64 – We Don’t Need to Change Ourselves

In this episode, I will discuss the concept of inherent perfection and how from the Buddhist perspective, that implies that we don’t need to change ourselves. The idea of “perfection” from the Buddhist perspective is not a moral qualification. There is no “should” or compelling in ethical or moral behavior because your inherent nature is kindness and goodness.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Noah Rasheta:              Welcome to another episode The Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 64. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. The topic for the podcast episode today is we don’t need to change ourselves. Recently, I’ve been sharing snippets of teachings from Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, who teaches. She’s an American who teaches Buddhism from the Tibetan tradition. There is a book called The Pocket Pema Chödrön by Shambhala Pocket Classics. It’s a small book that contains short teachings. I’ve been sharing some of these teachings on the Facebook group, The Secular Buddhism Podcast community Facebook group. I wanted to share one of the discussions that took place around one of the teachings.

The teaching that I shared from Pema, this is quoting her, says, “When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s like saying, ‘If I jog, I’ll be a much better person. If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person. If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.'” Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others. They might say, “If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect for marriage. If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get along, my job would be great. If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.”

Loving kindness, or maitri, as it’s called in the Tibetan tradition, toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we already are. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now just as we are. That’s the ground. That’s what we study. That’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. That was the snippet of the teaching that I shared from Pema, which is a wonderful little teaching on this concept of not needing to change ourselves.

Then I posed the question or the challenge for the day, which was, “What if you could accept yourself and others just the way you or they are right now? No need to change anything.” Sure, you can still strive for change, but that happens because you can change, not because you should change. In a past podcast episode, I talked about this shifting from should to can. What if you really saw yourself, others, and life as inherently perfect just the way you are right now? What would that feel like? This opened up a discussion in the Facebook group that I thought was a wonderful little discussion. One of the questions that arose in this discussion, which I think is a really good point to clarify, comes from Callie. Callie, thank you, if you’re listening, thank you for interacting on the Facebook group and posting this question so we could elaborate on this concept a little bit more.

Callie said, “I believe this perspective is very valuable, but only to a point. The power of changing should to can is immensely liberating, but surely at some point, moral imperatives must also come into play. For example, if I frequently lash out in physical violence at my husband and children, how can that be considered inherently perfect?” This is a really good point that Callie brings up, the idea of if we talk about not needing to change, how can we talk about a concept like inherent perfection when there are a lot of people out there who could surely be better than they are now. I wanted to discuss this a little bit in this podcast. The idea of perfection from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not a moral qualification. There is no should or compelling in ethical or moral behavior from the Buddhist perspective because, from that same perspective, your inherent nature is kindness and goodness.

If you think about this for a second, this is the understanding that we are physically hardwired to be receptive to kindness and to goodness. For example, as humans, when a human is born, from that stage of being a baby and growing, think of how many years it takes before a human being can live all on their own. We require the care and the kindness and compassion of others for a significant portion of our lives. It’s a survival mechanism. In this sense, we are hardwired to receive and to respond to loving kindness, to the care of others. It’s innate in us. Again, from the Buddhist perspective, rather than saying that you should be kind, the Buddhist approach is to gain more insight or understanding into the mental conditioning that may be preventing one from experiencing that inherent nature. The idea here is that if we start out inherently kind or inherently receptive to kindness and compassion, something happens along the way as we grow that starts to, I guess you could say muddies that innate nature in us. It gets covered up. The concept of being inherently perfect is to say that you already have in you the ability to not be physically or verbally violent. It’s just a matter of discovering what conditioning is causing the unnatural behavior.

As an illustration to this point, there’s a story in Buddhism of a golden Buddha statue in a monastery in Thailand that was once covered in clay and mud to hide it from an invading army. The monks who did this, they covered up this golden Buddha statue, they never returned to the monastery. Maybe they were killed off. The point is they never returned. The golden statue remained hidden under clay for decades, perhaps even centuries. At some point, new monks occupied the monastery and they never knew the secret truth of this clay Buddha. Many years later, a monk was cleaning the statue and he chips off a piece of the clay only to reveal the true nature of the statue. It was a gold statute all along. In a similar way, the Buddhist view of humanity is that we are like this golden Buddha, inherently perfect but often covered in the clay of mental conditioning, often in the form of bad ideas, harmful believes, hurtful concepts.

