Q&A: Changing Your Destiny
How do I, as a karmically determined individual, alter the course of my destiny and move towards enlightenment?
Culadasa: How do I, as a karmically determined individual, alter the course of my destiny and move towards enlightenment, rather than becoming more mired in the confusion of delusion and Samsara? I do it like by whenever, when it's a choice between the really rich chocolate cake and hearing a passage from the Dharma, you might go for the chocolate cake. But fortunately there's a lot of times when it's your choice between hearing the Dharma and hearing the latest episode of CSI, and it's easy to make... well, for some people it's easy to make the decision... anyway, you get the idea. There's the easy times where you have a choice where you can go this way or that way, and if you go to the right way, often enough, it makes it more likely than you're going to go the right way in the future, and it just builds on itself. And so you create this change in direction. As your understanding grows, this becomes more and more powerful. Whatever you do in the moment becomes part of what determines how you're going to respond in the future.
And, just to give you an example of this, when you... if you have an emotion that arises, like anger, the arising of that emotion, that's a result of the past. Some part of your mind has already been programmed, it adds up what's going on, it looks at what's going on right now, and it says, "Ah ha! I'm supposed to make anger happen. And so it starts cranking out anger and the system is flooded with feelings of anger. That's the past result. And that's the result of karma. The new karma comes; it first starts to come in that moment of reification that says "I am angry". That's new karma. That's an intentional act. Alhough, most of the time that reification throughout our lives, has happened so easily and so rapidly. In other words, the vote's been so strongly in favor of that reification that it's always happened, but it doesn't always have to happen. And whenever you can choose to recognize, that's where mindfulness comes, this is how you practice mindfulness. You say, "oh, there is anger rising" rather than thinking "oh, I'm angry" because if you think, "oh, I am angry", you're making the wrong kind of karma. If you say "oh, anger is arising", you're making the right time of karma.
And, then, most of our intentions are actually quite complex. And so it's not [that] the intention arises and then everything comes out of it. There's a series of actions. There's the mental movement, and the verbal movement, and the physical movement, and usually a whole lot of different verbal and physical movements to carry out a typically intention.
So, in every one of those, there is the opportunity to interrupt the process. In every one of those, you can choose... the intention arises as a karmic result, but you, when you reify it and say, "I decided", "I'm going to", "I intend", "I want", when that comes up, then that's where you're making the new karma. If you let go of it, you interrupt the process. If you... at first in a given instance... ya know, it's an unfolding over time. And maybe you can't let go of it enough times to keep something from happening, but to the degree that you can succeed you will lessen the impact, both the karmic impact, in terms of the imprint it makes on your mind, and the resultant impact in terms of whatever you do and the results that flow back from that.
So, you just work towards increasing that, so that you can do it more and more, through the practice of mindfulness applied to any unwholesome mental state when it arises. [It] will create the opportunity to interrupt the process, to stop reinforcing it, to start... when you see things as they really are, and you decline to reify the illusion. That's the process that I talked about, the feedback sinks into the deeper levels of your mind and changes those very processes that gave rise to the problem. So that's how this is happening, we're changing the karma in the future. But for mindfulness to work properly, it has to be on unobscured. You have to learn to let go of the judgments and just observe, because this tiny 1% part of you where the consciousness is happening; this is the only feedback, and you can either send a really clear picture, or you can send a confused picture, so you try to send a really clear picture. So you learn to make your mindfulness as unobscured as possible.
Student: So you would say if you were angry at somebody, and your anger came up, then as you thought about it, you feel this anger is arising and then you would say, "oh, that person is just very unhappy. It doesn't have anything to do with me".
Culadasa: Exactly, yes.
Student: And so that's when you're shifting the inner process.
