When we want to change our life but feel we can’t or don’t know how, we feel stuck.
Being stuck is insufferable, but we’re really good at it. We stay stuck in a bad job, an unhappy relationship, a routine with no meaning or joy, a poor self-image, an addiction… for months, years, even decades.
But there’s good news.
Stuck-ness can only survive in the presence of four core beliefs. These beliefs affect our perceptions, our sense of possibility, and our self-image. As the Buddha said in the Pratyutpanna and Surangama Samadhi Sutras,
Whatever I think, that I see. 1
These centuries-old words have become proven wisdom. Today, modern cognitive behavior therapy is based on scientific evidence that changing our thoughts changes our perceptions, feelings, and behavior.
The problem is that most of our beliefs are unexamined. We hold things to be true because they appear in our own mind to be true. Being fooled by the appearance of things is called delusion in Buddhism—and this delusion gets us into trouble.
To set our minds up for positive change, let’s investigate four delusions—four wrong beliefs—that keep us stuck.
You know that you’re falling into this wrong belief when you use the words “always” or “never,” as in:
In Buddhism, the belief that things don’t or won’t change is called the view of permanence. That things never change is a mistaken belief.
The truth that’s so hard for us see in our day-to-day lives is that change is the essential characteristic of all existence. Every form, emotion, and perception comes into existence and out of existence. Impermanence surrounds us. Life is a dance of dependent causes and effects—all undergoing moment-to-moment change. Causes come together to make parts and parts come together to make wholes—all of which are constantly changing. As the Buddha repeatedly said,
Impermanent, subject to change, are component things. 2
What looks stable, consistent, and whole to us—say, yourself—is, upon deeper analysis, constantly shifting. Your body, emotions, and thoughts all come from causes that change at all times. Sure, sometimes, the changes can be quite small. But when you investigate closer using techniques like meditation, you cannot find any single part of you that is NOT changing.
When we believe that things, including ourselves, do not change or will not change, we are flat-out wrong. We are in the grips of ignorance.
Wisdom sees that all things change based on causes. Holding that wisdom empowers you to change quicker.
So, to get unstuck, you need to introduce new causes for the kind of change that you’d like to see come into being. By introducing small changes, you will create big results.
You know you’re falling into this wrong belief when you equate yourself with certain qualities and characteristics. You then take that constructed sense of self to be set in stone.
We all do this, all the time. Equating things with “is” and “am” is built into language and thus how we process and perceive. But the fact that this overly simplistic and abstract equating is natural does not mean that it always serves us!
Every time that you think or say that you are or are not, you strengthen the limiting walls of your constructed identity… without realizing that your identity is a mental construct. With such thick walls, there’s no room to grow.
The truth is that all of your qualities—your thoughts, feelings, skills, values, and even your self-conception—come from causes. They are not set in stone.
“Wait,” I can hear you asking, “aren’t our genetics set in stone?” Well, science has shown again and again that our thoughts and beliefs influence the expression of our genes. For example,
When we are given a placebo pain killer, the mere belief in the power of this pill causes us to generate real endogenous molecules which actually do block pain… This demonstrates that the genetic machinery can be turned on by thoughts. 3
So, it is much more accurate to think of yourself as a process rather than a thing with set qualities.
Here’s an easy way to think about it:
Imagine a bowl with nothing in it. Visualize the empty space in the bowl. You can put objects in that clear space, and you can take away objects from that clear space.
You are more the empty space of the bowl than the objects that are put in the bowl.
If you are overly identified with the objects in the bowl (“I am”), you will have no room for other objects. You’ll limit what you can hold.
By identifying with the empty space, you tap into your own unlimited potential.
All “shoulds” aren’t bad. Of course, we should look both ways before crossing the street. Of course, we should get enough sleep. Of course, we should treat others with kindness.
The “shoulds” that don’t help us are the ones that are less based on sound logic, but rather the desire to avoid shame, seek approval, or conform—in short, to protect the ego.
Just a little bit of investigation shows that such “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” don’t set you up for success.
Research on motivation in the last five decades reveals that we thrive when we’re intrinsically motivated by our own values, personal sense of morality, and interests. When we’re motivated by external sources, denying our own feelings and values, issues tend to arise. Resentment, lack of fulfillment, and addiction are common.
The Buddha’s life is a perfect example of not living by the “shoulds” of other people’s values. Prince Siddhartha defied his parents’ wish for him to stay in their royal palace and left all of the external trappings of power and wealth to seek what he determined himself to be most meaningful: the answer to the question of why we suffer. Further, he wasn’t concern about how people would view him for making this decision. He was motivated by how this quest would ultimately help others. If Prince Siddhartha had remained a prisoner to parental shoulds, he would have never become a fully enlightened Buddha.
We admire this in the Buddha and lots of other heroes and heroines throughout history, because living personal values is a higher path than living others’ values out of fear of disapproval or egoic protection.
So, watch for your beliefs that involve a “should” or “shouldn’t,” and examine those beliefs. A helpful method:
If the honest answer resembles any of the following, then this “should” is keeping you stuck:
Instead of living by “shoulds” rooted in the above, better to get in touch with your own values. Then make well-considered, values-based choices that empower you to create the life you want and to develop your full potential.
You know you’re buying into this wrong belief when you think things like:
We tend to copy-and-paste our past onto our future. And this limits what we can experience. For example, if you’re certain that you can’t quit alcohol because you’ve tried before and failed, then you will never quit alcohol.
As Henry Ford famously said,
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right. 4
Sometimes we put limits on ourselves because we actually don’t want to change. We don’t want to do things that are hard or uncomfortable. We fear further disappointment or pain.
But if you do want to change, you need to break the cycle of copying your past and pasting it onto your future. Because that is the ultimate cycle of being stuck.
Is it possible to have failed at something repeatedly in the past and then succeed?
Of course. We all know this. Our whole lives are filled with firsts: our first word, our first step, our first successful job interview.
The key is to realize that what’s happened in the past came from causes, and what will happen in the future also comes from causes. You have the power to put new causes into effect—to plant new seeds for what you’d like to grow.
The four wrong beliefs that we’ve explored keep you stuck. But these wrong ideas are so entrenched that we can’t expect that they’ll go away simply by reading an article.
That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation is the most powerful way to habituate your mind to a new way of thinking.
This 7-minute audio meditation will help you correct your views of yourself and reality and tap into your true potential.