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Making Skillful Life Changes

by Phillip Moffitt, Co-Guiding Teacher

The Buddha taught that there are five qualities, or spiritual faculties, that bring balance to your life and can be of great aid in making changes that will bring about inner freedom. The first of these is faith, or saddha in Pali, and it involves trust, clarity, and confidence. Faith is essential in making change. If you do not believe in the possibility of a positive outcome, you never begin because doubt overwhelms you.

The second quality is effort, or viriya, sometimes described as energy. There are three kinds of effort. It is said that the first effort comes from faith. If you have no faith, you are never able to make the initial movement toward change.There is also effort in the form of perseverance during the hard times that inevitably come with difficult change. Finally, there is effort that arises from the momentum of the effort itself as you engage with something you believe in. It may help to recognize effort in each of these forms and to cultivate them consciously. Often when you are trying to change, nothing appears to be working, and the only positive thing you find to focus on is that you are sincerely making the effort. You only know that you have sufficient faith and are making the right effort if you are being mindful, which is the third spiritual faculty, called sati.

The fourth spiritual faculty, concentration, or samadhi, strengthens the intensity of effort. It provides the continuous connection to your intention that is necessary for perseverance.

You can see how these qualities build on one another. Faith allows you to initiate change in your life, the actual moving towards change requires effort, and you need to concentrate on that effort to keep persevering. Then to know if all of that is happening, you need mindfulness. The fifth of the spiritual faculties is wisdom, or panna. It's wisdom that allows you to redirect your movement toward change when you realize that your goal was incorrect or that the way you are going about it is not skillful.

The five faculties come together to allow you to change in wholesome ways. When you are trying to make a difficult life change, cultivating each of these qualities is a wise and proper thing to do. These five qualities are truly spiritual characteristics, so they are not to be treated lightly, but rather evoked in the pursuit of finding your own Buddha nature when coping with change.

Before committing to a major life change, you may want to ask yourself if it is truly needed. Is your desire for the new a way to avoid some inner work in the unfolding of your own maturity as a human being? Are you trying to avoid a necessary ego surrender of your wanting mind? Is what you think you need to be happy just an old idea that you've outgrown or was it simply unreal all along? Instead of trying to get more of something—money or attention, for instance—would you better serve yourself by practicing letting loose of your attachment to having life be a certain way? Each person has to go through this agonizing, self-doubting process as part of a major change.

These hard questions are most alive when asked in the context of the spirit and allow a deeper sense of meaning to emerge. For sure, trying to get life arranged just as you want it never works. Looking back on my own life, it sometimes seems that it mattered less whether or not I made a certain change than that I grounded myself in this process of self-examination. Somehow it was coming into my full range of feelings that was the most important step toward continuing vitality in my life. Needless to say, the times I have failed to do this grounding in authenticity I paid the consequences.

Without this deeper sense of meaning, life is dull at best and most often filled with suffering. Usually, it is not life's difficulties that cause the most suffering, but rather the lack of being connected to self, to others, and to life as a whole. Separation from your natural enthusiasm dampens or kills your spirit. Therefore, the question in contemplating change is always: Are you moving more fully into your essence, your most authentic self?

Once you commit to making a major life change, be prepared to embrace darkness as part of that change. In the darkness that which has been ignored or denied—be it unsettling feelings, difficult events from the past and present, or ambivalence about yourself—will be given time to decay and be renewed. This little death of the psyche mirrors your ultimate physical death. Experiencing this kind of psychic death is a vital part of aliveness. It is scary business surrendering to death before rebirth, which is why tribal cultures have rituals to help them cope with their anxiety around changing seasons — seeing the days become shorter and trusting that another spring will come. This concern was so great in some cultures they performed rituals for the setting sun each day to ensure its return the next morning.

Do not imagine that you are that much different in modern life. Provide yourself with ritual around your change. Make it a sacred act. Create reminders of what you are doing and symbols that are visible to you. Use literature for inspiration. Have friends and professionals as both witnesses and support group. Avoid judging yourself by whether or not you succeed in making a change, and never put yourself in the position of giving others the power to judge you on such a basis. Let the act of changing be the reward, and do not count on the outcome, for it may well be far different than you ever imagined. All these steps represent an honoring of yourself, a surrendering of your ego that thinks it is supposed to be in charge. They also honor the mystery of life, for no one ever knows the full consequences of an action.

As you reflect and make decisions about your future, never forget that the you who embarks on any life change will not be the person to reap its benefits or woes when the process is complete. Neither are you the person who made decisions in the past.

You are only connected to each by memory, by the consequences of cause and effect, and by the degree to which you embrace your life by owning your intentions. You are only here now, in this moment. Be alive to this moment. It is all you have, the only time when thought and action can occur for the benefit of yourself and those you love.

Phillip Moffitt is a Buddhist meditation teacher and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is Co-Guiding Teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and leads meditation retreats throughout the United States. Phillip is also the founder and director of Life Balance Institute where he trains leaders and professionals in how to skillfully make major transitions in their lives. He is the author of two books, Emotional Chaos to Clarity and Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering.