Change yourself, not your circumstances

There’s a famous poem by Rainer Maria Rilke which ends with: You must change your life. There’s no room for ambiguity here. That’s exactly what the German says, almost word for word (in German the verb comes at the end).

This imperative that struck Rilke when he looked at an ancient torso of the Greek god Apollo is not uncommon. We all have had this experience. There are a thousand ways to realize in an instant that your life is askew. And a thousand ways to turn away from that realization because you don’t know how to start. Because changing your life is threatening. Scary. Seems dangerous.

There’s a tendency to confuse changing your life with changing your circumstances. Quit your job! Leave your family! Give up your possessions! Move to Fiji! Sure, you can do all that — Moses did, Buddha did, and nobody really knows where Jesus was for a good portion of his short life — but, as the country song says (quoting the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn on Vipassana meditation), “wherever you go, there you are.” Changing our circumstances is not changing our lives.

What are the outward signs of this kind of deep change? The great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, in his book “Fear and Trembling,” about the knight of faith. The really distinctive thing about the knight of faith is that there’s nothing distinctive about him. He seems perfectly ordinary. I read Kierkegaard when I was very young and make no claim to understand the subtleties of his thought, but I was really struck by this notion of the knight of faith. I still am. You don’t have to believe in Kierkegaard’s passionate and idiosyncratic form of Christianity to be struck by this.

If we really want to change our lives, we have to start where we are (another book title — “Start Where You Are,” by Pema Chodron, a great teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition). Our circumstances might or might not change. That’s not the point. The thing that has to change is you. Simply going somewhere isn’t going to change anything.

I know of only one way to begin the kind of profound transformation Rilke was pointing to, and that’s some kind of serious spiritual practice. You have to actually do something — prayer or meditation, that kind of thing. Preferably as part of some kind of community (to avoid solipsism). Preferably on a daily basis. Without any specific goals (because even a goal of kindness or wisdom or love of God is limited by our very limited ideas) and without any self-centeredness. Whatever it is, it’s not about you.

And when you’re done? Oh, but you’re never done. The knight of faith just came home from the mosque and is checking his e-mail right now. The duchess of wisdom just got back from a 10-day retreat and is mowing the lawn. What else did you think they would be doing?