This conditioning drives a lot of our thoughts and actions. Yet, at our core, we are inherently perfect because our true nature, when uncovered, when peeled away, when the conditioning is peeled away, we’re already enlightened. This is why, from the Buddhist perspective, the paradox of wanting to become enlightened is that you can’t become something that you already are. I think this is why Pema talks about not needing to change ourselves. In that sense, there is nothing to change. There are only layers of conditioning to peel away. The irony is that as those layers of conditioning peel away, our way of being certainly changes, but who we are at the core doesn’t necessarily change. That’s a foundational piece that we’ve always been. From the Buddhist perspective, this is called Buddha nature. This is your inherent nature. That’s why from this line of thinking, from this perspective, it’s appropriate to say we don’t need to change ourselves.

Remember, the aim of Buddhism is to help us to understand the nature of reality, the nature of ourselves, to let the nature of suffering, and to let go of the causes of suffering. This process starts with taking a critical look at how we see the world, perhaps more importantly, how we see ourselves. This is where this concept of we don’t need to change ourselves comes from. When we really look closely at ourselves, the nature of who and how we are, we discover through this lens that there really is no need to change ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, says that the secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself. This is quote I’ve always enjoyed because, to me, what this evokes is that sense of just visualize the clay statute.

The wisdom of Buddhism is that it’s the peeling away is the process that takes place, peeling away the layers of clay to uncover what’s really there. What we’re doing when we do this process with ourselves, as an introspective contemplative practice, you’re looking inward. What you’re seeing is I’m covered in this clay of concepts, ideas, and beliefs, opinions, all of these conceptualized ways of being. It’s not about adding more to that. This is why, from the Buddhist perspective, wisdom isn’t about gaining knowledge, it’s about unlearning. It’s about unlearning our concepts. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says, the secret of Buddhism is to remove the concepts. You start to peel away these concepts and these layers and these ideas that you have about the world, about others, and specifically about yourself. In this process, what you start to discover is what’s been there all along, this inherent nature to be kind, to be compassionate, because we’re all hardwired for that.

That clarifies a little bit this teaching, this line of thinking in Buddhism of we don’t need to change ourselves. If you think about this for a moment, just think about ingrained it is in our society, this concept of change. Everything that we see in marketing and advertising is telling us that there’s something that needs to change. When you buy this product, that’s when you’ll finally be happy. That’s when you’ll be the better version of yourself. You know, when you lose weight, that’s when you’ll finally be you. When you look this way or that way, that’s when you’ll finally be who you’re meant to be. That’s the illusion. What Buddhism is saying is, hey, that’s all based on a conceptualized belief, the belief that there’s how am I and how I should be and they’re not matching. Until I become who I think I should be, I’m not capable of being content with who I am. Buddhism is trying to switch that and say you can only ever be who you are.

We talk about this all the time. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. The idea of getting there is an illusion because you get there and there is no there there. You get there and there’s now here. It’s always here and it’s always now. You can not escape that. That same line of thinking goes into how you view yourself. You’re always going to be you. The you that you are is the only you that you’ll ever be. Now, that’s not to say that you’re not going to change. You’re absolutely going to change. One of the things that we discover about the nature of reality is continual change. This is the whole teaching of impermanence. Things are always changing. You can see this clearly by looking back and seeing who you are now compared who you were a year ago or five or 10 years ago, at any given point in your past. Go further and you start to see really drastic changes. The five-year-old you versus the you that’s listening to this podcast now, it’s not the same you at all, almost in any way.

