The Five Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them - by David Richo

Everything changes and ends

The answer to the unappealing way of all flesh is to enjoy fleshly things nonetheless. A path into the mystery of change and ending may be that of paradox: saying yes with gusto to what is unsatisfactory.

We can make it a spiritual practice not to criticize others' behavior, not to interpret what they do according to our worldview, and not to advise unless we are invited to do so.

I am no longer so concerned with being in control of what I am like. I am becoming curious about what I will be like.

In a world in which control is not reliable, we need something else: the ability to be satisfied with doing our best and letting the chips fall where they may. Then the work is to deal with what happens, however unkempt or indecipherable it may be. To focus on being in control hinders our chances of finding the new possibilities that arise when surprising directions appear on our path. Randomness becomes less scary and more appealing when we find in it a new frontier.

Things do not always go according to plan

Perfect discipline, or perfect control, is the best way to miss out on the joy of life.

Life is not always fair

If someone treats us unfairly in our personal life, the challenge is to make sure something changes in our relationship--not to make sure the person is punished. The former plan comes from a wish for healing. The latter comes from the dark tendency of the bruised ego to hurt back.

May I be fair in all my dealings and generous in all my giving, and may I ask for fairness from others but not demand it or punish them if they fail to show it to me.

Pain is part of life

Another way of stating this truth or given is that pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not reward. They are simply features of any existence.

Empathic presence means listening to someone's pain with what I call the five A's: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing. We pay attention without being distracted. We accept what is said without editing, adding, or blanking. We feel a genuine caring about what happened and what might happen to this person. We allow whatever feelings or silences or head trips the other employs in this moment without attempting to blame him, stop him, or criticize him. The same five A's are the defining features of support, mirroring, caring, and intimate love.

People are not loving and loyal all the time

A Zen saying helps us: "This being the case, how shall I proceed?" That is so much more an adult question than "This being the case, who is at fault or why is this happening to me?"


The ancient spiritual teachings and practices of Taoism form a technology of cultivating an unconditional yes to life's givens.

Here are some specific ways to ally ourselves with nature in an unconditional yes:

  • Make it a point from time to time to watch the sun rise and set, as well as the moon rising and setting. Do not simply look at the moon but have a favorite viewing place for each phase. Look at the night sky and become sensitive to the subtle movements there.

  • Dreams give answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask. Go camping more often and sleep outdoors so that the stars above can radiate their light into your dreams.

  • Poems often flow from life's mysterious givens. Feed your soul by reading and writing poetry, listening to music, looking at art, drawing or sculpting, and engaging in any other soul-nurturing arts that are available to you. Do all this outdoors whenever possible. Basho, the Japanese haiku poet, wrote: "No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, it has a bearing on our everlasting self which is poetry."


When we live life with an unconditional yes, we develop equanimity. But equanimity is not to be construed as imperturbability. Equanimity is the virtue of returning to baseline, restabilizing, after we feel the perturbation aroused by our feelings. People who are healthy both psychologically and spiritually are touched by what happens to them and to others. They are impacted by events. They feel deeply and they show it. They are not immovable or stoical about what others do or about what happens.

A yes to feelings is the station stop before we get to philosophical explanations, theological consolations, or encouraging maxims.


The counterpart of fear is excitement. To be afraid is to repress our excitement about the challenge we are facing. Instead we make contact only with the danger and our own sense of inadequacy in dealing with it. A practice is to ask ourselves, when we are afraid: "What am I afraid to get excited about?" and then to allow the excitement to come through. Feelings are the way excitement is greeted and permitted.


What exactly defines a coherent, healthy sense of self? Below are the key elements, which can each also be taken on as a set of practices or aspirations we can employ to gain a stronger sense of self.

A Sense of Continuity

I am part of a history. Personally, I am connected to a family and forebears. I have inherited genes from them, and certain talents too. In addition, I am part of the history of humanity. I have a relationship to the collective. Finally, I am part of nature.

An Ability to Deal with Problems and People

I accept the good and the bad in life events. I accept the good and the bad in others and in myself. This is how I maintain a sense of self that has stability and constancy. I have powers of self-nurturance. When things become difficult, I can soothe myself. I can fall apart, and I also have ways of reconstituting myself. I fully allow a collapse and then get up. I am not devastated by crises. I have resources lined up to help me get through things. I address, process, and resolve what comes up for me. This means that the events of my life are not just experienced unconsciously but are examined and contemplated with consciousness and a plan for improvement. I do not go through things; I come through them. I make sense of what happens to me and learn from it. I see all that happens to me in an evolutionary context, that is, as challenges on the heroic journey to self-actualization.

A Responsiveness to Support

I can receive support and cherish my sense of belonging to a family, a relationship, a community.

A Virtuous Framework for Conscious Living

A sense of self includes living life within a framework, that is, within a set of ethics and standards out of which one makes one's choices. Living according to a reliable set of ideals, values, goals, and aspirations helps us establish a healthy sense of self that is fulfilled by becoming a more virtuous person. Virtues are habits of wholesomeness. They are the building blocks of self-respect, character, and integrity. A spiritual practice of building virtues focuses on them as specific affirmations and actions. Ponder one virtue from the following list each day and look for ways to put it into practice.

  • I say yes unconditionally to the givens of human life: Everything will change and end; things will not always go according to my plans; life will not always be fair or pain-free; and people will not always be loving, honest, generous, or loyal.

