The greatest spiritual conversion in Western history is that of St. Augustine who, in 386 AD, gave up on his worldly attachments to ambition and sex to enter the Catholic Church.
In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine recalls being in the garden of his villa in Milan and hearing the words “tolle, lege”, Latin for “take it up and read”.
The first passage he read upon opening the Bible was this passage:
“Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” –Romans 13: 13-14
This conversion, from a life of sexual indulgence that characterized Augustine’s secular life as a highly regarded instructor of rhetoric in Italy, to the abandonment of sex and ambition that marked his entry into the Catholic Church, is one of the most important events in the history of the Western world due to his influence on the development of Christian thought and belief.
Many of history’s greatest characters have also experienced deep personal conversions, where they came to a new understanding about their life and place in the world, and what they were capable of.
My personal conversion occurred gradually and has nothing to do at all with religion. It was a conversion that led me to turn away from the traditional American notions of success and towards a more fulfilling and happier experience of life.
The following five ideas were instrumental in this occurrence.
1. No Self
2,500 years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “you can never step in the same river twice”.
Heraclitus was saying that the state of the world is one of constant change. As humans, we are part of this ever-changing world.
Buddhism expands this idea by noting that the “self” is a continuously changing entity, lacking any solid identity. We are never the same person at the end of the day as we are when we awake. We are a day older, have learned new things, had new experiences.
Everything that emanates from our minds–our thoughts about ourselves and others, our beliefs, tastes, preferences, ideas, and feelings–are never fixed. They are always freely flowing like a river.
Why it’s important:
Once you realize that your life and all your experiences are constantly changing, lack solidity, and are wholly subjective, you begin to dissolve the notion of a fixed self and (hopefully) whatever negative beliefs you have about yourself.
Those negative beliefs, although quite sticky, have no reality. They are just thoughts. They only become your reality if you grasp them as if they were real.
The idea that people never change, or can’t change, is incorrect. It starts with an awareness of reality and a subsequent change of thinking. Tremendous personal change is possible and “that’s just how I am” is really an excuse rather than a reality.
Samsara is a Buddhist description of the cycle of dissatisfaction that we get caught up in due to our faulty belief that anything outside ourselves can bring us lasting pleasure.
In his book “Awakening the Buddha Within” Surya Das explains that people ensure dissatisfaction by “living a life of superficial habits and compulsions”. These habits and compulsions drive our behaviors and are usually involved in our counter-productive ways of dealing with uncomfortable feelings like boredom, loss, pain, and loneliness.
Why it’s important:
Samsara most obviously shows up in our lives through our desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain. The problem is that all pleasure is temporary in nature and pain will always be an inescapable part of human life.
You look for something, or someone, to take away the pain. It may work temporarily, but your plan always seems to fall apart and you are left with your pain once again, unsure of what to do.
Instead of running from pain, learning how to deal with it in a constructive way can be a life-changing experience as you exit Samsara.
3. Not Knowing
You like certainty, yet very little in your life is certain. So instead of insisting on something you’ll never get, and thereby creating huge amounts of frustration for yourself (samsara), you can embrace the phrase “I don’t know”.
There is tremendous personal power in “not-knowing” if you can frame it properly.
I use the power of “not-knowing” most effectively to temper my imagination when it starts dreaming up scenarios of what “could be” or “could have been” during the times when I am experiencing temporary feelings of indifference, listlessness, and dissatisfaction.
It’s important to recognize that these feelings never arise when things are going well. Just when times aren’t so great.
Why It’s important:
If you are experiencing a difficult time in your life you may imagine that life would have turned out better had you made different choices in regards to career, spouse, or children. Perhaps things would be better, but perhaps they would be much worse.
You simply don’t know.
Your focus should be on living right now and realize that living in dreamworld of “what could be” or “what could have been” is a complete waste of time unless you plan on writing a fictional narrative of your life.
Epicurus and “Peace of Mind”
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher in the third century BC who taught, among other things, that achieving “peace of mind” through the elimination of anxiety and mental disturbance was the key to happiness.
While the pursuit of pleasure was a high ideal, his recipe was one of simplicity. It was the opposite of indulgence. He was dubious about the value of fame, money, high achieving careers, romantic love, marriage, and children, since none of these things are necessary for a happy life, yet all lead to heightened anxieties.
Why It’s Important:
We live in a society that equates happiness with acquisition.
Epicurus’ teaching is a striking rebuke to Western materialism when he he observes that the majority of things we consider to be an indication of a happy life are quite often the source of our greatest unhappiness due to the anxieties they can cause, mainly in the form of financial and relationship concerns.
Thus, in Epicurean thought, the happy life consists of casting off our attachments to the sensual and material world, and instead focusing on virtuous living, simplicity, moderation, and friendship.
5. The Blindness of Envy
When we compare ourselves to other people, we are looking very superficially. We notice what they have or look like, and we automatically make assumptions about the greatness of their lives. If only we could be like them, or have what they have, we’d be happier.
If I asked you whether you’d want the life of a successful comedian who has appeared on TV, written a book, and makes a living doing what he loves, you’d probably say “sign me up”.
But what would you say when you discover this comedian has cerebral palsy? Would you still envy his life?
Why it’s important:
When you envy, you only see the perceived good things that other people have. You never stop to consider that person’s overall experience in life.
This quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is absolutely perfect.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
No one is free from sorrow and suffering, even those who seem to have it all.