We’re presented this idea in our society that we need to change. We’re always trying to become the version of ourselves that we think is the most authentic version. The truth is there isn’t one. I mean, the one that’s always you is the one that’s always you. The one that’s in the present, in the here and now, that’s the only one. I want to extend this line of thinking a little bit more with another concept that I want to share from an email that I received from Donna. Donna is a skydiver. She interacts in our Facebook community. Really cool person. I’ve interacted with Donna a few times. Donna, if you’re listening to this podcast episode, thank you for the past interactions and the discussions that we’ve had by email furthering or clarifying some of these concepts.

Something that Donna brought up while we’re on this line of impermanence and interdependence, you know, I’ve shared on several occasions this teaching that starts with Thich Nhat Hanh where he talks about how if you’ve ever seen a flower and all you saw was the flower, you’ve never actually seen the flower, and then goes on to talk about how the flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements. To see the flower, you have to see the sun, you see the clouds, you see the rain, the soil, the mud, everything that it takes for a flower to be a flower. You see it’s made up entirely of non-flower elements. That is a very powerful visual teaching of the idea of interdependence. This line of thinking I want to expound upon a little bit.

This starts from an email that I received from Donna. Donna was talking about this concept and saying how helpful or how useful that is, the teaching of looking at the flower. In her case, it didn’t necessarily hit home or really click until she applied that way of seeing to people. In this case, it was a coworker. She mentioned sometimes with certain people come across like they’re just out to make your life miserable. In this case, she kind of mentions this example of someone who seems like their goal is just to be annoying. For her, this radical shift happened when she was able to see the person in the same light of seeing the flower. What are all of the non-person elements in this person? That’s where it really starts to hit home and it really starts to make an impact in how you see yourself and how you see others.

This reminds me of a concept that I’ve been playing with in my head with the idea of seeing deeply or deep seeing. In our society, we’ve all heard of deep listening, the idea that you listen past what’s being said and you hear what’s being said in conjunction with where these words are coming from, what could be causing this. This is really useful in relationships to practice deep listening. I like the idea of deep seeing. The idea of deep seeing implies that whatever it is I’m looking at, and I think this covers listening too, but whatever that thing is that’s happening, it’s either a coworker saying something to you or a person, your spouse or partner saying something to you, whatever the instance is that’s taking place, to see deeply means I’m going to look through space and time. In terms of space, I see interdependence. In terms of time, I see impermanence.

What that means is let’s say somebody says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. Now, in that moment, you can see that for what it is. Hear the words and I don’t like this makes me feel, that’s the instance, that’s the experience that’s unfolding. Now, to see deeply, I would spend just a brief moment thinking, “What did it take for this moment to arise in terms of time first?” You could say, “Well, what events in the past have led to this moment, to this person saying what they did?” It could be on a smaller scale of time. It could be, “Did they wake up in a bad mood? Did they not have breakfast today? Did a car cut them off on their drive to work? What kind of small scale things may have contributed to this instance unfolding the way that it’s unfolding?” You can go back further in time and imagine, “Is this how this person was raised? Is this a thought that was taught to them by their parents?” Where do you really draw the line and say, “Okay. That’s what’s causing this person to say what they’re saying right now or to do what they’re doing right now in terms of time”?

The point here is that this exercise allows you to see that the experience that’s unfolding, there’s much more to it than that present moment. There’s pretty much everything that’s ever happened in the past that’s led to this moment. That softens the intensity of the moment as it’s unfolding in the present, the experience of the present. That’s in terms of time. Now, you do this in terms of space, interdependence, and you have this same thing. You take this event and what was just said and you start connecting it to all the things that allow this thing to be unfolding the way that it is like you would the flower. There’s the flower that’s the present moment experience, but then what allows that to be what it is in terms of space? Well, with the flower, you’ve got the sun and the rain and the clouds and all of those processes. You do that with people too. As the experience in the present moment unfolds, try to go back and look at space and time and permanence and interdependence and what should happen is, in that moment, you realize there is so much more to this than whatever this is. Somebody’s here. They’re insulting me, there’s so much more to this. They don’t even know that. They are the culmination of all of these causes and conditions. They may not even realize that.

