of self-compassion, slowing down, and perspective-taking, rather than a harsh message to myself to stop being stupid.

If you find yourself unable to change problematic thoughts or behaviors directly and easily, you have to be real and see exactly what’s going on. It will probably be quite humbling to do this, especially before you have a clear sense of how to change, but there’s no other place to begin.

Step Three: Notice the freedom in this moment.

We think that if we get intimate with our bad karma that it will take control of us – that we’ll just get sucked into our habits again. Sometimes that happens, but if we pay enough attention, there’s a critical moment when we recognize our freedom of choice even if we can’t yet take advantage of it. Zen teacher Diane Rizzetto calls this the “dead spot” in her book on the Buddhist precepts (Waking up to What You Do[ii]), explaining how there’s a brief pause – called the “dead spot” – as a trapeze reaches the top of its arc, before it swings back down, and this is where trapeze artists do most of their tricks. It’s a critical moment, full of potential, that we can learn to recognize and take advantage of.

Maybe all we can do at first is insert a breath into the dead spot, or simply recognize what’s going on. Eventually, if we keep at it, we can make a different choice. It may take a while. Maybe a lifetime. But the opportunity is there.

It’s important, however, to be very gentle with this critical moment of choice, or dead spot. If we’re too greedy, violent, have too much of an agenda, it’s like inviting an opposing party to the negotiating table and then backing them into a corner before they sit down. If the moment of choice keeps eluding you, you probably need to slow down and back up to Step 2 (get intimate with exactly what’s happening).

Step Four: Arrange your life to support change.

Here is the one step where we get to use our discriminatory faculties – not to beat ourselves up or compare, but to ask, “What is the result?

Think of using kindness, compassion, creativity, or skillful means to get someone else – a child, a friend, co-worker, employee – to make a significant change. Many of us are attached to the idea of being so self-disciplined we can make changes through sheer willpower, all on our own, but when we’re trying to get other people to change, we recognize there are many other factors at play.

Don’t exclude practical measures like social support, lifestyle changes, etc. Meditate with other people. Join a yoga class. Participate in weight watchers, or take an anger management class. Work with a Buddhist teacher. Keep a journal. Say a prayer. Rely on the company of good, positive people. Don’t talk to your annoying relative when you’re tired.

This is stacking the odds in your favor, preparing the ground for the positive seeds you’re trying to plant and cultivate. Remember, what has worked for others may not work for you. Don’t be afraid of creating your own means of support or practice, even if it seems stupid, silly, or contrary… all that matters is whether it works.

Step Five: Completely let go of trying to be a different person.

This is not a matter of reifying the self and then deeming it sufficient instead of deficient. It’s not about giving up hope for change and asking everyone to put up with your bullshit because “it’s just the way you are.” Letting go of trying to be different person isn’t about denying your mistakes, blaming others, or refusing to take responsibility for the harm you do and the good you fail to do.

As Shunryu Suzuki said, “Each of you is perfect the way you are… and you can use a little improvement.”[iii]

Your perfection includes change. It includes your aspiration to become wiser and more compassionate. It includes your longing. It includes your sadness at causing harm and your awareness of inadequacy. It includes your determination, your mistakes, your struggle, and your confusion as you find your way. It includes false starts and continued humility.

Commit to the other four practices – stopping the violence, being real, noticing the freedom in this moment, and arranging your life to support change – and then give up your ideas about progress and trust the process. If you sincerely want to be a better person and you’re making the best effort you know how to make, your practice is perfect. You’re doing the buddha work. You’re treading the great way of the dharma ancestors. You lack for nothing.


[i] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994
[ii] Rizzetto, Diane Eshin. Waking up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambala Publications, 2005.
[iii] Suzuki is widely quoted as saying this and I think he probably did, but I can’t find any source that says where the quote can be found (in a book, article, recording. Etc.). If you find or know the source, let me know!


80 - Four Foundations of Mindfulness Practice and Similarities in Zen
85 – I Shouldn’t Feel Like This: A Practitioner’s Conundrum