  • I am happy to appear as I am, without pretense and no matter how unflattering. I am not perfect, but I am deeply committed to working on myself. I am noticing that the more I engage in my personal work, the more I care about the world and the part I am privileged to play in its cocreation. Rather than simply pass through experiences without awareness, I choose to pause long enough to address and process what is happening to me. I learn from my own reactions: Tears at a movie invite me to look at my personal griefs. Attraction and repulsion invite me to look at my hidden needs and motives. Memories and images that tug at me invite me to stay with them and to follow their lead into my own unopened spaces.

  • I am not caught up in regret or self-reproach because of my mistakes in life. I take it all as a learning experience so I can do better in the future. I make amends whenever I can. And, of course, my mistakes become a valuable passport to humility.

  • I examine my conscience regularly. I do a searching inventory not only about how I have hurt others but about how I may not have activated or shared my gifts, how I may still be holding on to prejudices or the will to retaliate, how I may still not be as loving as I can be.

  • I listen carefully to others' feedback rather than become defensive or ego aroused by it. I welcome feedback that shows me where I am less caring than I can be, where I am less tolerant, where less open. I am not afraid of free speech, my own or that of others. I am willing to express and to receive feelings, including fear, joy, grief, and tenderness. I show anger nonviolently, not in abusive, threatening, blaming, or out-of-control ways.

  • I notice that my behavior and choices are no longer determined by what others may think of me. I am making no attempts to get others to accept or love me. I am not changing myself to fit in. I am committed to portraying myself just as I am, no matter what the reaction. I can no longer be manipulated by flattery, but I do show my thanks when others appreciate me.

  • No matter what happens to me, I remain ever more grounded, unswayed by fear or desire. The events in life and the actions of others impact me, but they do not impinge. I remain secure within myself and, at the same time, connected to others.

  • I forgo taking advantage of others by using any charms of body, word, or mind to trick or seduce them. To grow in humility, I blow the whistle on myself when I notice myself being phony, mendacious, passive-aggressive, or manipulative. I come clean right then and there by admitting that I am acting falsely. This is how I open myself to finding virtuous alternatives.

  • I ask for what I want without demand, manipulation, or expectation. I remain respectful of the timing, wishes, and limits of others. I can take no for an answer.

  • I am less and less competitive in relationships and find an uplifting joy in cooperation. I especially shun situations in which my winning means that others have to lose.

  • I do not knowingly hurt others.

  • I have a sense of humor but not at the expense of others. I do not engage in ridicule or sarcasm, or do I use "comebacks" when others are sarcastic toward me. I simply feel the pain in both of us and look for ways to bring more effectiveness into our communication.

  • I look at other people and their choices without censure. I still notice the shortcomings of others and of myself, but I see them as facts rather than flaws. I do not laugh at people's mistakes or misfortunes.

  • I am able to say "Ouch!" to pain and abuse in jobs, relationships, and interactions with others. I take action to change what can be changed and to move on when things remain abusive. I do this without self-pity or the need to make others wrong.

  • I abide by standards of rigorous honesty and truthfulness in all my dealings no matter how others act toward me. My question is not "What can I get away with?" but "What is the right thing to do?" If I fall down in this, I admit it, make amends, and resolve to act differently next time. I easily and willingly apologize when necessary.

  • I am focusing on being consistent: At home or in relationship I am the same person I am at work. I show the same respect and sincerity toward strangers as I show toward those close to me.

  • I keep my word. I honor commitments and I follow through on the tasks I agree to do. More and more I can tell what my limits and skills are. This helps me set sane boundaries on how much I offer to do for others, rather than simply being accommodating.

  • I have an unwavering sense of myself as a person of conviction while still remaining flexible. I am able to change my behavior, to drop outmoded beliefs, and to make alterations in my lifestyle to fit the ever-evolving demands of my world. When I come up against an identity crisis, I take it as an opportunity for enlightenment.

  • I am thankful for the values and helpful beliefs that I received in the course of my life from so many sources. At the same time, I am examining the scaffoldings of beliefs, biases, and myths I inherited from family, school, religion, and society. One by one, I dismantle and discard those not in keeping with healthy and virtuous living and cherish those that are.

  • I measure my success by how much steadfast love I have, not by how much I have in the bank nor by how much power I have over others. Expressing my full and unique capacity to love is the central focus of my life.

  • I am engaged enthusiastically in meaningful work and projects, and that is the source of my bliss. I keep discovering my deepest needs, wishes, values, and potentials and living in accord with them. I have reason to be proud of some accomplishments. Thoreau wrote in his journal: "A man looks with pride at his woodpile." My serious commitment to the practices on these pages is my "woodpile."

  • I ask this question as I embark upon any project or relationship: Is this a suitable context for me to fulfill my life purpose? My life purpose is to live the unique and exuberant life that is inside me, to love with all my might, and to share my personal gifts in any way and everywhere I can.

  • I am willing to work indefatigably to fulfill my life purpose but not to stress my health to acquire standing, status, fame, or fortune, the central and often only values in the ego's worried world. My focus in life is simply on becoming a good person.

  • My work on myself has made me more conscious of the politics and stresses of the world around me.

  • I am always aware of the pain and poverty of those less fortunate than I. I find ways to respond that combine generosity and personal contact. I am generous with time, attention, money, and myself.

  • My love of nature makes me tread gently on the earth with what Saint Bonaventura called "a courtesy toward natural things."