That’s kind of the idea that Donna was talking about, which I really like. It’s taking the concept of the flower and applying it to people and applying it to yourself. I think this correlates pretty well with the concept of we don’t need to change ourselves because when we see ourselves as we truly are, interdependent with all of these other non-you elements, you start to see the bigger picture. When you do the same in terms of time, you start to see the impermanent nature of who you are. You start to see that the illusion of a permanent self is truly an illusion because there’s no aspect of us that is permanent. Everything about us is impermanent, constantly changing, and, furthermore, completely interdependent with everything else. What we have in that moment is a more appropriate view of ourselves in terms of the nature of reality. That’s what Buddhism is trying to get at. That’s what Thich Nhat Hanh, again, with the secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas and all concepts in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.

If you want to discover the truth about yourself, try to remove the concepts and the ideas that you have about yourself and just look there for a minute and see what you see. See how that feels. What you should discover in this is exactly what Pema is talking about. In seeing that, you discover that we do not need to change ourselves. We are inherently perfect just the way that we are. Then you can ask, “Now what? Now that this is what I see and this is exactly how it is, what am I going to do about it?” Because is inevitable. That’s the irony. Change is inevitable. It will happen, but you’re not fighting against it. You’re just going with the flow. You’re an impermanent, interdependent entity in an impermanent, interdependent world and you’re going with the flow. That’s the line of thought that holds up this concept of why we don’t need to change ourselves.

That’s what I wanted to share. It all stems from a discussion that took place on the Facebook group. I’ve been posting these things every day. Every day there’s a new teaching, a new line of thought. It’s been fun to engage with many of you in the Facebook group, expanding a little bit on these ideas. I’m really happy to be back to this format of the podcast where I’m just sharing a specific teaching that stands out to me or a concept and then expanding a little bit. As you know, the past several episodes have all been interviews and they all kind of stacked up. I guess what I should have done is just had those spaced out because now I don’t have any interviews scheduled. That’s fine. I’ve mentioned this before. I don’t want to switch to the interview format. I just wanted to have occasional interviews that I’d throw on the podcast. In the future, I will space those out. It might be one a month or maybe one every two months. What I do want to do more often is, at least once a week, give you this kind of podcast episode, a shorter topical-based podcast episode like I’d done in the past.

This is what I’ve got for today. The challenge or question I’d like to leave with you, as I mentioned in the discussion, is: What if you accepted yourself and others just the way that you and they are right now, understanding that there’s no need to change? Again, sure, change is going to happen and it will happen because it can happen. That’s the nature of it. What if you removed that sense of should out of the equation of change? Things will change but they shouldn’t have to change. They just will. What if you really saw yourself and others and life itself as inherently perfect just the way that you are right now, just the way that life is right now? Try to uncover the layers of conditioning, that clay that hides the inherent nature of how you really are, how someone else really is. Try to peel away those layers and see someone how they really are.

Now, here, one of the interesting things is you may understand this about someone and that changes the way that you see them, but they may still see themselves as, “I’m just made out of clay.” You see them differently because you say, “Yeah, but I know what’s underneath that clay.” Just explore that concept a little bit and see what that feels like when you extend that view onto someone else. Where this gets really powerful is when you can extend this view onto yourself, the way you view yourself. Suddenly, there’s this peace and acceptance of you are just how you are. Those are the ideas that I wanted to share with you. Hopefully, if you enjoyed this podcast episode, you’ll be willing to share it with others, write a review, give it a rating on iTunes.

If you’d like to join our online community, visit SecularBuddhism.com/community. There, you’ll find the link to the Facebook group. If you’re not interested in joining the Facebook group, you can always join our online weekly sangha. That’s done through a program called Zoom. Sunday mornings, people call in or we have a video conference where we practice meditation. Then there’s a topic or a discussion that’s shared at the end of that. That’s another community you can join. Both of those options are available on SecularBuddhism.com/community. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, please visit SecularBuddhism.com and click on the donate button. That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.