Culadasa: That's right. What you'll notice, if you start paying attention to your emotions, is that they kind of come on, and peak, and then they have sort of an up and down cycle and every time they come on, you have to deal with it all over again. So the first time it comes up, you could say, "oh, that's anger, arising," and recognize what it is. And then it comes up again. And you could succeed in saying that again, or maybe this time you'll say "I'm just angry, that's all", ya know? And this is the kind of thing that really happens. But... that subsides and it comes back, and maybe the clarity can come back. "Okay... I don't... this is not good for me, I don't need to do this". And then if you keep being able, if your mindfulness stays on top of it... if your mindfulness lapses, you'll get really carried away in the whole story. But if you can stay on top of it, you'll get to that place, as you say, you see "Okay, this is another suffering being, just like me, and the only reason they're doing this is [that] they're compelled to it, the same way I am compelled to experience this anger, and all they're trying to do is to escape their own suffering and find some happiness. And so, you can, in that way, with enough awareness... the story that supports the anger falls away, and a different story arises a story that supports compassion and understanding and forgiveness.
Student: And you don't feel sick.
Culadasa: And you don't feel sick. You don't feel sick to your stomach, you don't spend hours afterwards wrestling with all of this private stuff. *Laughs* But the reality of it is, and I know it's been pointed out to me that in these dharma talks, we're sort of talking at uh... it sounds really theoretical, and you bring it down to the concrete, real life instant, and with the whole range of emotions we have, the mental states we have. To the extent that there is anything unwholesome there, if you are mindful, you will begin to notice it. And if you are mindful, you will begin to recognize what it is about it that makes it unwholesome- the consequences. Because, the difference between what's wholesome and unwholesome is in its consequences. An unwholesome one makes me feel bad, it might make you feel bad... it produces bad results. Right? And that's what makes it unwholesome. So with mindfulness, we start to see the unwholesome aspects that are there, and by recognizing them as they really are, then the mind says, "oh, wait a minute, this isn't serving me. I don't need this anymore. Maybe we can do things differently in the future", and it begins to change in that way. And, I know, I know quite a few of you have already discovered this, you've been doing this, and you've already found that happens. Just by simply... you don't have to force yourself not to have unwholesome mental states or emotions. All you have to do is flood your mind with that clear, bright, mindful awareness of what this is really all about, and it begins to resolve itself. So, of course, it won't work if you don't remember to be mindful, and that is the problem. And this takes us right back to, you know, all the wonderful things that we can say about meditation, but they won't happen if, when you sit down, your mind keeps taking a side-trip and it doesn't come back for 10 or 15 minutes. Ya know, that's exactly the same problem, with exactly the same solutions, and learning to solve the one problem -how can I continue to be aware of my breath? - is training your mind in exactly what's necessary in order to solve the other problem; to remember to be mindful. If you can remember to stay with the breath, you can remember to be mindful. If you can come to the place where you sit for an hour and you never forget the breath, you can also come to a place where in the course of your life, you almost never forget to notice what's going on in your mind. These are all quite possible. And the same thing... if you can come to a place in your meditation where you see your meditation object with brilliant clarity, you can also come to a place where your mindfulness in daily life is one of brilliant clarity . So, you know, they mirror each other, they support each other. They reflect exactly the same mental processes that need to be cultivated to produce the result. And really, meditation is sort of like the highly controlled laboratory in which you get to discover and learn and train these things.
Student: Thank you.
Culadasa: You're welcome. Thank you for that inspiring question. And Rose, I hope that answered your question earlier.
Student: Absolutely. Thank you.
Culadasa: Well, I'm happy to take, uh, if anything that I talked about raised some other question in your mind that you'd like to have clarification? Yes, [student name].
Student: I just wanted to clarify. So when you say that it's anger arising, and then you make a new story, that it's important to keep the "I" out of it because there is no "I", right? So you can't... the minute you latch on... because I understand you say like "I am angry" or "I am this", then the party's over, unless you can switch it?
