Thursday, August 28, 2008

Beyond Change to Metanoia

By H. Les Brown

Things have changed so much, but when I was junior and senior high school, we had to study a lot of history. At the time, it wasn't much more than a bunch of curious names, dates, and events all thrown together. The famous 'lessons of history' were almost completely lost on me back then. It mainly comprised background information that I could sometimes use to hang historical references on. Back then, it was all a giant time line stretching from 'back there' to the present. Somewhere, somehow, my own personal time line fit neatly into the giant whole. The wisdom of history would only reveal itself to me later on: a wisdom that came to understand and appreciate that time unfolds, not in smooth and consistent lines, but in convulsions.

Chinese Ch'an Zen master Lin-chi I-hsüan (d. 866) taught, "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet an Arhat, kill the Arhat; if you meet your parents, kill your parents... in this way, you attain liberation." As is so often the case with these Zen ko'ans, therein we discover one of the Great Truths. This life strategy is the one that I call 'comprehension' and it can be expressed simply by accepting that 'nothing is what it seems.' Only by being willing to 'kill' (metaphorically speaking) our most dearly-held beliefs and ideals can we actually 'break through' from consistent illusion to convulsive reality.

The unfolding of time consists of seemingly-random sequences of convulsive reorientations. Just as a any photograph dissolves into a mass of unintelligible dots, the closer you view it, so the apparent time-line of history - or of your personal life - dissolves into series of discontinuous fits and starts, the more intently you examine it. Life, those cycles of illusion and disillusionment, can only be viewed in retrospect. You can never say who a person is at any point in the journey, only who a person was after that journey's compete, and the very last Buddha has been laid in the dust.

The word 'change' implies either growth or decay: in either case, a gradual transformation from one state to another. We all say that we want change, although, when it comes, we most often resist it with all our might because, if the truth were told, we really hate to change. What we really want is just for the things that annoy us to go away, not to bother us, and to leave us in peace. This, however, isn't really change; it's just making minor adjustments so that real change never has to happen. In order for real change to occur, Buddha has to die.

The Greeks had a perfect word for this kind of change: metanoia. This means a 'change of mind and heart' a radical 'change of perspective' or a 'change of awareness'. It describes the quintessential paradigm shift where a person moves convulsively from one understanding to something completely different. I'll make a very bold statement here: 'If you haven't experienced a metanoia, you haven't really lived.' You haven't yet had the courage to kill the Buddha that you've met along the road. You haven't yet allowed yesterday's dream to die in order to allow tomorrow's dream to be born.

Can you get in touch with your own history? Can you identify any critically convulsive moments (the kairos) where your whole world shifted in a massive metanoia? What were you like before? What happened? What were you like afterward? If you're having trouble identifying any of these moments, look for the telltale signs: a sense of humiliation and the pain of loss. All metanoia begins with a (more or less) painful conversion experience, followed most often by remorse and regret - not from being caught doing something wrong, but from the dawning realization that you've been holding on to wrong-headed beliefs and attitudes that have led you to wrong-headed decisions and actions. Anybody can change, only the truly courageous can grow. Do you have the guts to kill the Buddha?

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
ProActivation® Coaching

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