Culadasa: Yeah, well, for the moment the party's over, and it has to do with every part of the story. You know, you don't need to know the story behind why anger happened to arise in this circumstance. You don't need to get into "Oh, it's because my mother always blah, blah, blah..." That doesn't matter either. The most important thing is that, "oh, this is anger arising". You see it objectively. This is something my mind is producing. And yes, if I go in there, there is a story behind it, but you don't really need the story.
Well, I mean, there are... sometimes, these things are a bit complicated and tangled up. So sometimes you might need to do a little bit of unraveling of the story. Somethings masquerade as anger and they're really fear. And you have to unravel that before you can really finish the process. But, most of the time, the story isn't that important, it's not nearly as important as just the clear seeing.
Student: Well, could you do the same thing with any of them, and could you do it with fear, or do you have to...?
Culadasa: Yes. Over and over again, I fall back on anger for the simple reason that it has.... in terms of these discussions, everybody experiences it and most people are more comfortable with accepting in discussion with others that they have anger because we all know each other do. But, a lot of the other unwholesome emotions and mental states, we have are a little bit more touchy for some people; it applies to them all that- fear, lust, greed, you know... insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-esteem... all of these obviously unwholesome emotional states, they are all exactly the same thing and they respond exactly the same way to mindfulness. And, a very good point to make here- it's not just the unwholesome ones- because you're practicing mindfulness all the time. You're noticing the wholesome ones too, and it's really good to provide your mind with the feedback of how it feels to do something for somebody else, or any of the other wholesome mental states; loving-kindness, generosity, compassion, protection, you name it... all of the wholesome mental states, if they are examined with mindfulness, then the same feedback is provided that, "hey, you know, this is really a good thing to do and we should do more of it." This is all the voices in the mysterious unconscious part of your mind saying, "hey, you know, giving stuff away really isn't such a bad deal after all, it kinda makes us feel good, ya know, we ought to try that a little more". So it works for everything. All of your emotions and all of your mental states. We could talk about this in terms of your brain, and us being biological organisms that have evolved. And all of our emotional equipment is exactly the same as all kinds of other animals. You know, you have to go quite a ways back in the evolutionary tree to find where they don't have very much the same emotional brain equipment that we do.
What they don't have is all of the intelligence and understanding and critical judgment and ability to plan for the future and see the future consequences. So really what we're doing is we come into this world with a very powerful, but very primitive apparatus to make us react in certain ways that, over the course of evolution, had been beneficial to survival and reproduction, on the average. It's very powerful, but it's very crude and the way evolution works is on average, it only has to be good for 51% of the organisms that have this mechanism for it to succeed and continue it. And mother nature doesn't care that much about the other... whatever percentage it is. As long as it's below 50%, it doesn't matter, it works. And this is a great mechanism but our emotions do not exist for our personal benefit. They exist for the benefit of a perpetuation of our species and, in a larger sense, the perpetuation of life. But we don't need them. It may be that lizards really... they couldn't function. They couldn't survive and reproduce because the only thing I have, turning them on and off and making them go this way instead of that way, is their emotions. They need them; we don't, we don't. And, so, we have a much more complex brain, and we have a much more plastic brain, but you can't really train lizards to do much. They come into this world with a set of programs, and no matter how hard you try, you can't really change the lizard programming, to any great degree. But we come into the world in a totally different way. We have the programs, but we had a very plastic brain, a very plastic mind, which we can reprogram. So that's another way of looking at the same thing. I don't know how the Buddha figured this all out 2500 years ago, but he did. He recognized these basic facts. So, however you want to look at it, from a materialistic, biological, evolutionary point of view, or any other point of view, it comes down to the same thing. You can change the way you are, all of your emotions and all of your mental states are produced by mental processes, mental mechanisms, whose function it is to produce them. Happiness is... it's a thing, it's construct of the mind, it's manufactured and delivered when the right signals arise.
So all we want to do is reprogram all those unconscious parts using the conscious part, so that we changed the kind of being that we are.